Culture

Why Culture Warriors Should Understand the 10 Astounding Eras of Disney Animation's Evolution

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To my fellow Disneyphile Chris Queen,

You might recall that in January I offered up seven New Year’s resolutions that others could burgle from me Bilbo-style:

Usually when I’m working I have some combination of talk radio and Songza/Pandora on in the background. Now I’m going to replace the music with Disney films, cartoons, and documentaries, immersing myself in everything until I feel like I’ve really gotten a handle of the repeating themes and style.

This spring I utilized the PJ Lifestyle Cartoon at Noon feature to pursue this project, so far blogging through all 75 of the experimental Silly Symphony series, noting themes and cultural references. I’ll have more lists in the future explaining the significance of the series and its artistic depth but for now thsese first two are a good place to get started:

In March I responded to a Roger L. Simon column with an approach for “How Conservatives Can Conquer Hollywood.” The Walt Disney method of becoming a billionaire? Depict the battle of Good Vs. Evil with innovative technology:

Conservatives should be looking to the future and to new mediums of entertainment. Humans are not going to amuse themselves by sitting around staring at screens forever. I still believe in the Breitbartian idea that the battle for the culture is more important than the fight over political ideology. Where I’ve changed is in realizing that there’s actually a force more important and powerful to affect and control. Culture is driven by technology. Movable type came before the Gutenberg Bible. Edison’s film camera came before Hollywood. The techniques of animation had to be discovered by Disney and his animators through years of experimenting with Silly Symphony and Mickey Mouse shorts before Snow White could be achieved.

So yeah, politics is downstream of culture. But technology has the power to carve the shape of the river itself.

Chris, as we start to think in a bigger picture direction with our continued research into Disney history and ideology, here’s my attempt to sort of lay out a broad look at the territory. How does this sound as a way to think of the different periods that run across the company?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hVsSGLJBUNc

1. The Silent Era of Experimentation: 1923-1928

From the Alice shorts to Steamboat Willie

Chris, I’ve spent some time this year thinking about the 1930s and the pop culture of the era. Often when watching the Silly Symphonies before embedding them they’d have references of the period that would inspire google searches into the personalities and events of the time. I suppose it’s only sensible to dig back further to the silent era too and also the Alice in Wonderland series that combined live action with cartoons.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YHMSfeVQUIg

2. The Innovative Era of Cartoon Shorts: 1929-1937

The rise of Mickey Mouse and the Silly Symphonies

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LXfjHUztULY

It’s really neat to be able to watch the animation evolve over the course of the decade from the first black-and-white sound cartoons on to color and then onto more elaborate effects, plot-lines, and memorable characters.

Click here for an index of all 75 Silly Symphonies I collected on YouTube.

I think cultural activists should really study the Silly Symphonies especially when thinking about animation approaches for today’s YouTube audience.

3. The Golden Era of Feature Length Animation: 1938-1941

From Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs through Bambi

A very enlightening interview with Wilfred Jackson, one of my favorite animators of this and the previous period in Disney history:

Walt was a better story man than any of the storymen he could hire, he was a better director than any of the directors he could hire, but he wasn’t a better animator than any of the animators he could hire. At that point (“Snow White” and “Pinocchio”) the direction was very largely a matter of trying hard to get on the screen what you understood Walt to want on the screen.

Now in later years — the transition began after Pinocchio — but in later years there was a gradual withdrawal on Walt’s part of the intimate, close working on all details with every department, and he began to leave more and more to the judgment of the animators, to the judgment of the directors, and of the story department. He controlled things along a broader base. The whole general concept was still definitely subject to his approval. When the characters were developed to his satisfaction, then it was all right to go ahead with it, but in later years we were much more on out own, and the evolution as gradually gone to the point where Woolie’s doing the whole thing now.

But when it came to judging audience values, and judging whether the thing was going to tell the story in a way the audience would enjoy, Walt really took all that on himself. I remember distinctly Walt saying after “Pinocchio” was done, “I don’t ever want to work that hard on another picture like I did on ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Snow White’.” He just about wore himself out trying to do every last little thing

Chris, you know me and my perennial obsession this year: I seriously have come to regard Fantasia as Disney’s most profound expression of his moral philosophy, of using creativity and capitalism to triumph over nature, death, and evil incarnate. With each reviewing and with listening to the THREE DIFFERENT AUDIO COMMENTARIES new layers just unfold with each subsequent viewing.

Plans for the future: I will get around to finishing my list ranking all of the Disney animated films by the end of the year and I will have a top 10 list making the case for Fantasia as not just Disney’s greatest film, but perhaps the greatest film, period. Perhaps I’ll frame it this way to express my view of how it fits in Disney’s development in drawing a weird comparison to James Joyce: Dubliners is to the Silly Symphonies as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as Ulysses is to Pinocchio and as Finnegans Wake is to Fantasia. It’s a film filled with hidden mystery — a puzzle to be solved — that has baffled many expecting another Snow White.

In Fantasia Disney creates his most comprehensive vision of the universe — each piece is important in framing a broader narrative encompassing everything. I’ll explore it in more depth soon…

Films of the period:

  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
  • Pinocchio
  • Fantasia
  • Dumbo
  • Bambi

4. The War Era of Shattered Narratives: 1942-1949

From Saludos Amigos through The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad

During the World War II years and its aftermath Disney was not able to put together the resources for new feature-length animated projects. The next six films in the Disney canon are generally regarded as some of the weakest, though many of us have a soft spot for Mr Toad, the high point of the era. As “package films” they just don’t have the cohesion, punch, and depth of Fantasia, though within them there are some worthy, standalone moments…

Films of the period:

  • Saludos Amigos
  • The Three Caballeros
  • Make Mine Music
  • Fun and Fancy Free
  • Melody Time
  • The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CUxAlnYP5aU

5. The Silver Era of Animation’s Revival: 1950-1959

From Cinderella through Sleeping Beauty

During the ’50s Disney reasserted its dominance of the medium, releasing five animated features each varying in tone and style but sharing the traditional, gorgeous, painted Disney animated look.

