It has long been a complaint that we are relying on dialogue too much instead of good acting in modern animation. Since animation is a visual medium it makes sense to try and make everything understandable even if you strip the soundtrack off.
The use of symbolism is probably a carry-over from the days of silent cinema where everything had to be communicated visually but it does have the advantage of super-charging a scene by loading it with layers of information.
Certain types of film lend themselves better for the use of symbolic imagery such as the Musical and the Fairytale because they are already stylized and more fanciful in the storytelling right from the beginning.
Symbolism in animation began with animation itself and one of the best examples is Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” The queens casting of spells to make a disguise and poisoned apple use symbolism to load the imagery in a powerful way that go beyond dialogue with a universal visual language everyone can understand. As the queen makes her potion each phrase she speaks is illustrated to heighten the impact: To shroud my clothes, the black of night- A drop falls into the potion and spreads changing the liquid to black. To age my voice, an old hag's cackle.-A bubbling cackling fluid drops into the potion with each drop making a cackling laugh. To whiten my hair, a scream of fright-. A drop of something explodes with a jet of steam forming into a shrieking face! Later as the queen now in old peddler disguise makes the poison apple she dips it into a solution and as she pulls it out the mixture runs off the apple forming a skull that sinks into the apple turning it a beautiful red.
There are many fine moments of symbolism in the Disney canon of films. Although fairly naturalistic in it’s depiction of forest life Bambi takes a surprising visual change with the appearance of the love interest Faline. Bambi is love struck and literally starts floating on a cloud. The landscape transforms into a dreamy cotton candy cloudscape as Bambi leaps effortlessly in bliss. This is suddenly broken by the intrusion of a rival and a battle ensures casting the stags in silhouette as the backgrounds become almost solid colors. The change in mood and color bring an impact that works on a psychological level.
“The Little Mermaid” has some great uses of symbolism where Ursula commands Arial to sing while smoky tentacle hands steal her ‘voice’.
The writhing nude female figures made of fire held in the mighty devils hands from “Fanstasia” are a great depiction of souls lost to sexual sin and temptation. This was used again as fireplace flames form the alluring dancing figures that reflect the tortured thoughts of Frolo lusting for Esmeralda in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. In the same scene Frolos guilt caused shadows to grow into accusatory figures that tower in judgment of him pictorially showing us the inner conflict he is wrestling with.
Who can forget Dumbos drunken ‘pink elephant’ nightmare? It became a highlight of the movie and a delightful way of getting a baby elephant up a tree.
My hope is that more applications of this kind of visual storytelling can be found that feel organic to the story and would replace or complement dialogue. When done right they are the moments you remember for a lifetime.