By Zach Johnson
Walt Disney Animation Studios’ all-new original short film Once Upon a Studio features a treasure trove of characters—543 of them, to be precise—scrambling to assemble for a group photo in honor of the studio’s 100th anniversary. Audiences will no doubt recognize popular characters from such feature films as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Sleeping Beauty (1959), The Jungle Book (1967), Robin Hood (1973), The Little Mermaid (1989), The Lion King (1994), Lilo & Stitch (2002), Frozen (2013), and Encanto (2021), in addition to dozens of fan-favorites who had appeared in various shorts.
“Every time I watch Once Upon a Studio, I am reminded of the laughter and the tears all of these characters have brought to families and fans all over the world—including me,” says Clark Spencer, President of Disney Animation. “And with every viewing, I see something new. So, I hope audiences watch it over and over again to discover all of the hidden treasures that are throughout the short. And if they are like me, they will also tear up a time or two because these stories and these characters have been such an important part of our lives.”
Indeed. Given that Once Upon a Studio is a love letter to 100 years of Disney Animation, it was important to writers and directors Dan Abraham and Trent Correy that such beloved characters—albeit rarely seen—be represented in equalized measure. “There is a balance in figuring out how to how to keep some of these characters in there,” Correy explains. “Chernabog is an interesting one, for example, because we had a whiteboard with all the characters we wanted to include and the ones we were missing. And literally, beside Chernabog, I wrote: ‘Never going to happen; he is the size of a mountain. How do you fit him in a building?’ Dan came up with the idea of the Dalmatians watching Fantasia‘s ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ segment on TV, so we were able to save him.”
Other rarely seen hand-drawn characters to spot in Once Upon a Studio include Susie the little Blue Coupe, Pecos Bill, Bongo, Dodger, Gurgi, Evinrude, Ferdinand the Bull, Johnny Appleseed, Peter and the Wolf, Alice Blue Bonnet and Johnny Fedora, the Reluctant Dragon, Casey at the Bat, and John Henry. “I wanted Gopher from Winnie the Pooh,” Abraham adds. “He’s not in the original A.A. Milne books, or the 2011 film Winnie the Pooh, but I always got a kick out of him as a young kid.”
As much as the intention was to surprise and delight fans, it was also a chance for the filmmakers to revisit characters that had inspired them to get into the filmmaking business. “There was always an intent to create moments for characters like those,” says producer Yvett Merino. “We all know characters like Ariel and Pocahontas, but my husband is a big fan of the classic shorts. He asked me, ‘Is Pedro the plane going to be in there?’ And he’s in there! He’s in that big, final group shot. People identify with many different characters, and I think that’s the beauty of our films. So, it’s great to create these moments for those characters who aren’t really in the spotlight anymore so fans can see them back onscreen.”
The animators were equally as excited to reacquaint themselves with such characters—with Robin from Back to Neverland being a collective favorite. Voiced by Disney Legend Robin Williams and featured in a film that was part of the animation tour at Disney-MGM Studios, Robin was a sentimental favorite for many, including animator Michael Woodside, who pitched and animated him for the short. (In fact, many were inspired by that film and that Studio to become animators.) And, although he served as head of hand-drawn animation, animator and director Eric Goldberg was able to cherry-pick some assignments for himself—including a key moment in which Mickey Mouse interacts with a portrait of Walt Disney. “That was very important to me,” he says. “I also wanted to animate most of the Ward Kimball characters, like the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Hatter, because I love that kind of animation. And I’ve always had an affinity for Goofy, so I enjoyed animating him climbing up the ladder.” Goldberg praises the clean-up artists—led by Rachel Bibb, Lureline Weatherly, Emily Jiuliano, Kathleen Bailey, and Dan Tanaka, who worked alongside the hand-drawn animators—for ensuring that the characters were on-model and ready for their close-ups.
Fans will no doubt need to stream Once Upon a Studio multiple times on Disney+ in order to find all their favorites—and that’s part of the fun, according to the filmmakers. In fact, Abraham says, the entire short is filled with Easter eggs: “When you’re pausing it, do it on the last shot, because each one of those characters—all 543 of them—are all in character.” Given the sheer number of characters and references, Correy jokes that Once Upon a Studio could also be called Easter Egg: The Movie. “Aside from all the character Easter eggs, there are sound effects that are Easter eggs,” he says. “There are music cues and a couple of chords that might just be underlined in the score. And if you look on the bookshelves or you look at the portraits on a wall, there are dozens upon dozens of deep-dive Easter eggs.”
Once Upon a Studio is now streaming on Disney+ and Hulu. The short film will also air Monday, October 16, on Disney Channel, Disney Junior, Freeform, FX, FXX, and FXM, with additional airings Wednesday, October 18, on Disney Junior and Sunday, October 22, on Disney Channel. Once Upon a Studio will also play in front of the Disney100 special engagement of Moana, playing in theaters through Thursday, October 26.