ACMI’s spectacular exhibition of Disney animation – chosen from an archive of more than 65 million works – pays tribute to the lesser known but striking talents that helped to create this cultural behemoth. By Clem Bastow.

Disney: The Magic of Animation

The entrance to ACMI’s Disney: The Magic of Animation.
Credit: Phoebe Powell

It’s quite an experience to find yourself weeping openly at a graphite sketch, but that’s how I found myself when confronted by a “story sketch” of the moment that would later become the heartbreaking Dumbo sequence “Baby Mine”: Mrs Dumbo’s trunk lovingly caressing her big-eared baby through the bars of her prison. That little illustration, coupled with its anonymous credit – “Disney Studio Artist” – speaks to both the overwhelming emotional impact of the work of Walt Disney Animation Studios and the nature of working within it.

This duality is woven throughout ACMI’s Disney: The Magic of Animation, a handsome touring exhibition drawn from the vaults of the Walt Disney Animation Research Library in Los Angeles. Here the curtain is drawn back to reveal the often anonymous toil of the countless talented artists who created Disney’s feature animations.

Taking attendees on a journey from the studio’s earliest shorts through to Raya and the Last Dragon, released this year, the vastness of both the archival collection and Disney’s catalogue of animated feature films presents a curatorial quandary: how do you choose just 500 works from a private archive of more than 65 million sketches, cels, maquettes, even napkins?

The exhibition is likely to surprise those for whom the name “Disney” is code for razzle dazzle. Flashy interactive features are thin on the ground, although there is a nicely immersive presentation of the use of colour in Pocahontas and The Lion King, some kids’ eye-level viewfinders and a very sweet Snow White photo opportunity. The emphasis is on the quotidian texture of animation: the scratchy sketches that become clean-up animation drawings that become hand-painted cels, and the terabytes worth of research and development that have replaced the former in the 21st century.

Just as Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art’s 2017 exhibition Marvel: Creating the Cinematic Universe was careful to pay homage to the underappreciated Jack Kirby, the first name you see after Walt Disney’s in The Magic of Animation is Disney’s close collaborator, Ub Iwerks. Iwerks designed Mickey Mouse and influenced the distinctive style of the early Disney shorts; his genius is front and centre in Steamboat Willie, the captivating 1928 short that presented Mickey to the world, itself the first Disney cartoon to feature synchronised sound.

Iwerks was also an inventor, creating an early multiplane camera. Using a series of layers of flat artwork, a horizontal camera would shoot through them to create a sense of depth and movement in animated tracking shots. The exhibition pays great attention to the multiplane developed by “Bill” Garrity for Disney in 1937, which would aid in the creation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Walt Disney himself explains the process in a 1957 Tricks of Our Trade short that presents the breathtaking multiplane animation in Bambi.

It’s a testament to the curatorial focus on the art and act of animation that you may find yourself coming away from The Magic of Animation knowing no more about Disney the man than you did upon your arrival. Studio labour practices led to the 1941 Disney animators’ strike, an act Disney never forgave, later testifying against his apparently ungrateful “communist” animators at the House Un-American Activities Committee. Here the spectre of Walt’s iron fist is present only in one small and deceptively jaunty 1943 diagram of the “studio organisation and production processes”, a radar chart of the various arms of the studio with “WALT” looking down from on high.

Many preparatory sketches – including some bewitching hybrid storyboards for Snow White – are credited only to “Disney Studio Artist”. Some notable players in the studio’s push for innovation are named, however, and receive their dues.

Those highlighted include Chinese–American artist Tyrus Wong, whose ethereal pastel works for Bambi (1942) sit alongside the fascinatingly detailed anatomical guides to the eponymous deer’s movement and characterisation. Mary Blair’s vivid modernist concept art for Alice In Wonderland wouldn’t be out of place in contemporary galleries; likewise Eyvind Earle’s jazzy concept art for Lady and the Tramp (1955) and Sleeping Beauty (1959), the latter a paradigm shift for Disney. An animated re-creation of Dan McManus’s pencil test for Maleficent’s transformation into a dragon in Sleeping Beauty is one of the exhibition’s highlights.

In one astonishing behind-the-scenes short, effects animators McManus, Jack Boyd and Joshua Meador set out to solve the question of “how to simulate the very creation of our planet” for Fantasia’s “The Rite of Spring” sequence. Working at lightning speed, the three artists study a vat of bubbling mud and consider how to animate its movement as molten lava. McManus uses a stopwatch as he watches the bubbles pop, conducting “rapid calculations and mentally translating seconds into frames of film” on an “exposure sheet”. The quality of their preparatory sketches is remarkable.

The decision to focus on five key eras of Disney animation, with particular attention paid to the more recent blockbusters such as Frozen (2013), necessitates some hurrying along late in the 20th century. It was jarring to leap straight from The Jungle Book (1967) to The Little Mermaid (1989), bypassing some of the more fascinating entries in the Disney canon.

What of The Rescuers (1977), hailed by critics as a return to the studio’s former glory? Disney once considered the anti-authoritarian narrative of the source text to be too political, but it was revived in the 1970s as a project for the studio’s younger animators, including Don Bluth. Bluth would go on to become a giant of animation in his own right. One wonders if his graduation from mentee to competitor was too much for the Disney legacy to bear. 

Similarly, the underrated The Fox and the Hound (1983) can name among its animators and concept artists future auteurs such as Tim Burton, Brad Bird, Henry Selick and Pixar titan John Lasseter, who in 2017 left Pixar and Disney Animation in disgrace following allegations of misconduct. That film’s wildly acrimonious production process is the stuff of soap opera, yet it also represents a changing of the creative guard that would have been fruitful material for examination.

This skipping ahead also excludes some of Disney’s most notable technical advancements. Despite the towering presence in our collective memory of Beauty and the Beast (1991) as Disney’s “first” use of computer-generated imagery (CGI) – the ballroom sequence is given much attention in the exhibition – The Black Cauldron (1985) was the first Disney animated feature to employ CGI. The final stretch of the exhibit certainly provides plenty of evidence of innovation, including the bewildering R&D process that led to the animation of hair in Frozen and Moana (2016), but its roots run deeper than Beauty and the Beast’s dazzling waltz.

Most strikingly, there is no mention of the now-reviled Fantasia sequences involving racist imagery, an element that lends a painful complexity to the artistic and technical achievement of Fantasia. As the Disney+ disclaimer – also attached to Peter Pan, Dumbo and others on the streaming service – notes, “rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together”. The omission feels like a missed opportunity for both accountability on Disney’s part and education of the exhibition’s younger visitors. There is magic in animation, yes, but also power, which must be wielded with care.

This cherry-picking lends Disney: The Magic of Animation a curious quality, but in the more recent materials it is heartening to see the approach to on-screen inclusion move from observing and reporting, as with the research trips for Mulan (1998), to direct collaboration, such as the extensive engagement with the peoples of Fiji, Samoa and Mo’orea during the development of Moana, and to elevate South-East Asian culture in Raya, although the latter has attracted its own controversy.

As you leave Disney: The Magic of Animation, you pass two giant photographs of the assembled Walt Disney Animation Studios workers, taken in 1932 and 2019. The recent photo is as buoyantly diverse as you might expect but the earlier photo reveals a surprising gender equity. I found myself gazing into the eyes of the 1932 staff, wondering which of them would go on as “Disney Studio Artist” to create the exquisite work that would, nearly a century later, make me weep in public.

Disney: The Magic of Animation is at ACMI, Melbourne, until October 17


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 22, 2021 as "Disney: The Magic of Animation".

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Clem Bastow is a Melbourne-based writer and critic.