Last time I discussed the history of western animated movies, now let’s take a look how Disney figures in all this. I have decided to follow the examples of some of my fellow bloggers here and forgo most of the usual naming of the eras and instead came up with my own classifications. Note that while I mostly sought inspiration from the usual eras of art and literature, my reasons for picking the names are not always connected to their original meaning.
1937- 1942 The Disney Expressionism
It is usually called the “Golden Age”, but if you really think about it, this was the golden age for animation in general and not for Disney specifically. Plus, when it comes to movies, the age was not that “golden” for Disney at all. Yes, they made a ton of money with “Snow White and Seven Dwarves”, but the only other movie which really was a financial success during this time was “Dumbo” – which was originally a short extended to a movie in order to recoup the losses from “Fantasia”. This in mind, it is kind of misleading to talk about a “Golden Age”.
It is the age though, in which most of the Disney staples were established. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” was the beginning of the fairy tale based movies which are nowadays marketed in the Disney Princess Franchise. “Pinocchio” started the concept of taking well-known literature classics and making them their own. “Bambi” explored the possibilities of telling stories from the perspective of animals. “Fantasia” – well, that is pretty much a category on its own. And “Dumbo” is the prototype of the more child than family oriented movies Disney sometimes produces. The sidekicks, the use of music, the type of villains, the Disney acid sequence, all this was first done back then and has prevailed in Disney movies to this day.
Therefore I did consider “Disney Classic” as name for this era, but it doesn’t really fit the style of the movies, which it has nothing to do with Greek or Roman antique. Unshavedmouse calls it the “Tar and Sugar Era” due to the tendency of the movies to alternate between really, really sweet and really, really dark. Those are the movies which made children literally piss their pants (“Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”), which created villains which actually got away with their every deeds (“Pinocchio”) and which traumatised the audience with the dead of Bambi’s mother. “Fantasia” is to this day the only Disney movie which openly displays breasts – in a close-up nonetheless. It is something we tend to forget nowadays, but those movies were pushing the envelope at every turn.
All the movies of this era are kind of dark – and I mean this literally. The “sweet” moments are colourful and wholesome, but those moments are surrounded by darkness. Especially in “Pinocchio” Gepetto is practically a carrier of light…scenes with him are considerably brighter than the scenes without him. Even the colourful circus world of “Dumbo” is often swallowed by long shadows and darkness.
Expressionism is at its core about causing a reaction, it is not about what is real, but about causing emotional reactions. That can be the colourful world of Franz Marc or the disturbing one of Edvard Munch. In filmmaking, especially the German Expressionism is notable for the use of shadows and the deliberate use of unrealistic settings, and this was a movement which influenced the filmmakers of Hollywood considerably in the 1920s and 1930s.
Now take a good look at this:
It has become some sort of running gag to joke about the transition in “Bambi” from the grief over Bambi’s mother to happily chirping birds, claiming that this is the feeble try to soften the blow. I don’t think so, quite the opposite actually, because that’s exactly what Disney during this time is about. It deliberately creates a roller-coaster of feelings, jumps from the Snow White’s fear in the woods to an inviting meadow with next to no transition, from Dumbo visiting his mother to joking clowns and pink elephants. One moment Bambi is playing in the snow, in the next he is nearly dying of hunger, one moment he is quite literally in the seventh heaven, and the next he has to overcome a rival.
Disney is still good in playing with the emotions of the audience. But the sudden shift from one extreme mood to another, that is typical for this era. As are truly disturbing sequences which tap deep into the emotions of the audience.
In retrospect it makes sense that Disney might have been influenced by the styles which were prevalent in filmmaking during this time, after all, he had to take something as a base for his first animated movies. Movies, no matter if animated or not, are always the product a certain “Zeitgeist”. Most Disney movies are created to be timeless, but they never can totally hide when they were made. Ariel’s bangs and puffy sleeves are just as typical 1980s, as Snow White’s round eyes, long eyelashes and short hair scream 1930s. But I think in no era of animated movies is the connection to the style of live-action movies which were made around the same time as obvious as in the early beginnings.
Theoretical the next era of Disney is the Package Era….but to be honest, I refuse to consider this really an era of Disney movies. To me it is an era in which Disney was prevented from making movies due to the war and instead threw together mostly unrelated shorts to fill some time, bolstered up with a half-assed frame device. If I sit down and spend an afternoon watching Disney shorts, I still didn’t watch a movie, even if the running time has the proper length. Fantasia is a movie because it has a consistent tone, a consistent theme and a working concept. The only movie from the package era which comes at least tries to have something like this is “Saludos Amigos”, and the running time of this one doesn’t even come close to proper theatre length. It is even shorter than “Dumbo” and in case of “Dumbo” Disney had to fight to classify it as a movie. No, the next real era of movie making starts in 1950.
