The Big Picture

  • Walt Disney Animation’s latest short film, Once Upon a Studio, celebrates the studio’s 100th anniversary by bringing together over 500 animated characters for a joyous reunion.
  • The short showcases the wide range of characters and stories from Disney’s past and present, including classic films like Bambi and modern hits like Moana.
  • The appearance of Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the short evoked a strong emotional reaction, serving as a reminder of personal growth and the power of Disney’s characters to resonate with audiences.

Walt Disney Animation’s latest short film Once Upon a Studio, which debuted on Disney+ this week, celebrates the pioneer studio’s 100th anniversary by bringing together more than 500 of its colorful animated characters, spanning the studio’s entire library, for a joyous reunion. The short is a veritable who’s who of more than enough heroes, villains, sidekicks, and princesses to fill Disneyland itself. The entire Disney Animation canon, past and present, is on display in a once-in-a-century crossover, unlike anything the studio had fully done before.

From the immortal classics of the ’40s golden age and ’90s renaissance like Bambi and The Little Mermaid to popular modern hits and nearly forgotten cult favorites like Moana and Treasure Planet, the short left no stone unturned in recognizing the wide range of characters and stories the studio had brought to the screen for multiple generations, even using previously unused audio of Robin Williams to bring Aladdin’s Genie back to life. For as many iconic characters, Easter eggs, and references as the short is able to pack into its nine-minute runtime, there is one familiar face in particular that evoked the strongest emotional reaction out of me during my first initial viewing – Quasimodo.

‘Once Upon a Studio’ Heralded a Momentous Return

Fairy Godmother in Once Upon a Studio
Image via Disney

In late September, I had the pleasure of seeing Once Upon a Studio at Disney’s El Capitan Theater in Hollywood, CA in front of a screening of 1973’s Robin Hood, weeks before the short’s official ABC broadcast premiere. When first watching the centennial short, I was of course amazed at the attention to detail and passionate artistry on display from legendary original animators in recreating a history’s worth of storytelling and filmmaking, while also giddy to see so many beloved characters together again in one spot. The short’s primary appeal had done its job for me as a Disney adult and the audience was having a wonderful time.

The short culminates into a massive ensemble performance of the Pinocchio anthem “When You Wish Upon a Star”, with different characters chiming in with each new verse and building to a massive choir by the song’s end. This kind of sentimental moment is fitting and almost expected as cliché for any grand scale traditional Disney celebration, but once I heard the voice of Tom Hulce chime in as The Hunchback of Notre Dame‘s Quasimodo, rendered in hand-drawn flowing James Baxter animation, my emotions swelled, and I was ambushed by more than a few tears. This moment, more than any other in the short’s preceding and succeeding moments, overwhelmed me with unexpected emotions. Having been savvy to Disney’s almost manipulative ability to tug at heartstrings my entire life, I was fully prepared to be moved by the short as just purely a celebration of the studio’s century of animated efforts, but the appearance of Quasimodo hit me particularly in the heart in a surprisingly enlightening way.

As a Kid, I Saw Myself in Quasimodo

The Hunchback Of Notre Dame
Image via Disney

This reaction went beyond just me recognizing a character from a movie I had enjoyed and remembered from my youth. The short was already bursting with characters and references to movies I had loved and was inspired by throughout my entire life, yet none of their appearances struck the same emotional blow to me. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is only third among my top three favorite Disney films, beaten out by The Lion King and Aladdin, which received far more prominent representation throughout the short. As much as I love The Hunchback of Notre Dame, there are films, Disney and otherwise, that I am far more susceptible to react this emotionally towards. It was after I had watched the short again this week that I realized what I was reacting to wasn’t just my love for seeing a film I enjoy getting included in the centennial occasion, but the vindication of my personal attachment and attribution to the character manifested.

I did not fully watch Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame until I was thirteen, which ended up being the exact perfect age for me to be introduced to the story of Quasimodo as it mirrored the way I viewed myself throughout adolescence. While not physically “half-formed” from birth, the combination of my taller-than-average height and round pudginess became a popular target for discrimination throughout elementary and middle school, making it hard for me to literally “fit in” anywhere as “normal”. On top of my schoolyard awkwardness, growing up in an emotionally disjointed family struggling to keep itself together made it easy for me to favor isolation over venturing “out there like ordinary men” to live the life that I wanted.

Although it hurt, by keeping to myself, my vulnerability was safeguarded from how I feared I would be hurt by the world, and even my own family. Even entering adulthood, with my weight melted away and my social circle more populated, I had gone through experiences that forced me back into a form of emotional isolation, held prisoner by my own family. I re-learned to gravitate towards isolation, which left me insecure about how the world would view me and unfamiliar with unconditional love. My sanctuary was still a prison, much like how Quasimodo hid away in his bell tower out of fear of how he knew the world he wanted to join viewed him.

Seeing Quasimodo Again Reminded Me of My Own Growth

Quasimodo in Disney's Once Upon a Studio
Image via Disney

In time, I was able to finally take charge of my life and form a healthy independence and perception of myself. I don’t view myself as the kid afraid to meet a life out in the world on his own terms because of what he looked like or what he enjoyed. My kinship with Quasimodo no longer reflected who I had become as an adult. I have grown so much more confident in what I want to do, who I want to be, and how I want the world to see me. Recent years have given me an appreciation for how relating to Quasimodo growing up made me strong as I entered maturity. Then came Once Upon a Studio. Seeing Quasimodo joyfully stand proud among a cast of hundreds as his true self, knowing how he had suffered in his film, gave me perspective on how much I’ve evolved past my various traumas and insecurities. That is where the tears began to fall down my face.

Personal feelings aside, my experience with this brief moment made me realize the true resonant power of Disney Animation that has propelled it for one hundred years. Disney’s true legacy isn’t art, technology, or storytelling, but the emotional accessibility of their characters. The general audience appeal and broad scope of Disney’s animated films ironically grant their characters a specificity that allows any one particular character from any specific film to be someone’s favorite that they connect with on a personal level. Disney animated films have embodied a wide range of different experiences, joys, sorrows, and relationships that, by virtue of being family entertainment, are able to latch onto audiences of all ages and be internalized by young people as influential expressions of not just different worlds and fantasies but of ways people can relate to one another and form their own identities out of the experience of living.

The Walt Disney Company at large knows that its characters are its biggest asset between merchandising and the theme parks, but Once Upon a Studio is a reminder that the reason Disney has been able to withstand a century is that its characters can reach anyone in many different ways.

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