Disney has always been magical – it has enchanted audiences of all ages from different generations of filmgoers. Its legacy in animation is a story of captivating characters, timeless tales, and pioneering creativity. Disney feature films are known for their artistic style and their ability to inspire and bring joy.
Through the years, the studio has continually produced animated masterpieces that are beloved and unforgotten by audiences, making their movies a constant influence in pop culture. To help understand Disney cartoons, Disney fans and aficionados have long been classifying the catalog of films into different eras. Advancements in animation and trends in storytelling have played a pivotal role in shaping Disney’s image.
Let’s take on a journey through the different Disney “eras” and explore the best Disney cartoons and innovations:
The Birth of Disney Animation
Disney’s journey started in 1923 when Walt Disney co-founded the Disney Brothers Studio, which was later known as The Walt Disney Company. Disney started animating in 1928 when it launched their first-ever cartoon with synchronized sound, “Steamboat Willie.” This short film introduced the world to Mickey Mouse, who would soon become Disney’s iconic symbol.
Walt Disney personally provided the voice for the lovable mouse. Audiences fell in love with Mickey’s charm and endearing personality. Mickey’s success paved the way for Disney’s future endeavors, and the character starred in a series of cartoons that offered entertainment and a glimmer of hope to audiences during the Great Depression.
Golden Era (1937-1942)
The 1930s to 1940s marked Disney’s Golden Age of animation, starting with the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. The film put Walt Disney Productions on the map, proving that animation has potential outside the realm of 5-minute cartoon gag reels. Walt Disney elevated hand-drawn animation and created life-like characters, used multiplane camera effects, and employed theatrical surround sound.
This era also gave us Disney classics such as Fantasia, Pinocchio, Bambi, and Dumbo. These films reflect Disney’s commitment to innovation.
Fantasia (1940) was their film that pushed the boundaries of animation by blending classical music with breathtaking visuals, while Pinocchio (1940) paved the way for Disney’s trademark storytelling tactic – infusing profound emotional depth into its characters. In this case, Disney made audiences feel for a wooden boy.
Bambi (1942) encapsulates the expressive storytelling and delicate artistry of the golden era at its best. With its naturalistic portrayal of wildlife, heart-rending musical score, and emotional depth, this coming-of-age story has become a timeless classic. Dumbo (1941), a heartwarming story of a young elephant with big ears, was Disney’s big box office success after Snow White.
Wartime Era (1943-1949)
The films from the wartime era were radically different in tone and style from the other eras. At that time, Disney committed to the war effort by producing propaganda shorts for the Army. As part of the deal, the studio produced Saludos Amigos (1943) and The Three Caballeros (1944), which are propaganda films aiming to strengthen ties between the USA and South America against Axis powers.
These cartoons were less popular than Disney’s regular shorts, and when the Army departed from the studios during the end of the war in 1945, Disney had a low amount of cash on hand. The war also banned American films from export to Europe, so their sales were low.
Out of necessity, projects had to be shortened, and feature films had to be budgeted and packaged together without a central narrative. But even under these constraints, animators still managed to push boundaries with experimental concepts. Make Mine Music (1946) was a jazzy take on the musical shorts format of the earlier Fantasia, blending symphony music with swing and dreamy dance sequences. Other films produced in this era include Fun and Fancy-Free (1947), Melody Time (1948), and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949).
Silver Era (1950-1971)
At the start of a new decade, Disney Studios returned to its narrative-style filmmaking and adapting classic fairy tales for the screen. This was the time when they had perfected their storytelling formula that would be the recognizable Disney style for years to come. During the silver era, underdog protagonists deal with magical forces in their fantasy world where there are fairies spreading pixie dust, mice and birds sewing dresses, and dogs affectionately eating spaghetti on a date. Stories were also adapted with songs in mind.
The studio entered the decade with a bang with Cinderella (1950), a timeless story of a young woman who overcame adversity to find her happily ever after. The film’s unforgettable music, underdog protagonist, and enchanting visuals continued to captivate audiences throughout generations. Sleeping Beauty (1959), also one of the OG Disney Princesses, was also introduced during this era, and Princess Aurora’s tale of love and true love’s kiss remained a classic, beloved narrative. Meanwhile, Alice in Wonderland (1951) became a successful product of Disney’s experimentation, as they transported audiences into a surreal and whimsical world with eccentric characters.
One of the stand-out films of this period was Peter Pan (1953), which was notable for its weightless flying animation – a tricky feat for the animators to perfect, and for its iconic character, Tinker Bell. 101 Dalmatians (1961) introduced an innovative, cost-effective animation style that utilized Xerox technology for the first time, replacing the traditional hand-inking.
