Next up in The Seven Ages of Disney Animation is a proper return-to-form for the animation studio. Where the previous age saw mashed-together package films rule in an effort to curb costs, the introduction of this age is marked by a true masterpiece reminiscent of The Age of Innovation. I speak, of course, of Cinderella, and the birthing of The Golden Age.
The Golden Age (1950 – 1967)
Disney’s return to true features ushered in The Golden Age of Disney Animation, an extended period which saw the production of multiple absolute classics and three bona fide masterpieces. This age is composed of the films Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians, The Sword in the Stone, and The Jungle Book. The three masterpieces, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and 101 Dalmatians will be analyzed individually, but there is much to celebrate from the other films produced during this nearly two decade run of animation.
Our introduction to this age is delivered by Cinderella, the first true feature-length animated film from Disney in eight years. In spirit, this film belongs amid the titans of the Age of Innovation, and it too owns a 97% Rotten Tomatoes score with only a single, confusing blemish. Obviously, Disney has focused on fairy tale adaptations from the beginning, and Cinderella is no different. The film has a vague musical structure and again focused on family dynamics, this time analyzing the plight of an orphaned girl living with her step-family who treat her horribly. Cinderella contains some amazing animation and classic songs, especially the Fairy Godmother’s song. The story itself may appear a little rote nowadays, but it is important to realize that in the context of Disney, this is their first attempt at telling the story of a princess. The narrative is incredibly lean, and even when it spends time on the exploits of the mice, those elements factor prominently into the story later on. After the commercial flops of the Age of Innovation, and the wheel-spinning of The Age of Package Films, Disney was in great financial trouble. Cinderella was the first true commercial success since Snow White, and likely saved the entire studio from bankruptcy – just in case you needed another reason to love this film.
The second masterpiece of this era came from a similar story: Sleeping Beauty, released in 1959. A great deal is shared between this film and Cinderella: both feature female lead characters and villains, there are magical faeries, and the heart of the story hits the familiar princess and prince charming beats. The key to the success of this film, though, lay in the character of Maleficent. From the first moment she is on screen, her presence is always felt. She is intimidating, powerful, and angry, and after her initial curse is pronounced, the entirety of the narrative hinges on it in some way. She hangs like a specter over the whole film, and the full final act deals with her destruction in amazing fashion. To this point, Disney never did particularly well with action, with the possible exception of the Monstro sequence in Pinocchio but the battle between the prince and Dragon Maleficent, eerie with green flames, put an end to that “weakness” for good. Other sequences in the film are incredibly affecting as well, most notably the entire lead-up to the finger prick on the cursed spinning wheel and the woodlands encounter with the prince. That a single animated film can contain distinct sequences of such horror, tension, and gaiety is a testament to the power of Disney during this great era.
The final masterpiece of this age may be surprising, but is completely earned on both artistic and technical merits: 101 Dalmatians. Another member of the “A Single Idiot Gave Me a Bad Review Club”, 101 Dalmations sits at an impressive 98% on the Tomatometer, but is for all intents and purposes a perfect film. Once again the heart of the story involves family, but this time the central characters are the parents Pongo and Purdita as they seek to rescue their fifteen puppies from a kidnapping by the nefarious Cruella de Vil. Without a doubt, Cruella remains one of the most iconic and potent villains in all of Disney. There is a visceral reaction to the realization that her plan is to kill and skin the puppies for their fur, and our guttural response is instant loathing. The story itself is both warm and charming and contains multiple instances of support from the community (the Twilight Bark which locates the puppies, and then the barnyard which houses and feeds them on the return journey).
The film is also notable or its technical achievements. Through a new process involving Xerox cameras, the animators were able to photocopy hand-drawings onto the animation cels, reportedly halving the cost of this gorgeously drawn film. The background drawings and overall aesthetic is also worth noting, as it was a departure from the fantasy-centered style of the previous films. Perhaps this is due to the more real-world subject of dogs and humans (as opposed to faeries and dragons), but the settings also appear more photo-realistic. Disney reportedly was annoyed by this direction, feeling that it robbed his films of their otherworldly mystique, but he eventually came around and realized that it was appropriate for these stories which were based more in reality. It is impossible to watch this film without becoming enamored with its cleverness and heart, and it certainly earns its place among the masterpieces of this age with its technical innovations, iconic villain, and fabulous story.
The remainder of the films in this period are definitely strong as well, but they do not ascend to the heights of the aforementioned pieces for various reasons. I have to admit, perhaps I am less forgiving of the embarrassing racist elements of Peter Pan than I should be, but I really feel like the sequence at the Indian camp adds nothing to the narrative and is a true misstep that mars an otherwise fine but unspectacular film. Alice in Wonderland is definitely a fun adventure, but upon analysis of its actual narrative there is much to be desired. Set aside the “it was all a dream” ending, frustrating as that is, and you still have a film with a whiny protagonist wandering from setpiece to setpiece – some of which hit, and some of which do not. The Walrus and the Carpenter segment is undoubtedly strong, but it has nothing to do with the story other than offering a moral of “think for yourself” which really doesn’t figure much into the overall story. What results is a mishmash of pieces, some of which are iconic and memorable, but when put together, suffer for their disjointedness. A similar issue can be raised with The Sword in the Stone. This film has a very episodic feel to it as well, as it nearly abandons the standard three act structure in favor of vignettes where our main character is transfigured into different creatures. That being said – I still love the wizards’ duel, but it is not enough to propel the film to masterpiece status, nor rescue it from its lack of forward momentum.
Finally, the two films which may stake claim to masterpiece status are Lady and the Tramp and The Jungle Book, but I feel as though they fall a little short of that mantle. It is a testament to the strength of Disney that films of this caliber are unable to crack the top three of this period, but that seems to be the case. Both have incredibly memorable sequences, especially the musical numbers, and actually weave an intriguing and fresh story. There are elements of dread and horror in both, and at their heart they attempt to tell the story of finding one’s place in a larger world – Lady struggles to understand where she fits after her master has a baby and she falls for the Tramp, and Mowgli must learn that his place is not among the animals of the jungle. But ultimately they are marred by slight missteps in either tone or narrative structure that detract from the overall story. The Jungle Book seems to meander through the second act, content with merely having some fun musical numbers (and they are fun – but do they really add to the story?). For its part, perhaps Lady and the Tramp is just too on-the-nose with its iconic sentimentality, and as a result feels less genuine than the similarly-themed 101 Dalmations, but I will admit that the film evaluates class structures and sexuality in a more complete and mature way than something like Titanic – so maybe it also deserves Masterpiece status. On the other hand, it is slightly marred by a needlessly stereotypical musical number, much like Peter Pan. We are nit-picking a bit here, but given the quality of this cohort of films, we have to.
The Golden Age of Disney was the longest sustained period of unmitigated success in the history of Disney animation. There were certainly weaker offerings, but it is remarkable think that the closest thing to a failure for nearly two decades was Peter Pan and The Sword in the Stone. This period of triumph reminded audiences that the magic from Disney’s first decade was not dead, but merely forced to go dormant during World War II. However, The Jungle Book would be the last animated feature which Walt Disney himself directly oversaw before his death, and the next period would be the first where Disney animation lost its way and seriously faltered.
Stay tuned for Part IV: The First Age of Inconsistency, and please like this post and comment below!