Golden Age of American Animation - Disney - Feature-length Films

Feature-length Films

In 1937 Walt Disney produced Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first American feature-length animated film. This was the culmination of four years of effort by Disney studios. Walt Disney was convinced that short cartoons would not keep his studio profitable in the long run, so he took what was seen as an enormous gamble. The critics predicted that Snow White would result in financial ruin for the studio. They said that the colors would be too bright for the audience and they would get sick of the gags and leave. However the critics were proven wrong. Snow White was a worldwide box office success, and was universally acclaimed as a landmark in the development of animation as a serious art form.

After the success of Snow White, Disney went on to produce Pinocchio which was released in 1940. It was considered a stunning achievement both technically and artistically, costing twice as much as Snow White. However Pinocchio was not a financial success since World War II (which began in 1939) had cut off 40% of Disney's foreign release market and although it was a moderate success in the United States the domestic gross alone was not enough to make back its revenue. However the film did receive very positive reviews and has made millions from subsequent re-releases. Later that year Disney produced Fantasia. It originally started with the Mickey Mouse cartoon The Sorcerer's Apprentice in an attempted to recapture Mickey's popularity which had sharply declined to Max Fleischer's Popeye and Disney's Donald Duck. In the Sorcerer's Apprentice, Mickey Mouse was redesigned by Fred Moore. This redesign of Mickey is still in use today. The short featured no dialogue only music which was conducted by Leopold Stokowski. When the budget for the short grew very expensive Stokowski suggested to Disney that it would feature film with other pieces of classical music matched to animation. Disney agreed and production started. Fantasia would also become the first commercial film to be released in stereophonic sound. However like Pinocchio, Fantasia was not a financial success. Fantasia was also the first Disney film not to be received well, receiving mixed reviews from the critics. It was looked down upon by music critics and audiences, who felt that Walt was striving for something beyond his reach by trying to introduce mainstream animation to abstract art, classical music, and "elite" subjects. However, the film would be reevaluated in later years and considered a significant achievement in the art of animation.

In 1941 in order to compensate for the relative failure of Pinocchio and Fantasia, Disney produced a low-budget feature film, Dumbo. Just a few days after rough animation was complete on Dumbo the Disney animators' strike broke out. This was caused by the Screen Cartoonists' Guild (which had been formed in 1938), who severed many ties between Walt Disney and his staff, while encouraging many members of the Disney studio to leave and seek greener pastures. Later that year Dumbo became a big success, the first time since Snow White. The critically acclaimed film brought in much-needed revenue and kept the studio afloat. A few months after Dumbo was released the United States entered the War after Pearl Harbor was attacked. This caused the mobilization of all movie studios (including their cartoon divisions) to produce propaganda material to bolster public confidence and encourage support for the war effort. The war (along with the strike) shook Walt Disney's empire, as the US Army had seized Disney's studio as soon as the US entered World War II in December 1941. Due to this Disney put the feature films Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Wind in the Willows, Song of the South, Mickey and the Beanstalk and Bongo on hold until the war was over. The only feature film that was allowed to continue production was Bambi which was released in 1942. Bambi was ground-breaking in terms of animating animals realistically. However due to the war Bambi failed at the box-office and received mixed reviews from the critics. This was to be short lived as it grossed a considerable amount of money in the 1947 re-release.

Disney was now fully committed to the war and contributed by producing propaganda shorts and a feature film entitled Victory Through Air Power. Victory Through Air Power was a box office failure and the studio lost around $500,000 as a result. The required propaganda cartoon shorts were also not as popular as Disney's regular shorts, and by the time the Army ended its stay at Disney Studios when the war ended in 1945, Disney struggled to restart his studio, and had a low amount of cash on hand.

Further Disney feature films of the 1940s were modestly budgeted collections of animated short segments put together to make a feature film. These began with Saludos Amigos in 1942 and continued during the war with The Three Caballeros in 1944 and after the war with Make Mine Music in 1946, Fun and Fancy Free in 1947, Melody Time in 1948 and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad in 1949. For the feature films Mickey and the Beanstalk, Bongo and Wind in the Willows he condensed them into the package films Fun and Fancy Free and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad since Walt feared that the low-budget animation would not become profitable. The most ambitious Disney film of this period was the 1946 film Song of the South, a film blending live-action and animation which drew criticism for accusations of racial stereotyping in later years.

In 1950 Disney produced Cinderella. Cinderella was an enormous success,becoming the highest grossing film of 1950, and would become Disney's most successful film since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Disney's first single narrative feature film since Bambi.

Disney also started producing full live-action films beginning with Treasure Island in 1950. He also had been creating nature documentaries since Seal Island in 1948 and started broadcasting on television with his One Hour in Wonderland special in 1951. Due to this Walt Disney was needed on several different units at one time and was spending less time in the animation department. However he never lost interest in animation and was always present at story-meetings; here they needed him the most. In 1951 he released Alice in Wonderland, a project he had been working on since the late-1930s and had shelved during the war. Alice in Wonderland was only moderately successful and received mixed reviews from the critics. However in 1953 he released Peter Pan which like Alice in Wonderland had been in production since the late-1930s, early-1940s and was shelved during the war. However unlike Alice, Peter Pan was a big success both critically and financially.

When Disney's contract with RKO expired at the end of 1953, instead of renewing it as usual Disney was concerned about the instability of RKO (due to owner Howard Hughes' increasingly erratic control of the studio) and started distributing its own films through its newly created Buena Vista Distribution subsidiary. This allowed a higher budget for shorts and features than the last few years of cartoons made for RKO dictated, which made it possible to make some of the cartoons in the new CinemaScope format. However, the budget per short was nowhere near as high as it had been in the 1940s as Disney had been focusing more on live action, television, and feature animation and less on short animation. In 1953, shortly after the switch from RKO to Buena Vista, Disney released its final Mickey Mouse short, The Simple Things. From there the studio produced fewer animated shorts by the year until the animated shorts division was eventually closed in 1962, with the release of its final short A Symposium on Popular Songs. After that, any future short cartoon work was done through the feature animation division.

In 1955 he created Lady and the Tramp, the first animated film in CinemaScope. Upon building Disneyland in 1955, Walt Disney regained a huge amount of popularity among the public, and turned his focus at producing his most ambitious movie; Sleeping Beauty. Sleeping Beauty was filmed in Super Technirama 70mm film and in Stereophonic Sound like Fantasia. Sleeping Beauty also signaled a change in the style of drawing with cartoony and angular characters; taking influence from United Productions of America. Although Sleeping Beauty was the second-highest grossing film of 1959 (just behind Ben-Hur), the film went over budget costing 6 million dollars and the film failed to make back its expenditure.. The studio was in serious debt and had to cut the cost of animation. In 1960 this resulted in Disney inventing Xerography, that replaced the traditional hand-inking. The first feature film that used Xerox cels was 101 Dalmatians in 1961. It was a huge success, however the Xerox resulted in films with a "sketchier" look and lacked the quality of the hand-inked films. According to Floyd Norman, who was working at Disney at the time, it felt like the end of an era.

On 15 December 1966, Walt Disney died of lung cancer. The last film he was involved in was The Jungle Book, released a year after his death. After Walt Disney's death the animated films produced by the Disney company were only moderately successful. The animation department did not fully recover until the late-1980s, early-1990s with the Disney Renaissance.

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