Pivotal Disney Moments

Disney cartoons that made a significant impact in the cartoon business.
June 07, 2010
Hiya, it's me again. This time I'll be writing an article on the social and technological advancements made by the Walt Disney Animation Studios that had a significant impact on society. You may recognize some of these, like Steamboat Willie, some of them may be a bit obscure but I hope you'll watch them all the same.

We start off with the Alice Comedies. Walt Disney and animator Ub Iwerks were thinking of doing a type of cartoon that stood out from the rest. Many studios were doing cartoon characters interacting with the real world so Walt and Ub tried the opposite, a real-life girl interacting with the cartoon world. Thus the Alice Comedies were born. Walt and Ub hired a young girl named Virginia Davis to play Alice and in 1923, the first Alice cartoon, Alice's Wonderland was released. There are 20 cartoons in total.

In Alice's Wonderland, a little girl called Alice dreams of being in the cartoon world and plays with all the cartoon characters.

In 1928, the Alice cartoons had run its course. Walt and Ub needed a new cartoon series. Ub thought up a lucky rabbit named Oswald. The Oswald cartoons were distributed by Margaret Winkler, a woman who played a crucial role in the histories of Max and Dave Fleischer, Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer. The first Oswald cartoon, Poor Papa was rejected due to its sloppiness and old age of Oswald. Oswald's debut was in 1927 in the animated short Trolley Troubles. He was an instant hit, many adored him. Unfortunately for Disney, Charles Mintz, Winkler's husband, stole Oswald (since Mintz legally owned the character), along with almost all of Disney's animators. (excluding Ub) and started his own animation studios.

In Trolley Troubles, Oswald the rabbit owned a trolley car and it turns into a very wild ride.

Now that Walt no longer had Oswald, he had to think up another character. This character many of you will know. One of the most iconic figures in history. Ub, Walt's lead animator, thought up a very mischievous mouse, who had the troublesome nature of Walt himself. This mouse was called Mickey Mouse. This time, Walt made sure he owned the character, so nobody would steal him. In 1928, Mickey's first cartoon was released. It was called Plane Crazy and even though it wasn't very popular, it introduced Mickey to the world.

In Plane Crazy, Mickey imagines himself as Charles Lindbergh and he makes an airplane that he plans to woo a female mouse with. This female mouse was eventually known as Minnie Mouse.

In 1927, a film called The Jazz Singer came out and it was the first film to incorporate synchronized sound. Walt wanted to use this revolutionary idea to his advantage. In 1928, the Disney Brothers Studio released a cartoon called Steamboat Willie, featuring a redesigned Mickey Mouse. It was the very first sound cartoon and many liked it instantly. Disney was hailed a revolutionary player in the animation business.

In Steamboat Willie, Mickey steers a steamboat and makes music using animals. Minnie joins in with Mickey and their music-making irks the boat's captain, Peg-Leg Pete.

Mickey Mouse has so far been very successful but Walt being the ambitious man he was, wanted more. Instead of the slapstick humor he had done with the Oswald and Mickey cartoons, Walt tried a different experimental approach. He tried to tell a story through only music. These shorts were called Silly Symphonies and although some of the later ones incorporated bits of dialogue, they were usually only music. Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies composer Carl Stalling did the music for some of the earlier Silly Symphonies. The very first short (made in 1929), The Skeleton Dance was the first to use non-post-sync sound (that is, the sound was not added later on after the short was animated, it was done alongside the animation). It was experimental and it wowed the audience.

In The Skeleton Dance, four human skeletons dance to music in a spooky graveyard. They use makeshift instruments (thighbone like a xylophone, a cat as a bass) to make music and dance around in circles. Although the music sounds very much like Danse Macabre, Carl Stalling said that he actually based it off a foxtrot set in a minor key.

In 1932, another Mickey short called Mickey's Revue came out. It didn't seem that important but it introduced a very famous Disney character. Mickey, Minnie, Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow perform songs and dances. An audience member by the name of Dippy Dawg keeps eating peanuts and laughing obnoxiously. This character would later evolve into Goofy, everyone's favorite man-dog. Dippy Dawg differed from Goofy in terms of looks. Dippy Dawg looked like a hobo and he was significantly older than Goofy.

Silly Symphony cartoons were thriving. People loved them. In 1932, they would love them even more. The very first color animated short appeared. It was a critical success. The Silly Symphony short Flowers and Trees wowed everyone sitting in the theatres. This short won the very first Academy Award for Best Short Subjects: Cartoon.

In Flowers and Trees, flowers and trees are dancing beautifully until a grotesque stump cuts in. He wants to dance but he is rejected. In retaliation, he sets the forest on fire!

