This is Part 3 of my look back at the history of Disney animation. For more information on this project, check out the introduction. Part 1 focuses on the Golden Age of Disney animation, while Part 2 focuses on the films made during the Second World War.
The Silver Age of Disney animation refers to the films produced and released in the years between 1950 and 1967. There were eight films released in this period: Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), Peter Pan (1953), Lady and the Tramp (1955), Sleeping Beauty (1959), One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), The Sword in the Stone (1963), and The Jungle Book (1967).
The great miracle of the Second World War was helping America fully throw off the economic downturn of the Great Depression. Transitioning from a wartime to a peacetime economy provided the general public with an increased standard of living and, for the first time, invented the idea of the middle class. With renewed economic strength at home and broad diplomatic influence abroad, its no wonder why this century would come to be known by some as “the American century.”
And pop culture would just be one of the industries that arose in this time period. The middle class helped create a demographic that weren’t children but not quite adults: teenagers, listening to their rock and roll music and driving their fancy new cars to drive-in theaters. The new technology of television gained widespread appeal; 90% of American households had a TV by 1962. And one Mr. Walt Disney, having shepherded America through the war, was ready to grow into a true media mogul.
The low production costs of the Wartime films and their decent box office helped Disney recoup some of the massive debt he was in at the time from his pre-war films. But, it still wasn’t quite enough. Disney would need a big hit to help pull him out of hot water with the banks. When surveying the projects him and his team had been developing for post-war release, Disney decided to push forward a project with a sense of heart, one closest to Snow White in story and tone.
Cinderella (1950) was a smash hit for Disney. Both a critical and commercial success, Cinderella essentially bankrolled the entire 1950s for the Walt Disney Company, providing the much-needed capital to not only keep his studio at its present size but also to finance some more outlandish ideas, like entering television or building an amusement park.
In 1954, Disney and ABC partnered to produce Disneyland, the first title for what today is known as The Wonderful World of Disney and which is currently the second-longest running primetime program on American television. The show would be an important platform for Walt to discuss his upcoming projects, including the little theme park in Anaheim that would open the next year as Disneyland. The full scope of Disney’s expansions into television and vacation destinations is a little outside the purview of this series, but I’d be more than willing to dive more into it if people are interested. Regardless, it’s important to note just how necessary a financial hit like Cinderella was for Disney. It wasn’t solely responsible, but the ability to pay off debts and still have money left over made borrowing money in the future for projects like Disneyland much more possible.
With the proven success of feature animation in the postwar market, the studio shifted from shorts to feature films, pumping out four more before the decade was out, not to mention working on hybrid movies such as Mary Poppins (1964). Disney also continued to expand on TV, premiering such landmark series as The Mickey Mouse Club, Davy Crockett, and Zorro, and in the parks. Disney’s animators combined their artistic training with technical knowledge to become “Imagineers” and create some of the most beloved attractions, like the Enchanted Tiki Room, the Haunted Mansion, and Pirates of the Caribbean. On top of all of this, Disney envisioned a new community on the east coast, and quietly acquired acres upon acres of land near Orlando, Florida to create his theme park, hotels, and something called the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. In November of 1965, this would be officially revealed to be Disney World.
This era is noteworthy for its codification of the Disney aesthetic. While the animation style you probably associate with the term “Disney” was seen back in the shorts, this is the era where that style became formalized. This is the era of Walt’s Nine Old Men, a term he coined to describe his team of nine high-ranking animators who took on bigger leadership roles throughout the fifties and sixties. The techniques that would later be written down and shared by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston in “Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life” (a great read for anyone interested in animation) were put to great effect in these films.
That’s not to say every film was the same. There was still plenty of room for experimentation in art direction and music. The Sword in the Stone (1963) was the first Disney film to feature music by Richard and Robert Sherman, the songwriters behind Mary Poppins and “It’s a Small World.” Their music is simple and obnoxiously catchy and has stayed in the public consciousness for good reason. Artistically, this is the era of Mary Blair, whose color styling on Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Peter Pan (1953) helped give those films their iconic look. Even still, films like Sleeping Beauty (1959) and Lady and the Tramp (1955) offer more stylistic interpretations of classic Disney aesthetics.
