1937-1949 | 1950-1969 | 1970-1979
1980-1989 | 1990-1999 | 2000-2009
By 1950, Walt Disney Studios had established itself as a minor film studio. Up to that date it had released 15 films, all of which contained at least some animation. Only one film, Snow White, had been a huge financial success, and while some had made modest profits, many had flopped badly. A key part of this was caused by the Second World War, which meant that Disney lost crucial revenue from overseas audiences until after the war had ended.
After the Second World War ended, British cinemas again showed Disney films, but the British government, wishing to re-establish the British film industry, impounded all cinema profits, insisting that all money generated this way be spent in Britain1. Unable to relocate the Animation Studio to Britain and with over $1 million at stake, Disney began making live-action films in Britain. Disney's first live-action film, Treasure Island, was highly successful, and encouraged Disney to make more.
The British government had therefore turned Disney Studios into a film company that made live-action as well as animated films2, and increasingly the biggest competition that Disney's animation department faced in the years to come was from the company's own live-action films. Walt Disney's personal attention was also now being increasingly spent on creating his theme park, rather than on the animated films his company was making.
In the last 75 years the Walt Disney Studio has released over 50 animated films it has labelled 'Classics'. The first 11 of these were made between 1937 and 1949, with classics 12-19 made during 1950-1969.
12. Cinderella (1950)
Boys, if 'Cinderella' doesn't make it, we're through!
- Walt Disney
|Directors||Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske and Clyde Geronimi|
|Plot||Cinderella's widowed father married a widowed woman, Lady Tremaine, before his untimely death, leaving Cinderella in the care of a wicked stepmother and two ugly stepsisters. They force her to work as their servant. When a ball is held to determine who will marry the kingdom's prince, Cinderella is able to go to the ball through the help of her fairy godmother.|
|Setting||An unnamed mediæval kingdom|
|Fairytale Castle||Yes, the Prince and King's castle|
|Perky Princess||Cinderella (Ilene Woods)|
|Airy Fairy||Fairy Godmother (Verna Felton)|
|Book Beginning||Once upon a time in a faraway land, there was a tiny kingdom – peaceful, prosperous and rich in Romance and Tradition. Here in a stately chateau there… [Page turns and camera zooms in to the picture]|
|Source||The French fairy tale popularised by Charles Perrault, 1697|
|Songs:||By Mack David, Jerry Livingston and Al Hoffman.|
|Sequels||Cinderella II: Dreams Come True (2002)|
Cinderella III: A Twist in Time (2007)
|Spin Offs||Cinderella (2015) live-action version.|
After all the failures of the 1940s, Cinderella was made as a last attempt to recapture Snow White's success. If Cinderella had failed at the box office, it is likely that Walt Disney Studios would have closed. Consequently it was made much more cheaply than films like Snow White or Bambi, with simple rather than elaborate backgrounds. A minimalist, simplistic style was emphasised, with difficult angles avoided to make the film easier, quicker and most importantly cheaper to make.
Fortunately it was a success, and the Disney animation studio was saved. The film cost $2.2 million and made $7.9 million on initial release, with the song 'Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo' nominated for an Oscar.
One of the most iconic images of Disneyworld has been Cinderella's Castle. Yet as Cinderella married into the royal family, for the royal castle to be renamed after herself perhaps makes her as guilty as her wicked stepmother, who appropriated Cinderella's home.
The Sherman Brothers, Disney's most prolific songwriters, later provided songs for a non-Disney Cinderella adaptation, The Slipper and the Rose.
13. Alice in Wonderland (1951)
|Directors||Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske and Wilfred Jackson|
|Plot||Bored with life in Victorian England, Alice wishes she could live in a world of nonsense. Soon after, she follows a waistcoat-wearing white rabbit down a rabbit hole to Wonderland, a world where nothing makes sense.|
|Setting||Wonderland, a fantasy land found down a rabbit hole.|
|Book Beginning||The film opens with Alice's sister reading a history book about William the Bastard, which has no bearing on the rest of the plot.|
|Source||Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871)|
|Songs:||The songs are strongly based on the work of Lewis Carroll, using many of his verses. Lyrics adapted by Bob Hilliard, music by Sammy Fain except where stated:|
One of Walt Disney's first cartoon series (1923-27) were the Alice comedies, the first one being Alice's Adventures. These featured a young girl who entered an animated world of her imagination. Consequently Walt Disney had long planned to make an adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, and though the story was public domain, he bought the rights to Sir John Tenniel's drawings in 1938. In 1946 author Aldous Huxley, best known for Brave New World, was initially hired to write the screenplay, although he was later replaced.
