With almost all animated films nowadays made with computer animation, fans of the traditional style that we saw in classic Disney films worry that their favourite animation is gone for good. Certainly, with the huge success of computer animated movies in recent years, it looks like traditional animation is consigned to history. But, will traditional animation ever make a come back to the big screen?
What Is Traditional Animation?
The dominant style of animation since its birth in the early 20th century until around the beginning of the 21st century, traditional animation uses hand-drawn animation (or computer-generated images designed to look like drawings).
While traditional animation has its roots in a number of ‘cartoon’ serials through the 1910s and ’20s, it came to prominence on the big screen following Disney’s successes in the 1930s and ’40s, with classics like Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio and Fantasia standing as groundbreaking portrayals of the possibilities of animated film.
Disney and a number of others stuck strong with traditional animation through the 20th century, while other studios took the style in other directions, with Japanese anime standing as the most enduring success of traditional animation, remaining internationally popular to this day.
(However, anime is typically seen as a separate style to traditional animation, so we’ll be talking more about the Western ‘Disney’ style here).
Classics Of Traditional Animation
The first feature length animation in history was Disney’s Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, which won an honorary Oscar in 1939. That was followed by Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi in the pre-war period, bringing animated film to international acclaim for the first time.
Following the Second World War, Disney animations didn’t immediately pick up to the same quality as its first few classics, until the release of Cinderella in 1950, which many see as the genesis of the modern animated movie.
Most of the early animated films were used mostly to showcase what the technique could achieve, but with the release of Cinderella, the genre found its home in the form of the fairytale.
Following Cinderella, Disney and a number of other studios would go onto use the fairytale for their animated works, with the likes of Sleeping Beauty all the way up to The Little Mermaid dazzling audiences of all ages through the decades.
The Decline Of Traditional Animation
By the late 1990s, traditional animation was at a real high. With Disney in the middle of a renaissance that featured The Lion King, Pocahontas, Mulan and others, almost every kids’ TV show made with traditional animation, and even the advent of adult-oriented animated films, its popularity was immense come the turn of the 21st century.
In fact, traditional animation never lost favour with audiences, which makes its rapid decline all the more strange. However, with the arrival of Pixar on the scene with the first feature-length computer animation, 1995’s Toy Story, as well as a steady drop in quality of Disney and others’ traditionally animated films, there was a quick shift in attitudes to the seemingly boundless possibilites offered by computer animation.
While Disney struggled with mediocre, straight-to-video animations, Pixar, Dreamworks and others were wowing audiences with now-beloved classics like Finding Nemo and Shrek in the early ’00s, giving audiences far more confidence in a new, futuristic style, only furthering the perception that traditional animation was quickly becoming a thing of the past.
By the 2010s, traditional animation had been all but cast aside by major studios. With Disney’s subpar The Princess And The Frog and Winnie The Pooh standing as its last traditionally animated films, it too moved towards computer animation, and quickly began a new golden age that features modern classics like Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen.
Simply put, as well as shifting attitudes and trends, computer animation became far cheaper than laborious traditional animation, with the ability to create complex worlds in far less time and for a lot less money than drawing out films frame by frame proving a key draw for the adoption of the newer style among big studios.
By the end of the decade, traditional animation has become largely reserved as a more artistic style, no longer capturing the imagination of viewers young and old. New traditionally animated films continue to be made, but with the likes of Song Of The Sea, Loving Vincent and Persepolis (all excellent films) standing out as some of the best traditional animations of the last decade or so, it’s clear that the style has been moved out of the limelight to a more obscure part of the movie world.
Will Traditional Animation Ever Come Back?
Among big studios like Disney, Dreamworks and Warner Bros., it’s unlikely that we’ll see traditional animations at the top of the billing again. From a practical and economic perspective, computer animation makes a lot more sense, even if some of us may have a stronger fondness for the traditional style.
However, it’s that fondness that might just bring traditional animation back with a bang in years to come. Computer animation is now the default, and while it continues to produce brilliant films, the combination of nostalgia for traditional animation and unique films using the style is likely to see the style return in a new way.
While traditionally animated films struggle to make it out of indie houses and into multiplexes around the world, the growing independent scene is seeing talent and passion for the style growing like never before. Surprise hits like Tomm Moore’s wonderful fairytale Song Of The Sea harking back to the real roots of traditional animation have reignited a fascination with the style, albeit still on a fairly small scale.
But with computer animation as the standard, the uniqueness of traditional animation and the nostalgia many up-and-coming filmmakers feel for it is likely to push it back into the public consciousness. It might not be able to rival big-budget computer-animated hits at the box office, but with a warmth and passion that computer animation can never replicate, the return of traditional animation in the future would certainly be welcome by all.