Welcome to the first edition of the Great Disney Reel Rumble Retrospective! Faithful readers of the Flickchart Blog will know me from my other on-going series, the Stephen King Book to Screen Series. In what can only be described as the polar opposite of Stephen King, this series will cover all 57 feature films from Walt Disney Animation Studios. With multiple new animated films currently in development at Disney, there will almost certainly be more than 57 films to cover before this retrospective concludes.
This series will divide the 57 productions into artificial eras; eras that were subjective and retroactively applied, like most historical eras, but that have become widely used among Disney fans. The series will examine each era by pitting two films of each era, in chronological order, against each other in traditional Flickchart style. Plus, since this is Flickchart, each era will have its own mini-chart that we build as we go. We will also compare the resulting rankings to Flickchart's global rankings to see how closely they align. These articles will, of course, highlight the trends that define each era as well as any trends that may carry across eras.
This series will not cover any of Disney's live-action productions nor any of Pixar Animation Studios' films. While owned by Disney, Pixar is a separate wing. The films in this article all came from the Burbank-headquartered studio that ol' Walt himself led in the beginning of his company's history. Without further ado, let's examine the first era of Disney Animation!
The Golden Age
There were arguably two eras in Disney history prior to the release of the first "Golden Age" film. The first era would be the 1923-1928 Silent Era when Disney founded his animation studio along with his brother. Before Mickey Mouse was a character, the two brothers produced silent comedy cartoons. It was in this era that the company changed its name to Walt Disney Animation Studios and its first character, Oswald the Rabbit, was created. Disney ran into a conflict with Oswald's creator Charles Mintz, and their falling out led to the loss of Oswald and Disney needing to make a new character. Disney and Ub Iwerks would go on to create Mickey Mouse and usher in the next era of Disney history, called the Pre-Golden Age by some enthusiasts. This period from 1928 to 1937 saw the creation of many of the now famous Mickey cartoons as well as Donald Duck, Goofy, Pluto, and other still-famous characters. It was this era that built the Disney world we know, populated by some of the most iconic fictional characters in pop culture.
With Disney's characters becoming new American icons, the Golden Age of Disney Studios began. The 1937 release of Snow White was one of the first full-length hand-drawn animated films ever. (It is often cited as the first, but as with most firsts, there are other possible claims to the title, including a lost Argentinian film from 1917.) Perhaps surprisingly given what we know of Disney's ongoing dominance, most of Disney's early feature films were commercial failures, but commercial success proved less important than the trends that Disney set. The decision to adapt fairy tales into colorful musicals with a focus on princesses, for example, can be dated to the very first feature and has remained a foundation for Disney ever since. Other key trends emerged in this era that will be examined throughout the five films that make it up, but do they truly make the era worthy of the "Golden Age" label?
The History of the Films
One of Disney's most iconic films even today, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfsreleased in 1937 to critical acclaim. Though technically a 1937 release, it debuted in December of that year only in the iconic Carthay Circle Theater in Hollywood. The national release came in February of 1938 and it would go on to become the highest-grossing sound film of all time up to that point. Earning $7.8 million by the end of its original run, it was a huge success for RKO Pictures who distributed the film. Disney had no distribution wing; it's hard to imagine a Disney that wasn't a corporate giant, but the studio was still fairly fledgling despite its years in existence. Snow White's popularity has endured throughout time for any number of reasons, but multiple re-releases certainly helped. It became a revenue booster for Disney during WWII when newer films might not have raked in cash. It would be hard to understate the incredible cultural impact the film has had. Video games, Broadway musicals, and theme park attractions are all based on the film and its characters. It helped redefine fairy tales through an American pop culture lens.
Conversely, Disney's second 1940 feature, Pinocchio, was a commercial failure upon initial release. It was originally intended to be Disney's third feature, but Bambi's troubled production pushed Pinocchio forward. It made perhaps $1.9 million at maximum by the end of 1940. On a budget of $2.289 million, this was a poor second showing for Disney. The world war certainly had something to do with this, cutting off overseas markets that contributed to Snow White's success. Critics loved Pinocchio and praised it as the pinnacle of the animated cartoon form, which made its commercial failure all the more depressing to Walt. Luckily, as with Snow White, reissues in the years following WWII allowed Pinocchio to finally rake in the money the critics felt it had deserved all along, making a substantial profit and cementing its place in pop culture. Though it features no princesses, Pinocchio has endured due to its timeless music, and the character of Jiminy Cricket has become one of several mascots for Disney. Pinocchio and Geppetto enjoy a place in the Disney panoply of theme park characters, video game stars, and Disney On Ice skating shows. With a live-action adaptation in production, it seems Pinocchio's legacy will endure.
