Illusion: Disney Animation Through the New Key

A dream is a wish your heart makes
When you're fast asleep
In dreams you lose your heartaches
Whatever you wish for, you keep
Have faith in your dreams and someday
Your rainbow will come smiling thru
No matter how your heart is grieving
If you keep on believing
the dream that you wish will come true

Dreams are a focal point for every Disney animated feature. Though Cinderella is the only character to directly articulate it, every Disney protagonist ventures into the world to achieve their dreams. Pinnochio wants to become a real boy; Dumbo wants to rise above the weight of his big ears; Aladdin wants to prove himself to be more than a “street rat.” Dreams and visions are motors for animated features beyond the film - they are inherent in the medium itself. As Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston write in their book, The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation, the medium of animation lets artists “give reality to the dreams of the visionary" (Thomas 15).
        Many would argue that a film - particularly an animated film - is not reality. The definition of reality, however, is a subject to be tackled another day. The point is that film creates a connective experience for viewers: they are brought to different worlds, introduced to characters who think and feel, and in turn viewers think and feel for them. Philosopher Suzanne K. Langer describes this experience as “dream mode”. In her writings about film in  Feeling and Form, she further explains this idea:
Cinema is “like” dream in the mode of its presentation: it creates a cultural present, an order of direct apparition. That is the mode of dream.
The most noteworthy formal characteristic of dream is that the dreamer is always at the center of it. Places shift, personas act and speak, or change or fade - facts emerge, situations grow, objects come into view with strange importance, ordinary things infinitely valuable or horrible, and they may be superseded by others that are related to them essentially by feeling, not by natural proximity. . . . The immediacy of everything in a dream is the same for him.
. . . In its relation to the images, actions, events, that constitute the story, the camera is in the place of the dreamer.
But the camera is not the dreamer. We are usually the agents in a dream (Langer 12-13).
The symbolism infused in dreams has been discussed at length for years; the symbolism infused in art has been discussed at length for years. Film is not only expressive, it is functional - transmitting ideas and values at 24 frames per second. Its accessibility is infinite because it appeals to multiple senses. Disney animated features in particular are some of the most accessible because their stories are portrayed simply. These films are often not taken seriously, though, because they are aimed at children; however, they should be taken very seriously precisely because of this aim. Susanne Langer’s philosophy of art helps convey how Walt Disney’s feature animation exposes viewers to philosophical principles. For the purposes of this discussion, two main theories will be explored. In his article “Susanne Langers Two Philosophies of Art,” writer Samuel Bufford identifies these two theories as Langer’s “expression theory,” and her “perceivability theory.” Langer’s expression theory, in Bufford’s words, “holds that works of art express emotions by standing for them or representing them” (Bufford 9). Feeling is expressed symbollically through art, and as such they are carriers of thought for both artist and audience. This leads to the perceivability theory: every art creates a primary illusion that is perceived by the audience (Bufford 11) The illusion inherent in art is a heightened reality that allows artists to capture nuances of life that expository language cannot. Thus new symbols are perceived in a new way by viewers. Animated features are creates through multiple artistic mediums, thus multiple illusions are both expressed and perceived. These artistic mediums are: storytelling, character animation, and music.
Perhaps the most direct form of philosophical expression in Disney Feature Animation is the literary art of storytelling. The strength of literary art, according to Langer, is that it creates an illusion of past life. Bufford explains Langer’s intent by writing, “Literary art . . . creates a complete ‘lived’ piece of experience, where a thought is really seen in its passage, followed through from its whimsical rise to its final close” (Bufford 15). In regards to what this past life can illustrate, Langer makes a key bifurcation in the process of storytelling: fairy tale versus myth. Disney is famous for portraying fairy tales, and probably more infamous for deviating from original storylines. Disney’s Cinderella has less foot mutilation than the Grimm’s fairy tale and the addition of singing mice; Disney’s Aladdin is set in a fictional Middle Eastern city instead of China. Though these fairy tales constitute what Langer calls “wishful thinking,” she acknowledges that their messages can be powerful in writing, “In every fantasy, no matter how utopian, there are elements hat represent real human relations, real needs and fear, the quandaries and conflicts which the ‘happy ending’ resolves” (Langer 178). Each portrays the protagonist overcoming personal and social boundaries by embracing their identities - stories that speak volumes. 
