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Jab’s Review- Walt Disney Pictures (Overview)

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Cinderella Castle- the symbol of the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World, Florida.

WALT DISNEY PICTURES:

I wasn’t always a huge Disney fan- in fact, for a bunch of my teen years, I’d had the typical “Disney is LAME, yo!” reaction of a spiteful teen, but had a growing fandom since then, after revisiting many of the older pictures of my youth. I’d yet visited Disneyland as an adult (I’d only gone as a teen), and hadn’t seen Walt Disney World (referred to as “WDW” by TRUE Disney Snobs like me) at all. I THINK I’d mentioned it once or twice, but up until 2013 or so, I was RELATIVELY quiet on it. I think only people on a few Superhero boards knew I was an obsessive Disneyphile, and I’d never really referenced it that often- so it was kind of a big “tear the band-aid off” moment when I finally started showing it to friends and coworkers.

So with this set of reviews, I’m going to take a look through Disney history, reviewing the pictures in order, or at least commenting on the ones that I haven’t seen. I’ve researched a lot of stuff, and found the big names in the company, so some trivia will be there as well.

DISNEY AS A WHOLE:

-This is a company famous for taking any material, no matter how adult, and dumbing it down, “safing it up”, and sanitizing it for an audience of young children and their sensitive parents. A company infamous for a monolithic desire to control everything- whose repeated failures to make products appealing to males caused them to spend BILLIONS on proven “Boy Stuff” like Marvel Comics and Star Wars (mandatory joke about Disney corporate then attempting to make both things more inclusive for girls). Something seen the world over as the “safe” alternative to just about anything. Something that the internet tough-guys and cynical adults of the world would have you believe has little merit, and is solely for the aforementioned audiences. But true men and women of taste know better, don’t they?

The very name “Disney” brings up some varied impressions in people. To a lot of teens & adults, it generates thoughts of dumbed-down, uncool material, and the shameless advertising of stuff to children (judging by the $3 billion annual profits of the Disney Princess division, this works absurdly well). To animators in the industry, it represents a cruel overlord who builds films by committee, punishes rebels, dominates all Western Animation, and makes each person obsess over one tiny aspect of each film (it’s not uncommon to be “the guy who animates all the water and ONLY the water”). Disney’s cultural reach is such that they basically gobble up every tale they touch, to the point where even famous folk tales, myths and fables are generally primarily known by “The Disney Version” first. Even famous stories like Peter Pan and Beauty and the Beast are now FAR more famous for the Disney adaptations than any of the original stories. Even Lewis Carroll’s work is less well-known than that of the Disney version. I think the only exceptions to this are the Late Renaissance pictures like Tarzan and Hercules, who were themselves too iconic to be thus changed.

But when it comes down to it, there’s very little that can truly call itself part of our communal culture the way Disney’s stuff can. Pretty much EVERYONE has seen a huge chunk of the Disney Animated Canon, if not the majority of it. In terms of beautiful animation, they have no peer- the only stuff even comparable is the peak of anime, but where Disney has perfected the movement of individual characters (often over-doing the actions to resemble pantomime- it’s a very distinctive style of movement), anime tends to focus on backgrounds and simply “having lots of stuff” moving around (think of Miyazaki’s work with the flying paper or worms and stuff), which much simpler faces on the characters.

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AND THE VILLAINS— these are some of the greatest and most iconic characters ever- using some awesome combination of hamminess, sleaziness, pure evil (hey, why NOT just insult a little orphan girl’s appearance, you BITCH?), wonderfully-wicked songs, and devilish appearance. The villain is almost always the most interesting character in a story, and that goes double here- half of the time, it’s the VILLAIN who’s the most well-remembered and well-thought-of character in the entire piece- nearly all of the praise for The Hunchback of Notre Dame is for Tony Jay’s performance as Frollo, for example. Ursula’s the best part of The Little Mermaid, and Maleficent owns the CRAP out of Sleeping Beauty. The villains are almost always gleefully hammy, often completely effeminate if they’re males (Jafar, Scar, Ratigan, Ratcliffe, Prince John…) or vile and hideous if they’re women (Ursula, The Queen in Witch Form, Madame Medusa), provoking thoughts of disgust in audiences used to Manly Men and Hot Ladies. A collection of Disney Villains would easily hold up (and trounce) the villainous line-ups of any comic book company.

