From the early days of hand-drawn classics to the modern era of digital masterpieces, Disney’s animation studios have not only reflected but also shaped the zeitgeist of each era. Disney’s history in animation includes the pioneering works of the 1920s and 1930s to the Golden Age of animation, followed by a period of experimentation and the Renaissance in the late 20th century, and culminating in the current age of digital animation and CGI wonders, Disney’s journey is a mirror to the changing times and tastes.
The various eras of Disney animation tell a story of creativity, resilience, and constant reinvention, illustrating how Disney has remained at the forefront of the animation industry. As we delve into the different chapters of Disney’s animated legacy, we uncover not just the evolution of a studio but the progression of an art form that continues to captivate and inspire audiences around the world.
The Beginning of Disney Animation
Disney’s journey into animation began in 1923 when an animator named Walt Disney co-founded the Disney Brothers Studio along with his brother Roy Disney. The company that the brothers founded would eventually be called The Walt Disney Company.
However, before the creation of The Walt Disney Company, Walt Disney was already involved in animation through his founding of the Laugh-O-Gram Studio with fellow animator Ub Iwerks. Disney and Iwerks created several short films for the studio, including Alice’s Wonderland, which was released in 1923. Unfortunately, Laugh-O-Gram Studio went bankrupt, and this led to Walt Disney moving to Hollywood in order to create the Disney Brothers Studio with Roy Disney.
The first cartoon with synchronized sound was released by the Disney Brothers Studio in 1928. The cartoon featured the first appearance of Mickey Mouse, who would go on to be the most popular Disney character and the mascot for the company.
The Golden Era (1937 to 1942)
The late 1930s and the early 1940s were considered to be Disney’s Golden Era, as it was during those time periods when Disney released some of their timeless animated films. The Golden Era for Disney started with the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. The film was based on an 1812 German fairy tale written by the Brothers Grimm. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs served as Disney’s first of many feature films during the Golden Era.
Another notable film that was released in the Golden Era was Fantasia, which premiered in 1940 and is a musical anthology that showcased animated shorts accompanied by orchestral music. One of the most popular segments in the film is The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which focuses on Mickey Mouse as a young apprentice to a master sorcerer named Yen Sid. In the short, Mickey Mouse is trying some of his master’s magic tricks but fails to control them. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice served as a comeback for Mickey Mouse, who was experiencing a decrease in popularity during the late 1930s.
Bambi, which was released in 1942, was also one of the best films that was produced in the Golden Era of Disney, although it was already at the end of the era when this particular film was released. Other notable movies in the Golden Era include Dumbo (released in 1941) and Pinocchio (released in 1940.
The Wartime Era (1943 to 1949)
The Wartime Era was a time period when Disney produced numerous animated propaganda shorts for the US Army. Two of these propaganda films were Saludos Amigos (released in 1943) and The Three Caballeros (released in 1944). These two films aimed to strengthen the ties between South America and the United States in order to join forces and defeat the Axis powers led by Germany and Japan.
Unfortunately, The Walt Disney Company didn’t get enough profits from their propaganda films and other animated movies that they released during the Wartime Era, as people didn’t have enough money or time to go to theaters. In addition, the war also made it difficult to export American-made films to Europe.
The Silver Era (1950 to 1971)
Fortunately, The Walt Disney Company was able to survive the Wartime Era and started producing animated films based on classic fairy tales, similar to what they did with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This particular era was called the Silver Era, and it started in 1950 and ended in 1971.
The first movie in the Silver Era was Cinderella, a feature-length animated film that was released in 1950. The movie is based on the 1967 fairy tale of the same name written by French author Charles Perrault. The story of Cinderella revolves around the titular character, who is a young woman who was overburdened by chores by her stepmother and two stepsisters. Cinderella’s struggles are temporarily halted when she meets the Fairy Godmother, who offers her a coach, a couple of horses, a beautiful dress, and a pair of glass slippers to go to the ball organized by The Prince. What followed is a story of two lovers who overcame adversity to find their happily ever after.
Another classic film in the Silver Era of Disney is Sleeping Beauty, which was released in 1959. Sleeping Beauty is an animated film that is based on the 1967 fairy tale written by Charles Perrault, who also wrote Cinderella. The movie focuses on the story of Princess Aurora, who was cursed by an evil fairy named Maleficent to die from a simple prick from the spindle of a spinning wheel. However, Aurora was saved by three good fairies, who were able to change the curse so that the princess would only fall into a deep sleep once pricked. However, she can only awaken once she receives a true love’s kiss.
Other notable films during the Silver Era include Alice in Wonderland (1951), Peter Pan (1953), 101 Dalmatians (1961), and The Jungle Book (1967).
Unfortunately, in the middle of the Silver Era, particularly in 1966, Walt Disney passed away. In addition to the passing of Walt Disney, many of the animators who started working for Disney since the Golden Era have retired before the start of the Bronze Era.
