Though it’s hard to imagine it today, cartoons existed long before the television. In the late 1920s, feature length animation was nothing more than a radical experiment, but silent cartoon shorts were relatively common and shown in movie theaters. This infancy of American animation would shortly give way to one of the style’s most creative periods.
According to most film historians’ definition, the Golden Age of American Animation began with the inception of sound-synchronized cartoons in 1928. The first talking cartoon was a short by Walt Disney’s animation studio called Steamboat Willie. The star of the eight-minute film later became the ubiquitous symbol of a conglomerate: Mickey Mouse.
The short was a massive success, and from that point on, two things were clear: 1) the world wanted sound cartoons, which studios quickly noticed, and 2) Walt Disney, the brain behind Steamboat Willie, was animations’s biggest innovator.
In 1934, Disney decided to take another gamble: A feature-length animated film: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Legend has it that studio executives and filmmakers around Hollywood called his project “Disney’s folly” during production. Certainly, most reasonable businesspeople would have looked at the film’s troublesome development and expected a creative mess and a commercial flop.
First, Disney’s budget ballooned from a quarter million to nearly eight times that, a mammoth budget for the time. Next, most animation and industry experts doubted that the market had any interest a ninety minute cartoon. The perfectionist Disney also required such high standards of his crew of animators – the biggest and most talented ever assembled at that point – that it was sometimes a serious strain on the workers.
There was also a (valid) concern that Disney and crew were making up what they were doing on the fly: The characters and story took many drastic shifts throughout writing and production. Much film produced was scrapped as inconsequential to the film, a huge waste of money and time that devastated several of the animators working.
There was also another, not-so-small problem: The technology at the time didn’t allow for what Disney wanted his staff to create. The team had to innovate again and again just to meet Disney’s high expectations, which didn’t allow for shortcuts or cop-outs.
But, when all was said and done, Disney looked the genius. The rest of the world – including his doubtful wife – became the foolish skeptic. The initial screening, the audience of which contained some of the most powerful people in the industry, was a rousing success that received a standing ovation.
Everyone from Time Magazine to The New York Times to the Academy Awards thanked Disney for expanding the boundaries of cinema. But the biggest thank you of all came from audiences: To this day, Snow White ranks in the top ten highest grossing films in US box office history, adjusted for inflation. The film’s adept balance of emotional, fairy-tale storytelling and raucous comedy is beloved to this day.
The greatest aesthetic legacy of Snow White is its intricate, hand-crafted visuals that have a timeless look to them. The backgrounds and scenery were often hand-painted with tremendous detail, even if they were on screen for only a few seconds. Animation buffs who care more about the technical, visual accomplishment than story still swear by Snow White as the greatest animated film of all time, a notion the AFI backed a few years ago.
From 1937 onwards, the most notable American feature-length productions of the Golden Age of American Animation came under the guidance of Walt Disney. Several of his next fifteen films have been treated well by history and are regarded as some of the crowning achievements in animation history.
After his enormous success with Snow White, Disney received a vote of confidence from his financial backers. With a blank check, he started work on Pinocchio. The production of his sophomore effort was just as turbulent as the development of Snow White, with many of the same hurdles – Disney’s perfection, unclear tone, re-writes in story, technical barriers – and some new ones. The most notable new distraction was the brewing conflict in Europe.
By the time the film was released in 1940, an increasingly distracted public shunned the final product despite critical acclaim, even from the few writers who didn’t adore Snow White. Part of the problem was Pinocchio’s darker, scarier tone and lack of underdog buzz that Disney’s first film received. By the end of its first theatrical run, Pinocchio had recouped barely half of its $2.3 million budget.
It’s a shame that Pinocchio didn’t catch the nation’s zeitgeist the way Snow White did; both in terms of storytelling and technical animation, it’s a major step forward. Had it proven another big moneymaker, Disney could have aimed even higher in ensuing years and had the backing to make it happen.
Meanwhile, Disney was working on another project, nearly as ambitious and groundbreaking as Snow White had been. Fantasia was initially conceived as a new series to be iterated annually, but after animation costs skyrocketed, it was reworked as a feature.
Jerry Beck’s Animated Movie Guide describes Fantasia (1940) as “an ambitious attempt to fuse classical music, animation, and state-of-the-art technology into what Walt Disney hoped would represent a new form of entertainment.” A collection of seven no-dialog stories interpreting popular classical pieces, Fantasia stretched the boundaries of animation even more than Pinocchio. Its development caused the innovation of several moviemaking and screening technologies, most notably multi-channel surround sound.
