The Rise and Rise of Disney
“Why do we have to grow up? I know more adults who have the children’s approach to life. They’re people who don’t give a hang what the Joneses do. You see them at Disneyland every time you go there. They are not afraid to be delighted with simple pleasures, and they have a degree of contentment with what life has brought – sometimes it isn’t much, either.”
The popularity of Disney has continued to increase for nearly nine decades, with the recent release of The Princess and the Frog in America using the traditional animation techniques for the first time since 2004’s Home on the Range. Though it is not released in the UK until February, its state-side success has persuaded Disney to create at least one new hand-drawn feature film every second year, continuing a tradition that stretches back to 1937. Based on E.D. Baker’s novel, The Frog Princess – itself an adaptation of the Grimm Brothers’ fairytale, The Frog Prince – Disney’s latest film, directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, is the forty-ninth in their ‘animated classics’ line, a range that also includes The Lady and the Tramp, Hercules and Lilo and Stitch. But why has Disney’s popularity increased, and will this trend continue?
Disney was founded in 1923 by brothers Walt and Roy Disney as the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, but was renamed in 1929 as Walt Disney Productions after their move to a new studio in the Silver Lake District, following on from the success of their first animated short to be released, the silent comedy, Alice’s Day at Sea. These comedies, starring Alice and Julius the cat, began in 1923, with the unreleased Alice’s Wonderland, and continued until August 1927, but have been forgotten by many, replaced by Mickey Mouse, who debuted the following year in Plane Crazy. This featured a very different Mickey – a bit more rogue than his modern counterpart – resulting in Steamboat Willie being considered his first outing. Steamboat Willie is also remembered as the first cartoon to contain synchronised sound. These initial successes led to an array of shorts, such as the Silly Symphonies line, introducing characters such as Donald Duck and Pluto, and various Mickey Mouse shorts.
Walt Disney decided the company needed to expand, and developed his first animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This was originally seen as ‘Disney’s folly’ by the film industry; a project that would destroy Disney. His wife and brother even tried to talk him out of it, but Walt proved them all wrong, and began a tradition that continues today. Even though Walt once said, “I do not like to repeat successes; I like to go on to other things,” Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs allowed a new studio to be built in Burbank, California, and a succession of films including 1940’s Pinocchio and Fantasia, 1941’s Dumbo, and 1942’s Bambi, all of which are remembered fondly today. Though the films produced between 1943 and 1949 are lesser known – ever heard of Saludos Amigos, or Make Mine Music? – 1950’s Cinderella ushered in an age of immortal feature films.
“Animation offers a medium of storytelling and visual entertainment which can bring pleasure and information to people of all ages everywhere in the world.”
Walt stressed that his company’s achievements were largely due to their dependence on animation. “Animation” – he said – “can explain whatever the mind of man can conceive. This facility makes it the most versatile and explicit means of communication yet devised for quick mass appreciation.” Traditional animation began with a storyboard, analysed and altered until the crew were content with the final story. The dialogue was recorded before animators made rough sketches of characters. ‘Inbetweeners’ were used to connect the animators disjointed sketches. The completed story was then sent to the inking department. The Painting Department applied the story was to sheets of clear celluloid acetate. Colour was added to the back of each ‘Cel.’ Backgrounds were painted on panes of glass, using Tempera or Water Colours, so they showed through the acetate, which contained only the characters. The background and Cel were then photographed, and dialogue added before the film was released. The last Disney film to be produced this way was 1989’s The Little Mermaid. Embracing new technology, the Computer Animations Production System (CAPs), used to ink and paint, kept Disney ahead of competition. Cheaper and quicker, it allowed Disney to average one animated film a year, including Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. More recently, this technique has been used to create The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mulan, and Treasure Planet.
“I have been up against tough competition all my life. I wouldn’t know how to get along without it.”
Disney’s future was threatened by tough competition from companies like DreamWorks. 2004’s Home on the Range was the last Disney film to use the traditional animation techniques (which now include ‘CAPS’), having been replaced by Computer Generated Image technology (or CGI) when Disney bought Pixar in 2006. Since then, Disney’s successes have included Cars, Ratatouille and WALL-E. The latest Disney/Pixar film, Up grossed over $723 million worldwide, becoming Pixar’s second most commercially successful film, after 2003’s Finding Nemo. Disney have produced CGI films independent of Pixar in the form of Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons and Bolt, all of which have been added to their ‘animated classics’ line.
The success of The Princess and the Frog has secured traditional animation techniques a future at Disney, but its partnership with Pixar will continue to remain fruitful. Toy Story will be re-released in 3D prior to the release of Toy Story 3, while more sequels are on the way with Cars 2, Monsters Inc. 2, and a range of Tinkerbell films. It also has new concepts in development, including Rapunzel, to be released later this year, Newt and The Bear and the Bow in 2011, and King of the Elves in 2012.
Disney’s popularity is sure to continue in the future, with an appeal to all. Their limited DVD release strategy starves the market, making the films fresh for a new generation. Acquisitions of Pixar and, most recently, Marvel Comics, are set to benefit Disney indefinitely, and the promise of traditionally-animated films will excite fans old and new. Though battling competition since their inception, Disney has always managed to come out on top by embracing new technology, and treasuring the past. The success of The Princess and the Frog proves that the magic of Disney will live on forever.