Chris, once I’ve finally overdosed on Fantasia and need another great one to deconstruct — the whole underlying, long-term plan with these studies is so we know what to pursue in our own writing/artistic/activist endeavors — I think it’ll be Alice in Wonderland or Sleeping Beauty on repeat for a bit. I recall you put Alice on your overrated list. I’ll forgive you for that. It is indeed an oddball picture without the teeth of Disney’s more developed work but I think buried within it there are some esoteric goodies waiting to be revealed. Figuring out the inspirations and symbolism that Lewis Carroll embedded into Alice has been on my to-do list for awhile. Might be something we should explore and perhaps invite other interested writers to collaborate on investigating in new media format…

Films of the period:

  • Cinderella
  • Alice in Wonderland
  • Peter Pan
  • Lady and the Tramp
  • Sleeping Beauty

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZ6Ke0jvJ-w

6. The Modern Era of a Disney Drawn to TV and Theme Parks: 1960-1967

From 101 Dalmatians through Walt Disney’s death in 1966 and the release of The Jungle Book

By this time in Disney’s life and career he was aiming much bigger than animated cartoons. He was building theme parks and planning futurist utopian cities!

While the three films of this period do still have great value, they don’t compete with the earlier greats and some of the bright lights of the years yet to come. Both as narratives and as visual artistry they fall short. The Xerox-based technology for transferring drawings to cells had become the new standard, to much diminished visual results.

(Though, I will give Sword in the Stone some focused analysis at some point, given my obvious fondness for the Merlin archetype.)

Films of the period:

  • One Hundred and One Dalmatians
  • The Sword in the Stone
  • The Jungle Book

7. The Dark Era of a Studio Adrift: 1968-1988

From The Aristocats through Oliver and Company

During the 1970s and 1980s the Disney studio was changing generations both in animators and in management. It was a lost in the wilderness time for the company with some of the most un-Disney pictures, like The Black Cauldron. (Chris, I do not share you appreciation for it, as it made your underrated list.)

I detest Oliver and Company and The Aristocats. They are the worst films in the Disney canon, both the opener and closer of this wobbly time.

Films of the period:

  • The Aristocats
  • Robin Hood
  • The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
  • The Rescuers
  • The Fox and the Hound
  • The Black Cauldron
  • The Great Mouse Detective
  • Oliver & Company

8. The Renaissance Era: 1989-1994

From The Little Mermaid through The Lion King

There’s perhaps an argument to be made someday that the Disney films of this period are the supreme animated achievement of the baby boomer generation. I’ll have to double-check the key people most responsible for writing and directing and managing the company during this time but if memory serves this is when the new generation really hit its stride.

BTW, I’m somewhat contrarian and partisan in my own opinions of the era. I’m an advocate of Beauty and the Beast as the second best Disney film (after Fantasia, of courseand Aladdin as another masterpiece. While I respect The Little Mermaid and The Lion King for their visual and musical strengths they’ll both be on my most overrated Disney list whenever I get around to writing it. I don’t like the characters that much and the stories aren’t as compelling. They just get too much slack cut because of the music.

Films of the period:

  • The Little Mermaid
  • The Rescuers Down Under
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • Aladdin
  • The Lion King

9. The Postmodernist Decadent Era and the Decline of Traditional Animation: 1995-2004

From Pocahontas through Home on the Range

The Lion King was the peak of Disney’s animated success commercially and critically. For the next 10 years the animation output gradually returned to the same confusion, experimentation, and darkness of the ’70s and ’80s eras as the Disney formula was again neglected.

BTW: the differences between the conclusions of Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 tell you everything about how the company had changed. While there’s a lot to like in Fantasia 2000 it lays out a distinctly different moral vision. Where 1940’s Fantasia featured an explicitly Judeo-Christian picture of good vs evil, Fantasia 2000 concluded with a nature goddess rising and falling and being reborn. It’s symbolic of how the company’s values had shifted to greater primitivism.

I’ll dissect this further in another list devoted to the films of this period but it’s worth saying now: these are the most New Age, anti-Western, Rousseauist, and environmentalist films of the Disney canon.

Films of the period:

  • Pocahontas
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame
  • Hercules
  • Mulan
  • Tarzan
  • Fantasia 2000
  • Dinosaur
  • The Emperor’s New Groove
  • Atlantis: The Lost Empire
  • Lilo & Stitch
  • Treasure Planet
  • Brother Bear
  • Home on the Range

10. The Digital Era of Computer Animation: 2005-Present

From Chicken Little through Frozen

Since Disney has switched to mostly computer animation (with the exceptions of the excellent Winnie the Pooh and Princess and the Frog) it’s been hit and miss. Their first three — Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons, and Bolt — are thematically similar to the experimental, confused films of the previous era. They’re skippable and near the bottom of my rankings.

Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph are much more successful, though — very encouraging for the future of Disney animation.

I do not share the enthusiasm for Frozen, though, which seems ridiculously overrated and has such a lame, ham-fisted political/cultural message.

Films of the period:

  • Chicken Little
  • Meet the Robinsons
  • Bolt
  • The Princess and the Frog
  • Tangled
  • Winnie the Pooh
  • Wreck-It Ralph
  • Frozen

So what do you think? Is this a good break-down for maybe studying how the culture and technology of each era was reflected in the Disney films of the time?

Best wishes to you and thanks for you consistently compelling articles,

David