Animation is incredibly important to me. I’ve always been fascinated by the artform, and I even teach animation classes for interaction designers now. And while we’ve done animated films on the blog before, but I haven’t focused on it. So we’re changing that this week with two seminal animated films:
David Hand – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
John Lasseter – Toy Story (1995)
Both of these films are firsts. Snow White is one of the earliest feature length animated films, and the first American effort, and Toy Story is the first feature length computer generated animated film. So neither will likely be the best of their particular sub-genre, but let’s see.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
This film is the story of Snow White, a young woman whose stepmother is the queen, and incredibly vain about her looks. Because Snow White is beautiful, she hides her in the home, forcing her to be a scullery maid. Each day the queen asks her magic mirror who the most beautiful woman in the land is, and it responds that she is, until one day when it names Snow White. The Queen demands a huntsman kill her. When he can’t do it, he sets her free and she finds the home of 7 dwarf miners, who take her in and try to protect her. But when the queen finds out Snow White is alive, what will become of the young beauty?
This was the first feature length production from the Walt Disney company, and let’s clear up some credits first. I credit the film here to David Hand, even though many people think of Walt Disney as the director of the film. Walt Disney was certainly a creative force behind the film, but in the early days of animation (and even now), animated films didn’t necessarily have the same production structure as live action films. This is because there are more things to control in animation. In a live action film, a writer creates the script, the director decides how the film proceeds during shooting, ensuring that they have all the shots they need before continuing.
But in animation, the words the actors say is only a small part of the process. If there even is a traditional script, there is also an extensive storyboarding process that is locked down as much as possible before work begins on animation. The person in the traditional director role is usually in charge of the animation of each character. The creative choices are often made by the writers, or in this case, the producer, Walt Disney. So for consistencies sake, I’ve listed David Hand as the director, as he was the supervising director in charge of all the other directors on the project. Luckily, by the time Toy Story came around, these processes were standardized.
Before making this film, Disney was known for it’s series of shorts. These would play in between longer films in the days when movie theaters didn’t really have set times, and people just came in and out throughout the day. They were successful, but not the giant they are today. At the time, doing a feature length animated film was a huge risk. Of course, the film was the biggest hit of the year, and Walt Disney was able to build new studios with the money, becoming a household name in the process.
So how is the film? We have to remember than in a lot of cases, the filmmakers were making it up as they went along. Animated films of that length were a new thing at the time, but film itself wasn’t even a mature medium. Sound film had only been around for under a decade, so a lot of film language was still being figured out. Trying to translate that language to animation was a monumental task when the technology to produce these films hadn’t all been invented.
The story follows the fairy tale closely, cutting sections more than adding to it. If the removal was essential to the story, we get title cards to fill us in. We get a long set of these at the beginning, but we also get some after the climax of the film, when the queen has managed to disguise herself and trick Snow White into taking a bite of a poison apple. These title cards give necessary background information, but having them in the middle of the film is definitely unorthodox. We can be generous and call it a pacing decision, but a side benefit is that titles with words on them are far cheaper than full animation.
Another pioneering thing about the film is the fact that it attempts to realistically depict human figures. In previous shorts, humans were generally depicted with exaggerated features. I’d call it ‘cartoony’. But in Snow White, the animators attempt to create some highly realistic characters. Snow White herself, and the queen. Unfortunately, we also witness probably the first instance of the uncanny valley effect. The uncanny valley describes the strange phenomena where as an animated character becomes more realistic, they begin to look more unreal. The soft, feminine features given to these two characters creates a bit of this effect. The shading on their faces is very light, leading to their faces appearing almost featureless. We see a pair of eyes, and a mouth, and everything else is just a flat color.
But remember, that no one had really attempted animating a human realistically before. Everything up to this point had been highly exaggerated caricatures. Disney prepped his animators with a short called The Goddess of Spring:
Here we see the exaggerated movements, but more realistic facial features. But I would say, the goddess in this film looks better than the realistic characters in Snow White.
To get the movements right, Disney brought in an actress to act out the movements. This was filmed, and then animators actually traced her movements. This kind of process would probably be frowned on now, but references to real world objects are one of the most important tools an animator has. You can see this clearly in the dancing sequences. Snow White moves so much more fluidly and realistically than any of the other characters. It sets her apart from everyone else in the film. It’s a great effect, but it went out of style as time went on.