The Bronze Era (1972 to 1977)
The Bronze Era of Disney was a period when a new generation of animators or creatives began working for the company. In addition to animated films, Disney also started to focus more on live-action movies. In the realm of animation, Disney started to experiment with Xerography, a photocopying technique that saves time in inking each animated panel, which is an important process to make the drawings look much more prominent on the screen.
Instead of hand-inking the sheets or panels one by one, Xerography allows animators to save time since the Xerography machine can already ink the panels or sheets. Although Xerography was already tested in Sleeping Beauty, it would be implemented more commonly in the Bronze Era.
One of the best animated films that were released in the Bronze Era was Robin Hood. This film was released in 1973 and depicts the classic tale of Robin Hood, who steals money and treasure from the richest of the rich and gives everything to the poor. The story of the film is based on the English folk tale of the same name.
The Bronze Era also introduced the loveable and adorable Disney version of Winnie the Pooh to the world. Winnie the Pooh is an anthropomorphic teddy bear that was created by an English author named A.A. Milne and an English illustrator named E.H. Shepard. The character is based on an actual teddy bear that Milne bought for his son, Christopher Robin, at a department store in London. Interestingly, Christopher Robin would appear as a character in various Winnie the Pooh movies and TV shows.
The Disney version of Winnie the Pooh first appeared in an animated short titled Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, which was released in 1966. However, Winne the Pooh only became popular in the United States in 1977 with the release of the musical anthology comedy film titled The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. This anthology also included the animated short that served as Winnie the Pooh’s first appearance in Disney films.
The Dark Ages (1981 to 1988)
The period from 1981 to 1988 is often referred to as the “Dark Age” of Disney Animation, a time characterized by a series of commercial disappointments and creative struggles. This era followed the Bronze Age and preceded the Disney Renaissance, marking a significant transitional phase for the Walt Disney Company.
The early 1980s marked a significant change in the leadership at Disney. The period was marked by corporate restructuring and changes in the executive ranks, which affected the direction of the animation studio.
During this time, Disney animators experimented with new storytelling techniques and art styles, moving away from the traditional fairy tale narratives. This shift was part of an effort to appeal to broader and more mature audiences.
The era included films such as The Fox and the Hound (1981), The Black Cauldron (1985), The Great Mouse Detective (1986), and Oliver & Company (1988). While these films have their admirers and contributed to the art of animation, they did not achieve the level of commercial or critical success that Disney had seen in the past.
The Black Cauldron was particularly significant as it was one of the most expensive animated films ever made at the time and a high-stakes project for Disney. However, its darker tone, high fantasy setting, and PG rating (a first for Disney animated features) led to a mixed reception and disappointing box office performance.
Despite the struggles in storytelling, this period was notable for significant advancements in technology. The Great Mouse Detective featured one of the first uses of computer-generated imagery (CGI) in a Disney animated film, paving the way for future technological developments. Disney animation during this era was seen as struggling to maintain its relevance in an entertainment landscape that was rapidly changing. Competitors, particularly in the emerging field of computer animation, were beginning to challenge Disney’s dominance.
Even though there were challenges, this period was crucial in laying the groundwork for the Disney Renaissance. It was a time of learning and experimentation, and many animators and artists who would later be instrumental in Disney’s resurgence honed their skills during this era. Over time, many of the films from the Dark Age have gained a cult following. Fans appreciate them for their unique qualities, experimental nature, and the risks they took, which were uncharacteristic of Disney’s usual fare.
The Dark Age of Disney Animation represents a complex and transformative period in the studio’s history. It was a time of both struggle and innovation, setting the stage for the remarkable comeback that Disney would make in the late 1980s and 1990s.
The Renaissance Era (1989 to 1999)
The Disney Renaissance, spanning from 1989 to 1999, is celebrated as a golden era in the history of Disney animation, marked by an extraordinary resurgence in the studio’s commercial success and critical acclaim. This period revitalized Disney’s reputation as the unrivaled leader in animated filmmaking.
The Renaissance began with The Little Mermaid in 1989, a return to the classic fairy tale format with a contemporary twist. This era was characterized by a series of musical films with strong narrative storytelling, memorable characters, and catchy, award-winning music.
This era also includes some of the most iconic Disney animated films, such as Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Hercules (1997), Mulan (1998), and Tarzan (1999). These films from the Renaissance period received critical acclaim and achieved significant commercial success. Beauty and the Beast was the first animated film ever to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
The music from this era, led by talents like Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, and Tim Rice, played a crucial role in the success of these films. Soundtracks and songs like A Whole New World (Aladdin) and Circle of Life (The Lion King) became cultural phenomena.
