When Disney's most recent animated classic, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, was released last summer, I wondered why it appeared that a lot of Disney's animated movies generally are not up to the quality of a lot of the anime that we have seen. One would think that by now, the quality of animation and art would be pretty close, yet they simply are not. Disney's animation often appears to be more simplistic and less detailed compared to most anime. I believe the reason is that Disney has slightly different goals in mind when they create their animated classics and the fact that Disney pretty much has no real competition in the United States.
If you look closely, all of Disney's animated classics tend toward fairy-tale stories such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves or Beauty and the Beast. All of the stories often take place in fantasy worlds that do not really exist. That is why a lot of the art in Disney films have an almost surreal quality to them which gives the audience more of an impression of a far-off place. Anime seems more bent on trying to make it more real to us as if it could actually happen, hence the greater detail in art and often, better animation quality. This is not to say that Disney does not have detailed art. Most of the background artwork is very visually pleasing and has tremendous detail which I feel contrasts with the simple drawings of the characters, thus giving a feel of a fairy-tale atmosphere. Just look at the most recent Disney movie, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The cathedral has tremendous detail that still retains the Gothic and ancient image.
Disney is also trying to appeal to a much younger audience than most anime. Most of Disney's animated films have generally the standard good versus evil, where good triumphs over incredible odds to defeat evil and live happily ever after. For instance, in 101 Dalmatians, the Dalmatians are the good guys triumphing over the evil dog snatchers who plan to turn the dogs into fur coats. Many adult themes exist in anime that make it much more complicated and that also require different outlooks. Like in Nausicaš; there exists an underlining theme of protecting the environment and man's inherent destruction of nature.
Japanese animation and Disney are different in another respect; Disney has no real competition compared to the many animation studios in Japan. Competition has always helped improve the quality of products in the marketplace. Disney has no real pressure to try to do something different in order to attract more people to watch their animated classics. In Japan, there are many studios that produce animated movies, much like non-animated movies here in the United States.
To really compare the two is impossible. Disney has a quality of simplicity compared to anime. This is not to say that I personally dislike Disney films. I still enjoy many of Disney's animated classics like Winnie the Pooh, but after watching a lot of anime, I have to wonder when Disney will start making animated movies or TV series that have much more detailed art with some less generic themes.
[It should be noted that Disney recently acquired the rights to distribute Studio Ghibli's films in the US. For the anime fan, this could mean that Studio Ghibli's next film, Mononoke Hime, could be widely shown in American theaters and that Studio Ghibli's other films, such as Nausicaš, could become easily accessible. -Ed.]