Round One: Story
Snow White is based on the German fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm. From the beginning, Disney had a clear vision of using the seven dwarfs as the source of gags and hijinks. Perhaps that's why the physical comedy within the movie works so well. The silent comedy background where Walt honed his craft is ever prevalent throughout this production. Whereas modern physical comedy is often aimed at the lowest common denominator, this film has a certain wit that's also seen in the works of many silent-era comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
Though a fairy tale, the source material isn't the most obvious basis for a family film. German fairy tales were intended for children, but the violence prevalent throughout them can be startling to modern sensibilities. Snow White opens with her biological mother bleeding and then dying after birthing our titular heroine. In what would become a Disney signature technique, young Walt removed or toned down the more violent aspects of the fairy tale and replaced them with bright, cel-shaded animation, sunny songs, and the aforementioned physical comedy. It was also important to Disney to give the dwarfs personalities and help them carry the feature alongside Snow White. Disney put the dwarfs in the title and gave each of them distinct identities, whereas the fairy tale doesn't even give them names.
The creative process took the story through many drafts and changes that date back in 1934. Some early drafts put even more of a focus on the dwarfs, but Disney ultimately returned to the dynamic between Snow White and the Queen. Many fully animated sequences featuring the dwarfs were cut, including ones featuring them sloppily eating soup and building a bed. One animator, Ward Kimball, nearly left the studio when these sequences were cut, but Walt promised him a supervising role over Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio get him to stay.
The Queen herself also changed throughout production. In some incarnations she was a fat, batty, and more exaggerated character. Walt eventually settled upon the more stately, cruel character we know today, which is voiced wonderfully by Lucille La Verne. La Verne's iconic delivery of "Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?" is a sound that rings in the heads of even those who have never seen the film. Contrast that with the sweet tones of Adriana Caselotti, who provides the innocent, light voice of Snow White. That bright innocence would become a standard feature for Disney princesses for the rest of the Golden Era and arguably through the 1990s and beyond.
Pinocchio was not based on a fairy tale in the traditional sense. True, it is a morality tale derived from an Italian children's story, but it's not from the Brothers Grimm tradition that became the source for many of Disney's early features. Even so, the decision to tone down the source material was put into overdrive here, since the source material's wooden boy is a cruel and inhuman creature who hardly deserves sympathy. Walt and the gang faced a difficult task arose since there is only one Pinocchio story, unlike Snow White which has many incarnations to draw from. The need to generate sympathy for the main character affected every aspect of the production, since even the animators struggled to create an artificial boy to whom audiences could relate.
However, the pendulum swung too far the other way, resulting in Pinocchio becoming a cloying and overly helpless character (even though he smokes and drinks). The manipulations of Pinocchio by Honest John and others in the film became narratively problematic, hence the brilliant solution of Jiminy Cricket. The introduction of a benevolent guide for Pinocchio gave the creative team a way to keep the story moving forward and helped Pinocchio make better decision. Though Jiminy's final ultimately bore little resemblance to an actual cricket, the character has endured all the same.
Another big decision was to get celebrities to do the voices. The film is notable for being the first animated feature to reach outside the voice acting circle, recruiting Cliff Edwards as Jiminy, Dickie Jones of Mr. Smith Goes to Washingtonas Pinocchio, and Christian Rub as Geppetto. The movie also features the talents of Mel Blanc, known for his many famous Looney Tunes voices, as the voice of Gideon the Cat. Ironically, all of Gideon's dialogue was cut, and only one hiccup from Blanc actually made it into the film. The one Disney-Warner Bros. crossover is therefore little more than a historical footnote.
While Pinocchio's morality tale offers a touching rise and fall and eventually a lesson learned, the story of Snow White is timeless in a different way. Disney's take on its story has become the definitive one. While the same might be said of Pinocchio, its story is ultimately rather simplistic. The seven dwarfs' personalities are a major addition that provide plenty of humor and levity to a dark story. The love story and battle against evil in Snow White gives it the advantage in the story department.
Winner: Snow White
Round Two: Music
Another trend Snow White kicked off was that of the Disney musical. Disney movies have used music as connective tissue since the very beginning. The aforementioned "Heigh-Ho" is probably the most iconic song from Snow White and is the main theme of the seven dwarfs. "Whistle While You Work" is no slouch, though, and the iconic scene in which Snow White sings with birds is a classic musical moment famously lampooned in Shrek. Speaking of Shrek, the storybook opening of Snow White is also something Shrek homages. Interestingly, Disney doesn't have the publishing rights to any of the Snow White songs; the studio had no music publishing arm at the time and had to outsource, and though it would later throw its weight around to get most of its music rights back, Snow White's songs remain a thorn in Bob Iger's side.
