Disneyology 101: The Golden Age

For years I refused to watch any kind of children’s or family movie and while I don’t think I was missing out of a whole lot I did eventually come to realize that if I wanted to be a fully rounded film expert I probably shouldn’t be completely cutting myself off from one of the most popular genres in all of film.  So, in 2011 I embarked on a little viewing odyssey to catch up on the acclaimed films of the Pixar animation studio and when I was done with that I expanded my little odyssey to get a broader knowledge of the contemporary family film landscape.  However, something was missing.  I’d been focusing so much on the modern state of family cinema that I hadn’t really gotten a better idea of the broader history that had led us to that point.   That will end with my next series which will go all the way back and examine the roots of this genre vis-a-vis the studio that pretty much invented it: Disney.  This will be a little different from my other two series in that I had a little more experience with some of these movies… sort of.  I know I’ve seen some of these movies during my youth but that was so long ago that I’m not even really sure at this point which ones I actually saw in their entirety and which ones I just saw a few clips of at one point.   Either way I think it would be for the best to give them a view with adult eyes to better appreciate their place in film history and to see if they actually hold up.  From a writing perspective this series will be a little different than the earlier series in that I’m taking something of a quantity over quality approach to my write-ups.  I’m thinking I’ll be making a bunch of short-ish reviews rather than the long ones I wrote for the other two series.  I’m also not entirely sure what the pacing on this is going to be and I am planning to take some longish breaks at certain points in the series, so we’ll see how things develop.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

1937 Snow WhiteWhere to begin with Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?  To a certain extent it’s a movie you don’t even need to watch in order to know it has earned a place in film history.  No matter the film’s actual pros and cons, the fact remains that it was the first feature length animated film and that alone makes it a clear landmark and for whatever flaws it has (and it has many) they can all kind of be understood given that Disney was learning the grammar for this kind of movie from scratch in a number of ways.  The film’s greatest asset, by far, is its animation.  Disney had carefully honed their animation style in the decade between Steamboat Willie and this feature debut and they came out of the gate with a pretty fully formed and fluid animation style which only seems better with age.  You can really tell that most of what’s onscreen here was painstakingly hand drawn and it gives you an idea of just how many corners are cut in modern 2D animation on television and elsewhere and beyond the film’s technical merits it definitely has some cool visual design elements.  The film’s audio elements, by contrast, haven’t aged nearly as well.  The film’s voice acting generally feels stilted in much the way a lot of the early talkies were and Adriana Caselotti’s performance as the title character is particularly weak.

Truth be told, Caselotti’s squeaky voice performance is emblematic of a bigger problem: Snow White is a really terrible character.  There’s just nothing to this woman; she’s everything that people claim is wrong about the stereotypical Disney Princess.  She begins the movie as this flawless paragon of “traditional” femininity and doesn’t evolve in the slightest throughout the movie.  After being chased out of town under threat of death she just magically gets accepted by all the forest animals (who all have this disturbing grin on their faces), drifts into the home of the seven dwarves, and is quickly accepted as this perfect wife/mother figure by them.  We get no evidence that she has a single interesting thought and also proves herself to be this naïve moron who’s stupid enough to eat a poisoned apple given to her by someone who is obviously a witch (a move that even the woodland animals are smart enough not to fall for).  The film doesn’t view the fact that Snow White is almost killed by one of the dumbest murder schemes in fairy tale history as a character flaw so much as a natural result of her apparently desirable innocence and she’s quickly saved by a deus ex machine of a prince who just shows up to fall in love with her for no reason and save her with a basically unearned kiss.  When you watch stuff like this you start to get a better idea why the moderately well-developed protagonists of movies like Frozen were as heavily praised as they were.

