Disney has produced 52 fully animated features over the span of 75 years. It is the longest running, most loved brands in the medium of film. These movies have ranged in story, audience and style. It is really fascinating to examine.
The Original Masterpieces (1937-1942)
There is a popular misconception that all Disney animated features are more or less the same. This is easily disproved by the studio’s earliest efforts: Snow White (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942). In these five movies Disney created a traditional fairy tale, an episodic morality tale, an experimental concert, a simple children’s story and a coming of age saga. The characters are all different, the settings are different and even the target audiences seem different. While these are all children’s classics that most everybody grew up with they do not pull any punches. Snow White’s scary woods, the transformation of the queen, the dark implications of Pinocchio’s perils, Dumbo’s separation from his mother and the death of Bambi’s mom remain some of cinema’s most frightening and emotional. The most remarkable thing about these movies is that they were created by artists who had no experience in feature films. These were grand experiments that were enormous risks that all paid off. Part of the reason why these are still some of the best animated features of all time is that these were the one’s that Walt was most passionate about. He put effort into proving this as a legitimate art form. Once his ambition was halted and redirected he really never had the same interest or involvement. In some ways the animated feature never recovered from that.
The Package Features (1942-1949)
These are the least known and least popular films in Disney’s catalog. Due to a focus on war efforts, lack of overseas revenues and an expanding company Disney did not have the time, money or resources to create another Snow White. Package features, movies made up of several short films, were a necessity. These do not all work as features, mainly due to lacking the thematic unity of Fantasia. The first two, Saludos Amigos (1942) and Three Caballeros (1944), were based on a good neighbor trip Disney animators took to South America and featured familiar characters such as Donald and Goofy. The highlight of the 42 minute long Saludos Amigos was the surreal Aquarela do Brasil, which introduced Donald’s friend, Jose Carioca. Donald and Jose returned in the even more surreal Three Caballeros, which does not work as a movie but features inspired animated sequences, particularly Ward Kimball’s unrestrained animation of the titular song. These two cost-effective features were followed by Make Mine Music (1946), Fun and Fancy Free (1947) and Melody Time (1948). All of these feature great animated shorts such as Willie the Operatic Whale, Mickey and the Beanstalk, Bumble Boogie and Blame it on the Samba. The final package feature is their best, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, which is composed of two feature quality shorts. These movies do not hold up well today, they were a product of their time. However they added some great animation to Disney’s catalog which they were able to reuse to greater effect on television and home video.
A Return to Form (1950-1955)
Disney started out returning to full-length feature films with a guaranteed success, Cinderella (1950). The movie is well told and is the definitive on screen adaptation of the prolific fairy tale. The movie lacks the ambition of the original five animated features, but it is full of heart and quality animation. The next movie, Alice in Wonderland (1951) was not received as well by critics, audiences, or even Walt himself. Alice is a very flawed film, it is not well paced and the main character needed work. But despite being considered something of a failure in the fifties it remains of the most popular Disney films. The memorable, colorful supporting cast has worked their way into pop culture and people’s hearts. This was followed with the much more successful Peter Pan (1953) which features the fun side characters and diversions of Cinderella and Alice, as well as a relatable character arc. Wendy is the best main character since Bambi and Captain Hook was the first Disney villain to really steal the show. These three retellings of familiar fairy tales became iconic, but Lady and the Tramp (1955) was a modern story that was set in the real world but from a different perspective. Lady and the Tramp is vastly different from Disney’s grand fantasies as it is really a romantic comedy. The movie was focused on a relationship, which has become one of the best-loved onscreen romances.
Animation as a Secondary Priority (1955-1967)
Walt’s ambition never stopped. But as he moved into other ventures such as live-action, television and Disneyland he was not focused on animation anymore. He was working on newer mediums that he hadn’t yet perfected. Animated shorts, which would cease to be produced with regularity in this period, and animated features were no longer top priority for the studio. This is reflected in their limited, almost sporadic output. Sleeping Beauty (1959), One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), Sword in the Stone (1963), and Jungle Book (1967) are all well made features found audiences, but it is difficult to compare them to Disney’s previous efforts. That is not to disparage these movies. There was a lot of ambition behind Sleeping Beauty which is reflected in its beautiful backgrounds and Sword in the Stone is still loved by many. Jungle Book is like Alice in Wonderland, where it is not held in high regard in the field of animation, but it is one of the most popular and enduring Disney films among general audiences. The best film of the era was Dalmatians which features the best characterization, writing and interesting visual styles.
