One of the few universal childhood experiences is watching animated Disney films, it is something that has connected generations of people and families through a profound shared experience. These films have catered to children and adults since 1937 with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and nearly one hundred years later, audiences continue to pass down these films like memories to their children and younger loved ones.
With Pixar taking Disney animation by storm and ushering in a new age of films with iconic soundtracks, films from Walt Disney Animation Studios traded their iconic 2D animation for 3D. The new documentary Pencils vs Pixels outlines in detail the progression of animation from hand-drawn to computer-generated films. Narrated by Ming-Na Wen, best known as the voice of Mulan, the history, present, and future of Disney Animation is chronicled.
Nostalgia and charismatic talking heads carry this documentary forward, as well as hints of marketing for future films. Along with Ming-Na, notable animation enthusiasts Seth MacFarlane, Kevin Smith, film historian and professor Leonard Maltin, and several Disney Animators, themselves discuss the evolution and impact–personally and culturally–of animation.
When you watch a Disney film, you know it just by the way it looks and the unique style became a stamp that represented magic and childhood all at once. The unmistakable animation was perfect by the Nine Old Men, a group of nine animators Walt Disney put together who created films such as Dumbo, Alice in Wonderland, and One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Leonard Maltin educates the audience on how impactful Walt Disney was with animation, sending animators back to art school, so they could learn and perfect their craft. However, men were not the entirety of the team at Disney Animation, hundreds of women made up the staff, and some of these women had their first jobs at the studio.
The film tends to be a little cheesy, and it is clear that Pencils vs Pixels is a way Disney plans to revamp their animation style, acting as marketing for the Animation studio itself. Everything in the film leads to a new style of animation that Disney is creating–Wish (2023)–to incorporate the nostalgia of 2D with the advances of 3D. Although many animators speak throughout the film, a lot of it is missing the human aspect. The documentary aims to pack all of the animation history in a crisp, easily digestible way, never lingering too long or sparing a name drop. Pencils vs Pixels feels like advertising more than a love letter to animation.
Score: 2.5 out of 5
Of course, we all loved Disney films from our childhood, they are essential for viewing. Even now most people can find themselves in the theater when a new Pixar film comes out no matter how old you are. However, this installment in the Disney catalog feels like they are trying to sell you “a new way of animation” that they are trying to come up with as a follow-up to 2D and 3D animation. The film is an ad, making sure to tick all the boxes of a formula to get you to buy more of their product. Pencils vs Pixels relies on what was already good to ensure that you trust them to make what they think is good in the future.