The Walt Disney studio’s animated features have achieved such a singular place within the motion picture industry that it’s hard to believe anyone could have ever doubted their success.
But in 1937, prior to the release of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” there were plenty of naysayers. Many rival film execs at the time referred to the first attempt at a feature-length cartoon as “Disney’s Folly.”
“Everybody thought Walt was nuts,” says Roy Disney, vice chairman of the Walt Disney Co., of his late uncle’s $1.5 million experiment. “Nobody believed a cartoon could hold up over the length of a feature.”
But if one look at the lavish, European storybook-style of the artwork, the lush character animation and the emotional storytelling did not quiet the doubters, the $4.2 million in B.O. earnings did. Within an astonishingly short six-year period, the studio had released such classics as “Pinocchio,” “Fantasia,” “Dumbo” and “Bambi.”
By the early 1940s, though, the effects of a bitter labor strike, the loss of many top artists to the draft in World War II, and the wartime closure of the lucrative European market sent the studio reeling.
With his remaining staff Disney made military training films and propaganda pieces, and for home consumption turned out compilation films such as “Saludos Amigos,” “The Three Caballeros” and “Victory Through Air Power.”
Because of depleted resources, the compilation films — including “Make Mine Music” and “Melody Time” — continued throughout the 1940s, until Walt planned a full return to feature-length animation with another timeless fairy tale, “Cinderella.”
Released in 1950, “Cinderella” got the studio back on track, earning $4 million domestically. But it did not follow “Snow White” in heralding another string of masterpieces. In fact, only four more animated features were produced throughout the decade — “Alice in Wonderland” (’51), “Peter Pan” (’53), “Lady and the Tramp” (’55) and “Sleeping Beauty” (’59) — none of which are considered among the studio’s best work.
Part of the reason was that Walt was increasingly being pulled away from feature animation to concentrate on other interests, such as the creation of Disneyland, the Disney television show and the studio’s burgeoning slate of live- action films.
“On ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ Walt was not really interested,” recalls supervising animator Ollie Johnston. “We would have a meeting with the guys who were doing the story and Walt would come in and look at it and say something like, ‘Oh, I don’t know, fellas, you guys carry on.’ ”
“Sleeping Beauty,” which at $6 million was the most expensive animated feature to date, did not bring back classic, fairytale animation. Instead, it propelled the studio into a different direction entirely.
1961’s “101 Dalmatians” was a contemporary story that looked nothing like its predecessors. The film featured stylized backgrounds and angular characters, and the artwork had a sketchy quality to it that was the result of having the animation drawings photo-copied directly onto clear celluloid sheets, instead of being traced onto cels in ink.
Photo-copying not only saved vast amounts of time and money, but also was a huge hit with the animators, who for the first time saw their actual drawings on screen instead of those that were a generation or two removed by cleanup tracing and inking, a standard animation process that many felt diminished the “life” imbued in the animation. That style of production continued on throughout the 1960s and ’70s, with such films as “The Jungle Book” (the last film on which Walt personally worked), “The Aristocats” and “The Rescuers.”
By 1980’s “The Fox and the Hound,” however, things were changing again. The studio had begun a feature animation training program in 1976, and several of its students would go on to be the leading lights of the industry, among them John Lasseter, Tim Burton, Glen Keane, John Musker and Ron Clements. Many in this new group dreamed of a return to the glory days of the 1930s.
“We all got into the business wanting to do ‘Pinocchio,’ ” says Tom Sito, animation director and former president of the animation union. “We didn’t want to do ‘Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom’ (a heavily stylized 1953 Disney short), we wanted to get back to what we thought was the really cool stuff.”
While lesser known today than many other Disney animated features, “The Fox and the Hound” was distinctive in that it served as the bridge between two generations of animation artists.
By contrast, 1985’s “The Black Cauldron,” was a bridge that collapsed — a flop that occured when the industry was at a low ebb. Even so, under the then-new Eisner-Wells-Katzenberg troika at the studio, animation was given a fresh look, largely at the encouragement of Roy Disney, and the results were a steady climb back to the top that began with “The Great Mouse Detective,” and which rocketed upward with “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” (the only animated film to nab an Oscar best picture nod), “Aladdin” and “The Lion King,” films that eschewed any kind of house artistic style.
“There was an enormous effort to try to let each one of those movies look like it wanted to look,” Disney says.
The studio’s recent animated features continue to look like they want to look, from the lush, watercolor texture and traditional animation of “Lilo and Stitch” to the CGI wizardry of Pixar’s “Finding Nemo” to the mixed 2-D/3-D technique of “Treasure Planet.”
“Each story has got its own way of wanting to be told,” Disney says, “so the main thing is to have all those skills available.”