Disney’s all-new short film Once Upon a Studio is something special. It’s the perfect love letter to 100 years of the Walt Disney Animation Studios, and something that’ll tug on the heartstrings of anyone who grew up on Disney. We both found it really moving–Disney magic in its purest form–and wanted to take a minute to highlight the short and why it gives us hope.
For those who are unfamiliar with it, Once Upon a Studio is now streaming on both Disney+ and Hulu as part of Disney’s 100 Years of Wonder anniversary celebration. The short film has also aired on ABC, Disney Channel, Freeform, FX, and other Disney networks; Once Upon a Studio will also play in front of the Disney100 special engagement of Moana, in select theaters through October 26, 2023. So you should have no trouble finding it if you’re a “real” Disney fan. (There’s a more than decent chance you’ve already seen it!)
Featuring 543 Disney characters from more than 85 feature-length and short films, Walt Disney Animation’s Once Upon a Studio assembles heroes and villains, princes and princesses, sidekicks and sorcerers to celebrate 10 decades of storytelling, artistry, and technological achievements. In so doing, it melds all-new hand-drawn and CG animation, along with famed actors returning to voice their characters.
Mickey Mouse leads the emotional and joyful reunion of beloved Disney characters as they come together for a group photo to mark Disney’s 100th anniversary. Once Upon a Studio is written and directed by Dan Abraham and Trent Correy and is produced by Yvett Merino and Bradford Simonsen.
Once Upon a Studio takes place at the end of the work day at Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, California. The short film starts right as the artists and storytellers are heading home after a long workday is ending. Disney Legend Burny Mattinson—who worked at The Walt Disney Company for 70 years, longer than any other employee—is the last person to leave.
When the coast is clear, Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse step out of a picture on the wall and ask their animated friends to take an official 100th anniversary portrait. Hand-drawn characters, such as Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Merlin, intermingle with CG characters, such as Baymax and Rapunzel, as they comically scramble to assemble for the group photo.
Ever since watching Once Upon a Studio for the first…and second…and etc…times, we’ve been reading everything we can about it to learn more–how Disney did it, the little hidden nods in there, etc. Rather than regurgitating what we’ve read, here are a few articles that the Walt Disney Company has released about Once Upon a Studio:
How a Secret Passion Project Transformed into Once Upon a Studio – From a pitch meeting that brought Jennifer Lee, Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios, to tears to rallying artists and technicians to revisit some of the studio’s most beloved characters, here’s the story of how Abraham and Correy’s passion project was fast-tracked into production.
Plus, the filmmakers recount the process of shooting live-action plates in the Roy E. Disney Animation Building, recording with more than 40 original voice actors, and more. (Spoiler for those who haven’t seen Once Upon a Studio–they crushed it!)
It was the same place Richard and his late brother, Disney Legend Robert Sherman, would regularly perform the song for Walt on Friday afternoons. Abraham, Correy, Merino, and Simonsen share how a nod to that special tradition made its way into Once Upon a Studio. (We have seen Richard Sherman at a number of D23 events over the last decade, but he’s been absent the last few years. It’s so great to hear that this true embodiment of the Disney spirit and legacy helped with Once Upon a Studio.)
Honoring Disney Legend Burny Mattinson’s Legacy – Once Upon a Studio begins with the artists, storytellers, and technologists at Walt Disney Animation Studios heading home for the day—and Disney Legend Burny Mattinson, The Walt Disney Company’s longest-serving employee, is the last person to walk out the door. Clark Spencer, President of Disney Animation, says Mattinson was the perfect person to make such a cameo in the short film given his depth of experience and his continued influence.
Meet Two Disney Animation Apprentices Behind Once Upon a Studio – Five hand-drawn animation apprentices were chosen from over 2,000 applicants, representing the first new hand-drawn animator hires at Disney in over a decade. These apprentices made a major mark on the studio when they were invited to contribute to Once Upon a Studio. In this Q&A, program supervisor Goldberg and two of the former apprentices, Tyler Pacana and Austin Traylor—both of whom are now full-time Disney animators—recount their experiences and share hopes for the future of Disney’s hand-drawn animation department.
Turning to commentary, it’s no secret that Disney has had a rough few years. If you’re first and foremost a fan of Walt Disney World or Disneyland, the ways this is happening are obvious–price increases, erosion of guest benefits, nickel & diming, maintenance woes, and other things I’m probably forgetting.
The studios have had their own problems, and everyone certainly has their own ‘diagnosis’ for the cause of Disney’s commercial and critical bombs. For us, it comes down to a lot of content–and that term is chosen deliberately as opposed to films or stories–that cannot justify their own existence. CGI-heavy sequels with zero stakes, unnecessary live-action remakes that can’t hold a candle to the originals, and a bunch of other creatively bankrupt content that lacks heart and earned emotion.
Granted, we haven’t watched everything due to disinterest, but the only movie we really loved was Turning Red. (Don’t hate me, but I only liked Encanto. I’m glad other fans and families loved it, though, and I’m also happy that an original animated musical has become another modern classic.) And that’s just of the animated movies. Don’t even get me started on the (supposedly) live action content, which has become the movie equivalents of McDonald’s.
There are all these fears about Apple buying Disney, but quite frankly, Apple TV+ has a better and more creative track record than Disney over the last couple years. Even if you’re a diehard fan who has somehow been pleased with Disney’s recent output, there’s no denying that the company’s reputation has taken a hit with the general public and the brand isn’t what it once was.
