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 Dwarfs – Sleeping 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 Dalmatians – Oliver & 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 Mermaid – Tarzan
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 Groove – Home 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 Little – Tangled
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!