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The Disney empire was built on 100 years of near implosions

From cartoons-for-hire to international corporate monolith, every decade has seen a different Disney

A mosaic of Walt Disney Pictures logos rendered in different animation styles from the last 100 years Source images: Walt Disney Company Graphic: Will Joel

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Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

The Walt Disney Company’s massive modern empire is a far cry from the small animation studio Walt Disney and his brother Roy founded in 1923. One hundred years ago, the two brothers took a train from their hometown of Kansas City, Missouri, to Los Angeles, where they worked out of their uncle’s garage before purchasing a tiny studio space on Kingswell Avenue. In the beginning, the Disney brothers mostly made animation for other studios. It wasn’t till Walt Disney Studios was about to lose half its staff and its first successful character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, to Universal Studios that Walt and his most loyal animators created Mickey Mouse and began to carve out a legacy of their own.

In 2023, Disney is much more than animation, or even movies: It is theme parks, superheroes, Star Wars, Hulu, National Geographic, and more. The company has expanded into a multi-billion-dollar dominant force in world entertainment. But even so, the Disney name still brings to mind the animation that the company started with. How the world felt about those animated movies, however, has drastically changed over the past century.

In the beginning…

Snow White in Disney’s original animated Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. She is in the forest and five small birds are pulling at her cape. Image: Disney

When Walt and his peers first started making animated shorts, the entire field was new and exciting. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, animation hadn’t yet evolved a reputation as a children’s medium. It was still a very new art form, which made it a draw for adults and children alike. And because it was so novel, animation was also seen as high art. Disney’s Silly Symphony shorts, a series of 75 musical films released from 1929 to 1939, drew significant of praise for their innovation, particularly the use of Technicolor and multiplane cameras.

1932’s short Flowers and Trees, which follows two trees falling in love, was the first commercially released movie in Technicolor — and audiences adored it. Film Daily extolled it as a “genuine novelty that bids fair to put the cartoon on a new plane of importance.” Disney continued to outdo itself with 1937’s The Old Mill, a charmingly detailed short about a group of animals living in a dilapidated windmill and weathering a fearsome thunderstorm. Democrat and Chronicle reported it to be “as beautiful as old Dutch masters.”

So when Disney released America’s first ever full-length animated feature (20 years after the first ever full-length animated feature, Argentina’s El Apostol), audiences and critics alike weren’t expecting a children’s movie. They expected high art — and the critical response suggests that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs delivered.

“Mr. Disney and his technical crew have outdone themselves,” critic Frank Nugent wrote for the New York Times. “The picture more than matches expectations. It is a classic, as importantly [sic] cinematically as The Birth of a Nation or the birth of Mickey Mouse. Nothing quite like it has been done before; and already we have gone impolite enough to clamor for an encore.”

Wartime struggles

Mr. Frog holds up a document for his friends to inspect. Image: Walt Disney Productions

1940’s Pinocchio, Snow White’s immediate successor, was released to critical acclaim, with The Hollywood Reporter even calling it “infinitely superior to Snow White.” But before Walt Disney Studios could fully capitalize on its early successes, World War II greatly affected the studio’s output — and the reception of its movies. Fantasia and Bambi followed Pinocchio to a lukewarm reception. Fantasia, in particular, was outright contentious: Some critics loved it, while others called it “kitchsy.”

1941’s Dumbo, however, was a smashing success — partly because it was significantly cheaper to make than the other movies. The character became so popular that in 1941, Time Magazine almost made the elephant the “Mammal of the Year” — a spoof on the magazine’s annual “Man of the Year” issue. (Since 1999, it’s been “Person of the Year.”) A full magazine cover was drawn up, but plans shifted after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, and the magazine decided to reexamine the tone of the year-end issue. Disney, too, shifted priorities once the reality of war started to dawn upon America.

an elephant tugging on the tail of a mouse Image: Walt Disney Animation

By 1943, 90% of Disney’s work as a company had been redirected to aid the war effort. Disney created military insignia, made training and informational videos, and produced propaganda films. Donald Duck made fun of Hitler. The Seven Dwarfs adorned war bonds. Mickey Mouse appeared on Remember Pearl Harbor posters. While Walt himself was initially reluctant to get involved in the war effort, the company’s involvement reportedly increased morale across troops and on the homefront. The company rarely acknowledges this period today, but the impact was monumental, establishing Disney as a cornerstone of the American experience.