And really, for all the talk of Disney being a family company, they sure are responsible for an inordinate amount of our childhood nightmares.

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DISNEY HISTORY:

-Walter Elias Disney and his older brother Roy were born in Marceline, Missouri, in a pretty lower-middle-class kind of way, and as adults, went to work in the new “Cartoon Business”. Walt was given the gift of gab, and was a great salesman, soon linking himself to animator workhorse Ub Iwerks, who would disappear from the narrative very quickly, despite playing a huge role in Disney’s early success. The animation business was a cutthroat one, with everyone ripping each other off with “Screwy Squirrel” types of characters- Walt & Ub’s “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” was a great success, but they notably didn’t OWN the character- both were summarily fired after a run-in with corporate, giving Walt his biggest lesson ever- if he wanted to be a real success, he’d have to OWN his own properties.

So they cut the ears off of their rabbit character, made him a mouse, and gave him a name (Walt’s wife famously told him to drop the “Mortimer” one). And Steamboat Willie, his first starring role, in which he repeatedly tortures small animals (seriously, holy shit- watch this one), was a smash hit. Very quickly, the character became famous, ultimately overlapping Oswald by a hundred times (the Disney corporation would actually outright BUY the Oswald character many generations later, as a final “Take That” from the long-dead Walt). Walt, with Roy as the business mind (he had no artistic cred, but was GREAT with the actual running of a business), would lead his studio to create a whole new cast of characters- Donald, Goofy, etc. Mickey would soon lose his “edge”, becoming a kindly, cheerful soul- a reputation he’d get stuck with for the rest of time.

The cartoon shorts were great business (rivaled only by the Warner Bros. canon- which has FAR more artistic credibility and was MUCH funnier), but Walt wanted MORE. Ultimately, he became known for someone always looking into the future, seeing what ELSE they could do. Though it’s hard to find evidence he ever drew so much as a PICTURE, he had a hell of an eye for animation, and had a true artist’s vision for bigger things. All cartoons until this point were SHORTS- throwaway things stuck in front of the movies people actually came to see. But what about a FEATURE-LENGTH cartoon? And so Walt did something that came to typify him: he bet the farm on his new, weird idea. With everyone thinking he was nuts, he created what was called “Disney’s Folly”- an hour and a half-long feature with actual DRAMA AND SADNESS instead of just silly Funny Animals whacking each other on the ass with paddles. This stupid, insane idea ended up making more money (adjusted for inflation) than any animated film in history… oh, and it invented the “Animated Film” genre. So there’s that.

So Animated Features are a Thing:

-So with Snow White, Walt had shaken the business to its foundation. The follow-ups? Didn’t do so well- they were so expensive to produce, and World War II was going on at the same time, so long-time classics Pinocchio, Bambi and others were not only sparsely-released, but actually LOST HIM MONEY. Hell, there’s more failures than successes in the early days. It took him years of re-releases (back then, a common feature of big picture releases- and a huge part of why the early grosses of Hollywood movies are untouchable to any modern film- releasing a big Disney Picture to a new audience of kids every seven years made BANK) to break even on those. And then he made a crazy Art Film like Fantasia, which again, lost money (but gained him a TON of artistic credibilty). Ultimately, there’d be a bunch of crappy “Collections of Animated Shorts” films, some big-name movies, then more disappointments. Sleeping Beauty lost so much money that the studio actually DOWNGRADED its art department, changing the “official style” into a much scratchier-looking, sketchy style, which is why The Jungle Book, Robin Hood and other ’60s & ’70s faire actually looks MUCH worse than 1959’s Sleeping Beauty.

