New Disney animatronics breathe convincing life into its 2D characters

Mike Powers
New Disney animatronics breathe convincing life into its 2D characters

No matter your opinion on the current state of its animated movies, Disney is proving that it can still knock animatronics out of the park. This week, the entertainment giant gave us another early look at the new audio-animatronics being prepared for Tiana’s Bayou Adventure — a retheming of the iconic (and controversial) Splash Mountain ride — and the demonstrations so far have been breathtakingly impressive.

Recognizable characters from The Princess and the Frog (2009) have been brought to robotic life across various social media posts and Disney’s new “We Call It Imagineering” YouTube series, including Princess Tiana herself, Mama Odie, Charlotte La Bouff, Louis the Alligator, and a host of other swamp critters.

Seriously, some of these animatronics move so fluidly that they seem genuinely alive! If these new animatronics were developed like the ones for Tokyo Disneyland’s Beauty and the Beast attraction, their movements and facial expressions may have been provided by actual animators from Walt Disney Animation Studios, which is why it feels like the characters have simply escaped their 2D confinements. They’re not as realistically lifelike as the Shaman that features in the Na’vi River Journey ride, but that animatronic was a groundbreaking feat of engineering in 2017 — it’s exciting to see technology that complex now being applied at scale around the parks.

I’m also pleased that Disney has moved away from the rear-projection technology that was used on the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Frozen Ever After rides in Disney World. It just looks odd and unusually washed out in some circumstances and feels rather lazy compared to previous animatronic innovations from Disney’s Imagineering division over the last 60 years. By contrast, seeing the Princess and the Frog character’s lips, eyes, and facial structure physically moving makes me take a second to remember that these are real metal and plastic constructs and not CGI.

It’s an exciting time for any like-minded nerds who love to see animatronics or robots used in theme parks and other live experiences. The free-roaming, chicken-like BD-X droids showcased by Disney Imagineering last year will be set loose at the Black Spire Outpost in Disneyland’s Galaxy’s Edge park between April 5th and June 2nd.

If any of this has piqued your interest then I recommend watching The Imagineering Story docuseries on Disney Plus — it provides some fascinating insight into Disney’s extensive history in the animatronic industry.

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