Now, before I get into the ranking, I feel it necessary to give a disclaimer. This era is really nostalgic for a lot of people. Even while watching, I found myself reliving a fair number of childhood memories through these films. It’s normal to get attached to media from our childhood. I just want to take a moment to describe what I’m looking for in these rankings. I am, at this point, halfway through film school. As such, when I watch these movies, I am judging them both on personal entertainment levels and also on how well they execute on story structure, cinematography, characterization, and other fancy film school ideas. This isn’t how most people view movies nor is it how most people should view movies. If a movie you loved is low on the list or a movie you didn’t like is high, don’t take this a slight against you or your tastes. Just read it as an expression of my personal opinion, which is motivated by different considerations than a regular moviegoer. With that out of the way, onto the list.
8. The Sword in the Stone (1963) – Has there ever been a really good King Arthur movie? Between the Guy Ritchie flop last year, and the meh adaptation of Camelot in ’67, it seems as though one of the most famous knights is box office poison. Sword in the Stone‘s biggest crime is that it’s boring. It’s just kind of aimless and things happen with little reason or consequence. The animation is also the worst in this era. The backgrounds aren’t interesting, the character designs are kind of ugly and the whole movie feels cheaply made. It’s a shame that this was how they decided to adapt King Arthur.
7. Peter Pan (1953) – This is the whole reason behind that initial disclaimer. If the line for Peter Pan’s Flight has taught me anything, it’s that people love this movie. I can see why. The swashbuckling adventure is fun and exciting for kids. However, everything around it is not that exciting. The characters are all really mean to each other. The lovely Tinker Bell is just a little too actively homicidal for my liking, while Peter Pan is way too conceited to be likable. The story itself is fine, and Captain Hook is the right level of camp you need for your villain, but the unlikable “heroes” bring the movie down.
6. One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) – If Captain Hook was the right level of camp for Peter Pan, then Cruella is what happens when you turn camp up to eleven. She’s a joy to watch, but she is completely at odds with the rest of the film. She is so obviously, blatantly evil, that you don’t understand how the otherwise sensible characters would continue to put up with her. The movie comes alive with her, though, and feels a little dull without her. I like a lot of the ideas in this movie, but they weren’t executed as well as they could be.
5. Alice in Wonderland (1951) – It was a tough decision choosing between this and One Hundred and One Dalmatians. In the end, this won out for making less sense. The original book by Lewis Carroll laid out the groundwork for a style I’ll call “grade-school surreal.” You know, those weird books you read as a little kid that stick in your head until you don’t remember if they were even real or just something you made up. “The Phantom Tollbooth” springs to mind for me. That’s what this movie feels like, a G-rated acid trip that leaves you wondering if half of what you saw was real. At least it’s entertaining while it lasted.
4 Sleeping Beauty (1959) – Definitely the most interesting movie of this era visually. The art direction and style is gorgeous and lets the animators do some really interesting things with shots and lighting. It feels like a lovingly hand-drawn storybook. The story of Sleeping Beauty isn’t really about Sleeping Beauty, which can be tricky to deal with from a modern perspective. It’s a movie about the fairies and Maleficent, who is far and away the best classic Disney villain, using Aurora and Phillip as pawns in their power play. If the movie had framed itself more around this and focused less on the two “leads,” I think this could have been even better.
3. Lady and the Tramp (1955) – Screenwriters are taught that scripts revolve around conflict. This movie and Bambi are two really good counter-examples to that rule. If written and shot well, a film about someone living their life can be just as engaging as a story with a clear villain. This is one of the most beautiful movies to look at, and it’s kind of refreshing to have a romance that doesn’t start with the initial misunderstanding and hatred. It’s just a really sweet movie that can be enjoyed by everyone – the classic Disney formula.
2. Cinderella (1950) – This is classic Disney princess at its finest. Cinderella is without a doubt the focus of this movie and her world is rendered in a simply gorgeous way. I watched this movie a lot when I was younger and coming back to it really felt like going home. There’s something very calming about this film. It’s a reminder that sometimes good things come to deserving people and your dreams really can come true.
1. The Jungle Book (1967) – I just really can’t find anything to complain about or nitpick in this movie. Another one I could practically recite while watching, it’s just a really solid family movie. The score is one of the few that sounds very distinctive from this early period and the movie has this wonderful tone of mystery to it that helps sell the atmosphere. This isn’t quite as artistically well-done as some of the movies below it, but it strikes the perfect balance between a strong story and a well-done visual aesthetic.
All this momentum should have primed the Disney company for record highs and media dominance. However, all good things must come to an end. On December 15, 1966, Walt Disney passed away from complications due to lung cancer. The Jungle Book, released the following year, was the last movie with personal involvement from the company’s founder himself. This loss hit the world and the company right in the gut and left the studio asking how they would move on. We’ll discuss how Disney moved forward without Walt’s guiding hand in our next installment when we cover The Dark Age.