Disney found casting the right voice for Alice to be difficult. His initial choice of Luana Patten was met by controversy as there were loud protests in Britain that one of Britain's most famous characters would sound American. Disney instead cast English actress Kathryn Beaumont.
By the time Alice was in production, Walt Disney's attention was solely on turning his dream theme park into a reality. With his attention elsewhere, rather than delegate control to any single figure who could potentially challenge his authority, he appointed the same three directors who had worked on Cinderella, but left them to work unsupervised. The result was a case where too many cooks spoiled the broth, as each director competed to outdo the others, creating a mess as a result. With no overall guidance overseeing the whole project, the film appears disjointed, muddled and lacks a clear vision. The film flopped; having cost $3 million it made only $2 million on initial release.
The character of Turbo/King Candy in Wreck it Ralph was inspired by The Mad Hatter.
14. Peter Pan (1953)
|Directors||Hamilton Luske, Clyde Geronimi and Wilfred Jackson|
|Plot||In London, Wendy Darling, on the brink of young womanhood, has captured the shadow of Peter Pan, a boy who never grows up who lives in the magical realm of Never Land. When Peter retrieves his shadow, Wendy and her younger brothers John and Michael fly to Never Land with him. Yet fairy Tinker Bell is jealous, and after initial plans to have Wendy killed fail, enters into an alliance with dastardly one-handed pirate, Captain Hook.|
|Setting||Edwardian London and the fantasy world, Never Land|
|Airy Fairy||Tinker Bell|
|Perky Princess||Tiger Lily|
|Source||Peter Pan, 1904 play and Peter and Wendy 1911 novel, both by JM Barrie|
|Songs:||By Sammy Cahn & Sammy Fain unless stated:|
|Sequels||Return to Never Land (2002)|
One of Disney's most popular animated films inspiring both pirate and fairy spin-offs. The original film contains many stereotyped at best, if not borderline racist, references to 'Indians', epitomised by the song 'What made the Red Man Red?' None of the spin-offs or sequels have mentioned these friendly rivals of the Lost Boys.
When it came to making Peter Pan, the directors had learned Alice in Wonderland's lesson of making sure they weren't pulling in different directions. Also, Peter Pan was a more straightforward narrative to adapt and had existed as a stage play as well as a book. When the film was in production, Cary Grant was considered to voice Captain Hook3. One problem faced was that the different directors had different ideas of what to make of Captain Hook. Was he a comical dandy, a clown or an evil, scary villain? What do the Lost Boys and mermaids actually do? Both groups appear in the film, but sadly are never really defined.
Snow White's stepmother, the Queen, is jealous of Snow White. When she tries to kill her, she is labelled a villain. Tinker Bell is jealous of Wendy, gets the Lost Boys to shoot at her and arranges for Captain Hook to invade Peter Pan's lair. Not only is Tinker Bell branded a heroine, but she even becomes Disney's icon, appearing with the Disney logo and even getting her own spin-off series...
15. Lady and the Tramp (1955)
|Directors||Hamilton Luske, Clyde Geronimi and Wilfred Jackson|
|Plot||A young dog named Lady is owned by fairly well-off humans she knows only by the names their spouses affectionately call them: Jim Dear and Darling. Lady's life turns upside down shortly after meeting Tramp, a stray dog, when Darling becomes pregnant and has a wee bairn (baby). Promptly after giving birth the new parents go away on holiday, leaving the baby to be looked after by Aunt Sarah. She hates dogs and is easily manipulated by her Siamese cats; meanwhile a rat attacks the baby...|
|Setting||A mid-sized town in early 20th Century America.|
|Perky Princess||'Princess' is a comparatively modern word. The title traditionally princesses were known by was 'Lady'.|
|Book Beginning||Introduced with the quote: "In the whole history of the world there is but one thing that money can not buy… to wit – the wag of a dog's tail." Josh Billings|
|Source||Happy Dan, the Whistling Dog by Ward Greene, a short story published in Cosmopolitan in 1924|
|Songs:||Written by Sonny Burke and Peggy Lee:|
|Sequels||Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp's Adventure (2001)|
Work on preparing the film, originally entitled Lady, had begun in 1937 but the film was delayed following the 1941 Disney strike. The original story was by Ward Greene, a personal friend of Walt Disney and head of the King Features Syndicate that distributed Disney comic strips. One scene was autobiographical; Walt Disney himself had given his wife a dog in a hat box as a surprise present for Christmas in 19274. The Disneys named their real dog Sunnee.
