Originally posted on Reel World Theology.
1950 to 1959 were a rebirth of creativity in Disney Animation. The World War II years were lean, as the Disney Studio primarily produced training and propaganda films for the war effort with little to no profit. This left Walt and his staff with very few resources, and the studio released films comprised of shorts – called “package features.” While these features are classics in their own right, the Disney staff was capable of more.
As the 1940s turned into the 1950s, Walt knew that he needed another feature to get the studio back on its feet. Cinderella would be the film that would make or break the Disney Studio. And thankfully, it was a huge hit when it was released.
This was also the decade, as many key animators would attest, that Walt began to lose interest in animation. He was still involved in development of the films, but not as heavily as he was in the past. Walt was always fascinated by his next idea, and Disneyland, which was planned and opened during this time, took up most of his attention. In these years, he would give more leeway to his teams of storymen and art directors, while still “plussing” the films with his own ideas.
The five films produced during this era are among Disney’s finest. They all, in their own way, invoke the hallmarks of Disney Animation with their incredible warmth, intricate design and stunning animation. It is here in these films that Disney’s masters of art and animation were at the top of their game. Here they are in my order of preference.
5. Alice in Wonderland (1951)
Story-wise, this is the weakest of the five, but still a charming classic. The animation and art direction revel in the nonsensical and surreal nature of the source material. Illustrator Mary Blair, often referred to as Walt’s favorite artist, lends her unique color styling to this film – making Wonderland a sea of bright hues and interesting designs.
Eccentric animator Ward Kimball let loose with the animation of characters like Mad Hatter, March Hare and the Tweedles. Yet in the tradition of Disney animation, they still have weight and feel real in spite of their exaggerated designs. It’s wacky yet grounded, which is probably the best description of the film itself.
4. Peter Pan (1953)
A wonderful film with storybook styling – again influenced by Mary Blair’s inspirational sketches and paintings (besides her work in animation, Blair is also famous for being one of the illustrators of the Little Golden Books). The songs, particularly “You Can Fly,” are immortal Disney mainstays. Captain Hook is one of my favorite Disney villains. His signature character trait of pomposity covering cowardice is hilariously ironic.
Animator Milt Kahl pulled off some glorious animation of Peter flying, especially the scenes in the Darling children’s bedroom. Peter seems to “float” in several poses. What’s astonishing is that Kahl simply imagined how a person would “float” in the air. There was know way for him to know how that looked.
3. Cinderella (1950)
This is the film that saved the Disney Studio. Without Cinderella, all of the subsequent films that were released (even the ones after Walt’s time) may not have happened. Walt pooled all his limited resources into this film, yet maintained a very tight budget. In fact, the film was shot in live action and then rotoscoped (traced) into the animation. The artwork is incredible, with its watercolor-like appearance and soft colors (again, Mary Blair is all over this film). The King is another one of my favorite Disney characters, and always makes me laugh with his over-the-top buffoonery.
This film also contains my favorite piece of animation: Milt Kahl’s astounding transformation of Cinderella’s dress from rags to elegant gown. The timing is just genius. It’s seems like one fluid movement. I still can’t believe it was done by hand!
2. Lady and the Tramp (1955)
What I enjoy most about this film is its stunning detail and beauty. While other studios were going in hyper-stylized, “modern” directions with limited animation (which isn’t necessarily bad), Walt stressed realism, performance, and fluid movement. As such, all the characters behave in very realistic ways. The dogs have their little quirks and eccentricities, but are very much real animals.
The story is also one of the most cohesive and heartfelt in the Disney canon – covering heavy themes of change, loyalty, love, and responsibility. I also adore the songs and music in this film, “Bella Notte” and “La La Lu” especially. Musical flourishes like Lady going up an octave every time she climbs a stair in a scene are delightful.
1. Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Arguably Disney’s most beautiful animated film, and my favorite in the Disney collection. Walt pulled out all the stops for this one, and it shows. Creating it took six years and $6 million – the most expensive feature made during Walt’s time. It is exquisite in detail of backgrounds and character animation. The stylization is genius, with the backgrounds and characters patterned after the look of medieval paintings – a “moving illustration,” as Walt called it.
Animator Marc Davis created on of the most compelling Disney villains in Maleficent – a creature of pure malevolence. The climactic battle between Maleficent (as a dragon) and Prince Philip is one of the most harrowing in all animation. It is one of the greatest examples of animation doing something (at the time anyway), that was not possible any other way…at least in no believable way.
Ironically, the high cost and modest return from the box office of Sleeping Beauty prompted Walt to reign in the costs of the features to follow. Stylization would trump realism, but with artistically amazing results.