The Five Eras of Disney Movies

Though I’ve worked my way through all the cartoons I bought myself for Christmas, I find my appetite for animated bliss is unsated. So I’ve decided to go back and re-watch all of my Disney movies, and to make an effort to complete my collection. Until last week I didn’t own copies of Hercules or The Sword in the Stone. Even more regrettably, there are several films which I own but still haven’t watched. Peanut brought a copy of The Aristocats into the relationship that has just been collecting dust for six years.

I sat down and made a list of every theatrical Disney cartoon and threw out the ones that were just collections of shorts. (Nothing against Fun and Fancy Free, you understand, it’s just… well… not a movie. You know?) This gave me a good idea of which films I still had to hunt down and reminded me which ones I already had. Further research will be required to see how many titles have been thrown into the ridiculous “Disney vault”, and whether that even still means anything in the age of Amazon.

I discovered that my silly brain tends to lump Disney films into five rather broad historical eras, and that my general disposition towards each era is quite different. I wondered if my reaction to this history was indicative of the rest of my generation. The earliest Disney film I can remember watching as a child was The Little Mermaid, which went on to shape my expectations for animated films for years to come. That quite neatly coincides with the high point of quality throughout the studio’s theatrical career; if you’re going to pick a time to be a kid and enjoy Disney movies, you probably can’t time it much better than I did. Are other folks my age similarly biased? Do younger folks who went through their formative years while Dreamworks was gobbling up market share with sassy CGI films have a different view of things?

Anyway, this is what it looks like from where I’m sitting.

Ancient History: Snow White and the Seven DwarfsSleeping Beauty

These films make up what most people would agree is “classic Disney”, comprised mostly of dreamlike fairy tales. My entire life I’ve always just considered these movies to have “always been there”. I mean, my parents weren’t even around to see any of these in theaters. They’re practically heiroglyphics. As a kid I was always aware of there being two kinds of Disney movies: the new ones and the old ones. And I wasn’t much interseted in the old ones. We had half of Dumbo on VHS, recorded off of some TV special. Part of the middle was missing where the tape ran out and had to rewind to the beginning. Aside from that, though, I have no memory of watching any of these outside of infrequent Blockbuster rentals or movie days in school or summer camp. (Dumbo eventually got replaced by a few episodes of The Super Mario Bros. Super Show.)

With the exception of Lady and the Tramp, I sort of don’t like these movies very much. They exist in a weird limbo where I’m forced to appreciate them for being the genesis of an art form… but that art form has advanced so much it’s next to impossible to view them with an objective eye. It’s a bit like taking a seven-year-old off his Xbox and trying to sell him on the original Donkey Kong. The animation is choppier than I’d like, the backgrounds are muddier, and the songs mostly put me to sleep.

Trying to watch them as a grown-up, though, I think the biggest reason I can’t get into any of these movies is the characters simply have no depth. Real talk: Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora (from Sleeping Beauty) are pretty much the exact same character. You can tell them apart visually, sure, but they don’t have personalities in the same way that Ariel, Belle and Aladdin do. One gets the sensation that these films were meant to be enjoyed by viewers who were already familiar with the source material — popular fairy tales — and that the magic of animation was supposed to carry the rest of the weight. Or maybe I have that backwards; maybe Disney’s takes on these stories had simply become synonymous with the originals by the time I showed up that it was impossible for me to separate them.

Now that everyone is booing me for hating on an entire generation of classic films, I feel compelled to elaborate on the one exception: Lady and the Tramp is simply one of the finest animated films ever made, by any studio, ever. This movie, and not Snow White or Cinderella, is in my opinion the ur-example of what would eventually become the “Disney classic”. The characters are fun, but believable. The conflicts and relationships are drawn straight from our everyday lives. It’s a love story viewers can actually relate with, as opposed to something out of a fable. When you watch Lady and Tramp onscreen, the way they bicker with each other, the way they’re attracted to each other despite being very different, heck, even the way he calls her “Pigeon”… kids are more likely to see their parents, and adults are more likely to see themselves. Most of all, though, this is the earliest Disney movie to really capture that feeling of making the mundane look magical. It’s not storybook-perfect like Sleeping Beauty, nor is it weird-for-weird’s-sake like Alice in Wonderland. Rather, it re-casts a world every American is familiar with as being bright and new by showing it through the eyes of a curious cocker spaniel.