Langer asserts that mythological stories add the additional power of metaphysics to the personal triumph of fairy tale, and thus conveys a “mythic truth” (Langer 175). The 1994 feature, The Lion King, exemplifies Disney’s ability to expand their stories according to these terms. Drawing from the writings of Joseph Campbell, Hamlet, the myths of Moses and Joseph, and Bambi, the story artists came up with an original story which, in the words of director Rob Minkoff, “goes beyond the quotations of storytelling and speaks to experience” (The Making of the Lion King) Simba’s journey goes beyond personal achievement and extends into improving his entire world:
Mufasa: Everything you see exists together, in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance, and respect all the creatures-- from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.
Simba:  But, Dad, don't we eat the antelope?
Mufasa: Yes, Simba, but let me explain. When we die, our bodies become the grass. And the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connected in the great Circle of Life (The Lion King).
Simba’s greatest triumph is not defeating Scar, but restoring the balance in the Pride Lands that Scar had destroyed. This balance is one that extends beyond The Lion King, as background supervisor Lisa Keene reminisces of their research trip to Kenya, “the balance of life and death was absolutely everywhere” (The Making of the Lion King). In portraying a story based not only on the human experience but of the relationship of that experience to the forces of nature, the film is able to create an observable life experience. Through that, the audience can pick up archetypal themes and symbols relevant to their own lives.
Character portrayal is perhaps one of the most key elements to Disney animation. “Sometimes we say the secret to Disney animation is story, story, story, and I think it’s really character, character, character. Because you want to create characters who are compelling and whose story you want to follow,” explains Beauty and the Beast executive producer Don Hahn (Tale as Old as Time: The Making of Beauty and the Beast). The difficulty of analyzing animated characterization is that the art form itself is an amalgam of two artistic mediums: drawing and acting. The unity of these two mediums can provide   significant tension to animators, for one needs to master both in order to give a convincing portrayal. Renowned animator Richard Williams explains this dilemma in his book The Animator’s Survival Kit:
So acting is intrinsically part of the whole. And if you can’t draw or articulate movement how are you ever going to do the acting?
Someone once asked Milt Kahl [reputed to be the greatest animator who ever lived]: “How did you plan out the counteraction you used on that character?”
Milt blew up: “That’s the wrong way to look at it! Don’t think of it like that! I just concentrate on giving the performance - that’s what’s important! The play’s the thing. You’ll get all tangled up if you think of it in a technical way!” (Williams 9).
Though Langer did not write about a philosophy of character animation, perhaps one could be found in the common ground between the philosophy of acting and drawing. Bufford illustrates this possibility when he writes that Langer proposes that aspects of art forms can find their way into others (Bufford 13). With character animation, aspects from two concentrations assimilated to the point that a new medium emerged.  Langer does not write a philosophy of acting, though she does contain an essay by Peter Richard Rohden called, “The Histrionic Experience,” in her anthology Reflections on Art. In it, Rohden discusses the primary illusion of acting: to create a virtual person. “We see our fellowmen only in a fragmentary fashion, and the faculty of self-knowledge usually is so much impaired by vanity and desire that is amounts to nothing. What we call ‘dramatic illusion,’ therefore, is the paradoxical phenomenon that we know better what is going on in the mind of a Hamlet than what stirs our own minds,” he writes (Rohden 313-314). Actor and audience see the character in full form and are thus able to capture nuances of existence that are more difficult to understand in life.  Due to the importance of character, animators have to understand this form before animating. “I think you have to know these fellows definitely before you can draw them. When you start to caricature a person, you can’t do it without knowing the person,” said Walt Disney of character animation as quoted in The Illusion of Life (Thomas 393)Perhaps one of the most complex characters in Disney feature history is the Beast from Beauty and the Beast - both in personality and anatomy. Considered supervising animator Glen Keane’s masterpiece by animation historian John Canemaker (Tale as Old as Time), the Beast is unique as a character portrayal because he undergoes a transformation from within that spreads to without. The virtual person that the acting captures is a tortured soul who learns how to find peace within himself. However, the acting is portrayed through drawings; thus the virtual person must be captured within the pencil lines. In regards to this medium, Langer writes, “The harmoniously organized space in a picture is not experiential space known by sight and touch, by free motion and restraint, far and near sounds, voices lost or re-echoed. It is an entirely visual affair; for touch and hearing and muscular action in does not exist. For them there is a flat canvas, relatively small, or a a cool blank wall, where for the eye there is deep space full of shapes” (Langer 72). Two dimensional art, thus, depicts virtual space. The space of a portrait and character is their physical being and structure - anatomy. Combining the anatomy of a bison, wolf, bear, and gorilla a complex creature is manifested on the paper - a reflection of the character’s soul. With each successive drawing the space is manipulated according to the spirit of the character. Thus, as the character changes, the drawing changes. A compelling sequence of animation that illustrates this relationship is the death and transformation of the Beast. Acting and drawing are connected, and each informs the other.
