by D.W. Lundberg

Monday, April 25, 2011


Walt Disney's Tangled is the studio's fiftieth full-length animated feature, computer-generated or otherwise, to be released directly to theaters. That's 74 years, for those keeping track – a cinematic milestone that began with Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs in 1937. Since then, they've had their share of hits, misses, classics, stumbles and technological advances, but if there's one common bond between them, it's been an honest-to-goodness desire to entertain audiences worldwide. You can hardly fault them for that.

I haven't always been the most avid follower of that old Mouse House magic. I was too old for them, I guess, by the time I started gaining any real interest in movies. Princesses, Pinocchio, Alice In Wonderland and Mowgli and Baloo... not really my thing. Those songs... not the kind of stuff you'd find playing on regular rotation on my CD player at home. As an adult, though, that's when I started to get a sense of what the animators were actually up to – to appreciate the love and are that had been poured into every frame.

There's a darkness to each movie too, the kind that might escape you as a kid. From the pig's heart and poisoned apple in Snow White, to the "wonders" of Pleasure Island in Pinocchio, to Cruella De Vil's less-than-savory plans for the titular characters in One Hundred And One Dalmations, there's always been a bit of an "evil streak" to these family favorites, though our child-like intuition may be too innocent, too naive, to perceive them. Somehow, we just knew the Prince would rouse Snow White from her sleep; that you'd change into a donkey only if you smoked cigars; and it never occurred to us that anyone could do harm to a cuddly, talking four-legged friend. (They are only cartoons, after all.)

Then, one day, comes the inevitable wake up call. Mine came, of all things, during The Little Mermaid. Again, I had absolutely no interest in seeing the movie theatrically when it came out in 1989 – despite the rave reviews from critics (funny I was already paying attention to critics back then), 12-year-old me was simply too infatuated with Batman and baseball to care about anything else. No, my first actual encounter with The Little Mermaid came a year later, during my annual summer stay with relatives in Flatbush, New York. I happened across my aunt's VHS copy of the movie and, for whatever reason (boredom being the most likely culprit), decided to give it a shot. It was reasonably entertaining, I guess. The famed Howard Ashman/Alan Menken song score wasn't embarrassing, and I liked Sebastian the crab. But then, during the movie's climax, as Prince Eric commandeers that sunken ship and runs its splintered bowsprit through Ursula's monster-fied belly, my eyebrows raised in sudden admiration. Violence? In a cartoon about a singing mermaid? Cool. (As a video game- enamored 13-year-old, it was hard to be impressed by anything else.) And I thought: Maybe this Disney stuff ain't so bad after all. 

Thus began a steady diet of Disney fare, both old and new: old, for classic titles re-released to video (Peter Pan, Fantasia, Lady And The Tramp), and new theatrical releases (Beauty And The Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King). I couldn't get enough.

Studying the films themselves, it's interesting to note how they've constantly had to switch gears over the last seven decades, struggling to stay one step ahead of their audience's collective mood. That's a tough thing to do, and like I said above, not every movie's been a resounding success. (I admit I'm probably still too old for The Jungle Book, and the charms of some of their later movies – cough-Treasure Planet-cough – are lost on me.)

It was Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, however, that permanently cemented Walt Disney's reputation as the innovator of his time. From the early 1920s onward, he was constantly striving to push the limits of animation to the next level, and after the success of his many short films – his Silly SymphoniesAlice Comedies, and groundbreaking cartoons like The Three Little Pigs and Steamboat Willie (the first to feature synchronized sound, starring Mickey Mouse) – a feature-length animated film seemed to be the next logical step. Snow White was hailed immediately as a masterpiece following its debut at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles on December 21, 1937, and it set the gold standard for every animated title that followed. It even inspired its share of live-action filmmakers as well (including the makers of 1939's The Wizard Of Oz, and Orson Welles, that great innovator himself, who wove specific shots from Snow White into Citizen Kane).

The film's success also paved the way for today's Disney Empire as we know it. As a whole, the company is currently worth over $30 billion, their fingers dipped in virtually everything. There's Disneyland, of course, Disney World (and their subsidiary resorts and theme parks throughout the world), Disney Cruises, their Consumer Products division (Mickey and Donald and Goofy and the rest are more than iconic – they're immortal), their shares in television and film (including ABC, ESPN, Lifetime, A&E, The History Channel, Marvel Studios and Pixar), the Disney Channel, Radio Disney, and (I shudder to mention) their extensive catalogue of direct-to-video sequels and animated classics. Their influence is literally everywhere.

