In 2015 I made a very simple New Year’s Resolution. To watch every single Disney animated feature film in chronological order. That’s 54 films starting at Snow White and ending with Big Hero 6. Now if I had been a little stricter it would have been nearly one movie a week. This did not happen. In the end I ended up having more than a few double features.
The reason why I did this comes in two. Disney is by far one of the most influential studios in Hollywood, especially when it comes to animation. Not only that but Disney now serves as an umbrella that covers multiple different empires including and beyond Hollywood. So, I wanted to see just how far Disney has come with the films that got it all started.
Secondly, these films are a part of not only my own childhood but our cultures “childhood” at large. Some of these films I hadn’t seen in years and I wanted to see how well they still hold up. The short answer, you’d be surprised.
I’ll take you on my journey and the observations I made as I relived a vital part of my childhood. I’ll be separating the Disney filmography with my own divisions and disregarding other divisions such as The Golden Age.
The first section is what I’d like to call The Storybook Period. With Snow White (1937) on one end and Sleeping Beauty (1959) on the other. My reasoning comes from both the types of stories being told as well as the animation style. The stories were that of fairy tales, children’s books, and brightly colored musicals. The animation style was very bright and clean. Smooth edges and simple color palettes were everywhere.
What really stuck out to me is just how poorly these films had aged. Sure, they might still be classics but classics from a different era. This mostly comes in with its jarring and clear pictures of racism. The crows from Dumbo, “Why is the Red Man Red” song from Peter Pan, and the now missing black centaur from Fantasia. It’s these moments that really make you take a step back and you realize just how much things have changed. This would best be demonstrated in Song of the South which is the only film I was not able to watch since Disney has done it’s best to strike it from the planet. It’s that bad.
A big reason I call this The Storybook Period, largely has to do with the story style. The stories are simple and often of the more fairy tale variety. You have a villain and a hero with very little motivation for either to be so. Not only that but these stories generally don’t reflect our world much at all and end up being pretty hard to relate to.
Beyond the simple story structure, racist overtones, and animation style, this era does happen to be a great era for experimentation. Walt Disney began the tradition of experimenting with different styles and techniques to achieve different effects in his films. A tradition very much alive today, now with more computers and fancy programs.
This idea of pushing and trying new things is probably best encapsulated by Fantasia and the series of musicals in this era (The Three Caballeros, Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, Melody Time). If you don’t remember any of those four films, I wouldn’t blame you. They’re basically just a series of shorts or musical numbers that aren’t really connected, with the exception of The Three Caballeros. Watching these films, it definitely seems like they were trying different things and seeing what worked. Each film had different animation styles, aesthetics, and even effects. Each one was like a petri dish of animation to see what works.
If I were to choose two films that encapsulated this era, it would be Dumbo and Fantasia. Fantasia while kind of hard to get through, has some truly great set pieces that have, at the time, ground breaking effects. Dumbo, out of all these films, still holds up pretty well. Besides the crows of course. The animation style reflects the majority of the other films and the story itself has some emotional hills and valleys equivalent with today’s films. I still haven’t fully recovered from the scene of Dumbo’s mom cradling Dumbo through the bars of her cage.
I also want to take a moment and give a shout out to Timothy Q. Mouse from Dumbo, a better Jiminy Cricket then the bug himself. Timothy actually sets out to help Dumbo purely out of compassion and never abandon’s him. He’s a true friend and mentor to Dumbo who is a special addition to the film. I would even go as far to say he might be the best Disney sidekick. Period.
This next grouping of films is what I like to call Disney’s Blue Period. The reasoning here is that the films from One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) to Oliver & Company (1988) are on average darker than what we’ve seen previously. This is seen in the same two aspects from the Storybook Period, animation aesthetic and story. Previously every film had bright colors, clean edges, dealt with fantasy, and were all around just brighter. Now we had much darker color palettes at play with rougher, almost sketch-like quality lines, and we largely step out of fantasy and into the real world.
Starting with the animation style, things had a very different and distinct aesthetic. While before Disney pursued realism, even tracing over live-action models, Disney films now developed their own unique aesthetics. However, just about each film had a distinct roughness to it. As if they didn’t go through the standard clean-up process and instead skipped it. In reality, Sleeping Beauty has a very similar aesthetic. I don’t include it the Blue Period because it’s story structure and elements resemble more closely those of the Storybook Period.
In the Blue Period, the stories took a very real turn. We no longer had evil step-mothers and witches as our enemies. Instead we saw fashion moguls (One Hundred and One Dalmatians), spurned butlers (The Aristocats), trigger happy neighbors (The Fox and the Hound), and kidnapping treasure hunters (The Rescuers). We still had our trips into fantasy (The Sword in the Stone, Robin Hood, The Black Cauldron) but largely we were in a world that was more similar to our own.