Without Walt (1967-1984)
When Walt died the whole company suffered. Animation in particular, which was reaching its lows as a medium, played it extremely safe. The Artistocats (1970), Robin Hood (1973), The Rescuers (1977), and Fox and the Hound (1981) are among the weakest animated features Disney has produced. They utilize an overreliance on celebrity personalities and cheap animation tricks. However these all found huge audiences and have maintained sizable followings ever since. Part of this may have been the lack of animated features in the seventies. Part of it may be our culture’s nostalgia towards memories of childhood. But most of the continued success for these movies is due to animation being fairly critic-proof. Emotion outweighs reason when dealing with animation. Audiences root for the likable Duchess and the kittens, Robin Hood is a rousing adventure, Bernard and Bianca are fun and Todd and Copper have a great friendship. It says a lot that these movies, which are derided by some, are so memorable and well liked. The best animated feature of this period was Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977), which is a package feature containing three previously released shorts and new transitional sequences. Disney’s Pooh is clever, features terrific characterization and is just lovable. This was the start of one of Disney’s most successful franchises and one of the best outings for the character.
Transition Period (1984-1988)
Disney had been severely faltering as a company since Walt died. Their fortunes looked more and more dire. There was a mass exodus of animators lead by future competitor Don Bluth in 1979 and a plan to buy the company out in 1984. Animation wise the only product of note was Mickey’s Christmas Carol in 1983. Things changed when Michael Eisner, Frank Wells and Jeffrey Katzenberg took over and Roy E. Disney returned to his uncle’s empire. This is chronicled well in the excellent documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty (available for purchase on iTunes, a must for fans of Disney). The new regime inherited The Black Cauldron (1985). It started out as a passion project for a new batch of animators but proved to be troublesome. The film cost a lot of time and money and became something of a shame to the studio. There is certainly ambition behind The Black Cauldron and it is admirable that they are trying something darker that was fairly relevant. However the movie is one of Disney’s worst, it fails to do much interesting. This was followed with The Great Mouse Detective (1986) and Oliver and Company (1988). Both of these were immense improvements and helped pioneer the way for computer animation. However these efforts were both beat out at the box-office by former animator Don Bluth’ An American Tail and Land Before Time. Serious competition for a Disney animated feature was almost unheard of at the time.
Animation as a medium had been experiencing a gradual renaissance since the early to mid-eighties, by 1989 things had gotten into full swing and really changed for the better. Disney had entered the renaissance in television and 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but their home studio would not have a hit until Little Mermaid (1989). This movie unexpectedly changed Disney’s fates for the better. It introduced animation to Broadway style musicals, created marketable characters and had the biggest audiences for an animated feature up until that point. This was followed by Rescuers Down Under (1990), which was something of a commercial failure and is easily forgotten against the mammoth renaissance hits. However the Rescuers sequel is a great adventure with some beautiful flying sequences and featured important advancements in computer animation. The Disney animated musical became the studio’s bread and butter, further solidified by Beauty and the Beast (1991) which connected with both kids and adults and was even nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Aladdin (1992) was an even bigger financial success, which was followed by Lion King (1994). This was the peak of the animation renaissance. Disney and the field of animation had never experienced a critical and commercial success that huge. This was the one that people loved and kept coming back to. Its success set an almost unreachable bar and unfair comparison for Disney’s future features.
Disney would never again reach the success of The Lion King or be the undisputed number one animation studio. They had proved that animated features was a business to get into and studios such as Pixar and Dreamworks would create competition, that would later mean trouble for the Mouse House. Throughout the rest of the nineties Disney still had a firm grasp on the animated box-office, but it was obviously not at the same level of the early nineties. Pocahontas (1995), Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Hercules (1997), Mulan (1998) and Tarzan (1999) all continued the musical format and all featured great new songs. These movies also expanded into mature themes, the problem is that the maturity was offset by a desire to keep these movies targeted to children and marketable. Having adult themes in the same movie as intrusive funny animal characters that were not involved in the story greatly affected the movie. Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King were all accessible to young audiences and enthralling to adults while creating marketable characters and songs that advanced the stories. These newer movies lacked that. That is not to disparage these movies, they ought to be commending for trying to move the animated feature in new directions. These movies must also be credited for their awe-inspiring visuals. The nature in Pocahontas, scale of Hunchback, stylized design of Hercules, action sequences in Mulan and movement in Tarzan all make use of their unique settings. Also new in this period was an increased focus on racial diversity and stronger female characters. This had however backfired in some ways and brought scrutiny to the company.