In The Wise Little Hen (1934) (based off the fairy tale, The Little Red Hen), a duck and a pig feign illnesses so they don't have to help a hen and her chicks harvest crops. When they finally make all the food, the duck and pig weren't allowed to eat the food. This was the debut of Donald Duck, one of Mickey's closest friends. A man named Clarence Nash voiced Donald. Clarence was an expert in bird sounds and when he auditioned for Donald Duck, Walt was so impressed he hired him on the spot.

Another short came out in 1934 called Orphans' Benefit. All the Disney characters up to that point (Mickey, Minnie, Horace, Clarabelle, Donald, Goofy and Clara Cluck) were in this short. This short was important for establishing Dippy Dawg as Goofy and as a Mickey Mouse character. In this short, the gang tries to entertain a group of orphans (resembling little Mickeys) who are quite troublemakers.

The first technicolor Mickey Mouse short came out in 1935. It was entitled The Band Concert. In the short, Mickey and his friends are an orchestra that does a rendition of William Tell Overture but Donald Duck keeps butting in, playing Turkey in the Straw. Mickey gets angry and breaks Donald's flute. Hilarity ensues.

Starting with The Old Mill (1937), Walt's former co-worker Ub Iwerks (who quit years earlier due to a dispute) came back and became the technological advisor, inventing many devices that help with the process of animation. He invented the multiplane camera, which was able to recreate the three-dimensional perception of backgrounds. Ub would later create many of the technology behind Disneyland attractions.

The groundbreaking multiplane camera.

The Old Mill was a groundbreaking short. In it, critters that live inside an abandoned mill try to survive a deadly and dangerous thunderstorm late at night.

In 1937, Walt had a brilliant idea. He wanted to make a fully animated featured film. He chose the story of Snow White. Many thought Disney was crazy. They called this film 'Disney's Folly' but Walt persisted. Using his best animators, The Nine Old Men, they put realistic emotions into their characters, leaving behind the slapstick of the vaudeville-like animated shorts, but keeping the whimsicalness of it. The film was a critical success and deemed the greatest animated film in all of history. The film was called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

In Snow White, Snow White is sent by her stepmother to the forest to die but is spared. She lives with seven dwarfs, each embodying their own personalities, and wishes one day for a prince to rescue her. When the evil stepmother finds out Snow White is still alive, she disguises herself and tries to kill Snow White. In the end, she uses a poisonous apple but the Prince (he was known only as 'The Prince') kisses Snow White and she comes back to life. The songs are extremely memorable. Whistle While You Work, Heigh-Ho, all were classics.

With the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt was able to buy a bigger animation studio and create more feature-length animated films. They have all been successful.

Fantasia, released in 1940, introduced many technological advancements. None of the animated segments had dialogue, they were all set to classical music such as Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and The Nutcracker Suite. The music was directed by Leopold Stokowski and the animated segments had avante-garde qualities. It was the first commercially-released film to use multi-channel sound.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice is the most famous part of Fantasia. It features Mickey Mouse as the apprentice of the sorcerer Yen Sid (Disney backwards). Mickey does only menial chores so while Yen Sid is away, he wears his hat and makes brooms come to life and clean up the place. Mickey falls asleep and the place turns into chaos. This was the first time we see the redesign of Mickey Mouse. Instead of just black ovals for eyes, he has actual pupils. The animators joked about how to present this new Mickey to the audience. They thought maybe if Mickey opened one eye at a time slowly, the audience would be able to get used to it.

Goofy was a very popular character and this was aided by the 'How To' shorts. These were humorous instructional shorts that starred Goofy. He would try to do everyday things but would eventually fail. The first was How to Play Baseball. There were nine more.

In 1939, World War II broke out. The anti-Nazi propaganda short Der Fuehrer's Face came out. It was a morale-builder for Allied soldiers fighting away from America. In this 1943 short, Donald Duck is a Nazi soldier who screws caps on missiles. He goes crazy from the stress of working and wakes up in the United States, glad he's not a Nazi. The writer of this article did a research paper on Der Fuehrer's Face and other Disney propaganda films and got an A on his paper.

Many may remember One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Pongo, Perdita, Roger, they're all classic characters. It was a major turning point in animation when this film was made. Former animator Ub Iwerks invented a process known as xerography. It worked as a type of photocopying and it eliminated the need to ink the cels of a frame of animation. Inking a cel took up lots and time and using this method of photocopying, they were able to save lots of money. Animators can finally see their actual unaltered drawings on the big screen. Xerography would be used for 20 more years until being replaced by the APT process.

101 Dalmatians (1961) was about a couple, Roger and Anita who own a pair of dalmatians, Pongo and Perdita. They have puppies but an evil woman named Cruella de Vil wants to steal the dogs and use their fur as coats. It turns out she is hiding 101 dalmatians and planning on making many fur coats out of them. Pongo and Perdita use their canine influences to rescue their puppies.