Most of the character problems I outlined above could easily be chalked up to problems that are inherit to bringing a fairy tale to the screen and I’m not unsympathetic with that, but this movie has other problems that are more inherently cinematic, namely that the film has a pretty strange story structure and pace to it.  The film really streamlines its own first act, relegating most of the exposition to a text introduction, which is strange because there really isn’t a lot of story here and the rest of the film actually feels pretty padded.  An inordinate amount of time is spent with Snow White just hanging around with the dwarfs and the story kind of comes to a halt as we wait for the witch to finally show up.  At this point the film basically turns into a slapstick comedy with cartoony gags that are sort of interestingly staged but which I wouldn’t say I found to be particularly funny and as such the film’s rather long second act gets rather dull at a certain point.  So when it comes to this movie I’d say it’s something I have a certain respect for and a certain interest in for its place in film history but which I can’t say I particularly “liked” exactly.  Fortunately for Walt Disney that isn’t the dominant opinion about it.  This thing was a humongous success when it came out and was briefly the highest grossing movie of all time until Gone With the Wind came along.  Adjusted for inflation and including all the re-releases the film remains the studio’s biggest hit of all time and gave Disney a whole lot of momentum that would sustain them through tough times ahead.


Pinocchio (1940)

1940 PinocchioSnow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a resounding financial success for Disney and with that under his belt Walt Disney decided to pull out all the stops and make his follow-up project bigger, better, and more impressive and in many ways he succeeded.  Pinocchio cost twice as much to make as Snow White and you can definitely see the money up on the screen.  There are more locations, more moving parts, and more animation effects in this movie and they definitely go a long way to making it feel more like a fully formed vision than Disney’s debut.  There are a lot of showy moments in this like an early money-shot of Geppetto’s village that begins above the skyline with birds in the foreground and zooms in on a building below with various people walking around on the roads below.  Later of course there’s the film’s finale where the principal characters escape from a whale that creates a bunch of cool splashy effects on the ocean.  There’s substantially more here in terms of big visual set-pieces like that than there were in Snow White (which largely seemed to take place in one house) and in general it’s just a more exciting watch.  The voice acting is also generally improved in so much as the actors don’t feel distractingly stilted and I might even single out Cliff Edwards’ performance as Jiminy Cricket as being downright charming in a folksy kind of way.

In terms of story-telling the film is also a big step forward, but perhaps not as big of a one as it needed to be.  On its face, the storytelling here is really kind of weird.  The whole movie seems to operate on a strange sort of dream logic where a puppet that comes to life is just blithely told to go off to school literally the next day by a father figure who doesn’t even take a day to consider the craziness that just came into his life.  It’s a film where almost all of the characters are just regular humans but two random anthropomorphic animals walk into the film and interact with humans out of nowhere, where there’s a weird nightmarish episode set at an island where naughty boys are turned to donkeys in what has to be one of the least efficient scams ever, and where characters return home in time to learn via a note that their father figure just happened to be swallowed by a whale in what has to be one of the most random third act developments you can think of.  All that is… pretty far removed from the conventional way stories are supposed to be structured and an audience’s willingness to go along with it may vary.  It’s also interesting that the film doesn’t really have one central villain but various ones like Stromboli, Foulfellow, the coachman, and the whale, none of whom are even defeated by the end.

If the movie has one fatal flaw it is its simple moralizing and borderline preachiness.  It’s not hard to see what the message of the movie is: work hard, listen to your parents, develop morals, and go to school and you’ll be a success.  The film doesn’t hide any of this in the slightest, it pretty much comes out and says all of it and even goes so far as to declare a character to be the protagonists’ conscience and one of its villains as temptation.   This attempt to speak directly to the smallest of children and instill these very middle class American values upon them all comes off  a little simplistic and almost PSA-ish and gives you a slightly queasy sense that you’re being preached to by a condescending rich guy who thinks he knows what’s best for you.  Still, there is at least something there at the center of this one, which is probably more than I can say about the last Disney movie and the film’s advanced ambitions alone make it a pretty essential part of the Disney cannon.  Oddly enough, the movie was actually something of a failure at the box office in its initial release.  Part of that was simply due to the fact that they couldn’t rely on European box office returns due to the war, but the novelty of seeing a cartoon at feature length had also worn off and while the film was certainly popular by most standards it actually didn’t make its entire budget back and start making a profit until a later re-release.