Today, Fantasia is a favorite among animation fiends due to its visually stunning sequences. It also has a reputation of being Disney’s film to most appeal to intellectual audiences, with its mythic proportions and use of classical music – something that is today considered high art. Despite this reputation, the original was conceived as a work for the masses, and each of the songs were quite popular and well-known at the time.
Unlike Snow White and Pinocchio, Fantasia received only mixed praise from critics at the time of its release. Many felt Disney had stretched animation too far; that his attempts to force a visual narrative onto songs hurt both the stories and the beauty of the music; and that the attempt to make abstract art accessible to the public diluted its effectiveness.
There are many fascinating historical tidbits surrounding Fantasia. Apart from its foresight into surround sound, perhaps the most compelling story about Fantasia is that it spiked in popularity during the late 1960s and early 1970s, right around the time American youth began experimenting with marijuana and LSD. Disney tacitly embraced the film’s cult success with drug-users, even using psychedelic advertising for Fantasia’s 1969 re-release.
Financially, the film was a complete disaster upon its initial 1940 release. Few theaters could even screen the movie in its full glory because of its sound system requirements. Fantasia just about ruined investors’ trust in Disney.
Short of cash and trust from investors, Disney needed to recoup some of his losses from Fantasia and Pinocchio. His next feature, Dumbo, was made on a shoestring budget compared to his earlier features. Conceived primarily as a cash-grab, Dumbo clocked in at a skimpy 64 minutes and was made for less than $800,000. Despite its lean storytelling – or perhaps because of it – Dumbo was a commercial success(*) upon its 1941 release and gave Disney a chance to make one more all-out creative effort: Bambi.
(*) Though it remains a popular cornerstone of Disney’s back-catalog, there has been some backlash against Dumbo due to some crow characters who resemble black stereotypes. It wasn’t the first or last instance of racial caricature by the studio: Fantasia had a scene with a slave centaur that has distinctly black features. Peter Pan devoted a song to wondering why the “Red Man,” also called the “Injun” in the film, has red skin. Even as late as the 1990s, in films like Aladdin and The Lion King, Disney was accused of using offensive racial caricatures.
Creatively, Dumbo was a significant accomplishment, too. Though it limits the intoxicating décor of his earlier films and his next film, it retains the emotional core that is a trademark of Disney’s best movies.
The book Bambi was based on – along with early versions of the film – painted a much darker and more violent film. Beck’s Guide relates a story of an early draft of film including a scene with a human corpse following a hunting accident. It so mortified early screening audiences that Disney reluctantly cut it from the film.
The multi-year arc of Bambi (1942) was a more ambitious story than either Pinocchio or Snow White, though the film ended up shorter than either. Bambi certainly ranks as one of the most luscious animated films ever released, and its low-dialog storytelling has aged nicely. It’s beautiful to look at, with an appropriately engaging story and many playful, memorable scenes.
The scene of Bambi’s mother’s death has gone down in history as one of the most traumatizing in any family film, though it’s a bit tame in comparison to the significantly more moving death of Mufasa that would startle audiences a half century later in The Lion King (1995).
Bambi, like Pinocchio and Fantasia, was a box office flop. It’s now seen as the last animated film during Walt Disney’s peak creative era, generally agreed to be the pre-war years through 1942. Constrained budgets, Walt Disney’s growing interest in live-action film and theme park design, and the reduced labor due to wartime efforts prevented later works receiving the level of detail that Disney’s first four features – Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Bambi – received.
Despite the decline in quality of Disney’s features, most animation historians do not consider Bambi the conclusion of the Golden Age. Other animators, such as Tex Avery, continued producing first-rate shorts, and even Disney’s lesser works from the 1950s have been treated kindly by audiences.
Nonetheless, Bambi was the end of a chapter for Disney’s animated features. His studio’s next six animated films were “package films,” or sets of two to ten smaller films – from 1942’s Saludos Amigos to 1949’s The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad – that were a financial necessity. Much of Disney’s staff had left the studio either to fight or to help the US make propaganda films. The remaining workers churned out mini-films as fast as possible. Creatively, they stand several rungs below the full-feature stories that preceded and followed them in the Disney oeuvre.
Read part 2, which covers Disney’s 1950 all-in gamble, and the final decade of Disney’s golden age