This post is very long, but it gives an introduction to a project I will be doing on this blog, and gives an overview of what exactly is happening.
Inspired by a recent trip to Disneyland, I have decided to watch through each Disney film. At least, each “canonical” film by the studio that is today referred to as Walt Disney Animation Studios, but has most recently also gone by Walt Disney Feature Animation. The same studio that started with Snow White won yet another Oscar with Moana in 2017. Essentially, any “classic” Disney movie, obviously excluding Pixar films and any other animated movies people mistakenly credit to Disney. I almost had an aneurysm once when somebody listed their favorite Disney film as Anastasia.
There is a ton of Disney stuff out there that I’m ignoring. Live-action movies, short films, direct to video sequels, weird TV stuff that is impossible to find. Instead, I am simply watching each mainline, feature-length film, giving a summary/review, and a letter grade.
There are several distinct eras in Disney animation that mostly go by decade. I will name and describe each era, because where the studio was at the time has a large impact on the films themselves. There will be a detailed review on each film as I watch them, but to start, an (extremely long) outline.
Introduction and the Golden Age: 1937-1942
The Golden Age of Disney animation was an unprecedented time in American cinema. Hollywood had just finished its transition out of the silent era and into the Hays code era. It is no coincidence that the Golden Age at Disney was also the Golden Age everywhere else.
This was the height of the studio system, when movies, both good and bad, were made at an alarming rate. Good films still existed, the 30s gave us It Happened One Night, King Kong, City Lights, and Modern Times, but they were the minority. The fact is, most of the movies pumped out by the studio system are completely forgotten today. Disney did things differently. Working painstakingly on one film at a time, they accomplished the impossible. Five films in as many years, each one remembered fondly by adults and kids alike, 70-some years later.
Disney was laughed at by the industry when he proposed the project that would become Snow White. Cartoons were meant for five minutes before a feature. They were not the feature. Its production was expensive and cumbersome, though did not encounter any major issues.
Snow White was a huge success, and as a result, a follow-up was immediately planned.
Pinocchio was released in 1940, and despite positive reviews, the impact of World War II on international markets, as well as no longer carrying the novelty that had accompanied Snow White, the film bombed. It made back only about a quarter the money that Snow White did, on twice the budget.
Fantasia also failed. Seen as irreverent to the music it used, and due to an unusual release pattern, the film had limited appeal with the audiences that loved Snow White so much.
Disney’s ambition on films two and three had not paid off the way his first film had, and, needing something short and sweet, Dumbo was released in 1941. Dumbo was a smash. It was shorter, simpler, cheaper, and more importantly, more immediately accessible than either Pinocchio or Fantasia.
Trying to recreate the success of Dumbo, Bambi came out in 1942. While also a simple, scaled-back picture that focused on the emotional journey of a protagonist, the film’s more dramatic tone, and lack of fantasy elements caused it to be viewed much more negatively than Dumbo, and it failed, yet again, to recoup its budget.
With three of the first five animated films being failures, Disney suspended feature animation. Putting on hold the in-production films until after the War, Disney focused on developing propaganda for the government. It feels dirty to type that sentence, but the government liked Walt, and perceived him as being trustworthy to the public, so they enlisted his services. Still wanting to release animated features for the general public, Disney had to get creative.
World War II — The Package Films, 1942-1949
Saludos Amigos, 1942
The Three Caballeros, 1944
Make Mine Music, 1946
Fun and Fancy Free, 1947
Melody Time, 1948
The War brought a lot of complications to many studios, not just Disney. Not only were there limited resources, but also limited available staff, as many of the staff was drafted into the armed forces. Disney had made a series of Latin American short films after a “good will” visit to South America, and decided to compile them into a feature, Saludos Amigos. The relative success (and low budget) inspired another South American-inspired film in The Three Caballeros. The concept is identical: throw Donald Duck in some shorts, make some without Donald, wrap them with story scenes that make absolutely no sense, and make money because the cost is, essentially, nothing.
This would become the depressing template Disney followed for its next four features. The “Package films” were easier on the studio as they only had to focus on shorter, simpler sequences and could take advantage of the studio’s limited resources while still turning out full-length feature films. While the rest are certainly better than Amigos, and Caballeros, they are still each a series of unrelated short films, and while there are interesting bits in each of these films, none of them come too close to the five brilliant pictures that were the Golden Age.