1950 – 1959 The Disney Romantic
A popular term for this era is the “Silver age”. The “Restoration Age” is also common, especially among people who don’t like the implication that this era was somehow lesser than the “Golden Age”. But I didn’t really like this term either, because while the studio was in a process of financial “Restoration”, the movies actually picked off where they left. Those are projects which were in planning before the war changed everything – consequently “Cinderella” is the logical next step for the fairy tale movies, and “Alice in Wonderland” as well as “Peter Pan” are literally fulfilling a promise “Pinocchio” already made by showing the respective books in a scene.
What is notable different though is the style of animation. I decided to go for “Disney Romantic” because, well
And especially this:
Soft colours, lush animation, and the overall feel to enter a different, magical world is predominant in the movies from this era. Hell, even an alley full of clothes hanging out to dry is looking like the most romantic place on earth in “Lady and the Tramp”. There is also the influence of Mary Blair, not just in the movies she actually did work on (“Cinderella”, “Alice in Wonderland” and “Peter Pan”), but also in the ones she wasn’t directly involved in (“Lady and the Tramp”, “Sleeping Beauty”). Prevalent for this era is the constant play with perspectives. The big scales of “Cinderella”,
the unusual angles of “Alice in Wonderland” and, to a lesser degree, “Peter Pan”,
the constant dog perspective of “Lady and the Tramp” and the especially the painting-like design of “Sleeping Beauty” make every singly movie of this era something special.
Compared to the Disney Expressionism the level of “darkness” is notable toned down, but not gone. If beforehand the world was a dark place with a few bright spots in it, now the world is bright place with some dark spots in it. “Lady and the Tramp” for example has for most of the movie a greeting card vibe, in both tone and drawing style, but especially the scene in the dog pound plunges as deep into darkness as a movie from the Expressionist Era.
Personally I think that neither Disney nor any other studio ever reached the level of artistry which we got during this sadly way too short era. Ironically, none of this movies got the acknowledgement they deserved during their initial release. “Lady and the Tramp” was beloved by the audience, but not by the critics, who actually had the audacity to complain about the quality of the animation. “Sleeping Beauty” got slammed for being too similar to “Cinderella” and especially “Snow White”. Which shows that critics can err, too.
1960 – 1988 The Disney Impressionism
The Disney Odyssey went for “Modern Era”, and it certainly is a good fit, for multiple reasons. One is the technical aspect, and the keyword is xerography. Up to this point, the movies were hand-inked, which is a slow and expensive process. As a result even successful movies ended up underperforming in the box office in relation to the production costs. Disney had to make a decision to either shut down the studios or to cut down costs by using xerography. He didn’t like it, but he went for the latter option.
The process allowed the animators to print their drawings directly on the cells. But it has its limits. Initially only black lines were possible, which heavily influenced the style of the movies. The Unshavedmouse calls those first years the “Scratchy Era”, based on the harsh looking dark lines in the animation.
Despite all the arguments for “Modern Era”, I feel that “Disney Impressionism” is an even better fit. For one, Impressionism is in a way a countermovement to the Romantic (one can also see it as a culmination of it, but the original thought was to break away from this era). And that is exactly what Disney did during this time, a thematically and stylistic break compared to the movies which came beforehand. Instead of fairy tales and classic stories, most of the movies from this era are based on current books. The settings are less “once upon a time” and more “now”. That is especially evident in the music used. Forget the chorus and the operatic voices, now we have cool beats to offer.
Impressionist paintings are most notable for the artist not trying to hide the brush strokes. And again, that is exactly what Disney did, too. Since they first had to use the black lines, they mostly didn’t even try to hide them but made them part of the style. And if you look at the backgrounds, they are way less detailed than what Disney did beforehand and seeing the way they tend to get blurry in the outside settings, they have quite an Impressionistic feel to it. This is especially evident in “The Aristocats”, due to the movie being set in Paris.
The scale of the movies are also less “grand” than in the prior eras. This is Disney at its most modest, and it has nothing to do with the chosen themes, but with the approach to them. In “Pinocchio” Disney told an elaborate story about a protagonist learning important live lessons with no less than four villains, but in “The Sword and the Stone” the wizard duel is the sole high point of the movie. If one compares “The Aristocats” with “Lady and the Tramp”, the former seems to be downright pedestrian.
It is hard to consider any of the movies made during this time as one of the “big” Disney movies. It is just too evident that Disney was cutting corners, “Robin Hood” being the worst offender. The sketchy design and the reuse of animation not only from other Disney movies, but also from the movie itself is just too obvious, and it speaks for the skill of the animators that they were able to cobble together a really good movie on their tight budget. But it could have been a great one.