Fantasia (1940)

1940 FantasiaFantasia is different from most of the movies I planned to look at for this series in that it is basically a compilation of shorts and that it incorporates some live action elements, but it’s considered key to Disney’s work in this era so I don’t think I can overlook it.  Also, this is the one movie from this era that I’m 100% sure I’ve seen before in its entirety in that I distinctly remember that my family owned a copy of it on VHS back in the day.  Today it would seem like sort of the ideal movie for me in that it provides me with a way to admire classical Disney animation without forcing me to deal with a silly fairy tale story filled with dumb jokes for babies.  In fact I think the film, with its blending of high culture and low culture was very much meant to be a film that would help win over the hearts and minds of snobs like me who might have minimal interest in watching a feature length cartoon but who might be won over by the prospect of seeing a classical music presentation and Disney seemed to indulge this highbrow appeal by giving the film a roadshow presentation with an intermission in order to give audiences the feeling of spending an evening at the orchestra.

You can kind of see the film using its first two segments to ease these kind of audiences into the world of a Disney cartoon by making the first segment abstract and the second segment being a slightly surreal scene of small objects dancing to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite.  From there it quickly gets a lot more Disney with the film’s most famous segment: The Sorcerer’s Apprenitce, which was actually the first part of the movie they made.  Originally this was supposed to be a standalone short but once it was clearly too expensive to make money as a short they got the idea of combining similar shorts into a feature.  You can tell things were a little different on this one both because the star is Mickey Mouse and also because it tells a clearer story than most of them.  The next segment is the most ambitious in that it depicts the dawn of life on the planet and evolution up through the death of the dinosaurs, but it’s also probably the weakest in part because The Rite of Spring is probably the dullest of the classical music pieces here and that kind of carries over into the short.  Still, seeing dinosaurs was no small thing in 1940 s I’ll give them a pass.  From there we get the Pastoral Symphony segment, which is I always remember liking as a kid because I was obsessed with Greek mythology.  Watching it now I’m surprised at how daring it was with its partly nude centaurs and its bacchanalian drinking character.  The next segment, with ballet dancing animals, is one of the least narratives but it’s also one of the segments that most directly synchs with the music and is generally amusing in its use of animals that you wouldn’t guess would be natural choices for ballet.  That is perhaps the pallet cleanser for the film’s true masterpiece, the segment I usually fast forwarded to when I was a kid, the Night on Bald Mountain segment in which a demon on a mountain chills with other various ghouls and ghosts. This bit of German expressionist inspired awesomeness makes up for any and all earlier shortcomings but I could have done without the Ave Maria closer.

If there’s a fatal flaw to the film it’s that some of the segments perhaps overstay their welcome a bit.  In fact at 126 minutes this is the longest animated feature Disney has ever released and by a relatively wide margin (to the point where the second longest Disney animated movie, Zootopia, is only 108 minutes long and very few of their traditionally animated films were over 90 minutes).  This is perhaps a byproduct of the fact that Disney was working with classical pieces that had a set length and you couldn’t exactly just cut those pieces down at will.  What’s more, I kind of think that a shortened version would sort of miss the point.  The movie is supposed to feel like a night out at the symphony, but with cool imagery added to give you something interesting to focus on while you listen.  When it played in urban centers in its roadshow version at nice theaters with an intermission for effect it did quite well, when it played in a heavily cut form with all the orchestra interstitials removed it did very poorly.    It also suffered from all the same distribution challenges that Pinocchio faced and as such it wasn’t a box office success, but over the years it was re-realeased just as often as the other Disney classics and built a reputation, but the damage was probably done.  Disney wouldn’t try to go in a mature direction like this again anytime soon.


