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This is Part 1 of my look back at the history of Disney animation. For more information on this project, check out the introduction.

The Golden Age of Disney animation refers to the first few years of feature animation, from 1937 – 1942. During this time, Disney produced five films that are considered classics to this day: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942).

Disney entered this period as a complete underdog. Everyone and their mother assumed that “Disney’s Folly,” better known today as Snow White, would fail and with it destroy the dream of feature-length animation. After three years of grueling work with no guarantee of success, the movie premiered at the Carthay Circle Theatre in L.A. and the rest is pretty much history.

Not only was Snow White not a failure, it was a smash hit. It was both a critical success, praised for its animation and artistry, and a financial success, grossing nearly 8 million dollars in its original run. Adjusted for inflation, that would be almost 137 million dollars. Not a bad profit for a movie that cost 1.4 million to make. Disney had shown all the naysayers. After moving production to Burbank, they began to work on their next groundbreaking films.

Instead of reaching new heights, what Disney got with their next few films was a couple of critical darlings and commercial failures. Pinocchio was the first Disney film in to win the two musical Oscars, Best Original Song and Best Original Score, and only the second ever, being beaten to the punch by The Wizard of Oz the year prior. Fantasia, meanwhile, was and is still considered an artistic masterpiece and a brilliant marriage of music and visuals. However, both of these movies were expensive to make and neither brought in enough to cover their costs. As a result of this, Disney was forced to lay off several animators, fueling the underlying discontent in the company and leading to the animator’s strike of 1941, during the creation of Dumbo.

It was also during this strike that Walt took a trip down to South America as a goodwill ambassador at the suggestion of Nelson Rockefeller, head of the Latin American Affairs branch of the State Department. Removing Walt from the scene helped calm things down and led to the production of some films we’ll talk about more next time.

Due in part to the strike, Dumbo was made cheaply and quickly, becoming Disney’s second financial success. After the strike, a little over half of the animation staff remained at the studio, and irreparable damage was done to the internal psychology of the company. Bambi was also in development at this time and also failed to break even at the box office. The main reason for the failure of these critical successes was a little thing called World War Two, which effectively closed off the European market. Due to this and a variety of other war-related factors after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Disney temporarily shuttered feature animation, halting production on several films that would see the light of day after the war was over.

The driving force behind the Golden Age films is innovation. The techniques used to such great effects to create these memorable images had to be created during production. Because of this, they were created to fulfill the specific requirements, like Fantasound, the first stereophonic sound system attached to animation. The use of older techniques, like the multiplane camera, were also used to great effect, creating some of the most memorable images in Disneydom like the witch’s transformation in Snow White.

Through these films, you also see the development of the Disney style and the balance between cartoonish and realistic. The use of rotoscoping for more realistic-looking humans in Snow White and Pinocchio is effective, but kind of jarring from a modern perspective. The balance tips more towards cartoon for Pinocchio and Dumbo. Bambi manages to find a good balance between the two, making the animals look like real animals but still looking like cartoons. Disney was apparently unimpressed by the animals in Snow White and brought in animals from the L.A. Zoo as reference. The payoff is visible in the final product.

However, these movies are not perfect. Many of them are short, yet feel unnecessarily padded. Several shots across these films seem as though they were only intended to give the animators’ something to do or set up visual gags that have weak payoffs for the length of build up they are given. Very few of these movies last much longer than an hour, yet they tend to drag in places. Back in the 40s, the groundbreaking animation may have been enough to get by, but the weaker stories are pretty obvious today.

However, not all movies in this period suffer from these problems to the same degree. To wit, here are my thoughts on and rankings of the Golden Age films.

5. Dumbo (1941) – A cute film and colorful enough to distract younger viewers, but there are major structural problems that really hinder any enjoyment beyond the visuals. The whole movie feels like an Act One with zero Act Two or Three to follow it. What’s baffling to me is that the basic concept – outcast gains powers and becomes famous, then learns fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be – is a pretty common story, and Dumbo hits a lot of the required beats, just in the wrong ways. If it had given more than five minutes to the latter part of that above concept, maybe it could have been something more. As it is, let’s just say there’s a reason the most memorable scene in this movie is the drunken hallucination.

4. Fantasia (1940) – I commend Fantasia for everything it does right, but I also completely understand how it flopped. Fantasia is not a movie, it’s a symphony, and your average moviegoer doesn’t necessarily want to watch a symphony. The various sections also fluctuate in quality. Night on Bald Mountain and Sorcerer’s Apprentice are still used in Disney marketing to this day (I was so excited to hear a snippet of the former at Disneyland last Halloween, you have no idea), while some like Rite of Spring are forgotten for a good reason. This is definitely Disney’s most ambitious film possibly of all time, and it’s fairly successful overall, if a bit dull in places.

3. Snow White (1937) – Watching Snow White after watching newer Disney movies in theaters is an interesting experience. It’s the main reason I wanted to do this series, to reexamine these old films and, in some cases, actually see them. Snow White is definitely a movie of its time, and while there are some pacing issues and the epilogue-as-ending is really weird to my structuralist mind, it’s an enjoyable film. Besides, how many family films are likely to scare the pants off the little kids in the audience? Definitely a fun one for babysitting and watching with nieces or nephews.

2. Bambi (1942) – By this time, the Disney aesthetic had been solidified and the Disney animators were able to experiment in some interesting ways. The real star of this movie is the gorgeous background art, designed and created in some instances by the underappreciated Tyrus Wong. They really help convey the tactile presence of the environments. It really feels like you’re in a cool, misty forest while watching it. Easily one of the more artistic films I’ve seen that isn’t trying to be artistic (cough Wes Anderson cough).

1. Pinocchio (1940) – My top two are mostly down to preferences. If you’re more of a visually focused person who can mind a meandering story, I’d recommend Bambi for movie night. I’m more of a story guy, so I’ll choose Pinocchio. Of all these early films, Pinocchio has the tightest handle on its story and characters. The movie never feels padded unnecessarily and nothing feels superfluous. It’s also just a really fun movie to watch, which is more than I can say for some other films on this list (cough Dumbo cough).

We end the Golden Age at a turning point for both Disney Animation and the world at large. Clearly the matter of defending liberty and democracy in Europe is more important than some silly cartoons. But, all these animators who weren’t off fighting for freedom still had to eat, which meant they had to make something. Strap on your sombreros and strike up the band as next time, we look at the Wartime Era.

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