The film suffers a bit from the voice acting. This was in an era before professional voice actors, and the idea of hiring a famous actor to voice a character wouldn’t have worked in the old Hollywood era, with actors under restrictive contracts. In addition, acting in different mediums was always seen as a step down, and in many cases, still is today. When film first came along, theater actors often refused to participate. When television came along, film actors felt it beneath them. I’m sure animation had to deal with that as well. The voice actors feel like they’re essentially reading lines, rather than acting them out. Or, like in the case of Prince Charming and the Huntsman, they’re severely overacted. Snow White as well is not particularly well acted either. But the seven dwarfs, and the queen are all capable, if not up to modern standards.
However, the real star is when the queen transforms into the hag. Everything about the hag is exceptional. Her animation makes her menacing and frightening. Her voice completes the effect. We feel she’s fully capable of killing off Snow White and sleeping soundly the next night. The entire sequence with the queen transforming into the hag, and planning how to kill Snow White is wonderfully animated. The character model of the hag also looks more like what we might expect from animated films that would come later, with exaggerated features that speak to her character.
The film also includes a lot of time stretching sequences, that almost feel like animated shorts within the larger film. While these sequences clearly don’t add much to the narrative, they’re often some of the best scenes in the film, like the scene when Snow White is running through the forest after the Huntsman releases her, she runs through a nightmare. The tree branches grab at her, and logs in a creek turn into alligators. Other sequences include Snow White and the animals cleaning the Dwarf’s home, and the Dwarf’s washing up for dinner. In a film with more plot, these sequences might have existed, but been cut down significantly, but these sequences go on for quite awhile, probably too long for a modern audience. It’s clear that Disney had a story that didn’t quite extend to a feature length naturally, so they had to fill some time. So they went back to what they were good at: short animated films. Looking at the film now, it almost feels like an anthology of various short films with the same characters, with some connecting material making a plot.
This has probably been one of the most critical reviews I’ve ever written. It’s not because I don’t like the film, but because I see how much potential there is in this film, and I know how much better it will eventually get. every new medium has growing pains, and this was a big leap. Audiences of the time didn’t mind, as this was the highest grossing film of the year.
As critical as I was though, I still think it’s a great film. I think some of the choices they made haven’t aged well, but this film is so important to the history of animation, that it must be held up as a great film. It proved that animated film was a viable business choice, regardless of the cost, and opened the door for others to make their own animated films.
This film elevated an art form, and so it can’t be denied as one of the greatest films of all time.
Toy Story (1995)
Toy Story is a film about toys that come to life when their owners aren’t around. These toys have their own little lives and concerns. The group of toys we follow is led by Woody, a cowboy toy. He is the unquestioned leader of this group of toys because he is the favorite of Andy, the child who owns them. But on Andy’s birthday, he unexpectedly receives a fancy spaceman toy named Buzz Lightyear. This new toy soon becomes essential to Andy and Woody worries he’s being replaced. How will he deal with the intrusion of this new toy in his life?
Toy Story is the first feature length animation film done entirely with computer generated graphics. This was a huge revelation in 1995. The film was of course made by Pixar, and it made them famous almost overnight. But of course, Pixar didn’t come from nowhere. They had an extensive history doing short animated films, commercials, and special effects sequences in films. There’s a wonderful documentary on their history called “The Pixar Story”. I might cover it on the blog eventually.
The film is directed by John Lasseter, one of the early talents of Pixar. Unlike the earlier Disney era, it’s very clear who was the creative force behind this film. The credits are much more familiar to a modern audience.
Lasseter and the Pixar creative team were incredibly clever with this film. The truth is, computer generated animation probably wasn’t ready for a feature length film at the time. The tech wasn’t good at depicting a lot of things. At the time, almost everything that came out of the format looked like plastic. The modeling and such was also limited. Fine details were going to be lost. Fur and hair were not options, so anything animal based wouldn’t look great. Humans were also going to look strange, even in caricature. So what did they do? They embraced all the constraints they had and made their weaknesses their strengths. Everything looks like plastic? Ok, then our main characters can be made of plastic. Humans don’t look right? Then they’re side characters, we can de-emphasize their role. When we see the plastic characters, they look right to our eye. Pixar knew they couldn’t create perfectly realistic human characters, but by fitting their story around what they could create, they solved their biggest problem in one shot.
And the story itself is great, for a lot of reasons. First of all, it’s a very human story. Regardless of the nature of the characters, every story at it’s core has to be about humans. The story of Woody feeling like everything in his life is falling apart and reacting badly to it is very relateable.
We also see a major maturation of animated films in the time between Snow White and Toy Story. I mentioned how much of Snow White felt like filler, that didn’t really affect the story. But in Toy Story, everything is about the story. Pixar is known for how tight and well told their stories are. We can argue about which one did it best, but Toy Story is among their strongest efforts.
