Once Upon a Studio is a 2023 American live-action/animated crossover fantasy comedy short film produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios in celebration of the Walt Disney Company's centennial. Written and directed by Dan Abraham and Trent Correy, it was released by Walt Disney Pictures on October 16, 2023. In the film, Disney characters come to life from pictures hanging on the walls of the Roy E. Disney Animation Building following the end of a usual work day. The short's art style combines computer graphics, traditional animation and live-action, and features characters from the majority of the studio's works made up to that point, including all 62 feature films (including the then-forthcoming Wish), numerous short films, and some live-action Disney films featuring animation produced by the studio such as The Reluctant Dragon (1941), Mary Poppins (1964), Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), and Pete's Dragon (1977). The film was dedicated in memory of Burny Mattinson, the company's longest-serving employee, who made a cameo in the short and died eight months before its release.
Once Upon a Studio premiered at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival on June 11, 2023, and had its first public showing in the United States on ABC's The Wonderful World of Disney on October 15, along with the linear television premiere of Encanto (2021). It was released on YouTube on December 24.
On the day Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, California turns 100, employees from the studio leave at the end of their work day. An intern converses with Burny Mattinson about the studio turning 100 years old, with Mattinson wishing the walls could talk.
Inside the studio, Mattinson’s wish comes true: Mickey Mouse, in a production cel from Mickey's Birthday Party, comes to life, and calls Tinker Bell (Peter Pan). Mickey asks her if all of the employees are gone, in which she nods. Excited, Mickey and Minnie Mouse jump out of the cel, with Minnie getting many of the characters from the studio's filmography to all meet in the lobby. While everyone is getting ready, Mickey approaches a photograph of studio co-founder Walt Disney and, in a private moment, bittersweetly thanks him.
All the characters go outside to the lobby to take a group photo for the 100th anniversary with Mickey getting them together. However, Goofy accidentally falls off his ladder, causing the camera to break. Everyone starts to leave sadly as the group photo is cancelled. Just then, Alan-a-Dale (Robin Hood) plays "When You Wish Upon a Star" on his lute joined in by Scat Cat (The Aristocats) on his trumpet and Mirabel Madrigal (Encanto) on her accordion as Hathi Jr. (The Jungle Book) makes a trumpeting sound. Then other characters take turns singing. The brooms from Fantasia sweep up pieces of Goofy's camera remains, Fix-It Felix, Jr. (Wreck-It Ralph) fixes the camera, Hercules puts the ladder back in position, and the Fairy Godmother (Cinderella) uses her magic to help Goofy up the ladder while setting the camera up for the photo. As the rest of the crowd of characters finish up the song and pose for the group photo, Tinker Bell uses her wand to match cut to the finished photo.
Once Upon a Studio was created spontaneously in preparation for the Walt Disney Company's centennial in October 2023; directors Trent Correy and Dan Abraham discussed ideas during their free time for approximately eight months. The duo called the film a "love letter" to Walt Disney Animation Studios as well as "a thank you to anyone in the audience that's ever connected with a film over the last hundred years."
The short film includes 543 characters from the studio's feature and short films, up to Wish (2023), and vocals from more than 40 voice actors. Archival recordings were used for certain actors who died before production or were unavailable to do so, this included the Genie's dialogue which was sourced from previously unused audio recorded by Robin Williams according to Josh Gad, the voice of Olaf, under acceptance from Williams' estate. Other archive recordings taken from their original films include Bobby Driscoll as Peter Pan and Cliff Edwards as Jiminy Cricket, as the filmmakers were intended not to recast those characters.
Once Upon a Studio combines traditional animation, computer animation, and live-action, with Eric Goldberg serving as the head of hand-drawn animation, while Andrew Feliciano worked as head of computer animation. Among the hand-drawn animators recruited for the short was current Disney animators Mark Henn, Randy Haycock, Alex Kupershmidt, and Bert Klein also provided animation for the short, as did former Disney animators James Baxter, Ruben Aquino, Tony Bancroft, Nik Ranieri, and Will Finn; the animators worked both on characters they have previously animated in addition to other classic characters; Baxter requested the directors to work on characters from Bambi (1942), having been a fan of the film while growing up. Goldberg recruited CG animators in the studio who also had experience in hand-drawn animation. Hand-drawn apprentices were also hired to provide animation for the short. The characters were animated in a way that replicated their original films' art style.
