Saturday, February 5, 2011

A Brief Look at Disney's 52 Animated Movies

There are fifty-two official movies considered to be called Walt Disney Animation. Movies where there's more live-action than animation don't count (Mary Poppins, Bedknobs & Broomsticks, Pete's Dragon), nor do movies from their secondary studio (Jungle Book 2, A Goofy Movie), nor movies they distributed but done by other studios (Valiant, The Wild), nor Pixar (Toy Story, Up).

So here's a brief history of the official titles.


1937 - Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs
1940 - Pinocchio
1940 - Fantasia
1941 - Dumbo
1942 - Bambi

Snow White was a giant gamble for its time. Consider the level of animation back then. You had Steamboat Willie and Betty Boop, but the 1930's had Porky Pig and Popeye starting to catch on. Still, a full-length movie? Then you have the timelessness of the next four, and you have the best starting five of any studio or artist ever.


1943 - Saludos Amigos
1944 - The Three Caballeros
1946 - Make Mine Music
1947 - Fun & Fancy Free
1948 - Melody Time
1949 - The Adventures of Ichabod & Mr. Toad

During World War II, Disney saved money by making movies that were essentially collections of shorts. Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros were made at the behest of the Office of Inter-American Affairs, and Disney was happy to make what are essentially commercials for South America. Each after that has good episodes within (Make Mine has Peter & the Wolf, Fun & Fancy Free has Mickey & the Beanstalk, Melody Time has Johnny Appleseed & Pecos Bill, and the 1949 titles peaks for itself).


1950 - Cinderella
1951 - Alice in Wonderland
1953 - Peter Pan
1955 - Lady & the Tramp
1959 - Sleeping Beauty
1961 - 101 Dalmatians
1963 - The Sword in the Stone
1967 - The Jungle Book

Disney got back to classic storytelling with Cinderella, and even though the mice's roles might be too big, it remains one of his best. Alice in Wonderland has a weirdness no other Disney tale has been allowed. 101 Dalmatians is where rotscope animation came in, giving the movies cheaper looks, though the 60's stories remain strong. Jungle Book's still groovy, but it lead to Phil Harris dominating the next few films.


1970 - The Aristocats
1973 - Robin Hood
1977 - The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
1977 - The Rescuers
1981 - The Fox & the Hound
1985 - The Black Cauldron
1986 - The Great Mouse Detective
1988 - Oliver & Company

Disney's finances got weaker and weaker in the year after Walt Disney died, and the quality of the movies suffered. I still find Robin Hood one of the funnier scripts, particularly from Peter Ustinov's line-reads as the snivelling Prince John, but its shortcuts are transparent. The Black Cauldron was a low-point for their box-office, and longtime animator Don Bluth left digsusted with the Disney trajectory and made the classic Secret of NIMH.


1989 - The Little Mermaid
1990 - The Rescuers Down Under
1991 - Beauty & the Beast
1992 - Aladdin
1994 - The Lion King

The Rescuers Down Under would fit better in the Post-Walt section, even though it's a good movie. These other four highlighted the return to box-office success and critical darlinghood.


1995 - Pocahontas
1996 - The Hunchback of Notre Dame
1997 - Hercules
1999 - Tarzan
1999 - Fantasia 2000
2000 - Dinosaur
2000 - The Emperor's New Groove
2001 - Atlantis: The Lost Empire
2002 - Mulan
2002 - Treasure Planet
2003 - Lilo & Stitch
2003 - Brother Bear
2004 - Home on the Range

Pocahontas's oddly preachy, politically correct story was still a huge hit, but one where the silent raccoon was the best character and audiences might have come to see not everything that has the Disney label is gold. The musical formula still worked for Hunchback, Hercules and Tarzan, but Dinosaur was an expensive disappointment. Michael Eisner insisted the dinosaurs speak, and for my money it would still be remembered if they'd tried to find a way to make it like a nature film and not a humorless Land Before Time ripoff. Emperor's New Groove rediscovered the Jungle Book-level of laughs Disney movies could have, and Mulan succeeded in the Hercules-Tarzan vein, but the one-two actioners of Atlantis and Treasure Planet is where 2D animation showed its weaknesses. Lilo did well, but Brother Bear did less so, and Home on the Range was publicized as the last 2D effort of the studio, and the humor couldn't match new Groove's.


2005 - Chicken Little
2007 - Meet the Robinsons
2008 - Bolt
2009 - The Princess & the Frog
2010 - Tangled
2012 - Wreck-It-Ralph
2013 - Frozen

Chicken Little had two years of marketing, but Disney's own 3D effort paled next to the Pixar canon. Meet the Robinsons is fun but light. Somewhere in there, Disney bought Pixar rather than just distributed its movies, and the Pixar touch is evident in the rewrites of Bolt, particularly since Bolt goes through the same character-crisis as Buzz Lightyear. The Princess & the Frog saw the decent return of 2D animation and finally an African-American princess, and Tangled, Wreck-It-Ralph and Frozen have all been hits.

Around 2010, Disney and Pixar said they felt like fairy tales are of the past, but Frozen showed that all they have to do is tell the story well, and it'll be a hit. I do hope any future ones they tell, they let them have their real names. No more "Rapunzel becomes Tangled" or "The Snow Queen becomes Frozen."

No comments: