Disney animation and Cirque du Soleil aren’t obvious soulmates, but their origin stories sparked an idea in writer and director Michel Laprise that served as the foundation of Drawn to Life, now playing under the tent at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
After stumbling across a biography of Walt Disney, the auteur was fascinated by the parallels that could be drawn between Disney and Cirque. For example, both companies had to be stubborn and tenacious because nobody believed success was possible for them.
“I was also fascinated by the dedication that is in the work of an animator who does classic hand-drawn animation,” says Laprise. “You have to do something like 24 amazing drawings to create one second of illusion of life.”
That parallels the life of an acrobat at Cirque du Soleil, who often has to start training at a young age and practice every day. “All the sacrifice and egoless-based dedication coming to both approaches was fascinating to me.”
After establishing an emotional core based on dedication and tenacity between the two companies, Laprise decided to make a show about it. Thankfully, his boss called a few weeks later and said they were planning on replacing La Nouba (which held residency at Disney World for almost 20 years).
With total creative freedom, the visionary went to work, striving to hit the core of what Disney animation is. “It's the stroke of the artist with the pencil on the piece of paper. From the first year of development, that authenticity, that artistry, we really wanted [to create] a love letter to the art of Disney animation.”
What sets Drawn to Life, which opened in November 2021, apart from other Cirque du Soleil shows is its storytelling. Usually, Cirque du Soleil shows are more of a tableau, or a poem, but Drawn to Life is different, with a complete storyline just like any good Disney movie.
The show follows Julie, whose late animator father leaves behind an inspiration to start drawing. With the help of Mr. Pencil (and her favorite pillow, touched with a dash of magic carpet pizazz), she sets out to develop her own skills as an artist but must spar with Miss Hésitation, a living embodiment of Julie’s doubts and fears of her own talent.
“It's pretty tough in a Cirque show because if you have a character with an obstacle, but then you have an acrobat doing a triple salto, that is the obstacle. If you want to be credible, it has to be very real.”
For Laprise, Miss Hésitation couldn’t be some supernatural monster. “It's funny because when we pitched the story the first time, they said, ‘Oh my God, you got to keep this Miss Hésitation character. All of us who are involved in any creative process, we have this entity that comes from us, comes from our parents or peers, that makes us doubt and it’s part of the creation process. You have to go through this fear in order to to create.’”
When Julie begins her first drawing and Miss Hésitation appears above her shoulder and says “ehhhhh,” signaling she’s not very impressed, it’s the living embodiment of that doubt. As the story goes on, Miss Hésitation’s backstory reveals there’s more going on behind her tough exterior. “It was also important for me to love Miss Hésitation. She's not only the villain, villains are hurt people underneath.” That multi-layered character development adheres to Disney’s long history of creating stories with substance.
Of course, all of the typical Cirque du Soleil spectacle is still there, with 10 jaw-dropping acrobatic sequences all tied to some form of animation, whether it’s the rhythmic gymnasts interpreting pages of drawings in continuous sequence, a pair of human trapeze artists moving as paintbrushes to create a kaleidoscope of colors, or teeterboard artists displaying the squash and stretch principle of animation.
One segment pays tribute to the unsung heroes of Disney animation: the women of the Ink and Paint department. “We were told about Mary Blair, and I wanted to make a tribute to the concept art phase of the creation process,” said Laprise. “Her presence is eternal…so I imagined that Julie finds Mary's desk, she puts the white costume on and the glove and then, suddenly, she starts to draw like her. It's important for us to speak about the reality of the creativity of those women because yes, we have the Nine Old Men (the name bestowed upon the original animators for films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Pinocchio), but there were these women in the universe of Disney that were doing great work.”
The acrobatic stunt involves a wheel that, as it spins, creates a spectrum of colors—something Blair was known for exploring in her work. “In those years, everybody was very conservative…[using] quiet colors. And she came in there like BANG! She broke all the rules and influenced so much of the work after that.”
It’s that level of reverence that reverberates throughout the entire production and takes Drawn to Life to the next level, capturing the magic that Disney—and now Cirque du Soleil—has brought to audiences for nearly a century.