There is one exception, though, and no, it is not the “Jungle Book”. Despite being a big success and a popular movie, I think the crown for the best movie of this era goes to “The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh”. In a way it is captures the spirit of the era perfectly. Impressionism has always a little introverted feel to it, and you can get more introverted than entering the fantasy world of a little boy and reflecting about childhood. It is certainly not a flashy movie, but it is one of the most thoughtful movies Disney ever made.
Otherwise though the usual result during this era is something between “okay” and “good, but it could have been great”. Artistically speaking things were looking up in the 1980s, when xerography was no longer limited to black lines, but at this point the studio was struggling in other regards. First Walt Disney died, and even though he hadn’t really been that involved in the studios during that time with the exception of some pet projects like “The Jungle Book”, the studio had suddenly lost its face and in a way its voice. A big cooperation doesn’t necessarily care for the artistic merit of a movie, but about the money it makes. They don’t tend to be open for experiments. But that was exactly what Walt Disney was about. Projects like “Fantasia”, “Bambi” or “Sleeping Beauty” were not about the bottom line, they were about challenging the audience and offering something new.
In general there was a change of generation going on in the Disney Studios during that time – and a fight between old and young. “Fox and Hound” is somewhat infamous, not just for being the last movie in which the “nine old man” had a hand it, but also for the discussions surrounding it. That Don Bluth “stole away” some of the most talented young animators in the studio during production (thankfully a lot of them decided to come back just in time to create “Beauty and the Beast”), left the studios which animators who created what was at this time Disney’s most embarrassing failure. “The Black Cauldron” has nowadays a fan following and is popular in Asia, but it is still the movie which lost to the Care Bears in the box office, and it is not hard to see why. I counted the 1980s to the Disney Impressionism, but it is more an era of transition, and it is mostly “Oliver and Company” with its sketchy background which made me decide to not do an extra cut for four movies.
The next era of greatness didn’t come out of the thin air, it built up for a couple of years, and I think “The Great Mouse Detective” as well as all the talent Disney poached during the production of “Who framed Roger Rabbit” was laying the groundwork for the following era. And when it came, it brought Disney to new highs.
1989 – 1999 The Disney Renaissance
Every animation fan knows this term, and who am I to argue. It is the fitting word for this era, and not just because Disney went back to its roots. Deciding when it actually started was the harder task. Normally “The Little Mermaid” is considered the first movie of this era, but from a technical point of view, it should be either “The Great Mouse Detective” or “Rescuers Down Under”. The former because this was the first movie which used extensive computer animation, the latter because it was the first movie which used the CAP System (while “The little Mermaid” is in a way the crowning achievement of xerography).
I nevertheless went for “The Little Mermaid”, too, because of thematic reasons. Disney Impressionism was all about telling stories from the perspective of animals. “The Black Cauldron” is the one sole exception, considering that even “The Sword and the Stone” has long passages in which the human characters are turned into animals. “The Little Mermaid” started a string of movies with human characters, “Rescuers Down Under” being the (often forgotten) exception.
“The Little Mermaid” was also the first time Disney went back to their fairy tale movies in twenty years. And it was the first movie which used the Broadway formula. Now there have been movies with Broadway-like music beforehand. But Howard Ashman and Alan Menken perfected this structure to a degree that you can turn most movies made during this era into actual musicals with next to no trouble (which Disney eventually recognized too and did). “The Little Mermaid” was also the first fully animated Disney movie since “Dumbo” which won an Academy Award instead of just getting a nomination, and not just one, but two, in the usual categories “Best Original Score” and “Best Original Song”.
The movie which embodies the spirit of the era the best to me is “Beauty and the Beast”, and not just because it might be the critically most acclaimed movie in the Disney line-up. To be the first animated movie ever nominated for an Academy Award for the Best Picture is already an impressive feat which won’t be topped until an animated movie actually wins. To this day “Beauty and the Beast” is the only animated movie which did it before the number or possible nominations was raised from five to ten and the only traditional animated movie at all which managed this (all the others are Pixar-movies). “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” were unbelievable box-office successes, too.
“Beauty and the Beast” set the standards for this era more than even “The Little Mermaid”, since it not only has Menken and Ashman on the top of their game (not only did they win yet another two Academy Awards, no less than three songs were nominated for “Best Original Song”), it also took full advantage of the CAP system with its bold camera movements. As little bonus, the design of the Beast’s castle is based on the Château de Chambord, meaning on Renaissance architecture.
The Broadway formula became a blessing and a curse for Disney. A blessing because the studio reached greater highs than ever. A curse because Disney did nothing else as a consequence. Repeating the same structures resulted in a backlash and by the time Pocahontas hit the theatres more or less everyone was joking about Disney doing the same again and again. It didn’t help that Pocahontas, while top notch regarding animation and music, had a mediocre story at best.