The point I’m attempting to make is we started to see more villains and stories more relatable than a fairy tale. We’ve all had that boss we thought was the devil, the angry neighbor, or heard stories on the news about mobsters and kidnappers. These were villains from our world recreated as cartoon caricatures. What also needs to be recognized in this period is some of the most hear-wrenching losses in all of animation. Whether it’s The Fox and the Hound or The Black Cauldron, we began to see true loss. Not the falling under a sleeping spell kind. The kind where characters sacrifice themselves for their friends to demonstrate the purest form of love.
This was my biggest takeaway from this period. We saw beloved characters give-up their life for their friends. While they always come back in the end, it’s never presented that way. It’s always a final sacrifice. For me, the two most hear-wrenching sacrifices are Baloo (The Jungle Book) and Gurgi (The Black Cauldron). It’s a combination of their willingness to die in the aid of their friends and how these scenes were drawn. When you watch them again you forget for a second that this is supposed to be for children. This idea of loss isn’t only relegated to life. It could be a friendship (The Fox and the Hound) or the characters own personal safety (The Rescuers). Loss is a big idea in this period that’s put front center.
One more thought, I’m not sure where The Black Cauldron came from. Sure it’s a pretty prolific book but it is vastly different from anything Disney has done or will probably ever do. It can best be represented by the films villain. An undead sorcerer with an army of demons who is attempting to raise an army of the undead to enslave the world. Who also happens to be voiced by John Hurt.
Now we enter into what’s most commonly referred to as the Disney Renaissance period. I like to call it the Glen Keane Period. This period includes every film from The Little Mermaid (1989) to Tarzan (1999). I call it the Glen Keane Period because Glen Keane was one of the head animators at the time and heavily influenced the designs of the characters from this period. This style is a big part of what sets this period apart.
During this time we get a throwback to the Storybook period. We return to the realm of fantasy stories of princes and princesses. However, these story structures are also applied to different kinds of settings and characters. During this period we go to Africa, France, Australia, China, and oh so many more. It also is a switch to have the princesses to have a little more agency in their own stories. The most notable would be Mulan, who pretends to be a man to save her father and ends up saving China. There is a little more to the story but if you need to be filled in, do yourself a favor and watch the movie.
What’s also important to note is the music during this period. In fact, this is probably the most notable aspect of this period. Music had always been a big part of Disney movies but here, each movie gained its own unique musical style and Disney solidified a winning strategy for a solid decade. Personally, I think the music of this period can best be exemplified by Hercules (1997). I am a little bias seeing as it is my favorite Disney film. However, putting that aside, I still think Hercules makes a strong case.
You have a distinct gospel style which sets apart each song. Not only that but this culture clash between gospel and ancient Greece helps to set the film apart as a whole. Like most other films in this period each informs the audience and propels the plot. This interaction between music and story is more direct than has previously been seen in past movies. In the past, we’d get some song that while captured the mood didn’t have much to do with the actual story. Or it would be a short little musical stanza rather than a full blown musical number.
I also need to mention that I almost called this set the Villain’s Period. After all, in each movie we were given a clear villain that had reasons for their villainy besides just being arbitrarily evil. What’s especially entertaining, is as you get older these villains actually gain more depth. Scar from Lion King (1994) was second his entire life and wanted to be king. Ursula from The Little Mermaid was obviously banished by Triton for some unknown reason and seeks her revenge. Gaston from Beauty and the Beast (1991) while superficially shallow also shows the importance of standing up and speaking the truth in the face of false accusation.
Not too mention each villain got their own songs. Each of which are some of the best out of each film. This focus on more complex villains lays the groundwork for the current period we’re in. However, we need to drudge through some mud first before the final period.
This next period is hard to classify. While at the time, it seemed Disney was on a downhill spiral after massive success in the 90’s. Consequently, this is right when Pixar was soaring with hit after hit. The reason this period is hard to classify is while it was largely a financial failure, creatively they had some of their most unique ideas. Many of which are still fondly remembered and have aged extremely well. That’s why I call this period the Meh Period. Including everything from Fantasia 2000 (2000) to Meet the Robinsons (2007). While there are a few gems, no film was as successful compared to their 90’s predecessor’s.
First, I want clarify what I mean by financial failure. Most films in this period made at least 250 million at the box office. At first it doesn’t seem too bad. However, when you look a little closer things get interesting. Let’s take the best from the Meh Period and the worst from the Glen Keane Period. Dinosaur made 349 million at the box office on a 127.5 million dollar budget. Hercules made 252 million on an 85 million dollar budget. A small note, I used the best and worst that also had info about their production budgets. Not taking into account marketing costs which can get pretty steep, Dinosaur made a total of 221.5 million while Hercules made 167 million. That’s a margin of 54.5 million. The best Disney could do during the Meh Period was only 54.5 million more than the worst from the Glen Keane Period.