We jump to the year 1985. Most of the original Nine Old Men had retired from animating and new, young guys straight from CalArts took their place. Their very first film was The Black Cauldron. It was a box-office disappointment and the failure of this film led to the Disney Renaissance. But this is not what we are talking about. The Black Cauldron was the first Disney film to use CGI in explosions, fires, etc. Everything was hand-drawn, until now. The Black Cauldron was also the first Disney film to use the APT process, which replaced Ub's xerography. Using the APT process, animators can transfer color directly onto their cels.

In The Black Cauldron, an Assistant Pigkeeper called Taran, along with his friends, try to stop the evil Horned King from taking the Black Cauldron and using it to rule the world. The reason the film was a failure was because the movie was rather dark compared to other Disney films.

Almost everybody on Retrojunk grew up in the 90s. We were alive during the Disney Renaissance. Many of us remember The Little Mermaid, released in 1989. The Little Mermaid was the first to use the new Computer Animation Production System (or CAPS) software to ink and paint on the computer. Roy E. Disney invested much of his money on this system, hoping that it'll make animating the films easier and faster. It worked and with The Little Mermaid, the Disney Renaissance was born. The first scene to have been animated with CAPS was the ending to The Little Mermaid, with the rainbow in the sky.

In The Little Mermaid, a young mermaid called Ariel dreams of walking on land and meeting a handsome man called Eric. She goes to an evil sea-witch called Ursula who turns her into a human, in exchange for Ariel's beautiful voice. Ariel falls in love with Eric and tries to prevent Ursula from bewitching Eric.

Everyone knows the ballroom scene in Beauty and the Beast. The reason for this memorable scene was the 3D background of the ballroom and how beautiful it was. It was the first Disney film to use 3D and other Disney films would later incorporate it as well, but Beauty and the Beast would always be the most memorable and the greatest of all Disney Renaissance films.

In 1991's Beauty and the Beast, a bookworm named Belle agrees to live with a hideous Beast in exchange for her father's freedom. Meanwhile, a boastful man called Gaston tries to woo and marry Belle. Belle slowly falls in love with the Beast, who used to be a handsome prince but Gaston has other plans. He wants to kill Beast! Belle tries to save Beast and like all Disney movies, it ends happily ever after.

The Lion King. 'Nuff said. The reason this film stuck in everyone's mind was because it was the first Disney film to address everyone as adults, including the children. Although there was the slapstick of Timon and Pumbaa, the messages in this film were extremely powerful. Life and death, realizing where you truly belong, all these things make The Lion King great.

In this 1994 film, a young lion cub watches his father, the king, killed by his uncle who usurps the throne. Thinking it was his fault, the cub runs away and lives with a meerkat and warthog until he grows up to be an adult. He then realizes he must take his place as the rightful king. This film was a strong adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet.

The 2000 movie Dinosaur used computer-animation for everything and used live-action backgrounds. It was the first Disney movie not to have been hand-drawn. It was the first and only Disney movie to use the Computer Graphics Unit to animate an entire movie. In this film, a dinosaur and his adopted lemur family travel with a herd of dinosaurs after a huge meteorite hits their home. They try to find a new nesting ground.

2005's Chicken Little was the first computer-animated Disney film, excluding Pixar films. Michael Eisner, then-CEO of the Disney Corporation thought that since many people were attracted to movies like Toy Story and Shrek, Disney should completely shut down their traditional animation unit and use only computer animation. This was a mistake and Disney fell into a bitter decline.

When John Lasseter, co-founder of Pixar, became the Chief Creative Officer of Disney in 2006, he knew that traditional animation needed to come back. He was one of the fresh-faced kids from CalArts who came to Disney in the early 80s and he was trained in the ways of traditional animation since he was a teenager, despite him being a pivotal player in the creation of computer animation. In 2009, the first traditionally animated Disney picture, The Princess and the Frog came out. It was the first traditionally animated Disney film since 2004's Home on the Range, which failed miserably. It was an instant success. Roger Ebert likened it to "taking a cool shower after a long and sweaty day!"

In The Princess and the Frog, a girl living in New Orleans agrees to kiss a talking frog so he can turn back into a prince. The girl, Tiana, dreams of opening up a restaurant and the prince promises he will help her out. Unfortunately, because she isn't a princess, she turns into a frog herself and with the male frog, Prince Naveen, they venture through the bayou to a voodoo lady called Mama Odie to turn them back into humans. The shadow man who was responsible for Prince Naveen's transformation into a frog, Doctor Facilier, tries to recapture the frog and appease the spirits on the other side of the realm.

After a decline, Disney is back on its track and the people at Disney are continuing to revolutionize the world, creating new ideas and technology to wow the world. Three new Disney films are already in the making. Tangled, a retelling of Rapunzel, a new Winnie the Pooh movie and Reboot Ralph, a movie about an 80s video game character coming into contact with the modern gaming industry. The success never stops and Disney will always change the face of technology.

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