This was the first animated film made in the CinemaScope widescreen5 format, which doubled the cost of the background artwork. As CinemaScope was a new development, the film was also made capable of being shown in a normal aspect ratio. It was also the first animated film that the Disney Studio released itself, through Buena Vista (named after the road the studio was located on) rather than RKO. Once one of the largest film studios in the world, RKO was collapsing and Disney did not wish to be caught up in the collapse. The film cost just under $3million to make, but was a tremendous success.
16. Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Our most ambitious cartoon feature to date!
- Walt Disney
|Directors||Clyde Geronimi, Eric Larson, Wolfgang Reitherman and Les Clark|
|Plot||When Princess Aurora is born, evil Maleficent curses her. Aurora is initially doomed to prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die before dusk on her 16th birthday, although the curse is changed so that instead of dying, she will sleep until awakened by her true love's kiss. Aurora is brought up by her three fairy godmothers as a peasant and renamed 'Briar Rose' to keep her hidden from the curse6 yet on her 16th birthday, Maleficent discovers her whereabouts just as she encounters her true love.|
|Setting||An unnamed mediaeval kingdom in the 14th Century|
|Wicked Witch||Maleficent (Eleanor Audley)|
|Perky Princess||Princess Aurora 'Briar Rose' (Mary Costa)|
|Book Beginning||In a far away land long ago lived a King and his fair Queen. Many years had they longed for a child and finally their wish was granted. A daughter was born. They called her Aurora. Yes they named her after the dawn for she filled their lives with sunshine. Then a great holiday was proclaimed throughout the kingdom so that all of high or low estate might pay homage to the infant Princess. And our story begins on that most joyful day.|
|Source||The Beauty sleeping in the Wood by Charles Perrault (1697), The Sleeping Beauty ballet by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Ivan Vsevolozhsky (1890).|
|Songs:||Music by George Bruns, Lyrics by Tom Adair unless stated:|
|Spin Offs||Sofia the First (2013+) - animated television series featuring the fairies as Sofia's teachers|
Maleficent (2014) - Live-action film
Sleeping Beauty was the most expensive Disney film made to date. Painter Eyvind Earle had been hired in 1951 to create the highly artistic look of the film, a style influenced by painters such as Dürer, Van Eyck and Brueghel. The film was intended to be 'a moving illustration, the ultimate in animation'. Like Fantasia, it would also contain classical music and an enchanted broom also reminds the audience of the earlier ambitious film.
One of Disney's motives for making an extravagant film was to counter the popular minimalist style employed by their bitter rival, animation studio United Productions of America. This studio had employed many of the former Disney artists who had gone on strike in 1941, and the industry felt that their style had beaten Disney's when they won the Best Animated Short Oscar in 1950.
Despite being by far the most complex, challenging film the Disney studio had made, Walt Disney's personal attention was solely focussed on creating Disneyland. Though his attention was elsewhere, he was unwilling to allow anyone else enough control to make decisions themselves. Work on the film was slowed by making it in the new SuperTechnirama 70 widescreen format, which also led to many static scenes with stationary background characters and little movement, although the highliy complex multiplane camera, capable of creating animation across different layers, saw extensive, and expensive, use. The making of Sleeping Beauty progressed slowly, missing the original published release date of Christmas 1955, then Christmas 1957 and Christmas 1958, before finally being released in 1959. This not only was eight years after work on the film had begun, but also four years after Sleeping Beauty's Castle had opened at Disneyland.
Those who made the film were passionate about it, yet the stress of being expected to make the pinnacle of animation took a heavy toll. Supervising director Wilfred Jackson suffered a heart attack and senior animator Frank Thomas needed weekly medical attention due to the stress. When finished, the film had cost over $6 million, so was the most expensive animated film by far ever made.