But the focus on war-related films and shorts meant that the studio had little time to focus on creative efforts. The solution was a series of “package films” — original shorts compiled into feature-length compilations, such as The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad and The Three Caballeros. They were cheaper, quicker alternatives to big-budget, labor-intensive movies like Pinocchio and Fantasia. Most of these package films stayed away from the war-heavy topics of the company’s other ventures and kept to lighthearted fare.

Critics’ consensus on the package films is that they were entirely OK; perfectly acceptable, and usually mediocre. The highest praise in reports from the era usually amounts to “That was fun.” And honestly? When people went to the theaters in 1943 to escape the tragedy of the war, maybe that’s all they needed.

Chasing the Golden Age

an animated cinderella and the prince dance Image: Disney

In 1950, Cinderella became Disney’s first great financial success since Snow White — and, some critics argued, its first artistic success since then, too. Many reviewers used Snow White as a touchpoint when talking about the artistry in Cinderella, which had the twofold effect of solidifying Disney as a fairy-tale master and making Snow White the standard for future comparisons, the bar Disney had to live up to. During this time period, Disney movies were consistently seen as good, solid all-ages entertainment, albeit not as ambitious or groundbreaking as the Golden Age films.

1959’s Sleeping Beauty got the worst of the comparison to Snow White, since it’s also a fairy tale about a beautiful princess who passes out due to a poisoned item given to her by a high-cheekboned witch and then gets revived by a kiss from a handsome prince. The Snow White comparison continued to haunt Disney movies basically until the Disney Renaissance, even in otherwise positive reviews. Many critics pointed to the Golden Age movies as the pinnacle of artistic success — even though they weren’t critical darlings when they came out. Still, Disney’s focus on familiar stories and the nostalgia for its early industry-changing movies kept its reputation positive. The sheer euphoria of seeing the theatrical-length animation couldn’t be dismissed.

From a modern lens, the obsession over Snow White as Disney’s finest movie can feel a little dissonant. Surely movies like the incredibly popular Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland are better than Snow White? But on release, those two films in particular were scrutinized for the ways they deviated from the books they adapted. (Some things never change!) Peter Pan fared better than Alice in Wonderland in its critical reception, but a particular phrase started to pop up in reviews, and to reshape Disney’s overarching image: “for the kids.”

“[...] If you are not too particular about the images of Carroll and Tenniel, if you are high on Disney whimsey [sic] and if you’ll take a somewhat slow, uneven pace, you should find this picture entertaining,” wrote Bosley Crowther in his review of Alice in Wonderland for the New York Times. “Especially should it be for the kids, who are not so demanding of fidelity as are their moms and dads.”

Think of the children

alice surrounded by some giant talking flowers, trippy man Image: Disney

For the kids. This sentiment still bogs down reviews of animated features today, especially from critics who aren’t huge fans of whatever movie they’re writing about, but have to admit it has some charm. (Guilty as charged.) Once you spot it popping up, it’s hard to unsee. Sometimes even in a favorable review, the critic recognizes that the movie lacks emotional impact or artistic innovation, and suggests that it’s meant for less critical and experienced viewers. At worst, negative reviews lament that only kids could enjoy something so silly.

While the “Disney is for kids” take that emerged in the 1950s can come off as condescending, it wasn’t always meant as criticism. Especially in the 1970s and ’80s, when there were so few new family-friendly movies in general, Disney animation was always a safe and familiar option. The company had a decades-long legacy at that point, so even when competition like Don Bluth Productions and Filmation came around, Disney was still the trusted option, guaranteed to not be too scary or too adult for young viewers. Disney had that market largely cornered. It was near impossible for newer studios to compete with the studio’s long history and cultural cachet.

