The Golden Age (1937-1942)
The Golden Era created a new genre of film. Up until now animation was generally seen as a novelty marketed to children. It was comical, with shorts first having no sound or colour it relied on heavy expressions of the characters as well as the animated backgrounds to express emotions and drive the plot forward.
That is because of that people found animation childish and shallow at times. Disney heavily experimented on what he could do with animation within this era, an example of which is how the company created the first animated short with sound entitled Steamboat Willie. This created the trend of sound and music within animation, as Disney created a series of shorts entitled Silly Symphonies afterwards. Disney did have competitors, with other studios introducing famous Pop Culture icons like Tom & Jerry and the characters from the Looney Tunes, but with Disney’s innovation of sound as well as the technology known as Technicolour (a new way of colouring that made it more detailed, complex and realistic), it really did propel the company’s popularity. The Disney Company was experimental, following the leadership of Walt, it wasn’t afraid to try new ideas even if they were not sure that audiences would be receptive and that was manifested in the creation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. No one has ever tried to create an animated full length feature film before this, as no one thought it would be successful with the technology available. It would be even more expensive than some live action films at the time.
The executives at Disney were worried that the payoff was too small to outweigh the risks and costs of it all. That the media, even before the release of said film entitled it “Disney’s folly” Yet Disney was entirely positive that it was possible and that it would be a success. As discussed, Snow White had an initial budget of 250, 000 and ended up with an outstanding cost of 1. 5 million, that Disney himself had to mortgage his house. What made Disney so passionate about this project was that he wanted to display a film that live action film could not produce, and maybe that’s why he has such an affinity to fairy tales, stories with other worldly beings, elements of the mystic and fantastic. And why he had an affinity to talking animal movies like Bambi which would later be a trend in Disney movies. He wanted to portray what live action movies only dream of making. Being the first era of Disney animation, the goal of the movies were not to build on character development like those of the movies we see now, but rather showcase the art of animation. That’s how Disney can get away with a five minute scene of the dwarfs literally washing their hands, or any scene in the movie Fantasia. The goal was not necessarily have us drawn in by the story, but for us to be amazed and entertained with the beautiful pictures we see on the screen.
When it comes to the content found in these movies, The Golden Era was also dubbed the Dark Era of Disney not in the sense that it didn’t earn money for the company, well some movies did flop. But the themes and events that take place during the movie are very dark and dramatic; Scenes of the Evil Queen during Snow White, Bambi’s mother being killed during the first few minutes of the movies. In Pinocchio, you have kids smoking cigars and drinking liquor, not to mention one of the plot points of how bad boys who run away from home, eventually turned into donkeys and sold to slavery. Even to this day these movies can scar children. Maybe in Walt’s mind it was a way to teach children of what not to do, to not take food from random strangers or to listen to your parents and not runaway from home. The if kids are so into watching the newest released Disney film, why not educate them about morality while you’re at it. It might also have been due to Walt really wanting to break the stereotype of animated movies being childish and comedic. That through the use of these darker scenes sandwiched between the light musical scenes, the movie would over all be more dynamic and entertain others besides kids.
The Wartime Era (1943-1949)
As the title of this section suggests, this was the era wherein Disney Studios was heavily affected and caught up in World War II which was mirrored in their films. Along with other things that war brings other than devastation and destruction was a low dip in the economy and a lack of male animators working in the studio due to being recruited to go to the battlefield. Another thing to mention was the blatant racism and anti-Nazi propaganda that Disney weaved into their plots and film characters. With those four major factors along with World War II, much had changed in the style and quality of Disney films.
As such, this brought about a strain in Disney Studios as they lost most, if not all, their male animators to fight in the war. This brought about less films being released and in turn, less profit. With most of the male animators gone which meant less ideas and manpower, there was less consistency or no consistency in the films produced. Not only that, there was also a lower budget on films that within the six films that were produced, there were multiple short films compiled together comprising each film and with considerably lesser quality in visuals compared to its ancestors.
Disney was also very much involved in war propaganda coming from an American standpoint even using Mickey Mouse, one of the main and original characters of Disney Studios, for a flier that promoted patriotism and support for the American army participating in the war. The picture below is one of the fliers that Disney publicly put out during this era.
