The story of Disney in 11 films – a milestone per decade

As Disney celebrates its 100th anniversary, we tell the story of an always experimenting entertainment giant via 11 landmark releases.

Fantasia (1940)Disney

In the summer of 1923, a young Walt Disney arrived in Hollywood armed with a silent short called Alice’s Wonderland (1923). He pitched this live action animation hybrid – which finds a girl dreaming of a cartoon world – as a pilot, and the Alice Comedies were picked up for distribution soon after. Together with his brother Roy, he founded the Disney Brothers Studio – later known as The Walt Disney Company – and the rest, as they say, is history.

Disney’s contribution to cinema and entertainment over the subsequent 10 decades has been insurmountable. For many fans of film their first exposure to the medium will have been through Disney, either on the big screen or thanks to a stacked library of clamshell VHS tapes. Its identity as a film studio is uniquely stamped not only on the public consciousness but on the culture itself – touching lives, defining tastes and making memories far earlier than any other brand in cinematic history.

Pioneering, experimental and endlessly curious, the company has evolved to become much more than its founders could have possibly imagined back in 1923. As The Walt Disney Company celebrates 100 years of making magic, we look back through the decades and highlight some of the films which best define a century of success – from pushing the limits of animation to shaping the zeitgeist and defining the legacy of Walt Disney himself.


Steamboat Willie (1928)

Directors: Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks

Steamboat Willie (1928)

Chasing innovation even in the company’s infancy, Walt Disney recognised that the future of film belonged to synchronised sound. Inspired by the release of Warner Bros’ The Jazz Singer (1927), Disney committed to producing the first fully synchronised sound cartoon – which in turn would also mark the theatrical debut of Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

While the dialogue (provided by Walt himself) is mostly mumbles and growls, Steamboat Willie opens with Mickey’s whistling of hit record ‘Steamboat Bill’ – now the overture for every Disney Animation Studios release. Yet to take up the role of straight mouse to his more chaotic pals, Mickey unleashes musical bedlam when a goat eats Minnie’s ukulele. They use the unconscious billy as a phonograph and blast out ‘Turkey in the Straw’, before Mickey plays a whole menagerie of animals as instruments – bashing the teeth of a cow like a xylophone, and even playing a pig for an accordion.

Steamboat Willie opened to rave reviews and made household names of both Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney.


Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Directors: David Hand, Perce Pearce, William Cottrell, Larry Morey, Wilfred Jackson and Ben Sharpsteen

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

The success of Mickey Mouse gave Disney the cachet to experiment with film, most notably on their series of Silly Symphonies, which were a testing ground in the 1930s for the techniques and technologies that would eventually help produce the first full-length cell animation in motion picture history – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Known by its Hollywood detractors as “Disney’s folly” during production, the film was an enormous financial risk that would see Walt mortgage his home and later seek a loan to complete it. The budget spiralled from £250,000, already 10 times that of a Silly Symphony, to almost £1.5 million – an enormous sum for a feature in 1937. Nevertheless, upon its release Snow White achieved instant acclaim and became the most successful sound picture of all time. The film’s blend of vibrant characters with technical innovation and breathtaking artwork set a benchmark for all that would follow, and began the studio’s first golden age.


Fantasia (1940)

Directors: Samuel Armstrong, James Algar, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Ben Sharpsteen, David D. Hand, Hamilton Luske, Jim Handley, Ford Beebe Jr, T. Hee, Norman Ferguson and Wilfred Jackson

Fantasia (1940)Disney

By the studio’s third picture, Walt Disney was already defying expectation with the release of the experimental, visionary Fantasia (1940) – a passion project which began life as an elaborate short aimed at reviving the waning popularity of Mickey Mouse. As production costs soared on The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Disney decided to adapt the short into a feature-length film, joining it with seven other segments also set to classical music. Recorded by the Philadelphia Orchestra and reproduced by Disney’s pioneering Fantasound, Fantasia set another new standard for the studio in becoming the first commercial film to be shown in stereophonic sound.