I probably should have saved all that gushing for a later post, but I didn’t want to leave it at “Brick thinks all the old Disney movies suck.” Nope! Just all but one of them.

The Talking Animals Era: One Hundred and One DalmatiansOliver & Company

After Disney got all the fairy tale dreck out of its system, the studio went on to make a series of movies that were less iconic and certainly less successful financially. Other animation studios started moving in and drinking their milkshake, and for twenty years or so it sort of looked like they were flailing around trying to find a new formula. For some reason, a lot of these little experiments took the form of talking animals having fanciful adventures. My personal experience with Disney films made in the 60s, 70s and 80s is surprisingly limited. They lack the punch of the old guard and the familiarity of the modern releases. Where the really old stuff struck me as “always been there”, the stuff from this middle era felt more like “just there”. I apologize if that distinction makes absolutely no sense, but I get the feeling that if you’re in my age bracket you know just what I mean.

Like the previous group, I caught most of these films when teachers and camp counselors wanted to buy themselves an hour of peace and quiet. Most of the rest I caught as Disney re-released them on DVD and I snapped them up for my collection. Unlike the previous group, though, I actually quite enjoy most of these films. The animation is a little crisper; less like a canvas painting and more like the Saturday morning cartoons I grew up with. The musical numbers are a lot catchier and more memorable, too. I’m sure this is due in no small part to being produced in the age of rock-and-roll. Songs now sound like modern showtunes, with much less emphasis on the operatic ballads of yore.

I tried to word that so it didn’t sound like I was dismissing an entire epoch of animated films. For my money, The Jungle Book and Robin Hood are every bit as magical as the best Disney films from the 1990s. (I spent part of my high school years blowing my classmates’ minds by pointing out the infectious riff on hamsterdance.com was just a sped up loop stolen from a cartoon rooster.) No, my attitude towards these films, as I enjoyed them throughout my adulthood, was more along the lines of, “That was great! How come everyone prefers Cinderella when this is obviously better?”

The Disney Renaissance: The Little MermaidTarzan

Soon after forming the initial idea for this post I realized I must not be the first person to have all the Disney classics mentally filed away by era. Generally speaking there is “the old stuff” and “the new stuff” and “the really old stuff”, and then “the stuff I grew up with.” Once I had my own list broken down I hopped on Wikipedia to see how my personal experiences aligned with the population at large. I wasn’t surprised to learn I wasn’t the only person to set aside the 1990s as a sort of Golden Age. I even had the bookends pegged exactly right.

Really, there are two ways of looking at the 1990s, and their position as Disney’s second Golden Age is probably a combination of them. On one hand, you could simply say that they are on average much higher quality than the movies that came before or since. With the possible exception of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, every single one of them was a smash hit that went on to become a cultural cornerstone overnight. If I were to utter the generic phrase “Disney music” you would immediately hear the first five notes of Under the Sea. Some classic stories I remember being familiar with as a kid — particularly Aladdin and Tarzan — were instantly and completely supplanted by the Disney versions upon theatrical release. I sincerely doubt I’m alone in that.

The second perspective is, well, a simple lack of competition. In the 90s, there just wasn’t another animation studio in the game. These were the years after Don Bluth had lost his magic touch, but before Dreamworks had found its footing. It’s easy to stay on top when you’re pretty much the only game in town.

It was impossible to see this growing up, when the yearly Disney release was a sacred and honored tradition, but this chunk of Disney’s history combines the best aspects of the two broad eras that came before. They took the familiar, beloved fairy tales from the good old days and infused them with the showy, flashy, Broadway-style spectacle of the flailing middle era. The formula clicked, and everyone’s childhood was redefined on their terms. Not a bad trick, all things considered.

