Depending on your age and attitude, it has become very difficult over the last month to not be cynical about the state of affairs at the Walt Disney Company. Though Disney appears to be, financially, as high as they’ve ever been, the company is cutting costs left and right, up to and including letting long-time employees go. Some of the more high-profile layoffs have targeted, inadvertently, one hopes, touchstones of many a Millennial child. Last year, people thrilled at the idea that Disney was now in league with the seminal video-game company LucasArts as part of buying Lucasfilm as a whole. A few weeks ago, those same people were depressed to hear that Disney shuttered the company for good, essentially outsourcing future video games. And now, Disney’s axed a number of their most venerated employees in the hand-drawn animation department, cementing the notion that hand-drawn animation is persona non grata at a company that built its reputation on that illustrative vision.
But there is hope, and it’s at Pixar. Skeptics may doubt this, as they’ll point to John Lasseter’s rise within the Walt Disney Company as a big part of why hand-drawn animation is no more. Whether or not that’s true is a complex discussion for a different day. The legacy that hand-drawn animation has left at the Walt Disney Company is unparalleled, and admittedly, you can find this animation style in new Disney products; you just can’t go as frequently to the silver screen to find it. Where Pixar enters into this discussion is not in the style—they’re not jumping to hand-drawn animation anytime soon, of course—but in its honoring of the Walt Disney legacy through their short films.
Animated short films are an art that, as time progressed, Disney chose to stop pursuing. It may be hard for some of us to realize and appreciate exactly how popular Mickey Mouse was back in the 1930s, not as a symbol of boundless enthusiasm who can be utilized in myriad ways at the various Disney theme parks, but as an actual character. Reductive (and perhaps painful) though it may be, Mickey Mouse was a Justin Bieber-like supernova of popularity in the 1930s, entirely because of the witty, inventive animated shorts. (Oh, and Mickey’s many pop-music singles. Those were huge.) Eventually, Mickey was replaced as Disney’s most popular animated personality by Donald Duck and Goofy, who were allowed to be more than just an icon. Even later, the shorts just stopped, with only two Mickey Mouse non-movie-specific shorts released in the last 60 years. Within the world of Pixar, though they have many unforgettable characters, only a few can compare and are used similarly to how Mickey was employed back in the day. If you wanted to be exceptionally charitable, you could argue that Mater is to Pixar as Mickey Mouse is to Disney. The Mater’s Tall Tales series are, of course, connected to the Cars universe, but even as standalone shorts, they’re comparable, turning Mater into a malleable figure who can be placed in any scenario and genre and react appropriately.
But Pixar truly pays respect to the legacy that Walt Disney left behind not in Mater’s Tall Tales or the Toy Story Toons shorts of the last few years. They honor Disney by paying tribute to the Silly Symphonies. This series of 75 shorts released between 1929 and 1939 stand apart from the Mickey, Donald, Goofy, and Pluto shorts because they didn’t include these lovable characters. (Yes, Donald and Pluto were both introduced in the Silly Symphonies, but the series wasn’t intended to feature continuing characters.) If not for the Silly Symphonies, we wouldn’t have the iconic Three Little Pigs short or the Flowers and Trees short that introduced three-strip Technicolor—in short, animation in color—to the world. The Silly Symphonies were a further avenue for the Disney animators to flex their creative muscles, a way to expand mass awareness and appreciation of hand-drawn animation, one that’s sadly absent now.
The animators at Pixar Animation Studios, of course, can’t focus on the latter point, but through the short films we get attached to each of the studio’s new releases, they tip their caps to the people who started it all. With the exception of Hawaiian Vacation, the Toy Story Toon attached with the Cars 2 release in 2011, every Pixar short that’s opened in theaters hasn’t included any pre-existing characters. (The other two Toy Story Toons shorts did get a theatrical release, attached to The Muppets and the Finding Nemo 3D re-release, and the Tokyo Mater short was attached to Bolt. But only Hawaiian Vacation got attached to a totally new Pixar film.) And those characters have either never appeared elsewhere, or only in tiny cameos, a la the toy cleaner in Toy Story 2 having previously been the title character in the short Geri’s Game. It’s heartening to realize that, no, there isn’t a full-length version of Presto on the way, or something to that effect. The shorts are their own beast, and that Pixar continues to make them after so many years on top is genuinely pleasing. It is, however, immensely ironic and a bit sad that we have to look to computer animation to remind us why other forms of the medium are equally as important.
