Walt Disney revolutionized animation. Before Disney, cartoons were crudely drawn and poorly animated with weak stories consisting of little more than quick gags. They were cheap and profitable, but Disney took them to the next level.
The earliest animation was the cartoon short, and Disney worked hard to raise the bar. One of the first Mickey Mouse shorts, Steamboat Willie (1928), was the first to synchronize music to animation. It was so successful that the two previous silent Mickey Mouse shorts were rereleased with new soundtracks. Disney went further with music in his cartoons with The Three Little Pigs (1933) by adding a theme song, “Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf,” which quickly became a best selling tune.
Disney took short animation to the next level in other ways with his Silly Symphonies series. Flowers And Trees (1932) was the first cartoon in Technicolor, and it won the first Academy Award for animation. Five years later, The Old Mill was the first short to use the multiplane camera, a Disney Studios invention which added an element of dimension to cartoons. The Old Mill also won an Oscar.
After his successes with shorts, Disney decided to expand his animation art to feature length cartoons. Many in Hollywood doubted if strong storylines and more realistic characters would work in animation, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) was called “Disney’s Folly” until it garnered critical praise and turned a handsome profit.
Some animated films like Dumbo (1941) and Cinderella (1950) were critical and financial successes, while others like Fantasia (1940) and Sleeping Beauty (1959) were less profitable in spite of favorable reviews. During this period the studio also discovered that they could re-release the animated features every seven years, generating 100% profit and making successes out of even the least profitable works.
Just after World War II, when the studio began to branch out into live action films, Disney had the idea to blend live action and animated sequences for Song of the South (1946). It worked so well that the studio tried the technique again with Mary Poppins (1964) and in pictures after Walt Disney’s death like Tron (1982) — which combined live actors with early computer animation — and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988).
It’s not hard to imagine that, without Disney’s contributions to the medium, we wouldn’t have the rich landscape of animation that we have today, from the studio’s inimitable princess films to the increasing creativity of Pixar.