A beginner’s guide to Disney animated movies
Nathanael Smith | On 26, Mar 2020
One of the big selling points of Disney+ is having the widest array of Disney’s animated classics all in one streaming platform. Nostalgic millennials will wrap themselves in the comfort blanket of Aladdin, parents will be introducing their children to their childhood favourites and kids around the country will be demanding Frozen at the top of their voices, little realising that Moana and Tangled are both there and arguably superior. Even grandparents will be liable to go a little misty-eyed when thinking about the classics that they saw in the cinema. Truly, Disney’s animated canon – the 59 features released in cinemas by Walt Disney Animation Studios – has had a lasting, intergenerational impact.
But why? What is it about the output of this legendary animation studio that has so captured the imaginations of countless children for over 80 years? Why is the prospect of rewatching a kid’s animation from the early 1990s as enticing a prospect for subscribers as something like Avengers: Endgame or a new Star Wars series?
Nostalgia obviously plays a big factor. Ruthless marketing and wide distribution for several decades have meant that most children in the UK since 1937 will have encountered one or more of these films in their childhood. Nostalgia is currency today, enticing billions of dollars out of the public simply for the privilege of remembering something they liked as a child. It really is intoxicating, though, experiencing the Proustian rush of returning to childhood, feeling that sensation of being swept away to magical lands just like you did before political and existential crises wormed their way into your subconscious.
Disneyland probably also contributes to the continued cultural awareness of these animated films. If a movie makes it into the parades, rides or character shows of the theme parks, it is much more likely to remain as a family favourite than more conspicuously absent characters. Similarly, Disney’s stage shows, live action remakes and anniversary re-releases on physical media have helped to keep the legendary status of these films alive. The advent of Disney+ ensures their continued presence in the cultural memory for a long time yet.
However, the one overwhelming reason that has guaranteed the legacy of Disney’s animated canon is this: they’re really, really good films.
Ever since 1937, when the studio released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – in defiance of critics who thought that you couldn’t cel-animate an entire feature film – Disney’s animation department has been using the medium in exhilarating, moving and enchanting ways. Guided at first by the Nine Old Men, a team of animators who literally wrote the book on character animation, the studio single-mindedly dedicated itself to storytelling that carried with it a sense of magic. And it worked.
Not every era of Disney has been successful, but its overall consistency is remarkable. The studio has had to change with the times and finding a common thread between their entire animated output is challenging. Princesses? Not for large chunks of the 1960s and 1970s. Animation style? It varies wildly. Songs? Not in the 2000s or in some of the Pixar-aping recent films. Each season of the studio has brought different preoccupations, ideas and aesthetics to the table, but that ability to shift and change with the times has kept the studio alive – albeit only just in the 1980s. The one thing that connects all of the finest films from the House of Mouse is the magic; these films cast a spell.
Not sure where to start on Disney+? Wondering what goes with what? Here’s your quick-fire guide to the different eras of Disney:
The Golden Age (1937 to 1942)
Five films marked the audacious start of the studio’s feature animation output and each one is a glorious work of art, although excitement levels among younger viewers may vary. Sure, the animation enthusiast will revel in the experimentalism of Fantasia, the glorious details of Snow White or the lush landscapes of Bambi. Children used to the empowerment anthems of modern Disney and more action-packed fare might find it just a little… dull. These are slower, quieter films, although Snow White still possesses to the ability to terrify children with its flight to the woods.
The five films of the Golden Age are undisputed masterpieces from an era when the studio threw everything into making artistic, soulful films. However, they also established some of its more negative hallmarks. Sentimentalism is rampant, we’re introduced to the vapid princess archetype and there’s some queasy racial stereotyping that may or may not get removed from these digital re-releases. But there’s also joyful vibrancy and life to these films, featuring some of the finest animation that Disney has ever achieved.
The Package Years (1943 to 1949)
It may be hard to believe, given their lasting fame, but the golden age films didn’t make Disney enough money. As the war arrived and animators were tasked with making propaganda for the US government, Disney needed a cheap way to make films. So they started releasing “Package Movies”, a series of films that consisted of cobbled together shorts of varying quality. Patching together animated shorts with live-action sequences and very little thematic cohesion leads a very inconsistent era. Each film has at least one interesting segment in it, but there’s a whole lot of nonsense to endure if you’re a completionist working through the entire catalogue.
The highlights of this era include Make Mine Music, a sort of jazzy Fantasia featuring much looser animation set to more modern music with some genuinely inventive moments, and a sequence in Melody Time featuring Flight of the Bumblebee. The greatest film of the era, however, and one that deserves to be seen by a wider audience, is the utterly mad The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad, which tells two totally incongruous stories with real style and flair – it is perhaps a bit too creepy for younger viewers, though.
The Iconic Fifties (1950 to 1959)
Once Disney rustled up a bit more cash and returned its focus to feature films, it rediscovered its flair for boundary-pushing animation and vividly imaginative cinema. The 1950s produced a lot of the films we now consider classics, with the studio firing on all cylinders as it also opened its new theme park in Anaheim, California. The animators experimented with new formats too – widescreen, for instance, was used to wonderful effect in Sleeping Beauty and Lady and the Tramp.