It’s easy to blame Pixar for why Disney has decided hand-drawn animation will be no more. But such a large decision cannot be pinned on one source or entity. Disney’s choice is more troubling because they believe there’s no room for diversity in animation, presuming that Pixar’s success over the last two decades where their in-house animation has been inconsistent means that computer animation in its most proven form is the only way to move forward financially. And there’s no question: Pixar has done well enough with its features since 1995 that it’s logical to assume they’ll continue performing impressively at the box office, whether with sequels, prequels, or something original, for years to come.
But Pixar is not a monolithic organization, unwilling to be flexible and adapt to new situations. How much money is there, really, in making short films? There may be some of you out there who may willingly pay a full-priced movie ticket not to see Monsters University in two months’ time, but to see The Blue Umbrella, the attached short, but you’re a rare bunch. These shorts exist to encourage creativity, not only among the artists working on them, but for anyone in the audience. Aspiring animators need not worry: there are multiple avenues for you to pursue at Pixar or anywhere else. Pixar promotes diversity as well as creativity through these shorts, both concepts in short supply elsewhere at Disney. The Silly Symphonies were dropped in 1939 mostly because the company needed all the help it could get as they began making more feature films after the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Technically, the art of the short film hasn’t vanished entirely at Disney, but these supplements rarely get the big-screen treatment; last year’s exemplary Paperman, a stunning blend of old and new technology, was an outlier, one that Disney would do well to emulate in the future.
So Pixar may not make short films to continue raking in the money. They do it because they want to, and they can. Although they aren’t changing up their overall animation methods, the studio is comprised of animators who aren’t content to stay within one box. This is an admirable trait considering how much Pixar has amassed in terms of cash and goodwill over the last two decades. At least right now, they see no need to dismiss a storytelling venue, though they easily could. While shorts and features are a different game than computer animation and hand-drawn animation, the fact that Pixar allows and welcomes the distinction within their content is an important lesson Disney as a whole should be taking to heart.
The Walt Disney Company is not struggling at the moment, even though you might be led to think so. Layoffs at any company do not speak well of their financial future, but Disney’s is looking bright. They’re going to inundate us with new Star Wars movies in perpetuity, they own Marvel and almost all of their superhero movies, and they’ve got the oldest–in a relative sense–cash cow of them all, Pixar. We can look at their situation, cutting LucasArts off, letting go a number of their veteran hand-drawn animators, nixing the Junction Point video-game company that created the Epic Mickey series, and presume that Disney is no longer confident in making their own materials in-house. They’d rather outsource their content to make sure they take as few risks as possible while raking in tons of dough. The great irony, and the silver lining, in this situation is that one of those outsourcing arms is best typified by their risk-taking attitude.
It’s a risk for Pixar to make a sequel to Finding Nemo; the risk may be calculated, and you may, this far out from its release, not be a fan of the choice. But that, in itself, is the risk, potentially alienating the audience that helped it become so beloved. It’s as much a risk to make short films that aren’t dedicated to the familiar, to characters we’ve seen before. Certainly, Pixar is ramping up its production of shorts dedicated to characters from the Cars and Toy Story universes, even more than before, such as with the upcoming Toy Story Halloween special, which could level the playing field against DreamWorks Animation’s TV specials. (Is this a playing field that needs leveling at all? Save that question for another day.) But Pixar continues to allow their animated shorts to flourish, and although the process may be different, the studio honors their predecessors and inspirations by making them. Right now, we need any shred of goodness to grip onto when considering Disney as a whole. Though it may be popular these days to pile on top of them for perceived slights of originality, Pixar is that beacon of hope, and we’re all better off acknowledging it.