Feature-length Disney animated films are a hallmark of cinematic culture, and it is strange to think that they date back to before the beginning of the second world war. As we approach 80 years of animated features from Disney, I find myself looking back at that history and noting the various high-points and missteps in an all-encompassing retrospective of Disney Animation.
This retrospective will seek to organize these films into distinct periods, from the very beginnings up to the present day. Though it is tempting to group the films according to artistic merit and leave it at that, it is much more informative to break them into chronological epochs, as you’ll see. For then, a funny thing happens: the chronological periods act as a stand-in for the artistic verve of the production studio at the time. Thus Disney ebbs and flows through periods of electric activity and also-ran wheel spinning, and it is informative to recognize the varying causes of such a cyclic output in light of where the Studio is today. Originally, this was intended to appear as a single piece, but as it grew it became clear that it would be much more effective broken up into seven pieces representing their respective eras. After all seven are published, I will place them together into a single piece for ease of access.
So, without further adieu, I present The Seven Ages of Disney Animation. Of course, it all begins with . . .
The Age of Innovation (1937 – 1942)
The first Age of Disney I have named “The Age of Innovation” in reference to the immense innovation required of the studio to establish the feature-length animated film. The first ever film of this nature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was completed in 1937, and ushered in a fantastic level of artistic output that, perhaps, has not been equaled in the realm of animation ever since. The Age of Innovation comprises five films: the aforementioned Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and finally Bambi. Each film released during this age is the very definition of a masterpiece. Timeless characters and themes abound, but the focus is definitely on the dynamic of family. Except for Fantasia, which isn’t really a single narrative, the other four stories all heavily involve relationships between parents and children. Admittedly, Snow White is a bit of a stretch in that regard, but there are still family dynamics at play, whether you look at the creation of a new family with the dwarfs, or the conflict from the jealous Queen. Regardless, here we see the establishment of the Disney pathos in its most basic form: stories driven by personal relationship, often relying on the structure of a musical.
These films are all still gorgeous to look at, despite the age of the animation. Snow White in particular can look at little jerky at times, and the voice acting seems to be weirdly mixed by today’s standards, but you have to appreciate that a project of this scope had never been attempted before. You cannot deny the power of particular scenes from this film. The Queen telling her servant to kill Snow White seems entirely out of place by today’s standard of children’s movies, and the scene where Snow White finds herself scared and lost in the woods remains quite chilling and sad. Of course, we would be remiss not to mention the musical numbers, which would become an absolute hallmark of the greatest Disney animated films ever. Looking back, while Snow White may seem incredibly dated from an aesthetic point of view, it nonetheless represent a leap forward in movie-making. As the progenitor of every film we will discuss – plus many fantastic films from other studios which we will not, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs deserves our reverence.
The second film from this age, Pinocchio, is a morality tale with the atmospheric horror of Guilermo Del Toro drawn on animation cels 25 years before Del Toro was even born. It is at once surreal and grounded, dramatizing the struggle for honesty and goodness amid the temptation of fame and vice. The eponymous marionette is given life by the Blue Fairy, and watched after by Jiminy Cricket, although not particularly well. Pinocchio strays from the right path, and finds himself imprisoned by a giant puppetmaster, and then later is whisked away to Pleasure Island where children are turned into donkeys for sale to salt mines and circuses. Metaphors abound in this story, and it is weirdly comfortable with overt sexual innuendo and manipulation of naive children. The finale of the film has Pinocchio attempting to rescue his family from Monstro, a nightmare-inspiring demon whale that makes Moby Dick look like Free Willy. Monstro of course kills Pinocchio (who is found lying face down in a tide pool after the encounter) but the Blue Fairy resurrects him as a real boy. You know, kid’s stuff. What a movie!
The third film of this age, Fantasia, stands out as the only film that does not have a standard narrative structure, instead offering the artists’ interpretations of various classical pieces of music. But despite the lack of an overall story, the film deals with the idea of narrative on a very fundamental level, as the conductor introduces the audience to the different pieces. In fact, it is pointed out that two of the pieces are specifically chosen for their explicit stories: Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (The Centaurs & other Greek Myths), and the iconic The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. In these segments, we get to see some the ways that a composer may seek to tell a distinct story through only music, and though we are aided by the gorgeous animation, the point is deftly made. This is in contrast to some of the other segments, most notably The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinksy, where the music is described as more abstract. It is made clear that what we are seeing is more the artists’ interpretation of the material than the literal intention of the composer. In this sense, Fantasia can be thought of as an instruction manual for the appreciation of classical music: it teaches us about theme, tone, musical composition and structure, and even narrative. It is wholly unlike anything else in the Disney canon (except Fantasia 2000, obviously).
Dumbo follows a blueprint similar to Pinocchio, but is much more focused on the mother-son relationship drama and dispenses somewhat with the overt surrealism (though not completely). At a mere 1 hr 4 minutes long, Dumbo was an attempt to recoup the financial losses of Fantasia through simplicity. Despite its short runtime, Dumbo manages to fit in a harrowing mother-son relationship, an investigation of loneliness and ridicule, and the importance of believing in your own abilities (plus some top-notch drunken hallucinations). While it is occasionally frowned upon for utilizing racial stereotypes in the portrayal of the crow characters, this is merely unfortunate surface-level reasoning. All crows except for the leader are voiced by members of the very popular Hall Johnson Choir, and the crows are portrayed as clever, witty, and sympathetic to Dumbo’s situation (unlike many other characters). Dumbo is not a film to apologize for, and it remains among Disney’s best.
The portrayal of family dynamics and trauma reaches its apex in the narrative of Bambi. There are reasons why the death of Bambi’s mother is still referenced over 70 years later – the scene where Bambi is calling for her, receiving only silence in reply, remains as haunting and sad as ever. It is important to realize how unexpected this plot element actually is, though, as it can be lost on someone not seeing it for the first time. The entirety of the first two acts are fairly playful and joyous. Bambi has his friends, plays around on the ice and in the fields, and generally has a good life. Then, as life so often does, he is completely blindsided, along with the rest of us. If the movie has a weakness, it is that the narrative doesn’t seem to have a particularly powerful place to go after such a devastating conclusion to the second act. The finale of the forest fire and Bambi escaping with his father is certainly entertaining and powerful animation, but we remember the earlier portions of this film more fondly.
It is strange to say this now, but except for Snow White, each of these films was considered a commercial flop during its initial release, but they have received great acclaim since then. These five films all score above 90 on Rotten Tomatoes, with the lowest score of 91 going to Bambi. Pinocchio stands out as the lone perfect score in the whole of the Disney oeuvre, although it is worth remarking that Snow White, Fantasia, and Dumbo each have only a single negative review on the aggregator website (what exactly those reviewers found to complain about, I refuse to investigate). Put simply, these five films are the single strongest run in the entire history of Disney, and possibly in the entire history of cinema. (At least from a single production studio’s output – I believe different arguments could be made if you focused on a five-film run from a director or actor, for instance). It is astounding that they were also the first five films in the studio’s history. There is also a distinct air of maturity to each film, as I have detailed various themes and subject matters which are rarely portrayed in children’s movies anymore (if ever). Simply put, each of these films is a masterpiece; what an incredible introduction to the world of Disney.