Disney movies come in all sorts of types, and the easiest way to break down the type of Disney movie you are watching is through the various eras and sub-eras of Disney movies, that stretch from the very beginning in 1937 all the way to today. The eras that I’m looking at specifically have to do with the Disney Animated Features, as the entire Disney company has a much longer and extensive history with its own breakdowns of time periods.
We start with the Golden Era, which is all your classic movies from 1937 until about 1959. These were traditionally animated, hand drawn in cells, and tended to be big budget productions. The Golden Era, particularly in the early going, also featured many hit and miss features, at least initially. Snow White
was released to major critical and financial success, which led Walt Disney to see the future of the company in animated features.
Sleeping Beauty was one of Disney's crowning achievements in animation
Despite the wild success of Snow White, Disney’s next two features, Pinocchio and Fantasia, would struggle financially, and cut funding for future products. The next real success in terms of the box office would be Dumbo, which ran only 64 minutes due to the need for an economically efficient movie. After the war effort, with finances again low, Disney basically had everything riding on their 1950 film, Cinderella, which came through as a complete success and propelled the Disney company to go on and complete some of their best works. The Golden Era closed with Sleeping Beauty, which many consider to be Disney’s greatest visual masterpiece.
Within the Golden Era, there was the Wartime Era. The Wartime Era ran from 1942 through 1949. Due to many Disney animators participating in the war effort, supplies being low, and funds being lower, Disney had to resort to focusing on shorts and putting them together for theater releases as compilation films. These included the Latin American films Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, as well as compilations such as Make Mine Music and Melody Time.
Mickey and the Beanstalk, featuring Mickey, Donald, and Goofy, helped Disney get one of their biggest box office smashes at the time
Within the Wartime Era, however, was 1947, which became Disney’s highest grossing year to date. Thanks to the wild success of Fun and Fancy Free, a film featuring the story of Bongo and Mickey and the Beanstalk, Disney started to get enough finances together to relaunch work on a full length feature, which led to the creation of Cinderella and the restart of the Golden Era.
Then there was the Silver Era, which began in 1961. The Silver Era was highlighted by Disney’s use of cheaper methods to make movies, in order to try and raise funds for the company. Different animation techniques, such as transferring artist’s drawings to cels via Xerox, cut costs and raised productivity.
In many ways, this era is arguably the most important in Disney’s history, as it finally alleviated many of the financial problems that the company faced, and set them up for the box office smashes of the future. This would also feature the last movie that Walt Disney had a personal hand in, with the Jungle Book
The Jungle Book was the last film Walt Disney had a hand in creating
What becomes tough is the next era, which some argue is part of the Silver Era, but others argue is a bit more of the Transitional Era, as it was just after Walt Disney died. During this time period, the focus from the Disney company was more on the opening of their biggest theme park venture, Walt Disney World, and many of their movies during this time period, such as The Black Cauldron, became a bit forgettable.
One major milestone to come out of this era though was with The Fox and the Hound, which featured a whole new generation of Disney animators. It would be this group who would go on to be a part of Disney’s greatest theatrical successes.
Next was the Disney Renaissance, which was the most successful point in Disney theatrical releases, both economically and critically. This time period started with The Little Mermaid in 1989, and lasted all the way until Tarzan in 1999. The Renaissance featured many of Disney’s most critically acclaimed movies, such as Beauty and the Beast, Lion King, and Aladdin.
Beauty and the Beast was the first animated film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture
This time period also featured a rebirth of the Disney musical, and Disney songs once again began to rack in awards as well as be entered into popular culture. Many people to this day still recall this period and these movies as some of the best that Disney has ever created.
The period after that has not exactly been defined yet, so most people just call it the “Modern Age” for now. Disney started to stray from the traditional musical at this point again, and after 2004’s Home on the Range, Disney had claimed that the age of traditionally animating their movies was over.
This proclamation would only last until 2009 however, as the Disney company had acquired Pixar in 2006, and with this, decided that there was still a place for non-CGI animated movies, such as The Princess and the Frog
. Disney’s biggest success during this era so far as been Tangled
, which was released in 2010.
Tangled has been one of Dsiney's most successful purely CGI films
Personally, my favorite era of Disney movies the Renaissance. Part of it is because it was going on during the time I grew up, but part of it is because I just feel it was the perfect blend of impressive animation, fun characters, strong storylines, and spectacular music.
But hey, that’s just my opinion, how about yours?
*Note: Disney: The First 100 Years by Dave Smith and Of Mice and Magic by Leonard Maltin used as sources.