By the 1980s, Disney’s reputation as a squeaky-clean family-friendly brand was so strong that it limited what the corporation could successfully release under the Disney banner. Some of the company’s edgier live-action releases, like 1979’s The Black Hole, ended up underperforming. To solve that problem, then-CEO Ron Miller created Touchstone Pictures in 1984, giving the studio’s more mature live-action movies their own home.

“The Disney name and its image of Mickey Mouse, famous the world over, have been box-office poison for the last five years for the high school and college-age ticket buyers who make up the largest segment of the moviegoing public,” the New York Times wrote about the creation of Touchstone Pictures. “Twenty years ago, Disney movies appealed to teen-agers. But the industry has long believed that young adults today, with their diet of television adventure series since early childhood, are more sophisticated in their tastes than young adults of 20 years ago and associate the Disney name with movies they feel they have outgrown.”

A new benchmark

ariel on a rock Image: Walt Disney Animation Studios

It’s no secret that the Disney Renaissance — the period of films beginning with 1989’s The Little Mermaid and ending around 1999’s Tarzan — was one of the most iconic eras for Disney Animation. But in addition to the artistic highs, the Disney Renaissance basically saved Disney from disaster.

Prior to the Renaissance, the company was in a slump. Walt Disney passed away in 1966, and while many of the original animators (known as the Nine Old Men) carried on his legacy through the 1970s, the new ones taking up their mantle were frustrated with how stagnant Disney animation had become. Some, led by Don Bluth, left and formed their own studio. Others, like John Lasseter, Brad Bird, Glen Keane, and Tim Burton, tried to push Disney toward more challenging fare.

Image: Disney

Lasseter infamously got canned after insisting that the studio pivot to computer animation, but some of the new generation — particularly those who had been mentored by the Nine Old Men — worked on what they perceived to be a new, exciting project. 1985’s The Black Cauldron was at the time the most expensive animated movie ever made, a dark fantasy designed to showcase new talent and appeal to an older audience. It ended up being a box-office failure that almost doomed the company. Disney ended up shifting its priorities away from animation and had Roy E. Disney not interfered, then-CEO Mike Eisner might have shut down the whole animation branch.

But The Little Mermaid made a huge splash (pun intended) and changed everything. There were a few not-so-terrible films between The Black Cauldron and The Little Mermaid, but Mermaid’s daring Broadway-style musical approach finally rejiggered expectations for Disney animation, proving the studio’s movies could still be artistic and financial successes. For the first time since the company’s inception, the new movies weren’t being held up to the standards of Snow White or Pinocchio. The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King reinvented the Disney film standard. Beauty and the Beast became the first animated movie to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, 10 years before the Best Animated Feature category was introduced. And most notably, many critics felt that Disney had at long last shed the “only for children” label that had plagued the company for decades. Theatrical feature animation was finally artistic and exciting again.

The price of success

frollo surrounded by ominous hooded figures in disney’s hunchback of notre dame Image: Walt Disney Animation

Throughout the Renaissance era, critical acclaim for Disney animated films remained positive. But later Renaissance films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Tarzan didn’t hit the same marks. As with the company’s Golden Age, where every movie was compared to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio, Beauty and the Beast and the other early Renaissance movies remained high atop a pedestal that no other film could reach.

Disney tried and failed to replicate the high of Beauty and the Beast’s Best Picture nomination with Pocahontas, Hercules, and more, but even when audiences responded positively, that response was comparatively muted. Like the Golden Age, the Disney Renaissance culminated in another Fantasia movie. Just like 1940’s Fantasia, Fantasia 2000 was an expensive project that struggled at the box office. Unlike the original, the new Fantasia had a distinct capitalistic sheen.

In a way, it was the massive success of the Renaissance era that ultimately caused Disney to sputter out. The Lion King ended up earning $760 million at the international box office, absolutely unprecedented for an animated film at the time. Other studios wanted a slice of those delicious box-office returns. But creating an animation studio from scratch was a complicated proposition, and simply replicating Disney’s Broadway-musical formula was no guarantee of box-office success. Some would-be Disney competitors, like Warner Bros. Feature Animation and Fox Animation, were doomed before they could really take off. But others, like DreamWorks, managed to carve out a space of their own in the following years — sharply affecting the next decade or so for Disney.