As mentioned previously, Disney had racism and anti-Nazi propaganda in their films. One example of a film during that time with implied, if not blatant, racism was Fantasia. A specific scene wherein this racism was apparent was the scene where fair-skinned centaurs have a smaller, dark-skinned centaur serve them by polishing their nails and running after them whenever they needed anything. This clearly pertains to the African Americans being seen as a lower being compared to the Whites since this was still the time where Blacks and Whites were segregated regarding public facilities like bathrooms and sections in the buses. This was how it was until The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed into law, erasing the physical boundaries of the two races. A film that clearly is all about anti-Nazi propaganda is Der Fuehrer’s Face featuring Donald Duck waking up in Nazi Germany. During the entirety of this film, his actions are heavily watched to make sure he says Heil Hitler enough and basically follows a certain lifestyle with even the food regulated and the and it ends with him waking up in the United States, dreaming of the whole thing, and feeling relieved and privileged that he is a citizen of America.
The Silver Age (1950-1959)
As World War II ended, Disney had decided to bring back having big budget films and aim high in the film industry. The ushering of the Silver Age and its films are what Disney is usually known for as this age includes Cinderella, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty, and etc. When one thinks about Disney, especially the old Disney, those films are what usually pops up in someone’s mind. This eventually gave birth to one of its very known rebranding as what Disney really is with a couple of the original Disney Princesses as the faces of this rebranding. This age is also known for its talking animal films like Lady and the Tramp, etc. and we will see this trend of talking animals as the main characters flourish until the later ages. Disney is also pointing out that animation is not so shallow that people should overlook it, but rather it can achieve what live action films, that were popular at the time, cannot achieve. The animated films before were targeted at kids but Disney has shifted the way they do movies so that everyone can enjoy them. In terms of art style, it is the opposite of the Wartime Era as the quality is better because of Disney adjusting the budget suited for well-designed and well-thought out films. it is very similar to the Golden Age as the fantastic element are in both ages but what is different is that this age appears to have a more fairytale-like aesthetic and less dark unlike in the Golden Era. The backgrounds of the films look to be painted by hand from watercolor and practically redefined the word “fairytale” as Disney chose and made romanticised backgrounds for their films.
This age focuses less on moral lessons and more on being a “damsel in distress” like in The Sleeping Beauty as half of the film Aurora, the main protagonist, spends sleeping and waiting for someone to end the curse that is put upon her. The more active roles that moved the story forward in terms of plot was Prince Philip and her three fairy godmothers: Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather. Meanwhile in Cinderella, the ones who made her dress were at first Jaq and Gus, then Fairy Godmother who encouraged her to go to the ball held by the kingdom, even giving her a carriage and a beautiful dress. It is the same in Cinderella where her fairy godmother, Prince Charming, and Jaq and Gus were the key characters in making progress to a happily ever after. All throughout the film, she was being helped out by her animal friends and her Fairy Godmother. It is only in the later sequels that she plays a more active role in the plot. Although her animal friends were not the main protagonists, they still carry that trend that Disney films in this age often have talking animals in them. The end of the Silver Age marks the death of Walt Disney as Jungle Book is what he personally worked on last before passing.
The Bronze Age (1970-1988)
The 80s were a rough time for the Disney Animation Company. Most of their films were barely earning money in the box office, that they even struggled to even earn back their initial capital that was put into the movies. Examples of these being movies like “The Black Cauldron” which was a box office flop and “Oliver and Company” that barely made enough to receive capital to continue making movies. Many people would claim that this all began with the deaths of Disney’s founder and chairman Walt Disney as well as Roy Disney the Vice President. The two served as figureheads for the company, they made the executive decisions of where the company would head and without that the Disney Company was lost and had no sense of direction. Yet, there are many Disney fanatics who would say otherwise. That this era started of with the 101 Dalmations which was part of Disney’s Silver Age of movies rather than The Aristocats, not because it was a failure, it was actually one of Disney’s biggest hits to date but because of its art style and animation. After the release of Sleeping Beauty, Walt Disney himself wanted to stop making full length animated movies for they cost so much and that the movies they did release sometimes barely earned revenue to start production on a new movie. That he dedicated more time to other of his passion products like the creation of Disneyland or live action movies.
To compensate for the expensive costs of making animated features, the company used xerography, an animation technique wherein animators o need to retrace their sketches on animation cells and hand paint and ink them on acetate, but rather they could have their drawings instantly copied onto the cells.. Compared to the earlier films in the era, 101 Dalmatians looked like Disney took a step back in the animation department and they kind of did, one of the most noticeable features are the heavy black lines surrounding characters that made the screen looks distorted and what like what Odyssey. com said was the start of Disney creating scratchy films. It is because of this that lead animator Don Bluth (who worked on movies like Sleeping Beauty and Robin Hood) decided to leave the company for he believed that Disney “lost sight of its roots in terms of the art of animation and storytelling”.