I think that, ultimately, it comes down to the audiences.
In the one camp, we have older adults. They may well embrace hand drawn animation as a return to form. These same adults may be burnt out 3D animation. It’s everywhere and not all of it is great.
In the other camp, we’ve got kids and younger adults. To some of us, it almost seems like yesterday. However, “Toy Story” is closing in on 25 years old now. There’s a whole generation that has grown up with 3D animation and prefers it. This younger audience sees old school hand drawn animation in one of two ways. They either view it as a relic, something that only their (grand)parents would watch, or as something hip and retro - as if they just discovered it.
Hand drawn animation has become more an acquired taste for a lot of viewers. Given the choice between the modern CG re-imagining of “The Lion King” and its 1994 hand drawn counterpart, I’m not sure that I could convince my 11y nephew and 7y niece to sit down for the latter. It’s generational. Theirs would probably ask, “Why does it look so cheap and flat?” If you showed today’s kids how old school animation was done, they’d wonder where the computers were and so forth. Stuff that older adults know to be innovations to the art form, younger audiences take for granted. A lot of them even play with simple 3D animations software in school.
And there’s the problem. You don’t have to win over the older adults. They don’t care. They consume all sorts of animation on all platforms. Kids… That’s where the money is. You have to win them over if you want to succeed financially. Unfortunately, at least here in the states, hand drawn animation has become lower tier. It’s become a form of animation typically relegated to lower budget web and TV platforms. It’s not wholly an issue of visual quality either. It’s also about perception and market segmentation. 3D took over the big screen where budgets, revenue, and marketing possibilities were all higher. 2D took over TV and the web because budgets could stay low, production times could be kept short, and styles could vary to favor indie design.
If Disney is going to return to hand drawn animation then they need to do something different. They can’t try to emulate Japan. That’s a different market with different tastes. They can’t just give audiences more realistic looking hand drawn stuff either, an extension of the mindset started with “Snow White.” Audiences might scratch their heads wondering why more effort wasn’t put into making CG films “better” - whatever that means. I think that, going forward, Disney is going to have to embrace stylized animation - something to set them apart from the CG and 2D Disney eras. Imagine, for example, the art of a Chris Bachalo or a Bill Seinkiewicz come to life as ultra smooth and surreal 2D animation. Disney’s hand drawn people need to embrace style.
Comic readers have been enjoying endless diversity of style for 80 years. There’s an artistic style for every reader. Disney stuff, unfortunately, has maintained an unmistakable “Disney style” to it. That’s not to say that it all looks the same, regardless of traced characters or keyframes. It’s just that Disney’s 2D animation has rarely ventured too far out of a certain visual comfort zone. They need to have each one of their new movies have a distinctly different signature look in the same way that we’d never mistake a Todd McFarlane from, say, a Ryan Ottley. If they’re going to go with hand drawn animation then they have to go with signature styles and elevate them with all of the 2D and 3D tech at hand. Don’t just “return to form” because audiences might not fully embrace that.
Me? I don’t care. 2D or 3D, it’s all the same to me. I want good stories. That matters to me far more. I’m tired of the sequels. Remakes and reboots need to go to hell. New stories? Sure. Just make sure that they’re ACTUALLY new. Don’t simply take an old 80s movie, replace the people with talking cars, and then claim that you were “inspired” by experiences on family road trips - or some such nonsense. Younger audiences might be fooled, but older ones know when you’re being lazy and ripping off old and sometimes forgotten favorites. Story is king. If you’re copying somebody else then you’re just a usurper and pretender to the throne.
Personally, I’ve never seen story as being Disney’s strong suit. They’re technically great and produce animation at the highest level. They’re also amazing at marketing; They know how to milk that cash cow until it’s a dried out husk. They also attract amazing voice talent. Story? Meh. Historically, they’ve either just recycled old fairy tales (eg. Cinderella) or outright stolen ideas from animators too poor to fight them off in court (eg. “Kimba”). There have been a handful of unapologetically new story ideas from Disney, but they’re grossly outnumbered by the remixes and revamps. Disney’s tactic, thus far, has been to cloak these old/ripped stories in new songs by the likes of Elton John or Randy Newman. Audiences have fallen for it too, much in the same way that they somehow believe that the “Star Wars” sequels aren’t just reheated and rehashed nostalgia.
If Disney wants to be and stay king then they need to figure out what the competition is doing right and what they’re doing wrong. That, imo, is far more radical than just returning to hand drawn animation.
Also, wouldn’t it be refreshing to see a Disney movie that isn’t a sappy morality play or tired romantic musical? I know that Disney has their audience to maintain, but one of the attractive things about other studios is that they venture outside of that Disney lane now and again to appeal to adults craving other genres. Modern audiences, kids and adults alike, deserve more than just singing clocks or “aw shucks” happily ever after endings.
I know that I’m critical of Disney’s writing. It just annoys me to see how they can take the animation side of things to the next level almost every time, yet be so complacent and pedestrian when it comes to story. It’s almost like seeing a Studio Ghibli movie “from the minds that brought you ‘Leprechaun in the Hood’.” Not at the same level, iow.
Disney needs to have faith that their audiences will embrace stories that don’t fit the mold. Yes. I get that parents like the fact that Disney movies are predictable and safe for their kids, but you can do new stuff without scarring the children. (Although, if you think about older Disney stuff, some of it seems pretty heinous and not at all PC/woke by today’s standards.)
If Disney can’t fix/innovate on the story end then it doesn’t matter if they go with full on 3D or hand drawn. It’ll just be a regurgitation of the same old Disney tropes, albeit with a new visual flavor.
Story is king. Fix that, Disney. No more sequels. No more reboots. No more stealing. No more re-imagined (ie. old) fables. New stuff. Stuff that doesn’t treat today’s kids like yesterday’s. Smart stuff that isn’t necessarily all gumdrops and rainbows. Audiences can handle the shock of innovation and maturity.