Transitioning to CG

Chicken Little’s vast, blank eyes look up into utter darkness Image: Disney

At the start of the 2000s, Disney produced a handful of duds. Treasure Planet and Atlantis: The Lost Empire were expensive, risky passion projects. The Emperor’s New Groove floundered for years in development hell. And even the movies that managed some financial success didn’t have much cultural impact. (Lilo and Stitch was a major exception.) Meanwhile, the success of Shrek (among other DreamWorks projects) and Pixar movies began to reinvent audience expectations for feature-length animation. Some critics suggested that modern audiences were drawn to the cutting-edge 3D graphics seen in DreamWorks and Pixar fare, rather than Disney’s old-fashioned traditional animation. Others had issues with Disney’s narratives, which veered toward a more earnest tone, while most of pop culture had embraced edgy snarkiness.

Disney hit a low with 2005’s Chicken Little, one of the studio’s worst films, which was supposed to signify its big pivot into CG animation. In 2004, Disney shut down its Florida animation studio and released Home on the Range, which was supposed to be the company’s last traditionally animated movie. Though Disney executives repeatedly downplayed how much the medium of animation affected the success of the movies, many in the public speculated that closing the Florida studio and canceling the few remaining traditional animated projects on the slate was Disney’s effort to chase after the latest hot trend.

Saturating the brand

Mulan II - angry Shang Image: Disney

Nostalgia and familiarity was always a strong part of the Disney brand. In the earliest days, it was a nostalgia for an idealized version of America. As the decades stretched out, that association mutated into a nostalgia for the feelings of earlier Disney movies. The company began to use that nostalgia as a double-edged marketing tool.

Walt Disney was staunchly against sequels, worried that they would taint the impact of the studio’s original movies. But the rise of the home video era opened up a new market that the company couldn’t resist. The first direct-to-video Disney sequel — a follow-up to 1992’s Aladdin — came out in 1994.

And thus began an era of shoddily animated Disney sequels, which were so cheap to make that even small box-office or sales returns represented a profit. The Jungle Book 2 made $135.7 million in theaters against a $20 million budget, but the London Standard review summed up the critical response to these rapidly cranked-out movies: “The whole threadbare production looks and sounds like one of those cheapo, functionally drawn ‘sequels’ to its famous cartoons which the studio has begun issuing for the video market on the strength of a title, but without anything like the inventiveness or tunefulness of the original.”

Growing pains

A smug black cat and a startled white dog. Image: Walt Disney Pictures

One important thing happened after Chicken Little’s failure that changed the trajectory of Disney animation: In 2006, Disney bought Pixar, the animation studio that had been stealing Disney’s thunder since 1995’s Toy Story. Prior to the purchase, the two companies had a partnership, with Disney distributing Pixar’s films.

But this new deal gave Disney ownership of Pixar, and more importantly, made John Lasseter the chief creative officer of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation. While Disney was producing mediocre movies like Brother Bear and Home on the Range, Pixar’s movies were redefining animation. Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles all soared while their concurrent Disney releases floundered. Lasseter’s legacy is uncomfortable, rife with sexual harassment and workplace misconduct, but he pushed Disney Animation into a new direction. (For one thing, one of his first decisions was to stop production on all future planned direct-to-home-video sequels and essentially gut the branch dedicated to them.)

Disney Animation slowly figured out how to get back on track, releasing movies that were almost great but not quite, with each one telling tighter, more emotionally resonant stories and also looking sharper, as Disney figured out how to translate its decades-old style into computer animation. Most of these were CG, though the studio made a few brief flirtations with the return to traditional animation. Notably, 2009’s The Princess and the Frog both introduced the first Black princess to Disney’s highly profitable Disney Princess brand and also experimented with reviving hand-drawn features. But even though the public eagerly looked forward to a cel animation comeback (there’s that association between Disney and nostalgia again), Disney focused its efforts elsewhere.