Walt, of course, wasn’t done JUST making pictures- his Art Films were a passion project, but when the man impatiently sat on a bench while his kids played in some park or another, he was struck by another idea- what if someone made a park where ADULTS could have fun, too? And so Walt began his NEXT crazy-ass passion-project doomed to failure- a “Disneyland” comprised of the various things that were popular at the time- Fantasyland (Princess & medieval fare), Adventureland (for the popular “Jungle Adventure” genre), Frontierland (for the VERY popular Western craze) and Tomorrowland (for a now-hilariously-dated look at the future). And of course it cost millions, was a total disaster at opening (even Disney tells stories of people using counterfeit tickets, putting ladders up to climb over the walls, running out of food and drinks, AND it being so hot the pavement hadn’t set in the parks yet). But it ended up making money EVENTUALLY, and totally became a game-changer for entertainment.


 

Changing Fortunes:

-The Disney Corporation, as it had become, went through a lot of changing fortunes. Some of its features were mega-hits (101 Dalmations is, adjusted for inflation, its #2 hit), while others didn’t do so well. Walt famously died in the late 1960s, devastating a whole generation of children, before his “Florida Project” could be finalized- Walt Disney World would have to open without him, with his weird “EPCOT” idea going from a functioning micro-city of the future (Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow) into a generic theme park with a World Showcase and some Tomorrowland-esque “looks at what the future might look like”. His company would flag so badly that Animated Features almost died out in the 1980s- The Black Cauldron being such a huge failure that it nearly killed an art form. Fortunes were so bad that Disney was nearly bought-up and hatcheted apart by some aggressive outside corporate forces (then man responsible is so infamous to Disneyphiles that when he died a couple of years ago, MiceChat, a normally pretty kindly source of internet news, was basically “HOLY SHIT AREN’T WE GLAD THIS IMMORAL PIECE OF SHIT IS DEAD, YOU GUYS?”). A combination of being shamed by rival Don Bluth Studios (who started kicking Disney’s ass in the 1980s with An American Tail and other, more artistically-creative features than Disney had done in years) and the unexpected success of The Great Mouse Detective lionized Disney’s efforts to start over, and so they worked with a couple of Broadway pros named Howard Ashman & Alan Menken… and renovated the entire genre forever.

Ashman & Menken, who had a weird sense of humor (they wrote The Little Shop of Horrors for Broadway, which had an ending so dark they had to remake it for the movie), but a bottomless well of creativity, were masters of storytelling in the TRUE sense, getting raw emotion out of just about anything. And these two brilliant minds combined with some of the best animated talent in the world to create a boy-crazy mermaid and turn a Hans Christian Andersen tale into a timeless classic. And The Little Mermaid absolutely CRUSHED anything else coming out that could hope to compete… and soon Disney had a new “Template” to follow- animated some beautiful characters, give them some “I Want” songs, stick the best animators in the world on them, and give people the best “Feel Good” moments you could imagine. Don Bluth never had a chance.


 

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Nippy13 is the best Disney Fanartist ever.

1989-199?- THE DISNEY RENAISSANCE:

-The ’90s are generally known as the “Disney Renaissance”, with The Little Mermaid inspiring everyone. With Ashman & Menken steering the artistic side, Jeffrey Katzenberg in charge of the studio, and Michael Eisner taking over business matters. Katzenberg, a mercurial, hard-to-please pain in the ass, was unlikable, but gifted in his own right (he was PISSED at the first cut of Beauty and the Beast‘s “Spinning Room” scene, demanding they re-shoot it, because “this is all about playing with your NEW TOY, and has nothing to do with two people falling in love”). Eisner is now typified more as a plain, dull, fearsome penny-pincher, who let things go to rot under his care (the Disney Parks were FAMOUSLY cheapened under his reign- called “The Pressler Era” as a slur, owing to Paul Pressler being in charge of them at the time- as cost-cutting led to dilapidated rides, things falling apart, and even several DEATHS due to disrepair!).

But man… that Template WORKED. 1) Take some beautiful character or two (Ariel & Eric, Belle, Aladdin & Jasmine, Simba & Nala, Mulan). You give them a cute “Toyetic” Sidekick for laughs and/or adorbz (Flounder, Chip, Abu & Genie, Timon & Pumbaa, Mushu). You stick a wild, arrogant, glorious villain, usually with a huge “Villain Song” (Ursula, Gaston, Jafar, Scar). You throw in some romance- a BIG “Romantic Movie” bit of iconic glory (Kiss The Girl, Beauty and the Beast, Part of Your World, Can You Feel The Love Tonight?). They made BANK. These movies did so well that they’re STILL some of the most iconic films in any genre. Beauty and the Beast was so good that it had an honest shot at a goddamn OSCAR, which was absolutely unprecedented for an Animated Feature. The Lion King broke business records (not bad, for a picture thought of as a “throwaway”). Business was so good that even Bluth was openly ripping Disney off, as were other studios, leading to a march of Copycats (most notably Anastasia from Bluth, though Quest For Camelot is more openly mimicking the Template).