Other notable Disney films from the silver era include Lady and the Tramp (1955), The Sword in the Stone (1963), The Jungle Book (1967), and The Aristocats (1970).
Bronze Era (1970-1977) and the Dark Ages (1981-1988)
The bronze era, spanning from 1970 to 1977, marked a transition in Disney animation. After Walt Disney passed away in 1966 and as the original cohort of animators were retiring, it was time to pass the torch to a new generation of creatives.
During this time, Disney diversified into live-action film and television alongside its two theme parks, shifting its focus away from animated films. With lower budgets and increased use of recycled animation, the bronze era embraced Xerography, a photocopying method that sped up production but resulted in animations with darker, sketch-like outlines.
A shining gem of the bronze era is Robin Hood (1973), a classic tale of heroism and adventure. It featured the familiar voice and witty comedic timing of Phil Harris as Little John, who voiced Baloo in The Jungle Book and Thomas O’Malley in The Aristocats.
The era also produced the beloved anthropomorphic Winne the Pooh and his friends when The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh was released in 1977. These films delighted audiences with their lighthearted and imaginative storytelling despite the hurdles faced during this era of change.
After that, the dark ages ensued. The last of Walt Disney’s original story ideas had officially been exhausted, and the animation team was navigating an uncertain future on their own. Creative differences and internal conflicts caused delays in release dates and a high turnover of staff. Unfortunately, none of the films from this era managed to achieve significant box office success. The Black Cauldron (1985), in particular, failed to make even half its budget back at the box office. The tone of the characters and storylines also took a darker turn, introducing more menacing villains and greater peril.
Despite these challenges, the films of this era still had their artistic merits. The Great Mouse Detective (1986) stands out as a remarkable example of how computers started playing a role in the animation process. At that time, a new computer coloring process also allowed Disney cartoons to return to their warm, jewel-toned hues.
The Renaissance Era (1989-1999)
Disney experienced a turning point with the release of The Little Mermaid in 1989, marking the beginning of the aptly named Renaissance era—a period of rebirth. A significant shift in storytelling emerged, with Broadway-style acts and characters expressing their emotions through songs. Disney returned to its roots of producing animated adaptations of well-known classic stories after putting out flop after flop at the box office.
With innovative airbrushing, backlighting effects, and a focus on celebrity voice talent, this era became the peak era for the company. The period, she brought much greater profits to the company than most of the films from the previous eras.
Disney’s impressive streak with beloved classics started with the release of The Little Mermaid (1989), marking the studio’s return to musical storytelling. It was a critical and commercial success for Disney, sparking countless adaptations, including the 2023 live-action adaptation featuring Halle Bailey.
Beauty and the Beast (1991) further solidified Disney’s resurgence by being the first animated film nominated for Best Picture at the 64th Academy Awards. The film showcased a new computer animation technology, where the film featured a mesmerizing ballroom dance sequence by adjusting animation layers for a simulated 3D effect. Yet, it’s the enchanting musical score by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken that truly became the heart of this “tale as old as time.”
Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994) followed, both having the highest worldwide grosses during their release years. Aladdin introduced audiences to Princess Jasmine and the beloved Genie, while The Lion King told the epic tale of Simba’s journey. Both films featured iconic characters and unforgettable songs. Both films also won Academy Awards for the original songs and musical scoring. However, Lion King proved to be a fan favorite, thanks to its powerful story and an award-winning soundtrack composed by the legendary Elton John.
The era also saw the release of memorable films that defined the childhood of many millennials, including Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), and Hercules (1997). Pocahontas tells the tale of a real-life American Indian woman and her romance with an Englishman. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is arguably the most tragic of the Disney Renaissance films as the protagonist did not get a happily after. Meanwhile, Hercules put a romantic and musical spin on Greek mythology.
Mulan (1998) was Disney’s penultimate Renaissance film that became a hit at the worldwide box office. Mulan introduced a warrior princess and showed us a glimpse of Chinese culture and history, being one of the first Disney films to tackle cultural diversity. Meanwhile, the release of Tarzan (1999) was seen as the end of the era, blessing the world with heartfelt songs by Phil Collins. Notably, Tarzan was one of the first films to blend traditional hand-drawn animation with CGI. These films remain cherished animated masterpieces, inspiring live-action remakes.