Experimental Phase (1999-2002)
After animating so many musicals and fairy tales the animators tried new things. Fantasia 2000 (1999) was a sequel to Fantasia. It is shorter than the original, features almost all narrative shorts and has gags with celebrity hosts. The shorts are varied but all maintain quality and ambition. The highlight being the Eric Goldberg segment of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, styled after Al Hirschfield. Dinosaur (2000) lacks a quality narrative, but the computer animation juxtaposed in front of real life backgrounds is beautiful. Emperor’s New Groove (2000) is a buddy comedy with modern day gags that still hold up as hilarious after a decade. Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) has problems in its story, but it is an attempt to expand the Disney animated feature into a new genre for a different audience. The designs are unique and at times full of wonder. Then there is Lilo & Stitch (2002), which is an odd juxtaposition of sci-fi tropes, Hawaiian culture, modern day family dynamics, funny animals, the story of the ugly duckling and the songs of Elvis that absolutely work. Stitch’s funny antics got audiences to the theatre, but the family relationships between Lilo and her sister and the struggle of the naturally chaotic Stitch won them over. However despite Disney’s efforts to experiment with different types of animated features these were not successful. Fantasia 2000 was quickly forgotten and New Groove and Atlantis were box-office bombs. Dinosaur was a hit, but not big enough and that put an end to Disney’s in house computer animated efforts. Lilo & Stitch was the biggest success the studio had in a long time, but that success was overshadowed by those experienced by Pixar and Dreamworks. Disney was not rewarded for their risk-taking efforts, they were penalized for it.
Falling Out of Favor (2002-2005)
Disney was no longer the only studio producing quality theatrical animation. Their competition kept increasing. Audiences were no longer getting excited for Disney’s animated efforts. After several critical and commercial misfires they became secondary to Pixar and Dreamworks. Treasure Planet (2002) was another diversion from the traditional Disney feature and a quality effort at that. But despite all of its strengths it had a costly budget that it did not make back. This, along with Disney’s other recent failures and the success of other CG movies lead Disney to calling it quits on traditional 2D animation. Their final two traditional movies, which were already in production were Brother Bear (2003) and Home on the Range (2004). These were two of the studio’s most forgettable films. Brother Bear had a gorgeous nature backdrop and was able to hit similar heartstrings to Lilo and Stitch, but the movie was quickly forgotten. Home on the Range made even less of an impact. The premise would work as a short film, but there was not enough in this simple story to justify its feature length. The first CGI movie they came out with was Chicken Little. It did much better box-office than Disney’s other recent movies but it did not measure up the numbers its competition was bringing in. It was also a critical failure. Chicken Little was just another movie in a line of Shrek knock-offs and it had no heart or creative visuals to distinguish itself from the other rip-offs.
Following Pixar (2005-present)
Chicken Little had made money, but Disney animation still needed some help getting back in the public favor. That started to change when Disney bought out Pixar, whose contract with the Mouse was up and there was fear of losing them to another distributor. John Lasseter, now in charge of both Pixar and Disney animation, reworked or cancelled movies already in production. A Day with Wilbur Robinson became Meet the Robinsons (2007) and American Dog became Bolt (2008). These films were improvements over Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons earned its way to the heartstrings and Bolt has some great action set pieces and comedic moments. But these were easily overlooked when compared to Ratatouille or WALL-E, both of which performed vastly better with critics and audiences. Disney did have finally had a critical and commercial success that felt like a Disney movie with Princess and the Frog (2009). This was Disney’s return to traditional animation. However while making money it was still outperformed by the many competing animated films. Tangled (2010) was the most successful Disney movie since The Lion King and it got people recognizing the studio for the first time in a long time. Even though Disney is no longer the highest regarded animation studio their output is improving. The quality animation continued with Winnie the Pooh (2011), another installment of the Pooh franchise which utilizes the style and characterization of Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh while telling its own self-contained story. However this responsibly budgeted movie, which did break even, was released with little fanfare from the studio who buried it by releasing it on the same day as the final Harry Potter. They put much more careful marketing behind Wreck-It Ralph (2012) which managed to please audiences of all ages and backgrounds with its relevant setting and clever premise. Disney is still making the best animated features after 75 years in the business and they show no signs of stopping. Frozen (2013) has yet to be released. But Disney seems to hold little clout anymore and are definitely seen by the public as being in the shadows of other animated movies. Nevertheless the longevity of this magical studio continues to amaze and delight.