I have been a Disney fan for as long as I can remember. I was born in the early 1990s when the studio was enjoying it’s Renaissance Period (more on that later!), and a lot of the older films were getting the re-release treatment on the big screens again and subsequently on home video. Some of my earliest cinema memories are of me watching re-released Disney movies, including Bambi, and The Aristocats. I also have very fond memories of watching Fantasia on VHS when I was off sick from school and round at my Grandad’s. With one set of Grandparents, I always watched The Wizard of Oz, and with the other it was Fantasia; my love of cinema definitely started young!
I’ve watched and loved the films for over 25 years, however, when Disney+ arrived I was suddenly very conscious of the fact I had some blind spots in the Disney canon. Keen to fill in the gaps, I was inspired to start a journey through the Walt Disney Animation Studios films, sometimes known as the Disney 58 or the Disney Classics.
In addition to the podcast series I am hosting over on JumpCast with my good friend (and font of all Disney knowledge!) Barry Levitt, I’m here to dive deep into the animated classics from the very beginning up to the present day.
Decade by decade we’ll see the changes in animation and storytelling, and the important cultural and historical moments that impacted both the way in which the studio was able to work, and the stories they were producing.
Generally, the Disney canon is broken up into the following categories or eras:
- The Golden Age (1937-1942)
- The Wartime Era (1943-1949)
- The Silver Age (1950-1967)
- The Bronze Age (1970-1988)
- The Renaissance (1989-1999)
- The New Millenium (2000-2008)
- The Modern Golden Age (2009-present day).
To kick off this series, we’re going to go way back to the very beginning, starting in 1937 with Disney’s first animated feature Snow White & The Seven Dwarves. As there was just one film released in the 30s, we’ll be combining the 1930s and 1940s releases, looking at The Golden Age and The Wartime Era. These two periods arguably could not be further apart in terms of quality, but it is fascinating to look into what was happening in the studio at the time and the effects this had.
Disney, of course, were not completely unknown at the time of Snow White’s release. They had been making shorts since 1923, with perhaps the most well-known of these, Steamboat Willie, being released in 1928.
That being said, branching out into the world of feature-length animation was still a huge gamble, and with Snow White taking almost three years to complete, there were many critics who feared that this would financially ruin the studio. Of course, we all know that wasn’t the case; Snow White was a huge box office success and became the highest-grossing film at the time. In fact it still sits around 10th in all-time box office when adjusted for inflation.
It perhaps, rather infamously, was also one of Adolf Hitler’s favourite films, but moving very swiftly on, it was fairly universally hailed (by much more savoury characters!) as a masterpiece. When watching it now, it is still hard to believe that it was made in the 1930s. Whereas CGI animated films can age quite quickly with the huge leaps in technology giving their age away, hand-drawn animation has a certain longevity to it. A beautiful painting or drawing will always be a beautiful painting or drawing, no matter when it was produced, and the craft – although finessed – hasn’t really changed over the years. When executed as expertly as it is in Snow White, it isn’t hard to see why it still remains such a beloved classic.
The Golden Age & the arrival of WWII
The run that Disney had from 1937 to 1942 is really quite extraordinary, and this was later coined as ‘The Golden Age’. This was the time when Disney had the best of the best working with them in terms of animation, art direction, and storytelling, and they were really at the peak of their powers.
The profits from Snow White allowed the studio to construct their new home in Burbank, California, where they remain to this day. With bigger space and more money behind them, Disney released Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942). All were critically hailed and rapturously received by audiences. As these were in production prior to America’s involvement in World War II, the creative output was largely unaffected, however the monetary strains on Disney were about to become particularly evident.
Despite the aforementioned films being very well received, the arrival of WWII saw box office profits decline. When the United States entered the war late in 1941, many of Disney’s animators were drafted into the armed forces and production stalled. In addition to this, 1941 also saw a huge animators strike, with anger rising amongst Disney employees regarding pay inequalities. The result was a lot of key animators walking away from the company.
With strikes and war depleting the workforce considerably, Disney faced financial ruin and some short-term solutions were needed.
The Wartime Era and the “package films”
Working with a comparatively skeleton crew, a lot of Disney’s animated output was instead redirected by the US and Canadian governments to produce propaganda films, and it is estimated that by 1942, 90% of Disney’s 550 employees were working on war-related films.
With limited staff and limited funds, Disney needed to produce films quickly and economically, so the short-term solution was the “package films”; collections of shorts that were bundled together to make feature-length films. The films released in this period were Saludos Amigos (1943), The Three Caballeros (1945), Make Mine Music (1946), Fun and Fancy Free (1947), Melody Time (1948) and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949).
These films were pretty much the life-preserver that kept the studio afloat through a truly tumultuous time, and whilst the decline in quality from the Golden Age to the Wartime Era is steep and noticeable, it is a fascinating time in Disney’s history that is worth taking the time to dive into.
In fact, until recording the podcast, these six films were all completely new to me, and I don’t mind admitting that I hadn’t even heard of some of them! Even the biggest Disney diehards could be forgiven for missing some of these off their lists as they are not considered in the same league as the films that preceded and many that followed.
Whilst not as overtly identifiable as propaganda as some of the wartime shorts, Saludos Amigos was the result of a goodwill tour of South America, commissioned by the United States Department of State. This was because several Latin American governments had close ties with Nazi Germany, and the US government wanted to counteract those ties. So who better to send than Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney! Mickey and other Disney characters were very popular in Latin America at the time, so with Walt acting as ambassador, he travelled there with a team of animators with him to capture the sights and sounds for their latest feature.
The trip in fact features as a framing device for the film itself, with popular characters such as Donald Duck and Goofy exploring elements of Latin American culture. It certainly isn’t a good film, but it is a fascinating insight into what was happening at the time, and it is unlike any of the other Disney films.
The other package films vary in quality with some moments of brilliance, and despite lofty promises of them being in the “tradition of Fantasia” (looking at you here Make Mine Music!), it is clear that this is not Disney at their best. This is something we really dive into in the podcasts, so do make sure you check out the episodes on the wartime era in particular!
It would be easy to dismiss the wartime period for not being of the same quality as the Golden Age, however these films were cheap to make and whilst the profits were minimal, it was enough to keep the studios going, and is the reason why we have the 47 films that came next…