Like a lot of us right now, I was frazzled and bored and fed up with TV the night I clicked on Zenimation, a series of shorts that launched on Disney+ over the long Memorial Day weekend. My mind was open; it was also skeptical. There was no original animation to be found in the series; this was simply snack-sized chunks of Disney animation from across the years, arranged thematically into 10 episodes of around five minutes each. How could that not come across like a greatest hits compilation at best, and a 50-minute trailer at worst?
Yet once I’d blasted through the first three episodes, simply titled “Water,” “Cityscapes,” and “Discovery,” I found a level of peace and calm I haven’t felt since the coronavirus pandemic began. And that’s coming from someone who has been meditating more than normal since quarantine began, even running a global meditation contest over Zoom.
What had Disney wrought that regular mindfulness practice couldn’t?
The key to Zenimation is in its minimalist approach. Firstly, none of the scenes have dialogue. Secondly, all the music has been removed. I love me some Disney music, but it is an overused emotional hammer, bashing you over the head and telling you what to feel in any scene.
Without the orchestra, without the talking, without any plot to concentrate on, you are left with a direct, unmediated experience of some of the best art and sound effects in the history of cinema. If you don’t feel your blood pressure drop during the “Serenity” episode, check your pulse.
Some reviews have pigeon-holed Zenimation as an ASMR-lover’s dream — and if whispering wind noises and splooshing waves are what make your scalp tingle, they might be right. But that’s only part of what’s going on here, aurally. All that incredibly detailed foley work, no longer drowned out, comes to the fore and immerses you in the scene. Bright young rabbit Judy Hops from Zootopia emerges from the train station into the big city for the first time, and you want to tell her: Take out your earbuds! Listen to the beautiful urban cacophony all around you!
If there’s a downside to Zenimation, it’s that it’s too damn short with too much packed in. You’ve hardly started luxuriating in the sound and vision of Agrabah (from Aladdin) when whoosh, it’s off to San Fransokyo (from Big Hero 6). But the edits are (mostly) smooth, transporting you from, say, the robot Baymax raising his hand in greeting to Tarzan touching hands with Jane. (Turns out there’s beautiful imagery to be mined even in the forgettable fare from Disney’s turn-of-the-century dry patch, like Tarzan and Atlantis and Brother Bear.)
Not needing to know the names of characters or their situations is, in this time when we’re all a little distracted, a beautiful bonus. Only once does the content stray into spoiler territory: I can’t believe they just went and showed Moana putting the [SPOILER] in [SPOILER], thus reviving [SPOILER] at the end of the movie.
Its fast-cutting nature may at least help parents convince their kids that Zenimation is something the whole family can watch together. If you’re particularly concerned that your kids might not have the attention span to sit still for 5 minutes of wordless, plot-free Disney art, start with the “Flight” episode, which is easily the fastest-moving. (The Aladdin magic carpet chase sequence is perhaps a bit too thrilling for the purpose; you’re not going to lower your blood pressure during that.)
Tell the whole frazzled family that the game is to name each movie in their head and see how many they can remember afterwards, and you too can have a collective lockdown moment of Zen — the ultimate antidote to almost everything else on TV right now.
Zenimation is now streaming on Disney+.