Cirque du Soleil's new show is full of hidden nods to classic Disney: 'A love letter to the art of animation'

·Senior Lifestyle Editor
·8-min read
Julie and her pillow, Petit Oreiller, travel into a world of animation in Cirque du Soleil's new show,
Julie and her pillow, Petit Oreiller, travel into a world of animation in Cirque du Soleil's new show, "Drawn to Life." The collaboration between Cirque du Soleil and Disney is the first of its kind, and features lots of secret nods to the history of Walt Disney Animation Studios. (Photo: Cirque du Soleil)

There's a brand new Cirque du Soleil show at Walt Disney World and, for the first time since the elaborate acrobatic circus troop began performing at Disney Springs in 1998, the star of the show is Disney animation.

But at a performance of Drawn to Life, a show Cirque du Soleil describes as "a love letter to the art of animation," guests won't see Mickey Mouse dancing or hear singing princesses: the show stays true to Cirque style while mixing in subtle hints to the history of Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Fabrice Becker, creative director of Drawn to Life, tells Yahoo Entertainment he and his team researched Disney animation thoroughly while developing the show.

"We had a passion for animation and we learned a lot," Becker says. "We went to Walt Disney Animation Studios and met a lot of animators and directors and really got to know the art itself because we wanted it to be very authentic and near to the essence of what it means to be animators."

Becker says the team worked with an "animators trust," a group of Disney animators and directors with whom they'd review the show periodically to make sure the elements of animation were authentic to the way things were done in the days of Walt Disney.

"Drawn to Life" opened at Walt Disney World Resort in November 2021, and tells the story of Julie, a young girl grieving the death of her father who goes on an adventure into the world of animation as she attempts to feel connected to him. (Photo: Cirque du Soleil)
"Drawn to Life" opened at Walt Disney World Resort in November 2021, and tells the story of Julie, a young girl grieving the death of her father who goes on an adventure into the world of animation as she attempts to feel connected to him. (Photo: Cirque du Soleil)

The result is a story that shows audiences both the wonders of hand-drawn animation and the elements of a Cirque show they've come to expect: gravity-defying acrobatics, choreography, music, vibrant set design and colorful characters.

"It's really been a true collaboration in a very positive way," says Becker. "Everybody was really excited about the project because they understood we wanted to be respectful of the art form and get to the heart and soul of it. It was never about ego or brands, it was about passion."

It's the passion of Becker and his team that led them to share Drawn to Life with audiences in the first place.

"We've all watched [Disney animated] movies when we were kids, but now we're also watching them with our kids," he explains. "It's almost a circle: It is important in our lives, and if it's important in our lives, we feel it's important in our future audience's lives."

After watching a Drawn to Life performance, Yahoo Entertainment rounded up six hidden nods to Disney animation within the new show, which opened on Nov. 18. From sweet tributes to original Walt Disney Studios animators to powerful displays of the strength of Disney princesses, here are the can't-miss Easter eggs in the all-new production.

1. The animators

Disney's
Disney's "Nine Old Men," core animators at Walt Disney Productions during the days of films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia and artist Mary Blair were the inspiration behind the "animators" characters, who befriend Julie during her journey. (Photo: Cirque du Soleil)

Without talented animators, there would be no Disney animation, so paying tribute to animators who worked on classic films like Bambi, Cinderella and Pinocchio was important to Drawn to Life creators. Three male animator characters are based on the "Nine Old Men," animators like Marc Davis and Les Clark who worked closely with Walt Disney, while one female pays tribute to Mary Blair, an artist who produced art for films like Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan.

These characters befriend Julie early in the show and guide her through the principles of animation while helping her complete a drawing left behind by Julie's dead father.

In addition to bringing friendship and guidance to Julie, the animators offer a bit of humor and fun throughout
In addition to bringing friendship and guidance to Julie, the animators offer a bit of humor and fun throughout "Drawn to Life." (Photo: Cirque du Soleil)

2. Pencil test art

Through pencil test art, animators make rough sketches of their characters to check how their animation is working before moving on to the next step of production. In Drawn to Life, Disney animation enthusiasts will enjoy viewing numerous pencil test drawings from classic Disney films throughout the performance.