During this time, The Walt Disney Company had begun its aggressive acquisition of other properties, rapidly expanding beyond animation. In 2004, the company secured the rights to the Muppets. In 2009, it acquired Marvel Entertainment; in 2012, it bought Lucasfilm. Both companies were associated with properties seemingly at odds with the family-friendly animated reputation Disney had maintained for decades. The company was moving past animated movies and theme parks, especially when those animated movies weren’t breaking records or redefining the medium; it was starting to become the giant corporation that we know today.

Disney today

elsa sashaying in her icy blue dress, holding her arms out in frozen Image: Walt Disney Animation

In 2013, Frozen ushered in a new legitimacy for Disney Animation and established a path forward, unburdened by the shadow of the Disney Renaissance or the tether of Pixar comparisons. The needle shifted again; a new metric emerged.

Frozen is one of the few recent animated films to capture the classic Disney spirit,” wrote Bilge Ebiri for Vulture. “And by that I don’t even mean the classic Disney spirit of the nineties and films like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King (though it certainly shares much in common with those films), but of the really classic Disney spirit of films like Cinderella or Snow White.”

Thus Disney fully entered a new revival era, ushering in other splashy and successful movies like Moana, Zootopia, and Encanto. Even with the occasional dips, like Frozen 2 (a smash at the box office, but could anything really replicate “Let It Go”?), Raya and the Last Dragon (as prosperous as it could be given its pandemic release), and Strange World (a solid film that had no chance of box-office success), modern Disney animation consistently meets its marks with good movies and mostly good theatrical profits.

mirabel watching her cousin get his gift. the rest of the family is highlighted in gold — except for mirabel in Encanto Image: Disney

But the company looks remarkably different in the public eye than it did 20 or 50 or 100 years ago. The 2020s mark the first “successful” Disney period where the studio actually has competition, even from within its own doors with Pixar. And while Walt Disney Animation Studios certainly has cutting-edge filmmaking technology, it isn’t pushing the envelope or redefining what animation can be — animators at Pixar, DreamWorks, Sony, and other studios are the ones really trying new things, while Disney stays within its good-looking, safe house style.

This could change, though. With more competition comes more reason to innovate. Disney’s 2023 film Wish will supposedly blend 3D animation with watercolor elements. But Wish is also supposed to be chock-full of Disney Easter eggs — which brings up the third big difference between this Disney animation period of success and the previous ones. Disney is no longer just about animation, and no longer wants to separate its non-animation projects from the Disney label the way it did with Touchstone Pictures. The corporation wants the Disney name to stand for every kind of multimedia entertainment, with acquisitions like 20th Century Studios and Searchlight Pictures joining all the others under one one banner that the company waves proudly.

Walt’s legacy

A CG version of the wooden puppet-boy Pinocchio kneels on a stage with his arms stretched wide in Disney’s 2022 live-action remake of its 1940 animated classic Image: Disney Enterprises

Disney stopped making cheap direct-to-VHS sequels in 2008 — but it still makes sequels and spinoffs, both for theaters and for television. But this time around, the company is more deliberate about its brand extensions. Instead of cheap sequels, the company’s new go-to is glossy, expensive live-action remakes. The studio releases a new remake every year or so, either theatrically or direct to its streaming service, Disney Plus. These remakes are narratively mediocre and poorly received critically, but audiences are still drawn to familiar titles and the promise of family-safe entertainment. Even the worst-reviewed of these ends up making enormous box-office returns. (2019’s all-CG remake of The Lion King clocked in at 52% on Rotten Tomatoes and made $1.6 billion worldwide.)

If anything has been consistent about Disney over the past 100 years, it’s been the company’s commitment to maintaining its image. That focus has required different strategies at various points in history. Back in the 2000s, Disney limited its VHS and DVD releases in order to create a sense of urgency and prestige when a beloved classic “left the Disney Vault” and became available for purchase for a brief period. Today, the company has its own streaming service to house basically the entire Disney library, and simultaneously holds up its pedigree of animated movies by repackaging them into something “new.” Disney has moved far beyond its origins, and instead of doing one thing well, it needs to remind people that it can do everything. As the company continues to mutate, its reputation and brand will continue to change as well. Just look at how far it’s come from that little studio in Walt’s uncle’s garage.


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