When released, the film's reception was that it looked visually stunning, but lacked warmth. The film was mainly about the three fairies and Prince Phillip, named after Queen Elizabeth II's husband. As the titular character spends much of the time asleep and had less than 20 lines of dialogue in the whole film, audiences found it difficult to care about her fate.
The film resulted in a colossal loss, leading to the downsizing of the animation department. The Disney Studio would make only two animated films in the next five years, and would not attempt to adapt another fairy tale until The Little Mermaid, 30 years later.
17. One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)
|Director||Wolfgang Reitherman, Hamilton Luske and Clyde Geronimi|
|Plot||Dalmatians Pongo and Perdita, who live with Roger and Anita, have 15 puppies. Anita's evil school friend Cruella De Vil plots to kidnap the puppies. Owning 84 other Dalmatian puppies, she wishes to turn the dogs' skins into a Dalmatian fur coat.|
|Setting||Late 1950s London|
|Source||The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith (1956)|
|Songs:||'Cruella De Vil' by Mel Leven|
|Sequels||101 Dalmatians II: Patch's London Adventure (2003)|
|Spin Offs||101 Dalmatians: The Series (1996) Animated television series|
Live Action Films:
101 Dalmatians (1996)
102 Dalmatians (2000)
After heroic dogs Bruno in Cinderella, Nana in Peter Pan and the cast of Lady and the Tramp, this is the ultimate Disney dog film. Following the downsizing of the animation department7, in 1959 Disney's lifelong friend Ub Iwerks invented a revolutionary approach to animation. By modifying a Xerox camera, Iwerks allowed animators' drawings to be copied directly onto celluloid, meaning that the old inking department was redundant. Though this process meant that films animated by this method looked more graphic and linear, and not rendered with a three-dimensional appearance as in earlier Disney films, it was far, far cheaper.
The cost, estimated to be approximately $4 million, was still very expensive compared to a similar length live-action film. Although it was the tenth highest grossing film of 1961, making $6 million, its modest success did not cancel out Sleeping Beauty's loss. Though fondly remembered today, One Hundred and One Dalmatians was released at a time when Disney's live-action films, made for far less, were making far more. The Shaggy Dog made $9.6 million, The Parent Trap $9.3 million and The Absent Minded Professor $8.9 million. Disney very, very seriously considered abandoning animation altogether; One Hundred and One Dalmatians was almost the last ever animated Disney film.
Curiously, for a film in which the lead human character's profession is actually song-writing, it only features one song.
Although his business advisors were opposed to the making of any more animated films, Walt Disney gave the green light to The Sword in the Stone, but on strict instructions that it be made for 40% less than even One Hundred and One Dalmatians' tight budget.
18. The Sword in the Stone (1963)
|Plot||England's last king has died, and the country is threatened by war until a sword embedded in a stone anvil appears in London, inscribed Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil is rightwise King Born of England. Later, a young boy named Wart meets a magician named Merlin, who becomes Wart's tutor.|
|Setting||6th Century England.|
|Fairytale Castle||Most of the film takes place in and around Sir Ector's moated castle.|
|Wicked Witch||Mad Madam Mim (Martha Wentworth)|
|Book Beginning||'A legend is sung of when England was young…' (following 'The Sword in the Stone' song lyrics)|
|Source||The Sword in the Stone by TH White (1938)|
|Songs:||By The Sherman Brothers|
The first Disney animated film to have only one director. Three different boys voiced Wart, including two of the director's sons. Consequently, Wart's voice often changes and sounds different. The character of Merlin is disappointing to some viewers, appearing weak and incompetent. The film's backgrounds appear noticeably basic due to the small budget. Despite this there are some effective moments in the film, especially the squirrel scene and the battle between Merlin and Mad Madam Mim. The film was a modest success, ensuring that greater care would be spent on crafting the next animated film.