Animator Marc Davis' 1947 pencil test of Cinderella can be seen during the show's
Animator Marc Davis' 1947 pencil test of Cinderella can be seen during the show's"aerial pencil" performance. (Photo: Cirque du Soleil)

While Cirque performers are always on the move, don't miss the chance to view pencil test drawings in the background like Marc Davis' original sketches of Cinderella, Glen Keane's drawings of Tarzan, Eric Goldberg's sketches of Genie from Aladdin and more.

3. The "aerial pencil"

Showing the inspiration that takes place when an animator begins to sketch, the show's "aerial pencil" routine features an acrobat guiding an aerial pole stylized as a giant pencil across the stage before taking to the air to perform soaring stunts high above the stage.

Michel Laprise is the writer and show director of Drawn to Life, and calls the symbolic act "a real achievement," saying it's one of his favorite parts of the show because it conveys what happens in an animator's imagination as they create.

Among Disney animation pencil sketches, the
Among Disney animation pencil sketches, the "aerial pencil" performer shows the emotion and inspiration felt by an animator as they see their creations begin to take shape. (Photo: Cirque du Soleil)

"It's very lyrical, it's daring, it's risk-taking and it's beautiful," says Laprise, "but at the same time, it's done in a context where you understand the reunion with all those pencil tests that are speaking to each other. It's a dialogue between the performers and the legacy of all that beautiful animation ... that act for me is the symbol of the perfect blend of so many things together creating an emotion for our audience."

4. Elastic bands

Disney animation lore says in the early days of Walt Disney Animation, animators would have rubber band fights, flinging elastic bands at one another so often that the bands would become stuck in the ceiling.

Gymnasts attached to rubber bands spring from a teeterboard to pay tribute to Disney animators' love of a good rubber band fight. (Photo: Cirque du Soleil)
Gymnasts attached to rubber bands spring from a teeterboard to pay tribute to Disney animators' love of a good rubber band fight. (Photo: Cirque du Soleil)

To pay tribute to both the animators' silly game and the squash-and-stretch principle of animation, a method of drawing animated characters in both squashed and stretched poses to help imagine how they'd move, Cirque gymnasts spring playfully from teeterboards in red rubber band-inspired outfits.

5. Swinging princesses

The stars of Drawn to Life's finale are Cirque du Soleil's first-ever all-female swing act: Russian acrobats who take fight between two pendulum-like swings performing flips and turns mid-air. The act comes at the perfect time, after Julie has learned about animation and completed her father's drawing.

And, to celebrate Julie's new sense of female empowerment, the act also gives a nod to nine Disney princesses and a few other heroic females from Disney animation. Shadows of Anna, Elsa, Belle, Mulan, Alice, Judy Hopps from Zootopia, Jasmin, Rapunzel, Ariel, Raya, Moana, Vanellope Von Schweetz from Wreck-It-Ralph and Go-Go Tamago from Big Hero 6 appear above the act, which Becker says "demands so much courage" from its performers.

The
The "Swing to Swing" act in "Drawn to Life" represents female empowerment in Disney animation and features a special nod to princesses like Ariel, Jasmin and Moana. (Photo: Cirque du Soleil)

"It's one of the most dangerous disciplines in acrobatics," he says. "It was super difficult and they've blossomed and kept working."

6. The "plausible impossible"

The concept of the "plausible impossible," a phrase coined by Walt Disney himself, shines through in an act where Julie remembers her parents dancing together as performers complete a hand-to-hand acrobatic dance. Julie envisions her mom and dad dancing like a prince and princess, and the couple is joined by iconic pairs like Belle and the Beast and Tiana and Prince Naveen for a fairy tale dance.

But the act is about more than just bringing beloved Disney characters to the stage.

In a touching hand-to-hand acrobatic dance performance,
In a touching hand-to-hand acrobatic dance performance, "Drawn to Life" pays tribute to Walt Disney's wish to make the impossible possible through his animation. (Photo: Cirque du Soleil)

"With the 'plausible impossible,' Walt Disney was referring to moments like this," said Laprise. "He tried to explain what animation could do to really make you believe the impossible or at least to let go of that edge of doubt and say, 'I'd like to believe that this is actually possible but my brain knows it's impossible.'"

"[The act] makes the impossible possible in the same way the animators do," Becker adds. "With animation, it's possible to do unrealistic things, and that's the magic effect we wanted to create with this show."