It's been more than seven years since the release of Winnie the Pooh (2011), the last hand-drawn animated film from Walt Disney Pictures. Though you should never say never, there's as yet no reason to presume that Disney Animation is going to reverse the current trend of making computer-animated films such as Ralph Breaks the Internet and the upcoming Frozen 2. These movies make a decent amount of money — or, in the case of the first Frozen, a ridiculous amount of money — so you have to go to either independent animation or foreign studios to find hand-drawn films... or, ironically, live-action Disney movies.
The release of Disney's big new film Mary Poppins Returns serves as an unintentional reminder of the value of the older animation form, because as with the original Mary Poppins, this long-awaited sequel has a lengthy setpiece wherein live actors are transported into a world of hand-drawn animation.
This time around, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt in place of Julie Andrews), her lamplighter friend Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), and the three children of a grown-up Michael Banks travel into a supposedly priceless porcelain bowl with animated engravings on its side. The motley crew spends time in a colorful circus before Mary has to come to the rescue of the kids when one of them is abducted by a nefarious wolf (voiced by Colin Firth, who also plays the villain in the live-action part of the film). It is a very long sequence, with an extended musical number that features Jack rapping and Mary wearing a wig, amongst other highlights.
While the new movie is a step down from the original film, the live-action/animated sequence is its high point, in no small part because of the thrill of seeing hand-drawn animation on the big screen again.
The animation sequence in Mary Poppins Returns was supervised by Ken Duncan and James Baxter, the former of whom has a small animation studio of his own in California where all the animation was completed. (Baxter once worked at Walt Disney Animation Studios, having served as the supervising animator of Belle in Beauty and the Beast.)
While the animators who worked on the project were recruited directly from Disney and Pixar, the animation itself wasn't handled at either of those studios (and, of course, Pixar only makes computer-animated features, despite utilizing hand-drawn animation for storyboards and rough tests). The new animation has some welcome references, not only to Mary Poppins but to Disney hand-drawn animation of the '90s-era Renaissance.
But it's a little depressing to know that Disney itself couldn't handle this animation the same way as was the case in the original. That film, like this one, has a 20-minute sequence with live actors interacting with hand-drawn animated characters. Back then, it was all done in-house, with Hamilton Luske serving as animation director, and winning an Oscar for his efforts. (Luske also served as director or co-director for films like Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Cinderella.)
The fact that this new film's animation was outsourced isn't a comment on its quality — it's to the animators' credit that the design and layout are much more reminiscent of animation of the 1960s than of something more cutting-edge or technologically slick such as The Princess and the Frog (2009).
Hand-drawn animation hasn't gone away, even as its presence is harder to find at the studio that normalized the format back in the 1930s and '40s. The aforementioned The Princess and the Frog failed to break out at the holiday box office nearly a decade ago, thus nipping the potential comeback of the format in the bud before it really began. So now, fans of the art form must hope for films like Mary Poppins Returns, which arguably only features an animated sequence because the original did as well, or for bits and pieces of hand-drawn animation in Moana. (The tattoos on demigod Maui's body were drawn by hand, unlike the rest of the character.)
The arguments in favor of computer animation typically rely on the suggestion that such films don't have the same high budgets as hand-drawn animated films, or that audiences will actively refuse to watch anything that isn't computer-animated, but there's not much in the way of genuine proof for those arguments. Most computer-animated films, including Ralph Breaks the Internet, have budgets near or above $200 million, where hand-drawn animated films such as The Princess and the Frog typically barely broke over $100 million budgets. That film did fail at the box office, but that was because it opened the same holiday season as James Cameron's Avatar. (And Winnie the Pooh was released as counter-programming against the last Harry Potter movie.)
Right now, Disney Animation has just one official release on its docket: Frozen 2, opening next Thanksgiving. No doubt, they'll announce some other titles soon, and there's little question that they'll be computer animated. Perhaps some of those titles will feel like they need to be animated by computer (you could fairly argue that the Wreck-It Ralph films need to be animated in this way).
But if there's anything good about Disney's newest movie, Mary Poppins Returns, it's that the film serves as a reminder of how wonderful and vibrant hand-drawn animation can be, especially in an era when studios like Disney almost always lean on computers instead.