19. The Jungle Book (1967)
|Plot||Mowgli, an abandoned baby boy, is found in a basket in the jungle by Bagheera, a panther. He is raised by wolves, but when he is older his life is threatened by Shere Khan the tiger, who hates all humans. Although Mowgli wishes to stay in the jungle, developing a close attachment with Baloo the carefree bear, Bagheera feels that only by living in a village surrounded by people will the boy be safe from Shere Khan.|
|Setting||A jungle in India.|
|Main Character||Mowgli, an orphaned 'man cub' boy (Bruce Reitherman)|
|Book Beginning||Yes, zooming in on the Contents page:|
Chapter I – Mowgli is sent to the Manvillage
Chapter II – Bagheera and Mowgli encounter Kaa
Chapter III – Mowgli's Adventure with the Elephants
Chapter IV – Mowgli and Baloo
|Source||The Jungle Book (1894) and The Second Jungle Book (1895) by Rudyard Kipling|
|Songs:||All by the Sherman Brothers, except 'The Bare Necessities' by Terry Gilkyson.|
|Sequels||The Jungle Book 2 (2003)|
An early draft of the film was written by Phil Peet, but Walt Disney detested it and set Larry Clemmons to rewrite the film. He gave a copy of Kipling’s book to Clemmons with the words, 'the first thing I want you to do is not to read this!' The first version of the soundtrack was by Terry Gilkyson; all his songs except 'The Bare Necessities' were replaced by songs by the Sherman brothers.
After the problem of having three different voices play Wart in the previous film, great care was taken in ensuring the perfect actors voiced the characters in The Jungle Book. Walt Disney insisted that Phil Harris voiced Baloo and turned the minor bear character of the book into the film's star. George Sanders is pure gold as Shere Khan. It initially proved difficult to find the right actor to play Mowgli, before the director's son was chosen.
Not every actor sought was cast in the film; Disney had hoped that the four vultures would be played by the four Beatles, but John Lennon in particular was strongly opposed, reportedly shouting, 'There’s no way the Beatles are going to sing for Mickey Mouse!'. The vultures do retain vaguely Liverpudlian accents and one has a Beatles mop-top hair cut. The Beatles would feature in an animated film in the following year's Yellow Submarine.
Walt Disney died in December 1966 and so never got to see the finished film. Yet The Jungle Book was the strongest fully-animated feature-length Disney film of the decade.
One film not classed as an official Animated Classic, but as one of the most famous Disney films of all time is certainly a classic in its own right, was made during this period. Though mainly live-action, it does contain a highly memorable animated sequence when the main characters jump into a painting.
Mary Poppins (1964)
|Plot||In a well-off home in Edwardian London, two children, Jane and Michael Banks, are neglected by their parents: their mother is preoccupied with the suffragette movement and their father is caught up in his work at the bank. After the resignation of their last nanny the parents advertise for a new one, finding magical nanny Mary Poppins who is 'practically perfect in every way'.|
|Source||PL Travers short story collections Mary Poppins (1934), Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935), Mary Poppins Opens the Door (1943), Mary Poppins in the Park (1952), Mary Poppins From A to Z (1962).|
|Songs:||By the Sherman Brothers:|
Walt Disney first tried securing the rights to Mary Poppins in 1943, and almost agreed to pay $10,000 for them before the author, PL Travers, insisted on final script approval, which he refused. He cast unknown Julie Andrews after seeing her play Queen Guinevere in the musical Camelot in New York. Andrews agreed to play the role after she lost out on playing Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. As Andrews was pregnant at the time, Disney offered her husband, costume and set designer Tony Walton, a position as the film's design consultant. Disney again tried to cast Cary Grant in one of his films, offering him the main male lead role of Bert, before eventually casting fourth choice, Dick Van Dyke.
Technically, the film is revolutionary, as Disney invested $250,000 just to purchase the rights to use a special travelling matte process to more convincingly combine live actors with the cartoons. It also pioneers the use of audio-animatronics, with a model bird that sings along with Mary. This would soon become the cornerstone of the Walt Disney Imagineers, frequently employed at Disney theme parks. Yet the film is still an emotional experience; the song 'Feed the Birds' became Walt Disney's favourite which he would often ask the Sherman brothers to play - he always cried whenever he heard it.
Unbelievably, the inexplicable noise that continuously emanates from Dick van Dyke throughout the film was his genuine attempt at a Cockney accent. Travers was horrified when she first saw the film and especially wanted the animated sequence to be removed from the film, but Disney refused.
Though the film had cost $5.2 million to make, it made almost $50 million on first release. It was nominated for 13 Oscars and won five: Best Special Visual Effects, Best Score, Best Song ('Chim Chim Cher-ee'), Best Editing, and Julie Andrews won Best Actress. It is often listed as one of the greatest family films of all time.