The Next New Formula: The Emperor’s New GrooveHome on the Range

Some point around the time I graduated high school CGI began replacing traditional animation as the medium of choice for dashing princes and sarcastic animal sidekicks. Speaking as one of those weirdos who would prefer to continue seeing traditional animation into perpetuity, I have to give Disney props for sticking to their guns on this one. Still, the new generation of animated features had arrived and it was clear rehashing old fairy tales was no longer going to cut it. And so, just like in the early 1960s, the formula switched up and the flailing began anew.

I’m not going to come out against any of these movies, even though their flaws are broad and weeping. (Aside from Lilo & Stitch, of course, which is blemishless.) I often have to come down on the defensive side of these movies, and I think part of my appreciation for them comes from being able to tell what Disney was trying to do with each one. Emperor’s New Groove was their attempt at a star-studded Dreamworks-style comedy. Atlantis was very clearly trying to be an anime. Treasure Planet was their stab at science fiction. Brother Bear was the panicked “oh shit” moment, the realization that they’d just pitched five years’ worth of duds and needed an about-face to the glory days of the historical fairy tale… only by this point nobody was still on board who remembered how that song went.

I don’t know what Roseanne Barr’s ridiculous cow movie was trying to do, but it didn’g matter. Disney had already packed it in and given up on theatrical releases. They focused instead on churning out soulless direct-to-video sequels to their time-honored classics. Not with a bang, but a whimper. One wonders if ol’ Walt would have stood for it.

The CGI Era: Chicken LittleTangled

I didn’t see Chicken Little. From what I can tell, nobody else did either. I thought the trailer looked like garbage, and besides, I’d already given the pieces of my heart that belonged to Disney in the ’90s over to Pixar. I owned pretty much all the Disney films worth owning, and I waxed and waned through phases where I’d go back and rewatch them. The glory days were gone, but not forgotten.

And then The Princess and the Frog happened. Not the actual movie, I mean. I didn’t actually watch the thing until the Blu-ray had been sitting on my shelf for six months. No, all it really took was the idea of the movie. It hit all the right notes: traditional animation, ambitious musical numbers, a dream-like fairy tale story. Someone was doing something right again. I knew I would have to stand up and take notice.

See, as much as I loved Pixar, none of their movies had managed to capture the exact style of oomph as Disney’s best when they were on form. Pixar’s stuff was a much different kind of good, a kind which contained depth and emotional weight. But they weren’t light-hearted the way 1990s Disney was. They weren’t… bouncy. They weren’t Aladdin.

I think it all came together in Tangled. It’s the tried-and-true Disney formula, done up with all the bells and whistles of modern computer animation. It’s the kind of “yeah, we know what we’re doing” familiarity that Pixar can’t get with its groundbreaking masterpieces. It also avoids the overly-commercial qualities most Dreamworks outings have had over the years. It was, in essence, a fine cartoon, with fine songs, told well and with beautiful animation. I’ve never asked for much else from these people.

While I’d like to think Princess and the Frog is well-regarded enough to spur the odd revisit to oldschool animation now and again, Tangled is what I hope becomes the modern Disney blueprint.

Now that I have my thoughts sufficiently organized, the real work can begin. As I work my way back through my collection (and trawl through MovieStop and Amazon Marketplace in an effort to plug up the holes) I hope to look at some of these movies in greater detail here on my blog. I should think these won’t be reviews, per se; there’s certainly no point in reviewing movies which have either been with me my entire life or, failing that, are fifty-plus years old in any case. No, I’m more interested in taking the entire Disney body of work as an aggregate, singling one out and contrasting it with the rest. I’d like to examine what makes each one unique. And, of course, I’d like to share what personal relationships I’ve developed with these films over the years.

Hmm… that last part sounded kind of sappy. But then, if you like Disney films, sappy ought to be right up your ally.

I’m not looking to keep any kind of schedule, or to aim for any particular order. Just whatever I happen to pull off the shelf from week to week. Of course, if there’s some outpouring of interest for one particular film over another in the comments, might be I could find myself swayed that direction.

Thanks for reading a 30-year-old dude’s ramblings about cartoon movies!