There are three distinct pairs in this era. Saludos Amigos and Three Caballeros were both made as goodwill projects that were the result of Disney’s trip to South America. They were made to reinforce Brazil and other Latin countries as friendly to America during the war, and were both collections of short films of varying quality.
Melody Time and Make Mine Music were both, essentially, pop versions of Fantasia. Shorter projects, (each film is 75 minutes) and with less elaborate, cheaper-to-produce animation, the films each contained several segments with popular music accompanying each short film. These follow the same template, but are more ambitious, and better, than the two preceding Latin-themed features.
Fun and Fancy Free and Ichabod and Mr. Toad are unique in that they both house two 30-minute mini-features. Walt Disney had been trying to produce The Wind in the Willows for years as a full-length feature, and it never materialized. The same thing happened with Sleepy Hollow, and eventually, the two were joined into Ichabod and Mr. Toad, a two-part feature with two excellent segments. Fun and Fancy Free had a similar origin, combining two prospective full-length films, into a compilation of two shorts.
Disney’s animation department survived, barely, the financial worry of World War II. They stayed afloat with these pieced-together, somewhat inconsistent package films which, granted, got much better as the decade went on. However, the true full-length story would not make a return until 1950.
Silver Age, the Resurgence of the full-length Disney Picture, 1950-1960
Alice in Wonderland, 1951
Peter Pan, 1953
Lady and the Tramp, 1955
Sleeping Beauty, 1959
The studio took a bit of time after the war ended to find enough staff, and enough money to make a true feature again, as they were only barely kept alive through the 40s with the package films.
Sinking $3 million into its new picture Cinderella, Disney was gambling his entire company on the success of a new princess picture. There were several ideas that were kicking around the studio, but Walt insisted that they go with emulating their first, and most successful picture, Snow White. This, shockingly, was only the second princess film and if it was not successful, then the company would likely go through significant downsizing, if not bankruptcy. Of course, it was a smash hit.
Alice, Peter Pan, and Lady would respectively go on to be barely, very, and insanely successful, both critically and financially. Lady and the Tramp was Disney’s most successful film since Snow White. It looked like Disney was back for good, and that the patchwork on-and-off success of the 40s was long gone.
Sleeping Beauty was an expensive endeavor. Produced in the widest standard aspect ratio of 2.55:1, and released in both 35mm and the elaborate 70mm formats, the movie cost $6 million, double that of Cinderella. Despite being an emulation of Snow White in its structure, the film’s drastically different style, and elaborate release format caused it to fail.
Disney restructured slightly, and the production of Sleeping Beauty was delayed largely due to Walt’s decreased involvement with animated features. He had been focusing on live-action movies and Disneyland, and by the time Beauty flopped, he was not happy.
While Pinocchio and Bambi are fantastic, I generally find the 50s to be just as good as the original five films, and even more consistent. With Cinderella, Lady and the Tramp, Peter Pan, and Sleeping Beauty all being bona fide classics, it is amazing that Disney recovered from the turbulent 1940s so quickly, both artistically, and before Beauty, financially.
The Age of Animals, 1961-1973.
The Sword in the Stone, 1963
The Jungle Book, 1967
The Aristocats, 1970
Robin Hood, 1973
As Walt had been focusing on Disneyland and had purchased the land in Florida to build a “second-happiest place on earth,” he was not very involved in feature animation through the 1950s and early 60s. His disappointment in Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians, and Sword in the Stone (despite the latter two being box-office successes) caused him to take a much more active role in the production of The Jungle Book, overseeing the animation, music and story much more closely than had been done for the preceding decade. Walt Disney died during production of Jungle Book, but it was mostly done by his death.
I call this era the “Age of Animals” because they all feature either animal protagonists, or human protagonists that heavily interact with animals. I don’t know what was going on at Disney at the time, but they were more animal-heavy than ever in this decade-plus.
Phil Harris, the voice of Baloo, would go on to play Thomas O’Malley, a slightly less mangy version of the Tramp. He would also interestingly play Baloo again, but in some clothes, in Robin Hood, whose production budget was so small they reused an entire main character. Baloo and Little John share more than a voice actor, their designs are virtually identical, and several key Little John sequences in Robin Hood are obvious trace-overs from Jungle Book.
Each film in the animal era was quite successful, with Robin Hood being the most successful first-run animated film at the time of its release. Robin Hood may be the weakest feature Disney has put out up to this point, but things are going to get worse before they get better.
