Welcome to the first installment of a series I like to call Road To Disney. Here, we’re gonna take a good look at 80 years of work from Walt Disney Animation Studios. A studio that changed everything. Animation, film, entertainment, America, the whole world. They have been at this for 84 years. 84 goddamn years. In that time span, Disney has risen to become one of the Big Six of film studios alongside Universal, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, Columbia, and Paramount. Disney knew how to entertain both kids and adults alike with their movies. As someone who grew up on Disney, I can tell you that I love their movies. Most of them. Now before we get started, some rules. I’m only going to review the canon animated films from Walt Disney Animation Studios. I’m not gonna cover the Pixar movies (those will be subject to their own series), I’m not covering any live action movies, and I’m not covering any straight-to-DVD sequels or any theatrical releases from DisneyToon Studios (that includes A Goofy Movie, Return To Never Land, and the Planes movies). Now that we got that out the way, let’s get started.
The canon animated Disney films are split into 7 eras, which will all have their own installment: the Golden Age, the Wartime Era, the Restoration Age, the Dark Age, the Renaissance Era, the Post-Renaissance Era, and the Revival Era. Each era has its own aesthetic and way of storytelling that makes them stand out from each other. We begin with the Golden Age, also known as the Tar & Sugar Era, starting with…
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Release Date: December 21, 1937
The first feature-length animated film released on the big screen, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The Evil Queen seeks to be the fairest in the land, but when her Magic Mirror proclaims her stepdaughter Snow White to be the fairest, she conspired to have her killed. Snow White runs away and she ends up in a cottage that’s home to the seven dwarfs. This is the movie that kicked things off for Disney, showcasing their first princess story and their first movie based on a fairy tale. While it isn’t one of my personal favorites, it’s still an overall good movie. The animation is of its time, but it holds up well. It’s really nice to look at, whether it’d be colorful and light or shadowy and dark. In terms of Disney princesses, Snow White was… okay. Not great or bad, just okay. She’s nice and motherly and talks to animals, but that’s about it. The other characters are more interesting, especially the dwarfs. Each dwarf is named after a certain trait that defines them: Dopey, Grumpy, Sneezy, Bashful, Sleepy, Happy, and Doc. Many people have a favorite dwarf (mine’s being Grumpy). And let’s not forget how much of a classic Heigh-Ho is. The Evil Queen is a great villain. The lengths she would go to have Snow White killed shows dedication for evil, even to the point where she turns herself into an old hag just to trick Snow White into biting a poisoned apple. This is a movie that operates on a very simplistic plot that works more off of emotion rather than logic. Overall, Snow White is a good movie and an important one for both Disney and animation. I give it a 7/10.
Release Date: February 7, 1940
After the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the next film to be given the green light by Walt is an adaptation of the children’s novel The Adventures of Pinocchio. A man named Geppetto creates a wooden puppet boy and called it Pinocchio. One night, a blue fairy brings Pinocchio to life and tells him that he can become a real boy if he proves himself. This is one of the darker early Disney films, which is saying something because a lot of Disney films have some darkness in them.
It’s not that surprising how dark the movie is especially when it’s based on a really screwed-up book. Hell, this movie is relatively tame in comparison. The budget for this film is much larger than Snow White and you can tell in the details and in the movements. Pinocchio is a naive puppet who wants to be a real boy and is willing to do whatever he can to prove himself, but he doesn’t know how cruel the world can be and has been subjected to being an attraction of a puppet show run by a cruel man to being influenced to go to an island full of delinquent boys. What makes Pinocchio appealing is that he tries his best to be good, but he makes mistakes and suffers the consequences. Kinda like how a real kid would be. And he eventually learns his lesson after the climax (where he and Geppetto tried to escape a monster whale). His selflessness convinces the blue fairy to make him into a real boy. It’s also home to When You Wish Upon A Star, which has become Disney’s trademark song. This movie, along with Snow White, establishes a lot of what we expect from a Disney: magic, tonal shifts from light to dark, a sense of hope, etc. I give Pinocchio a 9/10.