Dumbo (1941)

1941 DumboHaving lost money on two straight movies, Walt Disney realized that in the economy they existed in they couldn’t afford to make projects as lavish as Pinocchio and Fantasia anymore and went into their fourth feature intent on making a cheaper project that would turn a profit and the result was Dumbo: a sixty-four minute feature about a misfit circus elephant.  The corners that were cut in the animation on this one is readily apparent from moment one.  The style here is simpler and more in line with the kind of animation I tend to associate with television rather than film in a number of ways.  Just compare the elephants here with the ones from the penultimate Fantasia segment and the downgrade is striking.  Of course this is different from the other “golden age” Disney films in a number of other ways as well.  Unlike Snow White and Pinocchio, this is not based on a timeless fairytale or decades old children’s book, it was instead based on a truly obscure illustrated children’s book that was meant to be a prototype for a short lived invention called a Roll-A-Book.   Most people who weren’t paying close attention to the credits probably just assume it’s an original Disney story rather than another adaptation.  It’s also the first Disney movie to take place in the “here and now” and the first one to primarily be about talking animals.  It’s also less of a musical than previous Disney movies.  There are songs in it but until very late in the movie most of them are performed non-dietetically by singers who are off screen

The movie starts off pretty weak, establishing quickly that this isn’t going to be as serious of an effort when it’s shown that this is set in a world where baby animals are delivered to their mothers by storks and train engines have a personality of their own.  If Snow White operated on fairy tale logic and Pinochio operated on dream logic, this operates on cartoon logic.  It’s a world where trying to run while having very large ears will inevitably lead to you tripping into a stack of elephants and having them tumble to the ground while finding various unlikely ways to survive said fall.  Hell, the central idea of having an elephant fly by flapping its ears is itself a cartoonishly ridiculous idea with no bearing at all on real world physics.  It should probably go without saying that this style isn’t really my jam and during the first half I was pretty ready to write the thing off, but it did start to win me back a little in its third act.  The whole “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence is… interesting.  It’s adventurous and different in a way the rest of the movie isn’t.  I hear a lot of people list that scene alongside the likes of the flying monkeys in Wizard of Oz in the cannon of scenes that allegedly traumatized them as kids but I’m not exactly sure why, especially after watching that Night on Bald Mountain scene from Fantasia.  It’s more trippy than scary.  I also found the crows that showed up shortly thereafter fairly entertaining even though I realize they’re “problematic.”  They are clearly a caricature of the mannerisms of African Americans, but in their defense they were (mostly) voiced by a real African American entertainment troupe, their dialect appears to mostly be accurate, and the characters are mostly positively portrayed and don’t really play into many negative stereotypes.  The one thing that kind of makes it queasy is that a white guy (Cliff Edwards, voice of Jiminy Cricket) was brought in to play their leader, and his voice acting does seem a little more exaggerated than the others.

Despite a couple of highlights I still think this story is kind of weak.  This is the second straight Disney narrative feature where the sidekick pretty clearly outshines the star.  Dumbo himself is kind of lame.  He’s mute and spends much of the film moping around and has few personality traits outside of his general victimhood.  His mouse buddy by contrast is this amusing plucky little guy with a really amusing New York accent provided by voice actor Edward Brophy.  Beyond that this just doesn’t feel terribly cinematic to me.  Between the second-class animation and the fact that it’s only a little over an hour long, the thing almost kind of feels like a long short film or something that would play before a real movie.  David Mamet once claimed that this was a perfect movie and it is seen as a Disney classic right alongside the other Golden Age efforts, but I just don’t see it, it seems notably inferior to me.  Audiences at the time seemed to dig it though, sort of.  The thing actually made slightly less than Pinocchio did in its initial run and only slightly more than Fantasia did, but all those cost saving measures that Disney employed meant that it cost significantly less than either of them so it and Snow White remain the only of the “golden age” Disney movies to turn a profit in their initial runs.