Overall, this was a turbulent era, but a successful one. It is also the era Disney started having known talent in its films, with the traditional voice actors being replaced with more known stars and celebrities. This would continue through the present day, sadly, and the result is much more inconsistent voice work from this point forward.
Increasing Inconsistency (1977-1988)
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, 1977
The Rescuers, 1977
The Fox and the Hound, 1981
The Black Cauldron, 1985
The Great Mouse Detective, 1986
Oliver & Company, 1988
Pooh and The Rescuers seemed to bring false hope of an awakening. For the first time since Walt Disney died, they had a legitimate hope in The Rescuers, with some claiming it to be the best film the studio had put out in over a decade.
The relative mediocrity over the entire 1980s, however, seemed to spell doom for feature animation at Disney. With live-action and Disneyland, among other ventures, making so much money for the company, not every film had to be as successful as Robin Hood, but nothing through the 1980s seemed to stick. Between the darker aesthetic of The Black Cauldron, to the star-studded, yet forgettable Oliver & Company, the studio seemed to be grasping at straws.
I mentioned celebrities taking over the traditional voice acting role. It’s worse here. Mickey Rooney is in Fox and the Hound, Billy Joel, Cheech Marin, Bette Midler, and, of all people, Robert Loggia are in Oliver & Company. I’m not inherently against celebrity voice actors by any means. Look at the great work Tom Hanks has done in each Toy Story, or the entire cast of emotions in Inside Out. When you cast for a voice, you must make sure the person you’re casting can voice act, instead of plain act. Pixar has done a much better job than Disney proper has over the years. Disney hasn’t done a horrible job, Bob Newhart is much better in Rescuers than Jay Baruchel is in How to Train Your Dragon, for example, so it’s not like stunt-casting their voice actors has ruined their credibility, but it is still a trend I’d rather not have seen Disney start.
At this point in time, there were major shakeups going on with personnel at Disney. Several star animators had left the company over frustration about stagnation. In response to dissatisfaction, Roy E. Disney, son of Roy O., and nephew of Walt, successfully ousted the chairman of animation and took over on the board of directors. Ron Clements and John Musker, a directing duo that had just wrapped up The Great Mouse Detective, approached Roy Disney with their interest in producing another princess picture, which had not been done since Sleeping Beauty bombed almost 30 years earlier. With the hired help of Little Shop of Horrors songwriting duo Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, the latter of whom also helped write the film’s script, work got started on a long-dormant project that never quite got its feet off the ground, The Little Mermaid.
Disney Renaissance (1989-1999)
The Little Mermaid, 1989
The Rescuers Down Under, 1990
Beauty and the Beast, 1991
The Lion King, 1994
The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1996
Renaissance. It’s a fitting word, really. Looking at the list, there is not a dud in the bunch. The Disney company had finally realized Walt’s original vision of releasing one quality film a year. Outside of the Rescuers Down Under, Disney’s first true sequel, each film was profitable. Beauty and the Beast set a new revenue record for animated films, with its immediate successors, Aladdin and The Lion King, each doing even better.
The Little Mermaid was, of course, a smash hit, due in part to the brilliant music of Alan Menken, and both the story writing and songwriting of his partner, Howard Ashman. Menken and Ashman had worked together on Little Shop of Horrors and had become a well-oiled machine. When Disney approached them to write some music for Mermaid, they chose to tackle it as if it was a Broadway show, and that formula stuck, essentially, until Tarzan, whose songs mostly played as montages and not sung by a character as an organic part of the story.
Despite the success of Disney through the 90s, Jeffrey Katzenberg, head of Feature Animation at the time, and whom Roy Disney viewed as being power-hungry and egomaniacal, was forced to resign, and teamed up with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen to form Dreamworks SKG. Spielberg, Katzenberg, Geffen. Very clever, guys.
Looking at this list of so-called renaissance films, it doesn’t seem like the early 90s films are that much better than in the late 90s, but after Katzenberg’s ousting, the movies did worse and worse. Pocahontas, and Hercules each underperformed relative to the first half of the decade, and by the time Mulan and Tarzan came out, the writing was on the wall that the division would be downsized, or at least, “refocused,” which is Disney speak for “we’re going to retain each of you but for less interesting things, like TV animation or direct-to-video stuff.”