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18 comments to The Five Eras of Disney Movies

  • Flickflack

    My first Disney movie was Bambi, seen in the theater, back when they would rerelease them every 7 years or so. Cinderella also has a special place in my heart because my grandmother and I went to see it. The movie was nothing special, but the memory is.

    As for the early fairy tale era, they have something else in common that you glossed over: they have some of the most vivid, memorable, and simply stunning villains. Especially Maleficent. Aurora might be utterly forgettable, but Maleficent is amazing, even before she turns into a dragon. Maleficent and Queen Grimhilde (and, to a lesser extent, Lady Tremaine) are some wonderful characters and amazingly evil. And evil on such a base level, too. Yes, Ursula from Little Mermaid was very memorable, but I think she was cut from the same cloth as Maleficent; she even had a similar color scheme. The truly epic villain is something that’s been sadly missing for awhile now.

    • Brickroad

      I think you’re right. One-dimensionality suits villains much better than heroes, because “really super evil” often ends up being a vivid and memorable personality trait. The modern villains are all humanized in some way, which makes them a little less scary.

      I will take a second to advocate Gothel, though, from Tangled. She’s a happy, cheerful sort of villain, but watching the movie you get this cold, creeping sensation as you realize the extent to which she is psychologically abusive. She very well may be the iciest Disney villain since Maleficent. They achieve a great contrast in how Gothel portrays herself, vs. how she really is, between her opening song and its later reprise. Seriously, what other villain gets two songs?

      • Flickflack

        Gothel was certainly a good villain. I liked how manipulative and downright wicked she was. A nice switch from the less than thrilling villains Disney has cranked out. Frankly, Tangled was probably far better than it had any right to be. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.

  • I’ve been meaning to pick up the Sleeping Beauty blu-ray because of the quality of the update and because its my personal favorite from that era, but I know exactly what you mean. Even Lady and the Tramp – and every thing you said about it is 100% true and still holds up, no question – feels more like the first couple of episodes of a TV show than it does one cohesive narrative.

    I can’t feel you’re analogy on the era between that and the Renaissance because I was being weened on films like Robin Hood and Sword in the Stone before even The Little Mermaid came out. Hell, by the time Lion King has rolled around, I had seen a big chunk of live action classics like Freaky Friday and The Parent Trap. To this day if you asked me which era I liked more, I’d probably just shrug in fear that my head would explode even trying to comprehend such a decision.

  • Sarcasmorator

    You will probably like Aristocats pretty well. I’ve seen it 15+ times because I have a 2-year-old and still find it tolerable.

    I saw Chicken Little. Here’s how bad it was: Until your post, I thought it was a Dreamworks movie, or something by an even lesser studio. I saw it in a theater around the time of release, and it didn’t register as a Disney movie even though I must have seen the logo at some point.

  • narcodis

    The Emperor’s New Groove still stands as one of my favorites of all time. But you’re right, it was released along with a wave of shitty movies, like Atlantis, which was so clearly trying to be Castle in the Sky (they even postponed the english dub of Castle in the Sky to release Atlantis).

    • Brickroad

      I can see I have my work cut out for me when it comes time to defend Atlantis. =(

      • LouisCyphre

        Atlantis has its very quotable cast to stand on, at least.

      • narcodis

        I’m not saying it was a terrible movie (okay, I guess I did say that), I guess it’s just more the Miyazaki fanboy inside of me that has an old grudge against it. I guess I’ll have to watch it again to see how I feel about it now that it’s like ten years after the fact.

  • Rosewood

    I’m of an older gen than Brick, and also consider the ’80s a Disney doldrum (Fox and the Hound, et al.) and the ’90s a renaissance. All my friends from college, and myself, thought Little Mermaid was extraordinary, and watched it, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin in theaters more than once.

    Like narcodis, I enjoy Emperor’s New Groove a lot (yes, even David Spade playing David Spade), though the other stuff from that era leaves me cold. I loved Princess and the Frog, and Tangled was okay, though the boneless big-eyed look gives me a case of uncanny valley heebie-jeebies when rendered in 3D CG.