Disney reacted by trying to mix the formula up a little bit “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” tried to do what the Classic Disney movies did by pushing the envelope a little bit, but was too inconsistent in tone in the end. “Hercules” tried to repeat the success of “Aladdin”, but ended up being kind of a mess. “Mulan” was a really good movie but not different enough on the surface to distinguish itself. Tarzan was the last attempt to connect to former successes, and the first movie since “Rescuers Down Under” in which the main character doesn’t sing (most of the songs are sung from the off instead). Also the last movie which got an Academy Award (Best Original Song) for a long, long time and that despite the fact that only two years later a new category for “Best Animated Feature” was introduced.
While Disney struggled, Pixar managed to offer the audience something new in both animation style and storytelling, and won one Award after the other. Disney needed a new approach – and nearly ten years to find it.
2000 – 2009 The Disney Pluralism
It is really hard to find a common theme with Disney movies during this time – or a common style. Some of them look like they could just as well be made during the Disney Renaissance, others are so different, you could easily sell them to be the product of another company.
Most animation companies which are active today were either founded in the late 1990s/early 2000s, or they were around earlier but decided to try their hand in movie making around this time. On top of this, it was the time of the block buster serials. “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” draw the audience into the theatres, while movies like “Treasure Planet” were overlooked. Disney even made itself concurrence with the Narnia franchise.
“Fantasia 2000” was a pet project of Roy Disney, trying to continue the legacy of “Fantasia”. “Dinosaurs” was the first try in CGI animation, relying heavily on displaying technical achievements in this area instead of creative story-telling. “The Emporer’s New Groove” was a little bit like a marriage between Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks, being a buddy movie (typical Pixar) with a lot of self-referential jokes (that was DeamWorks fad to joke about Disney) build around a redemption story. “Atlantis” and “Treasure Planet” are both non-musical movies with more than a hint of steampunk thrown in. “Lilo and Stitch” falls pretty much in its own category and might be the best attempt to redefine the studio, with his readiness to acknowledge real-life problems and discussing them in a Disney-typical setting. It also is a clear departure from the usual Disney style, which feels somehow more genuine despite being highly stylized.
“Brother Bear” kind of tried to go in the same direction just grander, but the movie lacks the unpredictability which is so much fun in “Lilo and Stitch”. Plus, at this point the company had already decided to close down the department for traditional animation, with “Home on the Range” concluding an era in a disappointing fashion. I guess, Disney kind of tried to end this era forcefully and starting a new one with CGI movie.
It didn’t really quite work out that way. Changing to CGI did nothing to allow Disney to find its voice again – at least no initially. The studio made one last attempt to relive the “good old times” with “The Princess and the Frog” before finally finding a new approach which worked. And imho it didn’t work because it was CGI, it worked because Disney found its own voice again.
2010 – current The Disney Rococo
History sometimes repeats itself. It repeats itself so much, I seriously considered calling this era “Neorenaissance”. Again Disney figured out the direction it wanted to take next, but this time it was not about human vs animal characters but about traditional animation vs CGI. Again there were movies which lead up to this new era, again there is a string of successful movies with one forgotten movie (“Winnie the Pooh”) in-between and again Disney is breaking all box office record. If “Hero 6” surpasses “Frozen” the same way “The Lion King” surpassed “Aladdin”, the pattern is complete.
But this isn’t the Disney Renaissance. It is not about repeating the same formula again and again. Oh, they do it with their Disney Princess franchise, but not with their other films. No, what Disney is really doing is building up on the properties they own and redoing old concepts but with a modern twist.
I think the defining movie of this era is “Tangled”, because of the mind-set behind it. CGI movies tend to be to a certain degree not about what you want to do, but about what you can do. But for “Tangled” the animators did their very best to bend CGI in the shape they needed to create a blend of traditional and CGI animation. The movement, the shadowing, the hair – it didn’t matter how much effort it was to write and rewrite software as long as the result looked how the animators wanted it.
Rococo is a very playful and detailed style which is very evident in “Tangled” – not exactly a surprise since the inspiration for the movie was the Rococo painting “The Swing”. But this detailed and playful style carried over to the movies after it, too. One can watch them again and again, and there are still new details to discover.
Just look at this and pay attention to all the details put in the textures:
The different kinds of fabric structure used for different kinds of clothes paired with flourish ornamentations, little embellishments and hidden jokes in the backgrounds and an overall sense of fun, all this are typical for the current Disney movies. As are one-adjective-titles and DreamWorks-Style trailers.
With Frozen Disney finally managed to produce a critical highly acclaimed movie and to get and Academy Award for “Best Animated Feature”. It took Disney only 13 years (though I personally think they deserved it for “Wreck-it-Ralph” already).
And that concludes my little overview…for now. I will certainly add to it when new movies hit the theatres. But for now it looks like Disney managed to struggle to the top again. I certainly look forward to their next movies.