Sadly, shortly before Beauty and the Beast, one of the biggest names of the Renaissance was silenced, as Howard Ashman succumbed to AIDS. So if you’re looking for the moment when things got a bit darker, check the end credits of BATB– “To our friend Howard, who gave a Mermaid her voice, and gave a Beast his soul”. He’d touched some of the later films, but a HUGE part of why the ones in the years following were worse is because he wasn’t there to “fix” them.

All Good Things Come To An End:

-Sadly, the Renaissance couldn’t keep going. Though the Template was strong… it had limits. The absolute Game-Changer was unquestionably the disastrous Pocahontas– I’ll go more into it when I post that movie’s characters, but basically, everyone kind of wrapped it up and went “WELP- Renaissance Over. ‘Twas fun while it lasted!” and figured Disney was done. It was THAT BAD. Short version: They did a boring story with boring leads and stuck to the “Template” so strongly that people had gotten sick of it- Mulan would use the identical Template just as much, but did so BETTER, but it was too late- Pocahontas, her obviously-Corporate-inspired Sidekicks, etc… people were all of a sudden REALLY AWARE of how generic the Template really was. Animaniacs scored a zinger about “Just One More Generic Princess”. It was just so blandly… CORPORATE. I remember being a teen watching that movie, realizing how the marketing was just a bit TOO on-the-nose. You never, EVER want people to be able to “See The Strings” that badly (something for Marvel Studios to think about, as people have started picking apart THEIR Template, too).

Pocahontas was so bad that movies that came later actually suffered for it, even when they were rather GOOD. Much of the Late Renaissance was fine, but they really needed another Aladdin-level movie.

Oh, and the SEQUELS. Releasing Bambi 2 was once thought of as a total absurdist joke about how “Disney will sell ANYTHING”, no matter how garbage it was. Then they ACTUALLY MADE THAT MOVIE. Straight-to-video sequels hit some of their most iconic movies (Cinderella?!?). Some of them were actually terrific (if MUCH more poorly-animated), while others were total gutter trash. But revisiting 40-year old movies that NOBODY wanted sequels for left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Soon, a “No Sequel” rule would take place under smarter leadership.

It didn’t help that PIXAR had also struck gold around this time. Toy Story was a HUGE smash hit. CGI Animated Pictures would start sprouting up like wildfire in the following years. Pixar, a partner of Disney, would make so many quality pictures that they’d actually TAKE DISNEY’S CRED as the top-tier animation studio, as you knew walking in that “Pixar = Quality”. The fact that CGI cartoons were easier to make than traditionally-animated ones after a point, AND CHEAPER, helped strike several blows. Disney putting out some of its worst garbage EVER while Pixar was churning out a veritable Hit Factory was disastrous, too. Eventually, Pixar had so much credibility that Disney first went to war with them (this led directly to Eisner getting booted out; the danger of losing PIXAR was so great that even HE was deemed expendable. That the legendarily-bad California Adventure theme park was one of his creations didn’t help), then bought them outright, eventually copying their practices and way of business ENTIRELY.


 

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Pictured: Money.

The Modern Disney:

-Disney post-Pixar aquisition is a different beast. With John Lasseter of Pixar taking over animation, and being a REAL student of the game, the whole “occasional trash movie” thing was basically ended. A few movies struggled, but starting with Bolt, Disney adopted more Pixar-like practices, like actually putting EFFORT into quality control. The whole “CGI = Pixar = Quality” thing would become a big public perception, as people would flock to theatres to see just about ANY piece of shit (the Madagascar movies made upwards of $800 million EACH; the Ice Age films did, too). Kids LOVED CGI. So the entire business model switched over to that. Disney now had REAL competitors, though Dreamworks and other companies would themselves have rising and flagging fortunes.

