It is generally agreed that there were two golden ages for feature Disney animation: the original Disney Golden Age which lasted from 1937 to 1942 and the Disney Renaissance which stretched from 1989 to 1999 (though some people will argue it started with the animation/live action hybrid noir Who Framed Roger Rabbit in 1987). While a great deal of my generation looks on the Renaissance period with fondness (and I do too, with the exception of Pocahontas and Fantasia 2000), I have always had a greater fascination with the early Disney features and the inventive short films which paved the way for them.
The five feature films of the original Disney Golden Age are a diverse bunch: a traditional fairy tale, a dark morality play based off a nightmarish children’s novel, a bold experiment in music and animation, a simple fable set in the modern day, and a coming-of-age story set in the natural world. Yet in spite of these differences, there is a shared set of characteristics between these five pictures, characteristics which set them apart from the rest of the studio’s productions. I’ve compiled a small list examining these characteristics and hope you’ll have a new appreciation for the films, as I continue to every time I watch them.
Following in the footsteps of the Mickey Mouse shorts which experimented with early sound technology and the visual splendor of the Silly Symphonies, the early Disney films strove to do more than just entertain the audience: the pushed the boundaries of the animated medium itself. Everyone knows how much of a gamble Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was back in the 1930s. Despite what the Disney studio and many a trivia book tell you, it was not the first feature-length animated film. Heck, it wasn’t even the second or the third or even the fourth and so on, but it was the first to be such a massive international success. Though the arguably shrill tones of Snow White’s voice and some of the character animation on the realistic human figures have aged, the film’s simplicity and genuineness set it apart to this day. In terms of visuals and story, Pinocchio and Bambi are quite similar, focusing on the coming-of-age of their titular characters while offering audiences some of the most gorgeous character and effects animation ever conceived.
Considering it was made on the cheap after the double whammy of Pinocchio and Fantasia’s failure to catch fire at the box office, Dumbo is sometimes viewed as “thin and unsatisfying” by critics such as Steven D. Greydanus of Decent Films. Animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston controversially snubbed the film in their book on the studio’s animation philosophy, Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, barely mentioning it while dedicating pages to lesser efforts such as Robin Hood and The Sword in the Stone. It is true that Dumbo does not attempt to innovate in the same way Fantasia or Bambi do, having more in common with Silly Symphonies like Elmer Elephant and the Technicolor remake of The Ugly Duckling. But that is where the greatness lies. This is an extension of the studio’s short format work, examining the world and problems of the main character. The stakes are not on an epic scale, but they are no less affecting. Few are the people who have never been an outsider; the universality of Dumbo’s plight and the simple, but powerful way it is told are what draws fans like Pixar’s John Lasseter or the late critic Gene Siskel to the film. This simplicity is a rare thing, especially in modern Disney fare where extra plot details and twists are thrown into the mix, the writers hoping to impress us with their occasionally clever subversions. Not that this is always bad, but the simplicity of Dumbo is a refreshing quality, at least for this filmgoer.
Fantasia was the biggest risk of them all and one which did not initially pay off. Road show prices and its experimental nature gave it a chilly reception from the general public, many of whom complained the film wasn’t suitable for their children what with those flirtatious centaurs and Chernabog’s demonic orgy. Critical response was mixed: some loved the film, but others (usually connoisseurs of classical music) loathed it with a passion. Critic Pauline Kael in particular referred to the film distastefully and admitted to walking out in the middle of the screening, calling it “kitsch.” Igor Stravinsky, whose Rite of Spring was featured in the movie, despised how it was re-arranged and cut.
Looking at the film now, it does have flaws, but it seems almost petty to disregard such visual sumptuousness as “kitsch” or a “failure.” Fantasia reminds me of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance in a number of ways: not everything gels perfectly, but it seems a miracle it was made at all. Today’s Disney has not the drive or courage to make a film as bold as the original Fantasia; just compare Fantasia 2000, a much less ambitious and adult work, one that doesn’t want to break any mold at all. I find that to be true of most of the studio’s modern work in general, which displays similar ambition only in “fits and starts” as critic Tim Brayton puts it.
Ruthless presentation of evil in the world
Anime expert Susan Napier claimed Disney was part of what she deemed “a cinema of reassurance.” I would not say these early efforts entirely fit such a description 100 percent. If there’s anything “reassuring” about these films, then it’s the idea that you can survive the evil present in the world and somehow find happiness.
One thing often pointed out is how these features are often filled to the brim with what TV Tropes would call “nightmare fuel.” There’s a kind of ruthlessness to the worlds of the early Disney features. Despite their catchy musical numbers, cute sidekicks, and doses of humor, danger and evil are never far in the background, conniving to swallow the heroes and heroines whole. The Queen wants to rip out Snow White’s heart as vengeance for the crime of being more beautiful than her, and when that plan fails, she tries to get her buried alive instead. Pinocchio is threatened with exploitation, death, and even the loss of his very identity during the infamous Pleasure Island episode. Fantasia has Mickey Mouse nearly drown due to his own hubris and the demonic god Chernabog conjure up a satanic orgy. The colorful world of Dumbo is peppered with social cruelty: Dumbo, essentially a young child, is mocked and humiliated in addition to be separated from the only figure in his life who loves him. And everyone knows how Bambi’s mother is taken from him, but there is also the continual threat of Man looming over all the animals in that forest, leading to an almost apocalyptic forest fire.
Animation instructor and critic Mark Mayerson has pointed out that the time period in which these films were made has a great deal to do with this sense of uncertainty and danger. During the Great Depression, people struggled economically and the common worldview was hardly a sunny one. Go back as far as Hollywood’s pre-code era, coincidentally aligned with the early years of the Depression, and in those films you can see a certain cynicism, a sense that the world is ruthless and that you have to struggle to make ends meet. The Disney studio itself was faced with a great deal of uncertainty about its future around the late 1930s and 1940s, being on the verge of bankruptcy more than once due to the lavishness of productions which did not always break even at the box office. And let’s not forget the world in the late 1930s, with the shadow of another global conflict quickly coming into fruition.
Passive but persevering protagonists
The passiveness of the protagonists has often been noted, usually criticized. Though Snow White’s reactionary nature is often examined by feminist critics, Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi are similarly more reactive than proactive; good never triumphs over evil so much as evades being destroyed or consumed by it. The church bells might banish Chernabog for another day, but it is clear he will return the next night. None of the villains in Pinocchio are stopped in any way and will continue to exploit and hurt the unwary. The Queen/Witch in Snow White is killed, but not due to any effort of the dwarfs whom she would have crushed with a boulder; the way that lightning comes down at her feet, it feels as though a higher power were intervening. About the only exception to this passivity is Bambi fighting his rival for the doe Faline. Compare this to later protagonists like Aladdin, Mulan, or Wreck-It-Ralph, who overcome their trials in a more active manner.
Personally, the passivity of these characters makes them seem more like everyman types to me. Like the earlier Mickey Mouse, the influence of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp character is apparent in all of these characters, a “little fellow” who overcomes all adversity. And you could even there is an autobiographical element on display: after all, isn’t Walt Disney himself often mythologized as being an everyman who was knocked around by unfeeling producers like Charles Mintz during most of the 1920s, coming to success only due to never giving up?
In the years since, Disney has become associated with safe formulaic blandness, which these early films were certainly not. Were it not for their existence, I’m not sure I would even call myself a Disney fan at all.