Once Upon a Studio illustrates that Disney’s still got the magic touch when they lead with heart and creativity. It’s such a simple premise, and one that could’ve easily been phoned-in fan-service or superficial emotional manipulation. Yet it very much is not.
Instead, it’s a true love letter to the history of Walt Disney Animation Studios, with a ton of work put in to making the short a seamless and sweet tribute to so many beloved stories. The characters that appear–and there are many of them–are all thoughtfully introduced, and the way they interact and appear alongside one another is clever and meaningful at times.
I can’t say enough positive things about Once Upon a Studio. It really tugged at both of our heartstrings, and we’re clearly not alone. (Sarah cried for pretty much the entirety of Once Upon a Studio, although that’s probably not just due to the short!) This has garnered nearly universal acclaim from critics and fans, and Disney knows it’s something special. The short is now being played in the Main Street Opera House at Disneyland, and hopefully it’s coming soon to Walt Disney Presents at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, too.
They’re obviously two very different things, but Once Upon a Studio and Wondrous Journeys are my two favorite things to come out of Disney100 thus far. It’s probably not a coincidence that those are the two things from the celebration that pay tribute to 100 years of the Walt Disney Animation Studios.
Other than that, I can’t really think of much from the 100 Years of Wonder celebration that’s been memorable or worthy of such a milestone. Frankly, it’s unfortunate that two of Disney’s biggest anniversaries–this and Walt Disney World’s 50th–have been underwhelming.
I can completely understand why Disney100 has been an afterthought in Florida and is basically just a ribbon on top of the EPCOT transformation–as Walt Disney World fans have “anniversary fatigue” after 18 months of the underwhelming World’s Most Magical Celebration.
It’s weird that more wasn’t done at Disneyland, though. That’s Walt Disney’s original magic kingdom and the park where history is a really big deal with fans. Not to mention the international parks, one of which got a bench and another got a single-day character celebration. But I’m not complaining too much–Wondrous Journeys should long outlast Disney100 and is arguably the best anniversary entertainment in decades. (Possibly since ‘Remember… Dreams Come True’ back for Disneyland’s 50th.)
With that said, Disney’s 100th Anniversary isn’t over yet. The last big thing on the horizon is Wish, the latest movie from Walt Disney Animation Studios that opens in theaters on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, November 22, 2023.
Wish is the tentpole of Disney100, and the company is billing it as a story that’s a century in the making. The epic animated musical is inspired by the legacy of films from the studio and asks the question: “How did the famous Wishing Star, upon which so many Disney characters have wished, come to be?”
Wish is set in Rosas, the kingdom of wishes where wishes can literally come true. The movie introduces 17-year-old Asha—an optimist with a sharp wit who cares endlessly about her community. In a moment of desperation, Asha makes an impassioned plea to the stars, which is answered by a cosmic force, a little ball of boundless energy called Star.
Together, Asha and Star confront a most formidable foe—the ruler of Rosas, King Magnifico—to save her community and prove that when the will of one courageous human connects with the magic of the stars, wondrous things can happen.
I’ve been trying not to get too excited about this, but I can’t help myself. Wish looks incredible.
The story itself, the setting, watercolor animation style, the characters–everything. It looks like the perfect recipe for a heartwarming animated film that only Disney could deliver, perfect for Disney100. Oh, and the biggest star of the whole movie is a goat?!?! Sign me up!
There’s a lot in Wish that reminds me of the Walt-era films, which I absolutely love. (More on that in a minute.) It also has Frozen, Moana, and Coco vibes–three of our favorite four (plus Inside Out) movies from Walt Disney Animation Studios or Pixar in the last decade.
I would imagine that many of you already saw the trailer for Wish, but that you might’ve seen it on social media in a lower resolution, which made the visual style look weird. I’d encourage you to rewatch this version, making sure that 4K is turned on. It looks so much better:
Not to get too carried away, but I’d also encourage you to watch the international trailer, which has some minor and major differences that make it better as a whole:
What I really like about this is that it’s an original story that also doubles as a love letter to the technical and storytelling legacy of Walt Disney Animation Studios. Now, I’m hardly an animation expert, but even in the trailer, there were little nods that I noticed to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, and Sleeping Beauty.
This also isn’t just fan-service in the form of Easter Eggs or hidden references–we’re talking things like shots inspired by the multiplane camera. There’s a lot that’ll be lost on mainstream audiences, but Disney fans will truly appreciate.
More than anything else, I’m happy that it’s an ambitious original story (and one with an actual villain again!), and not another heartless “live action” (is that even accurate given that 95% of those movies are manufactured by computers?) remake, origin story that no one asked for, or paint-by-numbers cash grab sequel (that somehow still manages to lose money because it inexplicably cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make).
Suffice to say, I am really looking forward to Wish. Disney already seems confident in its quality, with a stronger marketing campaign for this than we’ve seen for the last several animated movies. Here’s hoping that Wish is every bit as good as the trailers make it look, that it makes a boatload of money at the box office, and reminds the executives just why fans started falling in love with the Walt Disney Animation Studios 100 years ago. I’d love to see the second 100 years start with a new renaissance, and a renewed focus on original storytelling, creativity, and passion projects.
Have you watched Once Upon a Studio? What did you think about the short film? What about Wish? Have you been watching the trailers? Notice the nods to Walt-era animated classics? Excited for the movie, and hope it marks a return to creative, original storytelling for Disney? What do you think of the streaming series and movies from the Live Action, Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios in the last couple of years? Agree or disagree with our take? Any questions? We love hearing from readers, so please share any other thoughts or questions you have in the comments below!