But Disney eventually turned out a “Hit Factory” again, re-using the old Template in more clever ways. 2010’s Tangled proved a very, VERY successful picture, and would be copied pretty closely by Frozen only three years later… and Disney would unexpectedly have their NEW “Biggest Smash Ever”, shocking not only the whole industry, but THEMSELVES as well. And Zootopia the next year came damn close to matching it- Disney was now BREAKING RECORDS, and thanks to the silly, Merch-obsessed Cars movies, was actually getting as much artistic credibility as PIXAR was!

So right now, we live in a world where Disney can hit $1 billion in profits with the right movie. Where they’re so focused on Toy Sales that every Princess Movie now features the character/s as a little girl because of their “Baby Doll” line (the poor designers actually had to INVENT what Belle, Ariel and others looked like as small children!), at least 1-2 Funny Sidekicks, an Animal Mount to justify selling a BIGGER set, and at least TWO costumes for every female character so as to better sell more dolls. Frozen became such a reliable money-maker that Disney keeps it separate from the “Princess” line just for bragging rights (now they don’t have the BEST-selling Doll Line… they have the BEST TWO selling lines), and comes out with a new short (with NEW DRESSES!) every year or so.

What does the future hold? Oh, probably another downturn here or there. The success of Frozen led to a backlash, even as a new generation of little girls get into it, and “Fads” tend to only last 3-5 years before they fall (’80s kids should know this well). Disney giving up on their “No Sequel” rule (which, to be fair, had never been a rule even back in the Renaissance) with Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen being their only big releases for the next two years could lead to another backlash. Maybe people WILL get sick of Frozen. With John Lasseter recently being ousted over his own “MeToo” thing (apparently he was known for getting shitfaced and behaving inappropriately), their main “Creative Force”, as close to Walt as you could get, was gone- it’s possible than Jennifer Lee can replace him, but we’ll have to see how they do without him.

The films, in chronological order, are (thank you TV Tropes, * denotes movies that are collections of shorter stories):

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Pinocchio (1940)
Fantasia* (1940)
Dumbo (1941)
Bambi (1942)
Saludos Amigos* (1943)
The Three Caballeros* (1945; the film could be seen as a follow-up to “Saludos Amigos”)
Make Mine Music* (1946)
Fun and Fancy Free* (1947)
Melody Time* (1948)
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad* (1949)
Cinderella (1950)
Alice in Wonderland (1951)
Peter Pan (1953)
Lady and the Tramp (1955)
Sleeping Beauty (1959)
101 Dalmatians (1961)
The Sword in the Stone (1963; last to be released while Walt was alive)
The Jungle Book (1967; final animated film produced while Walt was alive)
The Aristocats (1970; final film Walt personally greenlit)
Robin Hood (1973)
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh* (1977; Partially made while Walt was alive)
The Rescuers (1977)
The Fox and the Hound (1981)
The Black Cauldron (1985)
The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
Oliver & Company (1988)
The Little Mermaid (1989; The first film of the Disney Renaissance.)
The Rescuers Down Under (1990; The canon’s only true sequel)
Beauty and the Beast (1991; The only movie of the canon to be nominated for Best Picture so far)
Aladdin (1992)
The Lion King (1994; The highest grossing of the canon.)
Pocahontas (1995)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
Hercules (1997)
Mulan (1998)
Tarzan (1999, The last film of the Disney Renaissance.)
Fantasia 2000 (1999; Follow-up to “Fantasia”)
Dinosaur (2000; First CGI movie done without Pixar)
The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)
Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
Lilo & Stitch (2002)
Treasure Planet (2002)
Brother Bear (2003)
Home on the Range (2004; Planned as the last 2D animation, reversed in 2009)
Chicken Little (2005)
Meet The Robinsons (2007)
Bolt (2008)
The Princess and the Frog (2009; First 2D film after 2004)
Tangled (2010)
Winnie The Pooh (2011)
Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
Frozen (2013)
Big Hero 6 (2014)
Zootopia (2016)
Moana (2016)
Wreck-It Ralph 2: Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)

Upcoming Film:
Frozen 2 (2019)

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