Experimental Era (1999-2010)
As we moved forward to a new millennium, Disney embarked on a journey to reinvent itself for a fresh generation of viewers. It departed from the Broadway musical and Eurocentric settings, and animators ventured into CGI technology and explored adventures in unexpected times and places. However, these bold endeavors didn’t always succeed, as the studio faced tough competition from Dreamworks and Pixar. Films like The Emperor’s New Groove (2000) and Treasure Planet (2002) struggled at the box office, seen by critics as a result of prioritizing technical innovation over compelling storytelling.
Yet, amidst these challenges, there are still gems. Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) broke new ground as Disney’s first foray into science fiction instead of fairytales. Atlantis was also the first time Disney embraced online promotion, even developing tie-in games for mobile devices.
The era also brought us fan favorites such as Lilo & Stitch (2002), Brother Bear (2003), Home on the Range (2004), Chicken Little (2005), Meet the Robinsons (2007), and Bolt (2008). These films all showcased adventures and explored themes that were formerly unchartered territory for Disney.
One of the biggest happenings for the company in terms of animation was when they expanded by acquiring Pixar in 2006. Pixar was known for producing innovative and critically acclaimed animation films such as Toy Story (1995), A Bug’s Life (1998), Monsters, Inc. (2001), and Finding Nemo (2003).
That same year, they released Cars (2006), a heartwarming story about an arrogant race car getting stranded in the forgotten little town of Radiator Springs. Later on, Ratatouille (2007) whisked viewers away to Paris with the tale of Remy, a French rat with big aspirations. These films, with their unique blend of humor, memorable characters, and impressive animation, became beloved additions to Disney’s lineup.
In 2009, Disney’s traditional hand-drawn animation made a comeback with The Princess and the Frog, set against the vibrant backdrop of New Orleans. Featuring Tiana, Disney’s first Black princess, the film provided crucial representation for audiences. That same year, Disney also bought Marvel Studios and opened new doors for the company.
Disney’s Tangled (2010) also capped off the era with this beautiful adaptation of the classic tale of Rapunzel. But the story is also about the film’s complex male lead as much as it was about Rapunzel, hence the title.
The Revival Era and Beyond (2011 to present)
The revival era marks Disney’s return to its former glory, fully embracing CGI animation in a manner akin to Pixar and DreamWorks. These stories bring back the beloved Broadway musical formula, set in enchanting fantasy worlds.
But what sets this era apart is its shift from the traditional quest for romantic love to focus on protagonists’ inner journeys toward self-discovery, introducing us to Disney princesses without romantic interests like Moana, Elsa, and Vanellope von Schweetz. A noteworthy trend is the emergence of ‘twist-villains’—antagonists who initially appear harmless or friendly. This approach has strongly resonated with modern audiences.
Frozen (2013) stands out as the flagship of the revival era, remaining a cultural phenomenon long after its release. “Let It Go” even made history as the first song from a Disney animated film to reach the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 since “Colors of the Wind” in 1995. With Frozen, Walt Disney’s longstanding interest in adapting The Snow Queen tale finally came to fruition.
The films also showcased a fresh approach to storytelling by exploring complex themes that appealed to children and adults alike. You can see it in Big Hero 6 (2014), Wreck-It Ralph (2012), Inside Out (2015), and Zootopia (2016), which revolved around themes like identity, self-discovery, grief, sacrifice, emotional complexity, personal growth, prejudice, and bias. Disney animation has embraced its role to foster positive societal change through its storytelling.
This was also the era of diversity and inclusivity for Disney. Moana (2016) extended a glimpse into the Polynesian culture and traditions through its compelling storytelling, heart-tugging music, and resolute heroine. Additionally, Coco (2017) celebrated Mexican culture and traditions, Encanto (2021) transported viewers to the Columbian countryside, and Turning Red (2022) brought forth the necessary Asian representation.
Disney also experienced remarkable success with CGI-animated, live-action adaptations of its popular films (or popular characters), such as Maleficent (2014), Cinderella (2015), Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016), The Jungle Book (2016), Beauty and the Beast (2017), Christopher Robin (2018), Aladdin (2019), The Lion King (2019), Mulan (2020), Cruella (2021), Pinocchio (2022) and The Little Mermaid (2023).
Disney has long been part of our world. For years, they have brought us and are still bringing us captivating animated films packed with marvelous animation, remarkable music, and heartfelt storytelling. From its humble beginnings featuring Mickey Mouse, Disney has pushed the boundaries of animation throughout its history. As we look at their story, we only hope to see more enchanting stories with magical tales and unforgettable characters, dabbling into themes relevant to every generation.