Almost 80% of the short's animation is hand-drawn. By the directors' insistence, the hand-drawn animation was done with ink and paper, which Goldberg approved of. Goldberg made the scenes entirely hand-drawn, after which Feliciano would create CG animation that would match the hand-drawn characters' movement. He also personally animated the scene where Mickey approaches a photo of Walt Disney, as he was interested in the scene because of its emotional tone, as well as the Genie, which he originally animated in Aladdin (1992), and characters originally drawn by Ward Kimball.
CG animators had to rebuild the character models for CGI characters from films created before Tangled (2010) due to updates made to animation technology over the years, with rigging and rendering being reworked so that they could be used with modern technology. The CG animators worked closely with the hand-drawn team, with Goldberg and Feliciano, the latter a fan of Aladdin since childhood, inspecting the short to determine whether a scene would be led by a hand-drawn or CG character, after which they would evaluate whether a hand-drawn or CG character should be animated first in the scene. Animators with experience in hand-drawn and CG animation, such as Tyler Pacana and Anthony DeRosa, worked on scenes combining both formats; Pacana used a technique named "2D puppetry" to help rig the final photo shot.
Many of the props that the animated characters interact with are CG, including the vending machine that Stromboli shakes and Goofy's camera and ladder.
An early idea the filmmakers received from studio employees multiple times was to include a scene of a room full of all the characters voiced by Alan Tudyk since he has voiced a character in every Disney Animation film since Wreck-It Ralph (2012). This idea was abandoned, but Tudyk was included in the short as the voice of the Mad Hatter.
Dave Metzger composed the score for the short, which was composed so that it would feel reminiscent of each character's debut appearance. In the scene where Mickey approaches a photo of Walt Disney, the song "Feed the Birds" from Mary Poppins (1964) is heard, which was chosen due to being Disney's favorite. As they discussed the idea with executive music producer Matt Walker, he suggested bringing in song co-writer Richard M. Sherman to perform a new rendition of the song. Sherman recorded the song on August 22, 2022 at Disney's original office and using the same piano the Sherman Brothers used to perform the song for Disney. The song, "When You Wish Upon a Star" from Pinocchio (1940), was sung by the cast in the finale.
Once Upon a Studio had its world premiere at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival during the opening day celebration on June 11, 2023. It was also screened for attendees at the Walt Disney Studios panel at Destination D23 on September 10, where it received a standing ovation, and as the BFI Special Matinee of the BFI London Film Festival Opening Day event on October 14. It had its first public showing on ABC on October 15 (as part of The Wonderful World of Disney: Disney's 100th Anniversary Celebration, hosted by Kelly Ripa), before streaming on October 16 on Disney+ and Hulu, and aired on the same date on Disney Channel (as part of Once Upon a Monday Movie Marathon), Disney Junior, FX, FXM, and Freeform. The short was later released on YouTube on December 24.
There was a discussion of pairing it with the theatrical release of Wish (2023), but Disney decided to release it in a more accessible format. However, it was theatrically released alongside Wish in Japan on December 15, 2023. It was also screened in theaters with a Disney100 limited engagement re-release of Moana (2016), and for one week at the El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles, where public screenings were held to qualify it for the Best Animated Short Film shortlist for the 96th Academy Awards. It would ultimately make the shortlist on December 21.
Once Upon a Studio was released for digital platforms on January 23, 2024, which will be followed by a Blu-ray, DVD, and 4K UHD release on March 12, 2024, as a bonus features.
The short received positive reviews from critics, who called it an "emotional and nostalgic experience."
The short become a commercial success and premiered on ABC as a "sustainer" to the network television premiere of Encanto from 8:00pm to 8:11pm, in which it received 2.57 million total viewers in 1.736 million households, with a 1.39/4 HH rating. It also received a 0.45/4 adults 18–49 rating/share, which was equivalent to 0.587 million viewers watching in that demographic. Its premiere on Disney Channel on Monday, October 16, 2023 at 6:05pm (serving as a sustainer to a "Disney Channel Movie") received 0.349 million viewers, making the highest rated program on the network that week and the 343rd most viewed program on all of cable television. It received a 0.11 P2+ rating, and 0.10 rating with adults 18–49, equivalent to 0.131 million viewers in that demographic.
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