The standout segment is ‘Night on Bald Mountain’, which sees a jagged peak unfurl into the wings of the demon Chernabog while Modest Mussorgsky’s ominous composition blares across a sleeping town. Evil spirits and the souls of the undying cavort through the landscape in a midnight bacchanal, before a dawn chorus of Franz Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’ brings with it peace.


Treasure Island (1950)

Director: Byron Haskin

Treasure Island (1950)

While Disney’s first decade was defined by practical achievement in animation, enormous budgets and waning profits would force the studio to economise, and following the Second World War it took the company time to regain its footing.

Cinderella (1950) finally brought forth a silver age in the 1950s, though Walt had far less direct involvement than on previous pictures. He was busy working on Disney’s first fully live-action film in England. This was Treasure Island, a relatively faithful adaptation of the swashbuckling classic, which starred Bobby Driscoll as Jim Hawkins – best known for later voicing the title role in Peter Pan (1953). The film doesn’t shy away from the classic novel’s darker themes, with violent scenes including a pirate shot in the face at point blank range and young Jim taking a dagger to the chest. Proof, if needed, that Disney didn’t always feel the need to sanitise its source material. A string of hits both live action and animated would follow, with this decade of artistic success also seeing Disneyland open to enormous fanfare in 1955.


Mary Poppins (1964)

Director: Robert Stevenson

Mary Poppins (1964)

After the ambitious (and expensive) masterpiece Sleeping Beauty (1959) was met with box office disappointment, the cheaper Xerox animation process signalled a new era in the 1960s, with One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) saving the division. Meanwhile, the live-action department reached a crescendo with the release of Mary Poppins.

Having sought the rights from author P.L. Travers for more than 20 years, Walt was finally able to make good on a promise to his daughters and bring the beloved but stern flying nanny to the silver screen. Widely considered to be the crowning live-action achievement of his career, it won Julie Andrews an Academy Award, was the only Disney film to be nominated for best picture during Walt’s lifetime, and made so much money that the company was able to purchase land and later finance the construction of Walt Disney World in Florida. Travers, having strongly objected to the use of animation and the Sherman Brothers’ much cherished songs, passionately disliked the finished film and refused to greenlight a sequel – though her estate would eventually grant the rights more than 50 years later.


The Black Hole (1979)

Director: Gary Nelson

The Black Hole (1979)

For much of the 1970s the studio would struggle to forge a path in the wake of Walt’s death in 1966, and Roy O. Disney’s just five years later. The new company president, Ron Miller, repeatedly clashed with other executives while insisting that Disney’s core audience was too young to bring in lucrative box office receipts. Following the triumph of Star Wars (1977) at 20th Century Fox, long-gestating sci-fi project The Black Hole finally went into production.

Featuring a star-studded cast, an impressive John Barry score and a newly automated camera effects system, The Black Hole was the most expensive film produced by Disney at the time and is notable for being the studio’s first PG rated picture. While a few “damns” are sprinkled in the dialogue, the film surprises with the gruesome death of one beloved A-lister and some genuinely nightmarish imagery, which surely inspired later sci-fi favourites. Directly targeting an older audience, it would in part prompt the creation of a brand-new subdivision for such titles – Touchstone Pictures.


The Little Mermaid (1989)

Directors: John Musker and Ron Clements

The Little Mermaid (1989)

While live action Disney went from strength to strength in the 1980s, from Touchstone debut Splash (1984), the company’s biggest opening in its history, to hybrid hit Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), animation was once again in a state of flux. A generational culture clash, and financial limitations on creativity, guaranteed a run of darker features failed to capture the imagination of audiences. Returning to the well of classic tales, The Little Mermaid (1989) would right the course.

Howard Ashman was the genius lyricist who, with composer Alan Menken, would help revive Disney Animation at a time when the division was on its knees. Recognising the natural correlation between animation and musical theatre, Ashman’s queer Broadway sensibilities set a new gold standard for Disney storytelling that placed songwriting at the core. When Ariel whispers the first bars of ‘Part of Your World’ the shift is seismic, with the ‘villain’s song’ also rising the ranks to become a staple of this era thanks to the Divine-inspired Ursula.