Disney made music essential to Pinocchio as well. Walt Disney Records claims that the first time the term "original soundtrack" was used in reference to a commercially-available film recording was for Pinocchio. The film features "When You Wish Upon A Star," now the defining theme for the entirety of the Disney corporate giant, as a hopeful tune sung by Jiminy to explain the central miracle of the story. The song holds up today and rightfully won an Academy Award for Best Original Song. This isn't the only song of note, as the fun anthem "I've Got No Strings" features as well and would later used for lines of dialogue in the Disney property Avengers: Age of Ultron. In it Pinocchio celebrates his "freedom." Though comparatively simplistic, anthems of sinful joy including "Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee" are fun if not as remembered.
Though Snow White features on the whole more memorable songs, Pinocchio boasts one of the biggest heavyweights in the Disney canon. "When You Wish Upon A Star" remains timeless, and its reprise of it is one of the most heartfelt moments in Disney history. With respect to "Heigh-Ho" and "Whistle While You Work," if there is one song that will continue to be synonymous with Walt Disney Pictures, it's "When You Wish Upon a Star."
Round Three: Animation & Direction
The animation of Snow White is gorgeous, full of deep and rich colors. It may be a minor miracle that it looks this good, given that the majority of Disney's animators had no formal animation training. Most were newspaper cartoon artists. A competitive atmosphere perhaps fueled the artistic creativity of the animators, as one set up classes where teachers and students sometimes became combative over proper techniques. The collective enthusiasm fueled all who attended and helped give the project the creative fire it likely needed. The credited director David Hand likely helped corral all of these elements together, though he was joined by a team of assistant directors. The rich red sunset skies during the "Heigh-Ho" scene still look great today. While a lack of polish is apparent in some areas, like the very basic human faces that lack emotive detail, the animation still largely outclasses many animated films today.
Pinocchio benefited from improved techniques that the animators honed during their work on Snow White. Starting in 1938 Joe Grant supervised the team and used clay models to help determine how characters should move. Stop-motion animation was used to depict moving vehicles, and an early form of Xerox was used to transfer images onto the animation cel. Live-action footage was also shot, as it was in Snow White, to help guide the artists. Pinocchio was also groundbreaking for its use of area-of-effects animation, which revolutionized rain, lightning, snow, and even fairy dust. This was due in part to the work of the influential abstract animator Oskar Fischinger. As a result, Pinocchio is one of the richest and most well-animated films of its era.
And the winner is......
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs unquestionably holds up today. Light and comic, the movie is a pure joy to watch, with many of its songs and scenes still eliciting smiles and laughter. Children still need these kinds of movies. Though toned down from Grimm, the film isn't afraid to show the perils Snow White faced. The Queen initially hires a Huntsman to murder Snow White before beginning her frankly-still-creepy transformation into a hag. The iconic apple scene has the emotional weight it needs to remain a fantastic piece of art.
Pinocchio's industry-leading animation means it still is one of the richest and most colorful animated films out there. With timeless music of its own, the film has certainly cemented its place in history. You can't help but chuckle at the affable charm of Jiminy Cricket and the naivety of our wooden hero. Yet the story feels shallow in comparison to Snow White, and its self-important message about middle-class working values is often awkward. Pinocchio being swallowed by a whale and boys turning into donkeys are fun moments, but they aren't quite as impactful after decades of animated wonders.
For that reason,Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is the winner. Yes, some may chuckle at the basic nature of the romance between Snow White and the Prince, who falls in love at first sight and just shows up to kiss her and revive her from sleep. But the old-fashioned nature of the conceit has its own charm, and Snow White displays a surprising amount of personal initiative despite criticism of classic Disney princesses as weak. She compares favorably to the thoroughly-inactive Pinocchio character, who despite the writers' best efforts comes up short.
Neither of these movies should be overlooked, as they started it all. Whether the rest of the Golden Era titles are as essential will be seen in the next few entries in this series.
Connor is an attorney residing in Corpus Christi, Texas. He has a Bachelor of Science in Journalism from West Virginia University and a JD from Villanova Law. He enjoys fancy foreign art films, Marvel films, and everything in between. Horror is his favorite genre though, if his Stephen King Book to Screen series is any indication.