Release Date: November 13, 1940
Two movies in and Disney has established themselves as a household name in film. So what’s the next film after Snow White and Pinocchio? Well, how about something completely different? That’s what we got with Fantasia, a series of eight animated segments set to classical music arrangements conducted by the Philadelphia Orchestra. There isn’t a narrative story that connects these segments together, it’s meant to be a visual and auditory experience. This is a movie that doesn’t require much thinking, just experience it. And it’s a brilliant film. It shows that Disney are willing to experiment with their films and do something we haven’t expect. They brought together some of the best animators that they have and create the best visuals that compliments these classical pieces. The best segments to me were Toccata and Fugue in D minor (which shows a bunch of abstract imagery that one might picture while listening to the music), Nutcracker Suite (which depicts the changing seasons in a forest), Rite Of Spring (featuring dinosaurs because dinosaurs are cool), and Night On Bald Mountain/Ave Maria (which is a great example of the contrast between dark and light and features the devil Chernabog). I will always re-watch these segments on YouTube whenever I can. There’s also The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which is the most popular segment because it features Mickey Mouse. Hell, this movie started off as a Mickey Mouse cartoon that was eventually given a bigger budget. Fantasia is one of the more mature animated Disney films. That’s not to say that there aren’t anything in here for kids, but it was clear that the movie was aiming for an adult audience. Walt was passionate about Fantasia and was hoping to turn it into a series of films. But the film under-performed at the box office mainly due to World War II cutting off any European distribution, plus, it was expensive to make, so it didn’t make sense at the time to make more movies. But the film grew in popularity through time and a sequel was made 60 years later called Fantasia 2000 (we’ll get to that film eventually). So, yeah. Fantasia. It’s one of my all-time favorite movies. I highly, highly recommend this movie, especially if you appreciate animation and music. I give it a perfect 10/10.
Release Date: October 23, 1941
With Fantasia not returning the profits that they were hoping at the box office, Disney decided to go back to the basics for their next film with a smaller budget. And thus, we have Dumbo. A circus elephant is born with oversized ears and he’s the subject to cruel scrutiny by nearly everyone and is given the name Dumbo. When one of the kids goes too far in the teasing, Dumbo’s mother starts beating him and she’s locked into a cage, leaving Dumbo alone. There’s not much else plot to the movie, it’s just things happening around Dumbo. When you compare it to Snow White, Pinocchio, and Fantasia, which are all groundbreaking films, Dumbo seems kinda standard. That’s not to say that it’s bad because there are things to like in it, but when compared to those films I mentioned, it’s just alright. Dumbo doesn’t even speak, he just sits there and acts cute while reacting to the world around him. His only friend, Timothy Mouse, was okay. There’s been debates about whether the crows in this movie are racist stereotypes since they’re voiced by African American actors and used slang of the time, but as an African American, I don’t agree with that. To me, they’re free spirits who do their own thing and they actually encourage Dumbo to fly. The best things about this movie is the weird visuals, whether it’d be the chaos that’s occurring in the circus to the camera angles. And there’s also the acid trip to end all acid trips, the Pink Elephants sequence. It. Is. Awesome. Watch it.
There’s also some genuinely touching moments like Dumbo hugging his mother when she’s locked up. It is a sad moment. You kinda feel bad for Dumbo especially since he didn’t ask to have huge ears and yet he’s being teased by the whole circus. Anyone who’s been picked on as a kid for being different can relate. Like I said, this movie is okay, not great, not bad. I give it a 6/10.
Release Date: April 16, 1943
Next up, Bambi. I would tell you the plot, but there isn’t one. The movie is centered on a young white-tailed deer named Bambi and his life growing up in the forest. He makes friends and learns about his environment. It’s a look at Bambi’s life rather than a three-part narrative. This is one of the best looking early Disney movies, which is to be expected from this studio, but my God. Look at the visuals and the backgrounds.
It perfectly captures nature and made it look appealing. Another thing to note is how the animals move like animals. The animators actually set up a special area in the studio to observe the movements of deer and other animals in order to make the characters move more realistically. And it paid off well. The main threat in this movie is Man, who you never see at all. Man is presented as an invisible destructive threat and we can’t not talk about one of the most infamous scenes in film history period.
The gunshot heard around the world. How many crying kids occurred because Bambi’s mom got shot? You know what’s sad about this scene? The fact that you see the relationship between Bambi and his mother and how strong their bond is. Losing a parent at a young age is traumatic for anyone and that’s why this scene was so impactful. There’s some other intense scenes, especially in the second-half when Man starts shooting anything that moves and those dogs.
There’s a lot to admire about this film and I’m giving it a strong 8/10.
As great as Bambi is, it wasn’t enough to turn a profit at the box office because World War II still had an effect on global distribution. This hurt Disney a lot financially, which lead them to not make anymore full-length animated feature films. And that leads us into the package films.