The many merry eras of Disney

From ‘Heigh Ho’ to ‘Let It Go’ – understanding Disney film history decade by decade.

18 February 2021

By Sophie Determan

Walt Disney Pictures

At nearly a century old, and with more than 50 feature-length animated films to its name, the Walt Disney Company has entertained generations of filmgoers. To help condense and understand this legacy, Disney aficionados have long been classifying the extensive catalogue of films into different moments or eras of filmmaking. Trends in storytelling, technological advancements and progressing artistic styles have all played a hand in shaping Disney’s image from decade to decade.  

While these categories are not officially recognised by Disney, the company does occasionally make references to ‘golden age’ or the Disney renaissance in their promotional material. As a former Disney employee – or ‘cast member’ – myself, I know the lines between these categories vary from fan to fan and are the frequent topic of debate online. But one thing is certain: the history of animation just wouldn’t be the same without a certain mouse.

As a general rule, Disney live-action films, direct-to-video sequels and films made by Pixar Studios are not included in these categories.

The golden era (1937 to 1942)

Bambi (1942)

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Pinocchio (1940)
Fantasia (1940)
Dumbo (1941)
Bambi (1942)

The golden era began with the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, putting Walt Disney Productions on the international map and proving that animation had great potential outside the realm of 5-minute cartoon gag reels. Walt Disney and his team elevated hand-drawn animation to the status of art with life-like character movements, multiplane camera effects and groundbreaking theatrical surround sound.

Bambi (1942) encapsulates the delicate artistry and expressive storytelling of the golden era at its best. With characters and backgrounds sketched from living nature, and a soaring musical score, this tender coming-of-age story is a timeless classic. 

The wartime era (1942 to 1949)

Make Mine Music (1946)

Saludos Amigos (1942)
The Three Caballeros (1944)
Make Mine Music (1946)
Fun and Fancy Free (1947)
Melody Time (1948)
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad (1949)

Also known as the ‘package film era’, this period is radically different in style and tone from the other eras. The advent of the Second World War affected the studio badly. Walt Disney lost many key animators to the draft, and American films were frequently banned from export to Europe. Out of necessity, many projects had to be shortened and packaged together anthology-style without a central narrative. A deal to produce content for the US army saw the creation of Saludos Amigos (1943) and The Three Caballeros (1944) – civilian propaganda films designed to strengthen ties between the USA and South America against the Axis powers.  

But even under such constraints, animators still managed to push boundaries with abstract and experimental concepts. Make Mine Music (1946) is a hip, jazzy take on the musical shorts format of the earlier Fantasia (1940). The film skillfully blends symphony music with swing, and features a dreamily rotoscoped dance sequence.

The silver era (1950 to 1967)

Peter Pan (1953)

Cinderella (1950)
Alice in Wonderland (1951)
Peter Pan (1953)
Lady and the Tramp (1955)
Sleeping Beauty (1959)
One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)
The Sword in the Stone (1963)
The Jungle Book (1967)

The start of a new decade saw Disney studios return to narrative-style filmmaking, perfecting the storytelling formula that would be recognisable for generations to come. In the silver era, underdog protagonists contend with magic forces in a fantasy world where animals talk, mice sew and pixies flutter. Stories were also now being adapted specifically with songs in mind.   

Peter Pan (1953) is one of the stand-out films of the period, particularly notable for its weightless ‘flying’ animation (a notoriously difficult trick for the animators to perfect) and for the creation of the iconic character Tinker Bell. Adaptations of Peter Pan, both on stage and on screen, would draw inspiration from this film for years to come.

The bronze era (1970 to 1977)

Robin Hood (1973)

The AristoCats (1970)
Robin Hood (1973)
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
The Rescuers (1977)

Following the death of Walt Disney in 1966, the bronze era was a transition period between old and new. With the original cohort of animators either passing away or retiring, it was time to pass the torch to a new generation of creatives. The production team worked with ideas Walt Disney had previously greenlit or expressed interest in developing, but with the company diversifying into live-action film and television ‒ to add to its 2 theme parks – animated films were no longer the sole focus. The films of the era were made with lower budgets and more recycled animation than previous eras. Xerography – a method of photocopying drawings directly on to animation cells – sped up production, but left the animation with dark sketch-like outlines.     

Robin Hood (1973) is a delightful highlight of the bronze era. Featuring Disney-veteran voice actor Phil Harris as Little John – known for his roles as the voice of Baloo from The Jungle Book (1967) and Thomas O’Malley from The AristoCats (1970) – the story brings witty comedic timing to the classic tale of heroism and adventure.