This was when Disney really established some of its tropes – Cinderella and Aurora entered the Princess pantheon, Lady and the Tramp cemented the love of anthropomorphised animals and Peter Pan showed the studio’s propensity for spit-take moments of racism. There’s not much cohesion to this era, however. Each film looks and feels little different as the animators worked out which style worked best and what type of story they wanted to tell. The result is a selection of uniquely charming films, with the oddball standout being Alice in Wonderland.
The Jazzy Reitherman Years (1961 to 1977)
If the films of the 1950s all look different, then the 1960s and 1970s marked a time when all the studio’s output looked suspiciously similar. This was when one director, the great Wolfgang “Woolie” Reitherman oversaw the films, giving them all a very particular tone. The animation is scratchier and less detailed, the music is jazzier and the same voice artists keep popping up in every film. The mellifluous tones of Phil Harris (Thomas O’Malley, Baloo and Little John) make everything feel immediately more laid-back.
Part of the cohesion of this era is down to the fact that the thrifty Reitherman wilfully self-plagiarised. He saw no reason not to recycle the character animation from The Jungle Book in Robin Hood, so much so that entire sequences seem to be reused. The introduction of the Xerox machine to animation totally changed the aesthetic of Disney’s output, enabling the prolific Reitherman to produce a lot of fun, zippy films with this new technology. Some, such as the The word in the Stone, aren’t as memorable as the rest. Others, such as The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and The Rescuers, feel like undiscovered gems in a canon packed with classics.
The Ailing Eighties (1981 to 1988)
The 1980s marked another identity crisis for Disney. This is the time when Tim Burton and Don Bluth were fired, as different creatives fought for the soul and identity of the company. Uncertainty during this era emerges in the surprising darkness of films such as The Black Cauldron and The Fox and the Hound. Computer Generated Imagery started sneaking into cinemas and the House of Mouse didn’t know what to do. John Lasseter was pushing for entire films to be computer generated and he got the boot as a result. CGI still made its first appearance during this confused era, emerging in a particularly thrilling action sequence in Basil: The Great Mouse Detective.
The films from this era all contain some merit, even if they feel like outliers within the canon. The Fox and the Hound is gorgeously melancholic, Oliver and Company has a great soundtrack and Basil: The Great Mouse Detective is a whole load of fun. They just don’t feel especially Disney.
The Disney Renaissance (1989 to 1994/1999)
This is the era that most people get nostalgic for – the season that the studio is relentlessly plumbing for live-action remakes to make even more money. A change in leadership and direction, a tiny-waisted mermaid and some Broadway-worthy showtunes changed the fortunes of Disney in a big way. The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and Aladdin are all iconic properties now, but the latter half of the 1990s produced some equally entertaining films that are tonally and stylistically very similar to the first few films of the era. Think broadly sketched heroic journeys, unforgettable earworms and too many sidekicks.
This is the era that Buzzfeed listicles obsess over, millennials swoon over and for which cinemagoers hand money over. While many of the tropes of the time have become tiresome and films such as Pocahontas wouldn’t/shouldn’t succeed today, it’s easy to forget that these films became titanically successful because they’re terrific. Vividly colourful landscapes, heart-stopping musical numbers and beautifully paced storytelling mean that these remain some of the best films in the Disney canon.
The Tentatively Modern Years (2000 to 2009)
However, even Disney couldn’t hold off the tide of CG animation for long. Blending it with hand-drawn animation only went so far as Pixar rose to prominence at the box office and DreamWorks charged into the scene trying desperately to imitate them. Suddenly the formulas that had proven so successful for Disney didn’t seem to be working quite so well and it was time for another identity crisis.
At times in the early 21st century, Disney tried to join in with the CG game, creating execrable works such as Chicken Little, while at others they tried to imitate instead the zany humour of more popular films, as in The Emperor’s New Groove. There are interesting ideas floating in films such as Atlantis: The Lost Empire, but so much of this era of Disney is easily forgettable. Who remembers a single frame from Home on the Range or Bolt? In an increasingly competitive marketplace, Disney struggled to find a cohesive or compelling voice. The era ended with a glorious swansong for hand-drawn animation in the form of The Princess and the Frog. It felt like Disney of the 90s once more, blending modern sensibilities with timeless sincerity, set to a thrilling soundtrack and vibrant animation. But hand-drawn animation had lost and, one Winnie the Pooh outing excepted, the era of CG had now fully arrived.
The Disney Reinvention (2010 to present)
Today we’re at the full Disney ascendancy, with the company not only owning its own animation studios but also Pixar, Blue Sky, Fox, Marvel, Lucasfilm and more. They know how to make money and they know how to make films and occasionally these two ideas seem to be at war with one another. There’s no denying the dazzling creativity behind Moana and Tangled, but everything the studio releases now risks feeling like a calculation. Princesses have been reinvented into feisty feminists, but only as far as the US family market will allow them to be. Elsewhere they’re taking on racism in the confused Zootropolis or trying to remain cool and relevant with superhero entry Big Hero 6.
Frozen II and Ralph Breaks the Internet marked a worrying swerve into big-budget sequels, but the future looks bright with Raya and the Last Dragon. Disney are undoubtedly producing some fine films at the moment and the magic is still just about there, but it’s hard not to long for some old-fashioned charm. No doubt the studio will continue to evolve and push the boundaries of animation for many years into the future. There’s even less doubt that we will all be watching.
The Disney animated collection is available on Disney+ UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription or a £79.99 yearly subscription.