Walt Disney (with Shirley Temple) accepting an
honorary Oscar - plus seven mini-statuettes -
for Snow White at the 1938 Academy Awards

This, obviously, is all just a long-winded preamble to the new subject at hand. As kind of an offshoot to my Franchise Face-Off project (of which – attention whore that I am – you can read here, here, here and here), I thought it'd be fun to take a look at Disney's animated films through the years, starting with the first and fairest of them all (the one with that whistling, vertically-challenged septet), and ending in a revisit to number 50 (starring the girl with 70 feet of long blonde hair, briefly covered a bit here). I'll be tackling each title individually, hopefully more than once a week between other posts, as the mood strikes me. Keep in mind, this list will not include Pixar films, live-action/animated hybrids (i.e., no Mary Poppins or Who Framed Roger Rabbit), or films released under the DisneyToon Studios banner. Titles will be limited to those considered an official part of the Animated Classics canon. I'll briefly cover their plot structure and their place in cinema history, from their technological advancements and literary influences to their impact on the movie-going public.

My reasons for wanting to do this are three-fold. First, in our never-ending quest to entertain the kiddies, my lovely wife and I are always on the lookout for movies to watch on our patented Friday Family Movie Night™. Should we ever come up empty on our NetFlix cue (assuming we don't already own a copy of a particular movie on DVD or Blu-Ray), here's a nice little fallback position. Second, it's a cold hard fact that I don't actually know every Disney title by heart (particularly the six "package films" released during the World War II effort), and I'm looking forward to playing catch- up. Lastly, I am forever searching for ways to get you, oh faithful reader, more actively involved in the blog. I would love to hear some of your thoughts regarding each film as we cover them, your personal remembrances of each title as you experienced them growing up, and how they've influenced both you and your families over time. Please don't hesitate to throw your two cents in, as I'm sure there's at least a few of you who feel equally passionate about a studio that's had such a great influence on so much of our lives.

I'll try to keep each entry short, if only to keep this from turning into another year-long project. The format will flow something like this:


Title: Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (1937; based on Snow White, by the Brothers Grimm)

The Plot: A princess, on the run from her wicked stepmother, befriends a group of seven dwarfs living in the woods outside her kingdom.

The Songs: "I'm Wishing/One Song," "Whistle While You Work," "Heigh-Ho," "Bluddle-Uddle-Um-Dum," "The Silly Song (Dwarfs' Yodel Song)," "Some Day My Prince Will Come"

A Little History: Looking to push the limitations of animation to their next level, producer Walter Elias Disney decided on a full-length hand-drawn motion picture as his newest project. Utilizing the techniques he'd crafted during his Silly Symphonies cartoons and countless other animated shorts, Disney started production on Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs in June 1934 with a projected budget of $250,000. The film would not officially complete production until a few weeks before its debut on December 21, 1937, its final cost reaching $1,488,422. (The press had dubbed it "Disney's Folly" in the meantime, before anyone had a chance to view a single frame). It was hailed immediately as a cinematic masterpiece, grossing over $8 during its original release (and was the highest-grossing film of that time until MGM's Gone With The Wind, released just one year later.)

How It Broke New Ground: It was the first feature-length animated feature (at 83 minutes) produced exclusively within the United States, the first produced in three-strip Technicolor, and the first American film to have an official soundtrack album. Disney also made specific use of the multiplane camera (a technique first employed during his Oscar-winning short The Old Mill, also 1937), which floats multiple layers of artwork past the camera at once, at different speeds, to give the images an illusion of depth. (A lengthier description of Disney's multiplane camera, invented by William Garity, can be found here.

How It Holds Up Today: Walt Disney's animation domination officially begins here. Though its titular character comes up a little short by way of dramatic motivation (Snow's arc goes something like this: she's pretty, she doesn't want to be killed, she cavorts with forest creatures, she cleans, she gains the dwarfs' mutual respect and admiration, she eats a poisoned apple, she's awakened by Love's True Kiss, THE END), it's the dwarves who actually make the movie. Bashful, Dopey, Happy, Grumpy, Sneezy, Sleepy and Doc – each of their dominant personality traits summed up in a single word, an economy of storytelling that's charmingly simple in retrospect. (Though I'm still a little confused about Doc – what's he supposed to be a doctor of, exactly? Congenital disorders? Gastroenterology? For all his awkward slips of the tongue, they might as well have named him Freudian- Slippy.) The characters move with a dexterity and weight that's missing from most animated films of today, and the wonderful, whimsical music score etches itself in your brain like nothing else before or after it (even Mary Poppins' "A Spoonful Of Sugar" owes its debt to "Whistle While You Work"). Still, it's a shame so many people take Snow White's technical innovations for granted, for this is indeed the one that started them all.

Grade: A


Now come on, don't be shy. Feel free to share some memories of your own. How has Snow White and Disney's legacy affected you?


  1. There are a handful of Disney films that I respect and even cherish and I'm not sure why, maybe because they remind me of a simpler time. They are: Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, and The Little Mermaid, Hercules, and Tarzan. I think all Disney films have good things about them, but the ones I listed have stood the test of time and I still enjoy watching them.

  2. You're right... there's just something intrinsically heart-warming about the best Disney classics. Familiar and reassuring at the same time.

  3. OOOOH this one's going to be fun! Great idea Darin! I love most of the Disney classics and can't wait to read you opinion about them!

    Snow white is one of the first movies I remember watching in a theater! I was sooo sad when Snow White took a bite of that apple!!