The amazing thing Pixar does here is make every little joke or funny moment contribute to our picture of the character, or explain the rules of the world, or move the story forward. A great example is Mr. Potato Head. The character of Mr. Potato Head is based on a famous toy that lets kids mix and match facial features on a potato shaped piece of plastic. The animators make full use of this. Mr Potato Head rearranges his own face, making a joke about being a Picasso, and makes fun of another character for kissing up by removing his lips and pressing them against his own backside.
We also know that the toys know that they are toys. Their goal in life is to be played with. The worst thing that can happen to them is be separated from the child that owns them. But when Buzz Lightyear is introduced, he doesn’t know he’s a toy. He’s convinced his backstory is real, and he’s trying to fix his spaceship and get back to his home planet.
So we have big arcs for Woody and Buzz, the two main characters. Woody needs to learn how to be secure about his place in life, and accept Buzz. And Buzz also needs to learn to accept his place in the world. This gives them storylines moving in opposite directions, but meeting in the middle. It’s a really interesting and complex story structure.
The film also does a great job of using montages to pass time, and explore the story. Early, we see how much Andy, the toy’s owner, loves Woody, and plays with him everyday. Later, we see another montage where Buzz is slowly replacing Woody as the favorite, and Woody losing hope and losing his place in the hierarchy of toys, leading to some rash decisions that move the plot forward.
On the animation side, Pixar had to embrace some constraints around their models, which we’ve discussed. The toy models all look excellent, and many are now iconic characters. The humans didn’t fare quite as well, but for the amount of time we see the humans, particularly Sid, the kid next door who tortures toys, it tends to work. Pixar would find their style for humans in their future films, but here, they don’t look quite right. But since the human characters aren’t the focus, we don’t worry about it too much.
The animation is top notch. Every toy character follows their own movement and animation rules. Characters like Buzz and Woody have mostly full range of movement. But a character like the Etch-A-Sketch has to wobble around to move. Other characters are the same. The facial animation is also excellent. The film makes heavy use of closeups, and the film delivers when we get in close. Not an easy thing to do in animation. The move to computer generated models gives the animators way more freedom in the facial animation, and it shows.
I won’t go into the plot very deeply, because it’s not really necessary. The film speaks for itself. It’s such a solid story that there’s very little subtext to explore, and that’s not a bad thing. Wonderful.
This is an amazing film. One of the most interesting aspects is what’s missing. There are no musical numbers in this film. Now, we see animated films all the time that aren’t musicals, but keep in mind that Toy Story bucked that trend. Disney films always included extensive musical numbers, and even other studios followed suit. At the time, it almost seemed like part of making an animated film was to write memorable musical numbers. Toy Story proved that animated films didn’t need the characters to break into song. Now, it’s sort of rare to see an animated musical.
And of course, this film has two sequels, both of which some people would argue are better than the original. But the film still holds up on it’s own. I really don’t think I have anything bad to say about it.
The Double Feature
Watching these films together was a complete joy. I love animation. I think it’s amazing that someone can draw a few lines and shapes on a piece of paper and just by moving them in sequence quickly, can make us feel deeply for them.
Animation is often considered a medium for children, but I couldn’t disagree more. Animation is one of the few genres that can transcend ages. Everyone can enjoy a good piece of animation, and everyone can find something different to enjoy in it. Walt Disney attempted to elevate the medium from Saturday cartoons into serious films. John Lasseter and Pixar took the torch and took the next step, putting animated films on the same level as some of the greatest films of all time.
Animated films have started to regress a bit, but we also have a lot more animated films than we ever have before. It’s not uncommon to see 3-5 animated films every year. In the past, we might have a single big release, and then another smaller film to fill in the gaps. Having more animated films is never a bad thing. Some are made just for children, others are made for everyone, and that’s great. Animation is for everyone.
Three weeks into the semester, and all the good eating habits I got into over the summer have gone right out the window. I really need to get my schedule solidified and really work on having better meals. I’m also working hard on some things, and letting other stuff slide. I’ve got to find a better balance. But otherwise, things are generally ok.
So, what shall we watch next week. I’m looking at some sci-fi films, and it was tough to pick a second one, but here’s what I’m going with:
Norman Jewison – Rollerball (1975)
L.Q. Jones – A Boy and His Dog (1975)
I have Filmstruck to thank for this pairing, as part of a series on views of the future from the 70s. Rollerball I saw many years ago, but haven’t seen it recently. So it should be an interesting pairing.
See you next week.