Music is another hallmark of Disney animation, and another component that contributes to “dream mode.” In film it is often characterized as a “mood setter,” or “theme.”  This sentiment is articulated by co-writer and co-director of The Little Mermaid, John Musker, during the features audio commentary, “Classic moment for me is when the fish jumps and hits the water, and we go into this musical theme. And that’s where the heart of the movie jumps out at you” (The Little Mermaid Audio Commentary). Langer offers insight as to why music has such power. In a similar way that story creates virtual experience, music creates virtual time. When expressed through music, time is becomes subjective, nuanced, and expressive. In Langer’s words, “. . .we have its image, completely articulated and pure; every kind of tension transformed into musical tension, every qualitative content into musical quality, every extraneous factor replaced by musical elements. The primary illusion of music is the sonorous image of passage, abstracted from actuality to become free and plastic and entirely perceptible” (Langer 113). Returning to Musker’s favorite, “Main Titles - The Little Mermaid,” this process is very clear: time is a journey and music is the vehicle. In the same commentary, composer Alan Menken recalls his late co-composer, Howard Ashman, saying, “we need something watery, something watery” (The Little Mermaid Audio Commentary). The “something watery” is powerful. The song progresses with time, but the content of the song encapsulates the time that the listener occupies. Rippling chimes allow listeners to hear the light refractions in the water. A lone flute and accompanying strings carry listeners with the current, and then the voice of the ocean sings. The listener hears the time, space, and feeling of Ariel’s time. Thus they are transported to Ariel’s world more thoroughly than through pure visual experience. By adding a rich illusion of time, music enhances the potency of animation’s primary illusion.
In the end, what is the primary illusion created by Disney animation? Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston already said it: life. How does it do this, though? Susanne Langer the provides the key. Each artistic medium that has a hand in the film contributes a distinctive illusion of the universe that assimilate into one. Story contributes the illusion of experience; character contributes the illusion of self and space; music contributes the illusion of time. Together, all of these illusions strengthen each other and bind together to create one large multi-faceted “dream mode.” Langer quotes R.E. Jones in her writing about film, and it sums up the relationship between the illusions presented in this dream and perception, “Motion pictures are our thoughts made visible and audible. They flow in a swift succession of image, precisely as our thoughts do, and their speed, with their flashbacks - like sudden uprushes of memory - and their abrupt transition from one subject to another, approximates very closely the speed of our thinking. They have the rhythm of the thought-stream and the same uncanny ability to move forward or backward in space or time. . . . They project pure thought, pure dream, pure inner life” (Jones as quoted by Langer 415).
Beauty and the Beast. DVD. Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. 1991: Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Home Entertainment, 2002.
Beauty and the Beast. Audio Commentary. Included on DVD. Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. 1991: Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Home Entertainment, 2002.
Bufford, Samuel. “Susanne Langer’s Two Philosophies of Art. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 31 no. 1. Autumn, 1972, pp. 9-20.
Cinderella. DVD. Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske. 1950; Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Home Entertainment, 2005.
Langer, Suzanne K. Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957
Langer, Suzanne K. Problems of Art. New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1957
Langer, Suzanne K. Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art. Glendale: Prentice Hall, 1977
The Lion King. DVD. Directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff. 1994; Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Home Entertainment, 2003.
The Lion King. Audio Commentary. Included on DVD. Directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff. 1994; Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Home Entertainment, 2003.
The Making of “The Lion King,” featured on The Lion King Platinum Edition DVD. Director uncredited. 2003; Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Home Entertainment, 2003.
The Little Mermaid. DVD. Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements. 1989; Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Home Entertainment, 2007.
The Little Mermaid. Audio Commentary. DVD. Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements. 1989; Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Home Entertainment, 2007.
Rohden, Peter Richard. “The Histrionic Experience.” In Reflections on Art: A Source Book of Writings by Artists, Critics, and Philosophers, ed. Susanne K. Langer, 311-316. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1958.
Tale as Old as Time: The Making of “Beauty and the Beast.” Featured on Beauty and the Beast Platinum Edition DVD. Directed by Jeff Kurtti. 2002; Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Home Entertainment, 2002.
Thomas, Frank and Ollie Johnston. The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation. New York: Disney Editions, 1981.
Treasures Untold: The Making of “The Little Mermaid.” Featured on The Little Mermaid Platinum Edition DVD. Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements. 1989; Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Home Entertainment, 2007.
Williams, Richard. The Animator’s Survival Kit. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 2001.