The Renaissance re-established Disney as the gold standard in animation, captivating audiences worldwide and reinforcing the studio’s legacy in creating enchanting stories. This era also saw Disney exploring a wider range of stories and cultures, as evident in movies like Aladdin, Pocahontas, Mulan, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
The Disney Renaissance stands as a testament to Disney’s ability to adapt, innovate, and tell timeless stories. This era not only breathed new life into the animation studio but also left a lasting legacy on the art of storytelling and the entertainment industry.
The Experimental Era (1999 to 2010)
The Experimental Era of Disney Animation, spanning from 1999 to 2010, represents a period of significant transition and exploration for the Walt Disney Company. Following the monumental success of the Renaissance Era, this phase was characterized by a mix of both traditional and innovative approaches as Disney navigated the rapidly changing landscape of animation technology and storytelling.
It is throughout the era that Disney experimented with a wide array of stories and styles during this period. This included culturally diverse tales like Lilo & Stitch (2002) and even science fiction with Treasure Planet (2002).
This era also marked Disney’s transition from traditional hand-drawn animation to computer-generated imagery (CGI), influenced by the rising success of studios like Pixar. Films like Dinosaur (2000) and Chicken Little (2005) were some of Disney’s early forays into fully CGI animated features.
However, Disney has already delved into the realm of CGI with the release of Toy Story in 1995. It is important to note that Toy Story was primarily designed and animated by Pixar Animation Studios, and Disney was mainly responsible for funding and releasing the film. Because of the success of various Pixar films that were released by Disney, Walt Disney Pictures decided to acquire Pixar in 2006.
The acquisition of Pixar was a pivotal moment in this era. This collaboration brought new creative energy and technical expertise to Disney, though it also marked a challenge in integrating two distinct cultures of animation.
Some key films from this era include Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), Finding Nemo (2003), Bolt (2008), The Princess and the Frog (2009), and Tangled (2010). The films from this era received mixed reviews and varying degrees of commercial success. While some movies like Lilo & Stitch were hits, others didn’t resonate as strongly with audiences or critics.
The Princess and the Frog (2009) marked a brief return to traditional hand-drawn animation, signaling Disney’s recognition of the value and charm of this classic approach. The Experimental Era is often considered to have ended with the release of “Tangled” in 2010, a film that blended traditional and modern animation techniques and storytelling, setting the stage for a new era of Disney animation.
The Experimental Era of Disney Animation was a time of significant change and exploration. It was a period where the studio tested new waters, learned from its experiences, and laid the groundwork for a new chapter in its storied animation history.
The Revival Era and Beyond (2011-)
The Revival Era of Disney Animation, starting around 2010, signifies a period of remarkable rejuvenation and success for Disney, reminiscent of the creative heights reached during the Disney Renaissance. This era is distinguished by a harmonious blend of cutting-edge technology, captivating storytelling, and a return to both critical acclaim and commercial success.
This era fully leveraged computer-generated imagery (CGI) in animation, showcasing significant technological advancements. Films like Frozen (2013) displayed sophisticated animation techniques, particularly in rendering complex elements like hair and snow.
It was in this era when Disney revisited the classic fairy tale genre but added contemporary themes and more complex characters. This approach resonated with modern audiences, bringing fresh perspectives to traditional stories. The Revival Era also includes several highly successful films, such as Big Hero 6 (2014), Zootopia (2016), Moana (2016), and Frozen II (2019). These movies were not only box office hits but also received critical acclaim.
Music regained its status as a pivotal element of Disney storytelling during this period. “Frozen,” with its hit song “Let It Go,” is a prime example, reflecting the studio’s long-standing tradition of integrating memorable music into its narratives. In addition, films from the Revival Era garnered numerous awards, including Academy Awards. Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia all won Oscars for Best Animated Feature.
The popularity of the films in the Revival Era led to their integration into Disney theme parks and the creation of various spin-offs and merchandise, further extending their impact and legacy. Moreover, the ongoing collaboration with Pixar continued to influence the artistic and technical quality of Disney’s animations, with shared knowledge and innovations benefiting both studios.
The Revival Era marks a period of resurgence for Disney, one where it reaffirmed its position as a leader in the animation industry. This era not only rekindled the magic of Disney’s storytelling but also adapted it to meet the evolving tastes and expectations of a new generation of viewers.
The journey through the different eras of Disney animation is a testament to the studio’s enduring legacy and its ability to evolve with the times. Each era, from the pioneering days of the 1920s and 1930s to the contemporary triumphs of the Revival Era, marks a distinct chapter in the story of Disney animation. These periods showcase a fascinating evolution in artistry, storytelling, and technological innovation.
The Walt Disney Company’s journey is a tribute to the power of animation as a form of art and storytelling, capable of bringing joy, wonder, and inspiration to audiences around the world. As Disney continues to create and innovate, the legacy of its past eras serves as both a foundation and a springboard for future storytelling marvels, ensuring that the magic of Disney animation will continue to enchant and entertain for generations to come.