One more thing to note about the decade is the increasing use of CG within the hand-drawn films. Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin feature select scenes with CG camera work that manipulates the hand-drawn elements, but by the time you get to Hunchback, it seems each background was hand-painted and scanned into the computer, allowing gorgeous, virtual camera movement through the beautiful Paris backdrop. It is truly a wonder of animation, and the landscape shots of the city in Hunchback are easily the visual peak of Disney in the 90s. CG would play an even bigger part in Tarzan, though to a much lesser effect.
It seems ironic that the renaissance of Disney animation ended with the release of Fantasia 2000, an unsuccessful, uneven sequel to the original, itself unsuccessful and somewhat uneven. Walt Disney wanted Fantasia to hit theaters each decade, with some new segments, and some old. The idea didn’t come into fruition until 2000, which retains The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and contains seven new pieces. The movie was an expensive endeavor with a somewhat curious release strategy (that goes with the Fantasia territory, I suppose) and seems to have thrown off any momentum Disney had going into the 2000s.
Fantasia 2000, 1999 premiere (Wide release 2000)
The Emperor’s New Groove, 2000
Atlantis: The Lost Empire, 2001
Lilo & Stitch, 2002
Treasure Planet, 2002
Brother Bear, 2003
Home on the Range, 2004
Chicken Little, 2005
In just a bit over half a decade, Disney released an astonishing 9 films into the Walt Disney Feature Animation canon, and oh my gosh, so few of them are any good.
Fantasia is its own beast, and like the rest of the films, will be covered later, but between the troubled production of Emperor’s New Groove (and the fact it stars David Spade) to the overwhelming irritation one feels while watching Home on the Range, it is remarkable to see how quickly the studio was in trouble again after such a successful return in the 90s.
One thing about Dinosaur, there’s not much I can say until we get to the full review, but let me say right here that I am dreading it more than anything. More than Black Cauldron, more than Oliver & Company. I saw it when it first came out, when I was six, and hated it. I hope it is better than I remember, as I hope each of these movies are better than I remember, but we shall see.
While Treasure Planet and Home on the Range were the only two movies in this era that technically lost money, Lilo & Stich was the only true hit, and the only one with any sort of lasting impact. While in Disneyland earlier this year, I can’t tell you how many Stitch hats or Lilo pins I saw, but I can count on zero fingers the amount of Home on the Range or Brother Bear-related products I saw. I guess Emperor’s New Groove got a TV series, and a direct-to-video sequel, but is that a yardstick for success? When Pocahontas got a direct-to-video sequel, Disney proved nothing had to be a hit to be a franchise.
Lilo & Stitch and Treasure Planet are the only films in this era I have any fondness for. Maybe it’s just Spade, but Emperor always gave me a headache. The general failure of each of these 6 years caused some major shakeups at Disney. By the time Home on the Range was finished, the hand-drawn department at Feature Animation was essentially dead. Chicken Little was the first fully computer-animated Disney feature, something that would become the norm from this point forward.
Resurgence, again (2007-present)
Meet the Robinsons, 2007
The Princess and the Frog, 2009
Winnie the Pooh, 2011
Wreck-It Ralph, 2012
Big Hero 6, 2014
Ok, this is more like it. The past ten years has brought us as many films, each of them at least good. Disney got back on track for a few reasons. For one, they purchased Pixar in 2006 and placed Toy Story and A Bug’s Life director John Lasseter in charge of Feature Animation. We now have a true visionary in charge of the studio for the first time since Walt died. Lasseter cancelled many of the company’s “superfluous” projects, such as direct-to-home-video sequels to several films, and helped rework Robinsons and Bolt, both of which were more critically acclaimed than Chicken Little. In addition, Lasseter brought a philosophical change to the company to get refocused on what works: princess films (Frozen, Tangled), super weird films (Big Hero 6, Wreck-It Ralph), and finally, animal features.
Not every film since ’07 has been a classic. Princess and the Frog is all over the place, Bolt relies too heavily on its star power, and Winnie the Pooh is a fun, yet unmemorable rehash of ideas explored in the earlier Pooh cartoons. Still, it is nice to see a sleeker, refocused line of films from the Feature Animation studio, after having been so misguided since Tarzan.
This project will be exhausting, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Many of these movies mean a lot to me, but many of them I have not even seen. I am excited to dig into this catalog of films in a way I never quite have. Snow White is on deck, and I could not be more excited.