Part I: The Age of Innovation
For Part II of The Seven Ages of Disney Animation, we enter a very peculiar time. As World War II raged, Walt Disney found that producing full-length films with meager staff and capital was nearly impossible. Instead, he chose to produce six “package films” to keep the studio afloat during this tumultuous time in history.
The Age of Package Films (1942 – 1949)
The second age of Disney animation is the Age of Package Films. Six films were produced in this Age: Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros, Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, Melody Time, and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. For various reasons, and perhaps spurned on by the success of Fantasia, Disney abandoned single-narrative films for the remainder of the 1940s, instead focusing on films which weaved multiple distinct narratives around some unifying material. The major factor in this shift was the entry of the United States into World War II. As many of Disney’s employees were drafted into the war or conscripted into producing animated inserts for government training films or short animated propaganda films, it became difficult to complete a feature-length story. So, in an effort to keep the lights on, Disney produced these films instead. In retrospect, these films all enjoy a moderate amount of critical appraisal, but individual segments are obviously of varying strength.
Unfortunately, due to the differing lengths and structures, these films are difficult to view as anything but awkward, mashed-together pieces, like an extra-long episode of Merrie Melodies or Looney Toons. For example, while the first film Saludos Amigos, contains three fairly lengthy segments and Fun and Fancy Free and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad contain only two, Melody Time has seven, and Make Mine Music is made of ten! Of course, some of the individual segments are worthwhile, in particular Mickey and the Beanstalk from Fun and Fancy Free. Both halves of the final movie in this run are fairly strong as well – especially the Ichabod Crane section with its jazzy musical numbers and the narration of Bing Crosby.
Ultimately, one looks back on this period as one of necessity amid tumult. These kinds of films were just the best that could be done with the man hours and talent on hand, as much of it had been sapped by the war effort. Hence, Disney circled the wagons for eight years and produced reasonable, short, and sometimes forgettable pieces that got packaged together into “cohesive” stories. Technically, the animation on many of these pieces was unrivaled at the time, and you can see the improvement in the artistic abilities and styles of the animators – they just weren’t at the service of a more complete, cohesive story. Given the circumstances that the entire country was forced to deal with during this time, Disney’s output should be viewed positively, if severely flawed. This should not be taken as an endorsement of the entirety of Disney’s output during this time, as some of the aforementioned propaganda films are horribly fascinating pieces straight out of a time capsule. But, if you relegate yourself to the “feature films” during this Age, you’ll likely find at least something to enjoy.