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Disney In Depth: The State of the Disney Animated Short Film
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Brett Nachman   |  @   |  
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For decades the Disney animated short films, starring the classic gang of Mickey and friends, dominated the screens with innocence and cheer. But that era is not one forgotten. Merely it exists in the past tense, just like the blockbuster musicals that made Disney, Disney. Nevertheless, Walt Disney Animation Studios is experiencing a period of re-growth, what some would argue could be the “third renaissance.” Tangled and the forthcoming Wreck-It Ralph are believed to represent that new beginning. In any case, the art of the short film within the studio is also undergoing a fantastic period of re-interest and ingenuity.

For much of the last decade, when Disney animation was arguably struggling in producing quality features, both in their theatrical and direct-to-video releases, developing short films was placed on the back-burner. Perhaps not intentionally, but they were relegated to little-seen pictures, film festivals, and bonus features on DVDs. The Annie Award-winning short Lorenzo, a charming little tale about a cat’s tail that takes over its life, is utterly creative. But where was this long-delayed piece played to audiences? Try the 2004 Kate Hudson romantic comedy Raising Helen, which underwhelmed at the box office. How was it decided that a short like this be paired with a PG-13 comedy starring Goldie Hawn’s daughter? Though each of these films is adorable in its own right, one must wonder why these were paired together.

The Little Matchgirl, a heartbreaking short centering on the plight of a young Russian girl during the harsh winter, was never released on the big-screen. Rather it was placed as a bonus feature on the 2006 The Little Mermaid DVD. Matchgirl is yet another wonderful example of a brilliant short that never received the notice it rightfully deserved. Unless the viewers who popped in the Mermaid disc decided to explore the other features and descended upon this one.

John Lasseter‘s role as Chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios has changed the whole dynamic of how the Mouse creates and distributes their short films. For the most part, it has been for the better. Once Lasseter was instituted into this position when Disney acquired Pixar in 2006, part of his mission was to regenerate the short film line, to use it as a platform for up-and-coming artists to develop their craft. As a 2006 New York Times article by Charles Solomon indicates, “The studio has released a few shorts in recent years, but they were more artistic exercises than commercial endeavors.” Very true point, and with Lasseter’s leadership – carrying over many of Pixar’s principles in releasing appealing, mass-targeted shorts with much emotion – Disney short films have begun their way re-entering the public’s notice.

How to Hook Up Your Home Theater

In "How to Hook Up Your Home Theater," Goofy marvels at the big-screen television he finds at the local electronics store.

One of the major steps in this endeavor was bringing back everyone’s favorite human-like dog, Goofy, to theatres. How to Hook Up Your Home Theater, which evoked nostalgia in re-introducing those 50s-era “how-to” films that Goofy was known for, was a huge hit. Not only did it mark the first time in over a decade that a classic Disney character star in a short, but also it played before the blockbuster Nicolas Cage flick, National Treasure: Book of Secrets. Well, maybe it could have been paired with something more appropriate in theme, like the more family-focused Enchanted, but Disney leveraged this pretty well. Millions of movie-goers caught this short, and even more importantly, it is available for millions more to catch through purchase on iTunes. This hilarious short, which includes some clever nods to Disney history, set an encouraging standard for the company to produce entertaining new shorts, no longer limited to the eyes of film festival-goers or movie buffs who watch every DVD bonus feature.

In the years to follow, under Lasseter’s careful and watchful eye, Disney Animation Studios has created a mix of interesting little projects. Some, like the widely-promoted Prep & Landing specials, were branded across multiple Disney networks, including ABC and Disney Channel. The technique worked well in garnering millions of viewers and positive reviews for the 2009 holiday special, but unfortunately the Naughty vs. Nice continuation in the series lacked the amount of buzz as its predecessor. Other shorts, like The Ballad of Nessie, a cute look into the legend behind the mysterious “Loch Ness Monster,” narrated by Billy Connolly, features a smile-worthy story. Unfortunately few experienced this short, as it was released with the low-grossing 2011 Winnie the Pooh. However, like Home Theater, this is for sale on iTunes for only $1.99. Not a bad price for an amusing little piece.

Nessie

Nessie, "the Loch Ness monster," can't seem to find a wet spot without irking others in "The Ballad of Nessie."

So what does the future hold for Walt Disney Animation Studios’ shorts? Well, a few are in the pipeline. There is good buzz behind the upcoming Paperman, to precede Wreck-It Ralph this November. Pictures of this computer-animated/traditionally-animated hybrid were recently released. They depict the sweet love story of a young business-minded New Yorker, smitten for a girl he meets on his morning commute. He uses paper to catch her notice. How he will accomplish that feat, we must wait until this fall to find out.

This Disney fan hopes to see more shorts paired with feature films. As a lover of Disney-Pixar, I appreciate how I can expect an original short with each new release from the “hopping lamp” studio. La Luna, their most recent effort, screened in front of Brave, was absolutely mesmerizing and heartfelt. I loved the originality and details found in every frame. Similarly, you can see that touch in many of Disney’s newer shorts, such as those aforementioned. Can we plan on catching a fresh Disney animated short with each of their tentpoles? Probably not, but with these shorts being little investment in risk and cost, I don’t see why we may gradually see more of them.

Especially with Disney’s purchase of Marvel, what says we won’t soon see a Captain America-themed cartoon before the release of its sequel in spring 2014? Well, I’m probably just adding an already-considered idea to the pool of them over at Marvel. But why not? There could even be a short featuring Donald Duck meeting Iron Man? That would make for a most fascinating and temperamental toon. Though my seemingly simple-minded ideas may appear far-fetched, with the way the studios are acting more synergistically, it could happen sooner than you think. There’s no reason why Disney cannot make artistic, fanciful and insightful shorts akin to Matchgirl to be paired with deeper offerings – say a live-action drama like the upcoming Odd Life of Timothy Green – and the sillier, whimsy-filled toons like Nessie to screen with a new Muppets feature.

Well, we are seeing progress, as Pixar’s second Toy Story toon, Short Fry, preceded The Muppets. Disney even made the effort to continue the Tangled fever with the delightful wedding adventure of Pascal and Maximus in Tangled Ever After, which played prior to the 3D release of Beauty and the Beast. Continue with this pattern, Disney, and you’re raising the bar even higher. There is hope for movie-goers to appreciate these short films, and that hope rests with the magical minds at Disney Animation Studios who know story is always key.

This is Brett Nachman, signing off. Check back inside Disney In Depth next week for an exciting musical-themed treat.

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