When the sky was the limit for Disney Studios and animation

Discussion in 'Visual Arts' started by Matheus Bezerra de Lima, Oct 16, 2021.

  1. Matheus Bezerra de Lima

    Matheus Bezerra de Lima Forum Resident Thread Starter

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    After the huge success of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, released in December of 1937, Disney had reached the absolute peak of animation. I won't dwell on detail about the film's merits, I'll focus on the aftermath of its success.

    It put the confidence of Walt Disney and his animators at an absolute high. They felt they could do anything. And after accomplishing something as great as Snow White, the motivation for the studio was to do even better. There would be no compromises, no spared expense in their next features. They would take all the lessons they learned from Snow White, and strive for perfection.

    There was always a perfectionist approach in the studio, instilled by Walt. One of the reasons why Walt wanted to make a feature-length animated film was because the cartoon shorts had become so expensive, due to Walt's insane perfectionism in wanting to make the absolute best cartoons, that they barely brought any profit to the studio. Disney's big rival in the 1930s, the Fleischer Studios, had Max Fleischer (I think) saying that Disney would not be able to last long in the industry, he said "you don't eat medals".

    But the gigantic success of Snow White, both in the box-office (becoming the highest grossing film ever, though soon beaten by Gone With The Wind) and critical acclaim, seemed to have vindicated all those methods. And they got pushed even further.

    Pinocchio is an amazing example of this. The level of gorgeous detail in the backgrounds, effects and stunning animation in general, every frame is a painting. Often hailed as the most technically perfect of all films that Walt Disney produced, a gold standard for the medium, a masterpiece in all aspects for me too!

    Released in February in 1940, there was also at the same time heavy work on Fantasia. Disney was planning to release two new movies every year, there would epics such as Pinocchio, Fantasia and Bambi, and smaller films such as Dumbo. There were seemingly no limits, Walt wanted to make his studio's animation better and better, in a never-ending search for perfection while also pushing the artform to new territories.

    But the dream would start to be crushed with Pinocchio's release. World War 2 had closed the european market for Disney. Pinocchio was instantly hailed as a masterpiece and even better than Snow White by critics. But, for reasons still hard to understand, the film didn't come even remotely close to conquer the hearts of the public as Snow White had, even when taking into account the loss of the european market.

    It's still a mystery why Pinocchio's box office was so disappointing. The public should have been willing to flood the theaters to watch Disney's second feature as much as they had with Snow White. And the people who watched the film loved it, critical acclaim was amazing. Despite once saying that he would rather have a box-office flop than make a bad feature, Walt was very depressed with Pinocchio's box office results, and would end up saying "Pinocchio may have lacked Snow White's heart appeal, but it was artistically and technically superior".

    Pinocchio's box office might have started to reveal a dark reality completely incompatible with Walt's ambitions: that animated films were far from guaranteed huge box-office hits no matter how good, that a success of Snow White's scale was always gonna be exceptional, and that Pinocchio's box-office was more in line with how well an animated feature could really perform in the vast majority of cases.

    Fantasia, released later in the year of 1940, was too much too soon. Audiences weren't ready for Walt's big leap. Fantasia disappointed in the box office. Walt wanted the film to be constantly re-released with new segments replacing some of the older ones. But such plans had to be scrapped.

    1940 ended up being a year in which Walt Disney and his studio were brought back to the ground by reality. Achieving two supreme masterpieces of the medium (Pinocchio and Fantasia), but still failing and being now with immense debt.

    Bambi was too far in production to be stopped, and too much heart, perfectionism and effort had been put into it, a movie that broke new grounds with its naturalistic approach, both story-wise and animation-wise (one that also garnered critics, who said that Disney was tossing away his world of fantasy and the beauty of animation for the artificial, not the realist), and in that way remains an oddity in Disney canon (I say that in the best sense). Still, Walt cut 11 minutes of it because of costs. Bambi was once supposed to be the studio's second film after Snow White, but it posed such insurmountable challenges that it was released only in 1942, the last year of Disney's Golden Age. The film's visuals and animation were again on the insanely high level set by Pinocchio and Fantasia. And also like them, it didn't perform well enough to make any profit, it was insanely expensive.

    It was only with Dumbo, released in 1941, that Disney managed to turn profit, because the film was so cheap. But it wasn't enough. After 1942, the studio couldn't make epic feature-length animated films anymore. And the strike of 1941 also resulted on the studio losing half of its animators, and forever soured the relationship of Walt with his animators, and vice-versa. It destroyed the fraternity of the studio. All explained in a great YouTube video called The Biggest Party Walt Disney Ever Threw, by Defunctland.

    So, Disney went from feeling like they could do anything in animation, to not even being able to do features anymore (releasing package films for the rest of decade), and also doing war and propaganda films. All of those factors resulted in Walt increasingly losing his passion for animation itself. Once the most respected name in all of the animation industry, often even hailed as the greatest genius in cinema in the 1930s, now saw himself lose relevance, leadership and respect in the industry. Warner Bros. with the Looney Tunes took animation to new and revolutinary directions that clashed with the Disney model, under the guide of names such as Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Bob McKimson, Mike Maltese and so on. Same thing for MGM, with Tom & Jerry and the cartoons by Tex Avery.

    Still, what Disney Studios achieved since Steamboat Willie, released in 1928, up to Bambi can not be understated. It was Disney at their most ambitions, pushing the art of animation to higher and higher levels at an insane rate. And specially in their 5 feature-length animated films released in that era (Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi), you saw the culmination of all that effort and some of the highest highs ever achieved in the medium, masterpieces. Disney strived hard to make characters believable, to show that people could emotionally connect with cartoon characters in a serious dramatic level, and that's their biggest legacy.

    I also recommend YouTube channel There Will Be Fudd, about Disney's early features. And I also recommend "Walt vs. Disney Analysis: The Artist Vs. The Machine".

    For more about the man himself, I also recommend Defunctland's video on the Epcot.

    While plenty of Disney films gained classic status later on, it was still frustrating in Walt's lifetime to have Snow White as the success that the studio could never come even remotely close to equal, no matter how much the artistry and animation evolved. It seemed that everything after Snow White lacked its "heart appeal" for some intangible reason that he struggled to fully understand. Only with Mary Poppins, a mix of live-action with animation released in 1964, Walt again had a film that touched audiences like Snow White did, and he would regard Mary Poppins as his greatest achievement.
     
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