The dark ages (1981 to 1988)

The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

The Fox and the Hound (1981)
The Black Cauldron (1985)
The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
Oliver & Company (1988)

The dark ages marked a troubled time in the studio’s history. The last of Walt Disney’s previous story ideas had officially been exhausted, and the animation team was now having to ‘fly solo’ into an uncertain future. Due to creative differences and infighting, release dates were being delayed and staff turnover was high. None of the films during this time were stand-out hits, with The Black Cauldron (1985), in particular, failing to make even half its budget back at the box office. The characters and storylines were also becoming darker, with more frightening villains and greater peril than ever before.

But the films were not without artistic merit. The Great Mouse Detective (1986) is a stunning example of how computers were assisting in the animation process for the first time. The clockwork climax inside the whirring gears of Big Ben was made possible thanks to new CGI advancements. A new computer colouring process also allowed for a return to the warm, jewel-toned hues of Disney’s classic roots.  

The renaissance era (1989 to 1999)

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

The Little Mermaid (1989)
The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Aladdin (1992)
The Lion King (1994)
Pocahontas (1995)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
Hercules (1997) 
Mulan (1998)
Tarzan (1999)

The tide of fortune shifted for Disney with the release of The Little Mermaid (1989), ushering in the fittingly-named renaissance era – a period of rebirth and new creative heights. One of the biggest changes from the previous decade was a new narrative formula in which stories were told in Broadway-style acts, and characters projected their internal emotions as songs. With innovative airbrushing and backlighting effects, and a new focus on celebrity voice talent, the era drew massive audiences and is often considered the peak era of the company.

Beauty and the Beast (1991) became the first animated film to be nominated for best picture at the 64th Academy Awards. The film showcased the new CAPS (Computer Animation Production System) abilities, creating the sweeping ballroom dance sequence by bringing different animation layers into softer or sharper focus as the camera moved through simulated 3-dimensional space. But the memorable musical score by songwriting duo Howard Ashman and Alan Menken is the real heart of this “tale as old as time”.

The experimental era (1999 to 2008)

Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

Fantasia 2000 (1999)
Dinosaur (2000)
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)
Chicken Little (2005)
Meet the Robinsons (2007)
Bolt (2008)

Moving into a new millenium, Disney was once again trying to reinvent itself for a new generation of viewers. Shifting away from the Broadway musical formula and eurocentric settings, the animators tinkered with CGI technology and adventures in unexpected times and places. But these daring risks didn’t always pay off. With other studios like Dreamworks and Pixar providing stiff competition at the box office, The Emperor’s New Groove (2000) became one of Disney’s least-profitable films in years, while Treasure Planet (2002) was the first film to actually lose money since the 1980s. Many critics viewed this failure as a consequence of putting technical innovation ahead of story, making for lacklustre characters and forgettable narratives.

But there are still diamonds in the rough. Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) was the first Disney story to be based on science fiction rather than fairytales – a trend that would be repeated several times in this era. With visuals based on the art of Mike Mignola and an original Atlantean language created by Marc Okrand (who created the Klingon language of Star Trek), the tale is unlike any other ever told by Disney. Atlantis: The Lost Empire was also the first time Disney promoted a film online, even creating tie-in games for mobile devices.

The revival era (2009 to present)

Frozen (2013)

The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Tangled (2010)
Winnie the Pooh (2011)
Wreck-it Ralph (2012)
Frozen (2013)
Big Hero 6 (2014)
Moana (2016)
Zootopia (2016)
Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)
Frozen II (2019)

The current revival era has been seen by many as a return to form for Disney animation. Having fully embraced CGI animation (similar to the business models of Pixar and DreamWorks), stories are reviving the popular Broadway musical formula within fantasy settings. Uniquely, the films of this era are less about the quest for romantic love and more about protagonists’ inner journeys towards self-discovery and confidence. The era has also seen a rising trend in a new type of ‘twist-villain’, an antagonist who initially appears harmless or even friendly. These stories have resonated strongly with modern audiences – so far this is the most profitable of any period of Disney animation.
Frozen (2013) is the undeniable flagship of the revival era, remaining a presence in pop culture for far longer than the average Disney movie. ‘Let It Go’ actually became the first song from a Disney animated film to reach the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 since ‘Colors of the Wind’ in 1995. Walt Disney had an interest in adapting the tale of The Snow Queen as far back as the golden era, so it’s gratifying to see the story finally make it to the screen all these decades later.


Making Magic: 100 Years of Disney is at BFI Southbank in July and August.

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