As a child of the 1990’s, I had the opportunity to sample some of the greatest animated Disney feature films ever made; not only those of that decade, but from the very first, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Despite it now being nearly two decades since the early 90’s, we still go along to see a new Disney release with our – exceptionally-willing – flatmates every now and then to try to recreate that old magic feeling in our stomachs as we see the animations come to life in bright, exciting colours before our eyes. However, it doesn’t feel the same as before. Has Disney sold itself out for the new politically-correct, mollycoddled generation or have we simply grown out of the franchise that defines animated films? What happened to the magic of Disney?
Founded almost 90 years ago; in revenue terms, the largest media and entertainment company in the world and owning 11 theme parks, Walt Disney can’t have known how big a thing he was creating when he drew out the scenes for the first feature length colour animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. The warbling voice of Adriana Caselotti brought a certain innocence to the character and nostalgically reminds us of our grandmothers’ singing. The success of this – rather more light-hearted – adaptation of a Grimm’s fairytale encouraged the company to bring young audiences more of the same, creating other classic princesses: Cinderella(1950) and Sleeping Beauty(1959).
These Disney princess films carried with them the idea of humanised versions of animal characters. Although Cinderella was the first princess film to include the talking animals, animations such as Dumbo(1941) and Bambi(1942) were released just before the United States’ involvement in World War II, when the company turned its cartoons into propaganda images such as Der Fuehrer’s Face(1943); staring the familiar Donald Duck having a nightmare about being a Nazi. Dumbo and Bambi not only showed animals that could talk, but could also feel human emotion; most notably, sadness and loss. Audiences found themselves pitying and respecting the feelings of cartoon animals. The realism of the animals’ fight against human beings seemed to give the strongest impact; they didn’t need to look exactly like the real animals to be pitied. Later animations showed animals being represented as being in love (The Lady and the Tramp, 1955), charitable (Robin Hood, 1973) and importantly, brave; for example, in The Rescuers(1977) even the smallest of creatures can show courage.
However, Disney wasn’t just about cute animals who had the ability to talk and wore miniature clothes; it provided new and unique visions of exciting cultures to young children at the same time as entertaining their parents. The Lion King(1994) showed the beauty of an African landscape with a timeless soundtrack that has now been adapted for an African choir in the musical of The Lion King, which is currently in its 11th year in London’s West End. In 1992, we were introduced to Aladdin and a story based on Arab folktale. This proved an extremely popular film and was the most successful of its year, earning over $500 million worldwide. During the 1990’s – a time known as the Disney Renaissance – the company even decided to delve into the world of more factual stories. Pocahontas(1995) told the fact-based story of the young Native American and the first settlers to land in America. The influence of Native American ideas – such as the respect for nature – and the green-tint of this film make it a truly fantastic spectacle. It also saw the dawn of the use of celebrity voices, with Mel Gibson providing his for Captain Smith. The popularity of this animation may well have made Disney more willing to use ideas from literature towards the end of the decade. The Hunchback of Notre Dame(1996) does differ from Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, but it still provides the basic character attitudes. For example, the power-hungry Frollo seeks a Paris without gypsies; a worryingly Nazi attitude.
Of course, there are other Disney animated films where the older audience can see the influence of the significant worries of the real world. The Lion King shows a similarly power-hungry Scar and during his song, ‘Be Prepared’, the hyenas march in front of him in a style very similar to that of Hitler’s Storm-Troopers. Can this kind of animation still be used today? Are Disney still allowed to infer to such horrific things in an era of mollycoddling and political correctness? With the influence of young girls’ dolls like Barbie being questioned, the image of the classic Disney princess is also brought forward as a target. In a time of PC standards, everyone must be treated equally. Even the use of the word ‘dwarf’ might be frowned at now. Besides this, there is the threat of overprotecting children in today’s society. Would they be able to handle the death of Bambi’s mother or would they be ‘emotionally-scarred’ for life? Interestingly, films such as 2009’s Up do address the issue of death and the audience pities the character, but within Disney it seems to stand alone in the 21st century. We also see the company creating its first ever black princess in The Princess and the Frog(2009).
With Disney clutching at sequels to provide future revenue – even a Snow White II on the horizon for 2013 – and the business slowly losing its long-lasting family ties to the original creators, it looks bleak. However, there is a ray of cartoon sunshine with the 2011 release of Winnie the Pooh which is traditionally-animated, suggesting that each frame will be drawn by hand. This reverting to old ways, instead of the exciting computer-graphics, may be just what Disney needs. Working with Pixar may well make every one of Sulley’s hairs move individually in Monsters, Inc.(2001) or provide a realistic shimmer to the ocean currents in Finding Nemo(2003), but people have paid for a cartoon. It is incredible how realistic they can make the computer-generated images and the amount of money and time spent on them, but they don’t have to look so real. Who says that this is what the children of today demand? Disney used to find the personality of a character through simple, colourful, 2D hand-drawn frames with catchy songs that people remember for a lifetime. We never sat down to specifically learn the lyrics, but if you stuck ‘Hakuna Matata’ on speakers, everyone in the room would sing along to every word and intonation. Surely it says it all that even the Disney films of today have the image of the Magic Kingdom and ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ from Pinocchio(1940) as the recognisable Disney theme; a sign of the good old days of animation.
So, Disney, you are left with this quote from Mufasa of The Lion King: “You have forgotten who you are and so have forgotten me.” Don’t forget where it all started or the great characters like Mufasa will be forgotten by the new generation.