Ashman would die of complications from AIDS while working on Beauty and the Beast (1991), and though Menken would go on to define a whole generation of Disney music, Ashman’s vast influence can still be felt to this day.


Toy Story (1995)

Director: John Lasseter

Toy Story (1995)

The renaissance of Disney Animation dominated the 1990s, building on the blueprint left by Howard Ashman with a second golden age of animation that seamlessly integrated CGI with hand-drawn illustration on standout scenes such as the iconic ballroom of Beauty and the Beast and the dramatic stampede in 1994’s The Lion King. The software that made this possible, CAPS, was created by a fledgling company known as Pixar.

Impressed by their Academy-Award winning CGI short Tin Toy (1988), Disney inked a deal with Pixar to produce the first fully computer-animated feature. Originally an adaptation of the short, Toy Story went through multiple rewrites until the classic buddy-picture formula that would soon be a hallmark of Pixar storytelling was born. Despite a turbulent stop-start production, the release of Toy Story heralded Pixar as a new creative powerhouse that could seamlessly blend technical achievement with heartfelt storytelling in the spirit of Walt Disney himself. Movies would never be the same again, and neither would Disney.


High School Musical (2006)

Director: Kenny Ortega

High School Musical (2006)

The new millennium brought with it new challenges as Disney Animation entered a highly experimental period. After a series of disappointments, which included the underrated Treasure Planet (2002), the end of hand-drawn animation was official. Elsewhere the studio was riding high with a live-action Pirates of the Caribbean series and its acquisition of Pixar, but one of the decade’s most extraordinary hits would come from an unlikely place.

High School Musical was a rare made-for-TV triumph that transcended its humble origins to become a global phenomenon spawning sequels, spinoffs, concert tours and endless imitators. Originally made to replicate the success of some popular Disney Channel musical episodes, High School Musical’s winning combination of a Grease-style love story, likeable young stars, impossibly catchy songs and a message of non-conformity was hard to deny. After High School Musical 2 (2007) attracted the largest cable movie audience of all time, Disney Channel Original Movies became a distinct pre-teen mega-brand that would launch the careers of not only Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens, but later Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez and the Jonas Brothers.


Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Director: J. J. Abrams

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Disney conquered new ground in the 2010s, with CGI hits including the culture-shaking Frozen (2013) blasting off the cobwebs and kickstarting an animation revival. Meanwhile, the company was still procuring IP in the form of Marvel Studios and its burgeoning Cinematic Universe. The Avengers (2012) would become the first MCU title distributed under the Walt Disney banner, but the real surprise would follow a few months later with the purchase of Lucasfilm and the announcement of a brand-new Star Wars trilogy, starting with The Force Awakens.

While series creator George Lucas’s rough treatments for his sequel trilogy were abandoned, fans were beside themselves to learn that Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford would return to the Millennium Falcon for the first time in 30 years. Channelling the spirit of the original films and re-energising the franchise, Star Wars: The Force Awakens became the third-highest-grossing film of all time upon release. Disney would continue to expand the universe with stand-alone prequel films and several streaming shows, breathing a new life into the galaxy far, far away.


Wish (2023)

Directors: Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn

Wish (2023)

A hundred years old and The Walt Disney Company is more prolific than ever. Continuing its quest to gather Infinity Stones, the company’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox has brought the X-Men home to Marvel, along with Titanic (1997) and the Avatar series, making Disney the owner of nine of the top 10 highest grossing films of all time.

But it always comes back to animation. The success of new streaming channel Disney+ has helped make late-run hits of recent favourites, including the sublime Encanto (2021), and as the studio looks to its future their 62nd animated feature aims to bring a running theme of Disney magic full circle. Inspired by the centenary itself, Wish (2023) features a painterly new style of animation that evokes the richness of hand-drawn illustration but rendered in dazzling CGI. Arriving in theatres this November, the film tells a story that has been synonymous with Disney ever since Snow White’s vibrato echoed down a wishing well, Geppetto wished upon a star and Walt Disney arrived in Hollywood: that of dreams coming true.

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

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