Trust me it only gets worse when you look at how well every other film did in the Glen Keane Period. There are a couple reasons why I believe this was a dark period for Disney Animation. First and foremost, Disney as a company was in a painful transition. There were a lot of internal power struggles occurring mostly involving Michael Eisner, the predecessor to Bob Iger the current CEO. These struggles had ripple effects that affected the company as a whole. If you want more information I’d suggest reading Disney War. On top of these internal struggles, Disney Animation made an abrupt departure from their musical centric stories and transitioned hard into more action-adventure fare. Plus, they had some growing pains when transitioning to CGI.
All in all, things were a mess. Their cookie cutter formula got turned on its head and it didn’t look like things were going to turn around. That is until Disney bought Pixar. Up until this point, Disney was the distributor for Pixar. Pixar had been owned largely by Steve Jobs and he was the one that made sure when Disney bought Pixar, Disney laid down some serious cash. At 7.4 billion dollars, Bob Iger was able to acquire Pixar. That’s nearly as much as they paid for Marvel and Lucasfilm combined.
Like I said, this period is all over the place. At best, you’ll have a film you remember being much better watching as a kid. The three exceptions to the rule I would say are Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), Lilo & Stitch (2002), and Treasure Planet (2002). An argument could be made for The Emperor’s New Groove (2000) since it’s easily the funniest movie in the period and many others. However, it’s just not quite as emotionally deep as the other three.
These three highlights hold-up extremely well and are nearly as good as I remember them. They blend humor, action, and genuine emotion effortlessly. I would also nominate any three of these as Disney’s next live-action adaptations. It’s also important to note that the voice cast for Treasure Planet and Atlantis is made up of some of the most popular actors that have surged in popularity since then.
I would say the best of this period is Lilo & Stitch. From it’s portrayal of it’s sister leads to the true emotional weight that the films story has. It could easily hold its own with today’s animated films with just a few tweaks here and there.
This Pixar acquisition in 2006 kickstarts our next period, and we’ll call it just that. The Pixar Period starts with Bolt (2008) and goes through till today. A couple things happened when Pixar officially became a part of the Disney family. The first was John Lasseter and Ed Catmull became heads of Disney Animation as well as Pixar. In 2006, Disney was still early in their development of Bolt. As the story goes, they ended up doing a lot of story reworking and organization restructuring. Which apparently did the trick. While Bolt wasn’t a resound success it didn’t do half bad at the box office and scored pretty well with critics. Then we got Tangled (2010). A throwback to the Glen Keane Period if there was one and the first huge success at the box office. After that it’s been hit, after hit, after hit.
In many ways, the defining features of this period are still being defined. What is definitely most evident, is the villains are now more complicated and traditional conventions are being flipped. You don’t have to look further than Frozen (2014) or Big Hero 6 (2104) to see that. Since these features are still being developed, let me tell you what I hope to see.
I want villains that are empathetic. Take Robert Callaghan, the villain of Big Hero 6. After losing his daughter to an experiment gone wrong, Callaghan sets out to make the ones responsible pay. Frankly, Callaghan is almost a hero instead of a villain. The only reason he lands on the villain side of the line is because he is willing to endanger innocent people to get his revenge. If I had it my way, we would be able to not only clearly understand the villains motivations but even empathize with them.
Disney needs to go where it hasn’t gone before. Largely when Disney does a fairy tale musical, which is easily their staple film, they tend to go for germanic or euro-centric fairy tales. There’s a whole world out there filled with vibrant cultures who each have their own stories. By exploring those stories not only do they go into uncharted territory but they help to solve the diversity problem currently taking up headlines in Hollywood. And if Moana (2016) is any indication, we will be getting plenty more.
Lastly, I want Disney to do more sci-fi/action-adventure. They’ve already been exploring that with Wreck-it Ralph (2012) and Big Hero 6 (2014). But I want them to explore it even more and put out movies like Treasure Planet (2002) and Atlantis (2001). Sure, these may not have been their biggest successes but they are some of the most rich worlds they have ever made. I’ve written before about how Pixar aren’t the best world builders, but maybe with Disney they could come up with something really special.
Congratulations! You read through this incredibly long post that has little impact on the world! In all seriousness though, this was a very interesting experience. By watching all these movies in chronological order, you can clearly see the development. Where they tried new things, where those things failed, and where they succeeded. I liked it so much I decided to do something similar this year.
Instead of Disney I will be going through the filmographies of Studio Ghibli and Pixar. That’s just over 30 films and they are two of most influential animation studios in the world. So, I’d like to see what they’ve got. Until next time!