Leap of faith: The Princess and the Frog

Disney's landmark new cartoon, The Princess and the Frog, has given hand-drawn animation the kiss of life. Guy Adams reports from the Mouse House

Away from the White House, America has rarely seen a more potent symbol of change, in recent times, than Tiana, the fetching heroine of Disney's new animation, The Princess and the Frog. In a long-overdue gesture, 72 years after Snow White tiptoed into film history, she just became the first ever black Disney princess.

Tiana's story, a musical reworking of the classic fairytale set in jazz-era New Orleans, hit US cinemas before Christmas. In addition to breaking down cultural barriers, her launch also represented a bold commercial move by Disney, who like every major Hollywood studio has for years been trying to reach out to the increasingly prosperous, but frequently ignored demographic of minority audiences.

Beyond the endless commentary about cultural milestones, however, a very different kind of progress symbolised by the film has been largely ignored. It too revolves around Tiana's appearance, yet had nothing to do with ethnic origin. Instead, it concerned the way she was created: as you can see from her portrait, she was hand-drawn.

Is that so revolutionary? Actually, yes: although traditional, two-dimensional animation has been embedded in the public imagination since Walt Disney popularised it during the 1930s, The Princess and the Frog, which finally hits British cinemas on 5 February, is the studio's first hand-drawn feature for more than five years.

This drought was the result of deliberate policy. After computer-generated (CGI) animation blasted onto the scene with Pixar's 1995 blockbuster Toy Story, box-office returns from traditional cartoons hit the skids. Disney released a string of flops, with now-forgotten names like Fantasia 2000, Atlantis and Treasure Planet. Eventually, in 2004, the studio's then chief Michael Eisner decided that public tastes had changed, and that it was time to get out of hand-drawn altogether.

Eisner's lead, on this front, was followed by every major rival. By 2006, Hollywood, the birthplace of Mickey Mouse, hadn't a single proper hand-drawn department left. Some of their former employees were simply sacked; others retrained in the new-fangled computer technology. Thousands of creative careers hit the scrapheap. An entire art form seemed to be heading for extinction.

Today, at the Mouse House's animation studios in Burbank, California, the HQ of a global entertainment empire built on the imaginations of men with pencils and sketchpads, there is quiet anger that the art form that gave the world everything from Pinocchio and 101 Dalmatians, to The Jungle Book and The Lion King, was ever abandoned. And pride that it has now been resurrected.

"Getting rid of hand-drawn was a death. It really felt like one," recalls John Musker, The Princess and the Frog's co-director. "At one point, they even decided to scrap the desks we'd worked on, and throw away the paper that we used to sketch. It felt so sad. An entire art form was being blamed for the fact that a handful of films had failed to make money. Obviously, we hope to now demonstrate that it was a mistake."

The care and attention that has been lavished on the new film, which is evident from pretty much its opening credits represents a degree of vindication for Musker and his fellow animators. One of them, Andreas Deja, had worked for Disney for more than three decades when hand-drawn was abandoned. He recalls it throwing him into something approaching mid-life crisis.

"It was one of the darkest days of my life," he says. "I love this medium. I always have. And suddenly I had nothing."

If hand-drawn disappeared for more than a couple of years, Deja and others feared that it would be logistically impossible to resurrect, since there would not be a sufficient talent pool available to make a new feature. Traditional animated films have collaborative means of production, in which a vast school of artists that contains (in order of seniority) supervising animators, lead animators, animators, and clean-up artists work together to create the 24 drawings that each second of film requires.

This process, which was pioneered by Walt Disney himself, has been compared to a production line, but it's actually more like a complex machine, in which animators are like interlocking cogs. Since senior artists (the stars of the profession) must hone their skills over many years in more junior positions, a brief period of inactivity could effectively make the machine impossible to restart.

"Animation is a craft passed on from generation to generation," says Ron Clements, Princess's co-director. "I never knew Walt Disney, but I learned from people who did. My apprenticeship was under Frank Thomas, one of Walt's 'nine old men', who drew the spaghetti sequence in Lady and the Tramp. If we'd left things idle for too long, connections like that would have disappeared. I'm not sure we'd have ever got them back."

Ironically, Disney's eventual decision to return to hand-drawn came with its acquisition of rival studio Pixar, whose ability to popularise CGI had originally contributed to the medium's demise. The move, in 2006 saw John Lasseter, the former Toy Story director, become Disney's new head of animation. And in his first speech to staff, he announced that he intended to revive the seemingly defunct art form.

"John's view was that scrapping hand-drawn had always been a mistake. He felt it had gone away for the wrong reason: because studio executives were trying to chase the enormous box-office returns that a string of CGI films had made," says Peter Del Vecho, Princess's producer. "He believed, rightly in my view, that the reason Disney's hand-drawn films hadn't done well was nothing to do with the medium, but because they simply weren't any good. A bad film's a bad film, he likes to say. It doesn't matter what the medium is."

The Princess and the Frog was swiftly thrown together by amalgamating two existing projects, one of which was based on a children's novel by E D Baker in which a girl who kisses a frog in the hope of becoming a princess ends up instead becoming a frog too. Teams of old animators, many of whom were unemployed, were tracked down and rehired. "It was magic," recalls Deja: "It was from my darkest day to halleluiah!"

Watching the end product serves as a reminder of the enduring charms of a medium that, while antiquated and obviously artificial, can often produce films that seem more expressive and somehow more "real" than its computerised rivals. Still, after all these years, CGI struggles to render realistic-looking people – the stars of last year's blockbuster Up, for example, look like caricatures. Tiana and her fellow stars seem curiously human. Maybe that's why, in trying economic times, Christmas sales of Princess-related merchandise were buoyant.

"In animation, it's the imperfections that are so charming," says Mike Surrey, one of the supervising animators. "In fact, the computer is so precise that with CGI you spend a lot of time making it imperfect, so hand-drawn does feel more romantic. There's a lyricism to hand-drawn, which makes it a very intuitive thing for artists."

The film's apparent success (it made $100m in the US ) has also persuaded Disney to now greenlight at least one new hand-drawn film every two years. A reworking of Rapunzel hits cinemas later this year, while a new Winnie the Pooh film is in its early stages.

All of which represents an unlikely renaissance, given Hollywood's history of dispensing with art forms (black-and-white or silent films) that seem past their technological sell-by-date. Though the film industry has expended plenty of hot air, post-Avatar, predicting the end of two-dimensional cinema, The Princess and the Frog jubilantly demonstrates the virtues of one very old-fashioned way of doing things.

'The Princess and the Frog' is released in cinemas nationwide on 5 February