Bambi (1942)

1942 BambiOut of all the Golden Age Disney movies Bambi is the one I have the haziest memory of from my past, to the point where I don’t think I ever saw it at all as a kid.  Since then it’s probably the Disney movie I’ve spent the most time blindly scoffing at.  After all, it’s a movie about adorable talking animals frolicking around in the forest: lame.  Where’s Godzilla when you need him?  That was probably a bit misguided though because, outside of Fantasia, it’s probably the most mature effort out of all the early Disney movies.  The film was an adaptation of a popular novel written for adult audiences called “Bambi, a Life in the Woods,” which was written by an Austrian named Felix Salten and was meant as an environmentalist work of the “how would you like it if you were in the animal’s shoes” variety.  It doesn’t have any fantastical elements really (aside from the fact that the animals talk of course), it has fewer stupid jokes than usual, it doesn’t really have any musical numbers outside of a few non-diegetic bits and there’s a definite undercurrent of melancholy and struggle at various points in the film.

Watching it now the movie felt a bit familiar.  You have a film that begins with animals gathering to see the birth of forest royalty, a young kid who would tragically lose a parent, live in exile until adulthood only to then return, save people from a threat, and then mate with a childhood friend so that the film can then end with the birth of his children (again witnessed by a crowd of animals) in order to underscore the circle of life… yeah, The Lion King was kind of a ripoff.  The one difference between the two (aside from the setting and species involved) obviously the presence of the Scar character in the later film, which doesn’t really have an analogue here.  Adding that villainous element in that version of the story was probably an improvement as it gives the hero something to fight against beyond simple survival and generally provides more in the way of story, but on the other hand there’s something to be said for the relative simplicity of Bambi’s story.  The movie is only about six minutes longer than Dumbo and yet it feels more complete and feature-like and while Bambi’s character arc does seem to skip a couple of beats there is something oddly dignified about the way we simply see this animal go from boy to man over the course of the film.

With Dumbo we saw Disney move in a more frugal direction in order to adjust to the new realities they were facing and the effects were noticeable.  Fortunately production on their last golden age project was already well under way by the time it was a fiscally irresponsible project and they were already kind of committed to making it as another large budget production.    The film has a pretty interesting art style in that the characters are rendered using the conventional Disney style while the backgrounds are these immaculately painted settings.  These backgrounds really give a great sense of mood but the downside is that they don’t move at all and the characters don’t exactly blend in seamlessly.  The style oddly reminded me of the old PS1 Resident Evil games of all things in the way the moving characters seemed different from the highly static and better looking environments.   It’s a pretty visual film in general so it’s a good thing that they had the budget to make it happen.  Unfortunately the movie did suffer from most of the same box office woes as Pinocchio and Fantasia.  It made about as much money as Dumbo but cost a lot more to make and didn’t make a profit in its original theatrical run.


Collecting some thoughts

The five films I’ve watched so far are believed to constitute Diseny’s golden age and are almost certainly the movies that Walt Disney himself had the most pride in.  Watching them you could see the company creating an art form and seeing how far they could push it.  Granted they generally used that art form in ways that aren’t entirely in line with my tastes but seeing the stylistic choices has been interesting just the same.  I’ve talked a lot about these movies underperforming at the box office, but it would be a mistake to read too much into that.  If anything Disney was guilty of bad timing, if the European market wasn’t mired in war and destruction all of these movies would have played overseas and made a profit and most of them did just that eventually after a re-release or two.  Either way, the domestic hauls that the movies raked in would have been pretty respectable if not for the large budgets and the studio’s financial woes during this era shouldn’t be viewed as a public rejection and if nothing else all of them did a lot to bolster the company’s brand.  Still, financial problems are financial problems and if they hadn’t done the studio in Pearl Harbor would have.  With America entering the war a sizable number of Disney’s animators found themselves drafted and the ones that stayed behind were enlisted to make instructional cartoons for the army (these are pretty interesting BTW, if you aren’t familiar with Private Snafu you should check Youtube).  Those government contracts actually probably did a lot to get the company back onto its feet but they’d be out of the feature film business for the rest of the 1940s.  However, they would be making a pretty big comeback during the Eisenhower years and that will be the subject I cover when I return to this shortly.


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