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Art & Entertainment

Disney: The Art of Telling Timeless Stories

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“I’ll tell you a secret. Old storytellers never die. They disappear into their own story.”  

– Vera Nazarian, author 

Stories are almost as old as language itself. We human beings make sense of the world by creating narratives, which we then use as tools to express ourselves. Powerful, engaging stories connect people by evoking feelings of empathy and self-reflection. Some stories are so universal in the emotions and messages they deliver that they move and inspire people all over the world. 

It’s not only the stories themselves that stir feelings, but also the way they are told. Good storytellers give life to stories. They enthrall their audience by masterfully reconstructing the small new world of the story they are telling. Their narration is so engaging that the audience feels no desire to go back to reality. 

Stories are not always told through words only: there are certain visual tools that can help bring a story and its characters to life. Walt Disney chose to tell stories through one of these tools starting from 1922, when he started a small animation studio with Ub Iwerks. They ended up closing this studio due to bankruptcy after a New York film distributor cheated them; however, the surprise success of their work Alice in Cartoonland, the pilot film for a seven-minute animated and live-action fairy tale adaptation series, drove Disney and his brother Roy to start another studio, this time in Hollywood. This marks the birth of The Walt Disney Animation Studios, which, since its establishment in 1923, has produced 60 animated feature films and countless animated short films

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The exhibition Disney: The art of telling timeless stories, which was hosted by the MUDEC (Museo delle culture) of Milan from 2nd September 2021 to 13th February 2022, presented the creative process that lies behind these films. Visitors to the exhibition could go back to the origins of the most well-known works of Walt Disney Studios and see how these stories evolved and came alive under the pencils of the artists of the Studio.  

On the walls of each hall in the exhibition space, visitors could read about the story from which the selected movie originated and how Disney interpreted it. The explanations were followed by concept art by Disney artists and for certain movies, also through videos showing how the concept art turns into a part of the animated movie. There were also interactive workstations in each hall to engage visitors in the process of storytelling. For instance, in one of the stations, visitors were challenged to remember the colors they saw in selected concept art and then asked to recolor the work in the same way. 

The exhibition started with Disney movies that originated from myths, legends, and folklore, such as Hercules (1997). The following section focused on Disney movies that originated from fables, such as the animated short film Three Little Pigs (1933). Finally, the exhibition took us to the origins of Disney movies that retell fairy tales, like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), which is the first full-length animated feature film that was produced by an American studio, Sleeping Beauty (1959), and The Little Mermaid (1989)

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The last movies visitors could explore were Frozen (2013) and Frozen II (2019), which take inspiration from the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen. In the halls dedicated to Frozen movies, visitors could see not only concept art but also three-dimensional art models. What’s more, the very last hall of the exhibition was a Frozen-inspired infinity chamber. It is probably the mega popularity of the Frozen saga (the first movie is fifth highest-grossing film of all times) that gave rise to this tribute. 

This exhibition has unfortunately finished, but you can see the works of the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian in the exhibition Piet Mondrian: From figuration to abstraction until 27th March 2022 and the works of the French photo reporter Henri-Cartier Bresson in the exhibition Henri-Cartier Bresson: China 1948-49 | 1958 until 3rd July 2022 in the MUDEC. Moreover, starting from 16th March 2022, over 100 works of the Russian-French artist Marc Chagall will be displayed in the Museum’s upcoming exhibition, Marc Chagall: A Tale of Two Worlds

Author profile

Cansu Süt is currently pursuing a Master of Science degree in Economic and Social Sciences at Bocconi University. She graduated in Economics from Bilkent University in 2020. She is passionate about political economy and behavioral economics. Formerly an arts and culture writer at GazeteBilkent, she is an art aficionado and enjoys traveling and learning foreign languages in her free time.

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