  • Pom

    Huh. As a kid, I always lumped Tarzan with Hunchback in the category of ‘major misses’ on Disney’s part that just happened to occur right before their imminent fall from grace. Mulan for my money is the last good one, and even then in a few of its weaker moments you can see the kind of thing we were in for.

  • I loved Chicken Little. I will admit that part of that love might just be because Zach Braff was the main voice, and I am a die hard Scrubs Fan. And Bare Naked Ladies did a song for the movie, and they’re one of my favorite bands. But I feel like I remember the movie itself not being too shabby either.

  • Jude

    Every problem Sleeping Beauty has is made up for by how completely gorgeous it is. The colors in the prick scene where Aurora scales the tower are both beautiful and terrifying, and the shadows are foreboding. And don’t forget the final battle with the gnarly black thorns contrasted by the green flame, and how Disney chose the right moments to silhouette the prince and Maleficent against those flames. However lacking in substance, Sleeping Beauty really makes you feel, and I consider those two scenes to be the best moments in Disney’s animation history. They’re super awesome. I also agree with an earlier poster that Maleficent is the best designed villain, at least from an aesthetic angle.

    To me, Tarzan and Hercules are flawed movies. They share one in common that I dislike: the supporting cast. After that my reasons are flipped… In Hercules I loved the villain but couldn’t care less about Hercules and his interaction with Meg. In Tarzan, I can’t even remember the villain’s name off the top of my head (he’s just the Pocahontas one all over again, who wasn’t interesting either), but I really liked Tarzan and his interaction with Jane. I emphasize interaction because I see them more as plot devices for the protagonists than actually core characters (like Prince Eric in The Little Mermaid), which is nice but I definitely prefer it when the leading female is a character of his/her own like Beast, Jasmine, and Kida. One thing Tarzan really has going for it is its visuals. Tarzan swinging around and grinding on tree branches is breathtaking, making it a toss-up between him and Beast as the most well-animated character ever.

    • Amanda

      The funny thing is that Glen Keane was the lead animator for both adult Tarzan and the Beast (and also Treasure Planet’s John Silver), so clearly he’s quite talented in capturing the characters’ personalities through the way that they move.

  • Sarah

    When you talk about exceptionally evil Disney villains, for my money you have to include Frollo from Hunchback. I guess in my mind he’s a bit MORE evil than such classic villains as Maleficent, and he’s actually on par with Gothel for being so evil and yet so believable at the same time. Where Gothel was psychologically abusive, Frollo was just plain TERRIFYING. I mean, his villain song was Hellfire. Need I say more?

  • “Further research will be required to see how many titles have been thrown into the ridiculous “Disney vault”, and whether that even still means anything in the age of Amazon.”

    Spoiler alert. It doesn’t. That stupid “vault” thing has been made completely irrelevant by online shopping although they still use it in their commericals. Gotta love a company that resorts to actual fearmongering just to sell DVDs. BUY IT NOW OR YOU WILL NEVER HAVE ANOTHER CHANCE!!! Except in like 5 years when a new edition comes out…or the next time you log on to amazon.

  • Daria

    I was born in 1996, but grew up with all of the Disney movies at once – we had a VHS until I was eleven.
    My favorites were always Robin Hood, Mulan, Aladdin, The black cauldron, aristocats, lady and the tramp, the great mouse detective…
    I never really liked snow white, Cinderella, sleeping beauty… They bored me. I loved and still love adventures, thrillers with romantic twists – like Mulan. She stood up for herself, ran away from home to protect the people she loved, not caring what overs thinked.
    I don’t really like any of the new Disney movies except tangled)
    I was babysitting and found out one of the six year olds had never seen the lion king. Or Aladdin, little mermaid, whinnie the pooh! It made me realize that I’m 10 year older than her haha)
    Although I must confess im not really a “Disney” person) I’m a true potterhead(although most of my generation is a little bit late for that kind of obsession – I was an early reader and read my first Harry potter book when I was seven and loved it <3)

  • Daria

    Sorry for the spelling mistakes(I’m writing from a portable device)

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