I found this pencil test video from Disney’s animated feature Robin Hood. This is a comparison video, which shows the story reel (filmed storyboards of the sequence as it plays out), and then shows you the scene in the stage of rough pencil test animation. For a lot of people this is considered a praise worthy acting scene with Prince John sucking his thumb. I haven’t seen this animation in a long time, so I couldn’t remember what exactly to expect. Watching the story reel and hearing the dialogue, I love the great story drawings (don’t know who did them), and in my mind I expected some really great animation. But when I saw the actual animation of Prince John, I was surprised at just how restrained it felt playing to Peter Ustinov’s terrific dialogue delivery. Don’t get me wrong, it’s animated by Ollie Johnston, and the animation and drawing is very beautiful. But I don’t consider this great acting. It’s certainly not pushed as far as it should be.
Comparing the animation from Robin Hood to the work done on Stromboli in Pinocchio, there’s something about the animation in these later films that gets lost. It’s not simply the fact that during the time Pinocchio was made in 1939 that the animators were much younger and had more energy. But during the time of Pinocchio, animation was a pioneering art form, and no one knew exactly what direction it was going to head in. What these later films show us is an incredible advancement in technical animation skill and draftsmanship, making the animation just beautiful to watch in and of itself. But it’s not funny. I’ve found recently I’ve had a lot more difficulty watching Disney animated films, both past and present. I LOVE all the work they did before 1950, where the character were looser, had more energy, and had so much more freedom to move around. The stuff after 1950, while it’s still incredibly animated, those later films feel like they are less about the characters and more a showcase of drawing ability and animation skill. The acting is much stiffer and slowly becomes more formulaic. In the video above, the one exception with the animation is Sir Hiss, but his performance benifits from the fact that he doesn’t have an anthropomorphized body and no need for human live action reference.
The problem is that during much of Disney’s career, everything was catering to Walt’s need for impressing people, which is what he was always about. It’s much more evident later in his life when he became interested in live action, Disneyland, life-like human audio animatronics, Epcot (which was not originally supposed to be a theme park, but a real kind of civilization). It’s not surprising in a way that in the 50’s Disney left the animation team to their own devices to create Disneyland. I have a feeling at the time Walt either got bored with animation, or just found he reached his peak with it and there was nothing more he could do with it. With the films after Walts death, the films of the 60’s and 70’s had the problem of animators trying to figure out what Walt would have wanted in their films, and it wasn’t until the 80’s when Jeffery Katzenberg broke into the scene, he began to snap them out of it by telling the animation unit, “We’re not Walt”, and a paradigm shift began to occur. What bothers me sometimes is that more animators like to study those later Disney films, clinging more to the drawing skill and technical aspects as opposed to the actual performances which, lets face it, are very dry. For younger animators, the Disney films before 1950 merit so much more study, because the animators weren’t as concerned then about great drawing, but more about breaking the mold and creating animated performances that ONLY animation could do. Live action should simply be a reference and inspirational, not the means to an end for a performance. Relying on live action too much can be limiting, especially for a medium that is capable of going beyond our perception of reality. Cartoons live on another plane of existence all together! Walt had a stronger focus on pushing to make things real for his audience. But that was simply the goal and drive of one man.