If there’s anything the latest Banksy stunt has revealed it’s that there’s no easier target than Disney. The company’s brand has been so thoroughly discredited that to be a fan seems like an admission of middle class complacence, coded misogyny and racism, and, worst of all, bad taste. This puts animation critics in a tough spot. Disney the company and Disney the animation studio are often conflated, with the latter seen as complicit in the former’s gutless business practices. Surely Disney animation – relentlessly white, middle class, and crowd-pleasing – feeds into the mercenary stance of the company. But this line of thought has become a convenient excuse for skipping over the studio’s history which, regardless of your opinion on the films themselves, is extremely important to the development of the animated medium.
This doesn’t completely acquit the animation side of the company and for fairness’s sake I’ll run through the most common criticisms. Yeah, Golden Age animation in general is pretty WASPy, but Disney films go further in their erasure of class and race difference than the rest. A utopian world where minorities are nowhere to be found is, if anything, more offensive than the crude caricatures you find in Warner Brother-style slapstick. Walt’s hard-on for the Germanic pastoral look is harder to swallow in a post-WWII world, and his fascination with Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk and his one-time meeting with Leni Reifenstahl can only add to the insinuations. Disney wasn’t a militant racist by any means but his support of America’s dominant institutions, his McCarthyism, his “aw shucks” folksy disdain of academia make it tough to defend him from the charges. More than that, unerring faith in the industrial process is intellectually unfashionable; like the Chrysler building and the Model-T assembly line, Disney animation is something of a monument to the protestant merchant class, the capitalist analog to a triumphal arch. Its values feel outdated.
More abstract is what Theodor Adorno identifies as the Disney cartoon’s lack of tragedy. This goes beyond mere fairy tale endings and towards something fundamental in traditional character animation. With animation, consequence can be practically nonexistent. If you get hit in the face with a pie, all it takes is one gesture to remove the slime from your face. You can be disfigured and deformed but you’ll always snap back to your original shape. Many great comedy animators have used this to interesting effect (as in Tex Avery’s self-referential cartoons) but always through conflict. In the Disney world, however, everything is soft, accommodating, and pleasant. It’s as if every inanimate object and wild animal was placed there for convenient use. Even when tragic scenes crop up, you can’t help but feel like you’re being played, every emotion calculated and without genuine risk.
Then there’s the complaint (common among anime fans) that Disney is responsible for ghettoizing animation as kid’s stuff, effectively putting the stops on animation as an artform in the States. While historical background can only mitigate the first two complaints, this last one is just demonstrably false. Pre-Disney, animation was systematically restricted to comedy. Most cartoons were little more than moving comic strips with no emotive possibilities. Disney wanted to challenge this bias and to that end he invented a new series, the Silly Symphonies, to prime audiences for the idea that animation could depict something other than gags. Disney’s plan makes sense if you chart the progress from the early Symphonies to later ones like The Old Mill or Wynken, Blynken, and Nod. In fact, the character acting system developed in tandem with the series as the idea of connecting with audiences on a level other than comedic spectacle required characters with real, substantial personality.
There were various major steps made in the early features. Though Snow White wasn’t the first feature length animated film, it was the first to embed the notion of one into the public consciousness, setting the stage for Toei Doga, Jiri Trnka, Paul Grimault, and any number of overseas innovators. Disney animation was just as ambitious technically with Walt recruiting art school grads and promoting strong draftsmanship skills among his staff, helping to set a technical bar that no studio in the world has yet to surpass. Moreover, the early features helped class up the public perception of animation. Not only were most of them based on literary sources (as the Silly Symphonies were based on Aesop’s fables and German folklore), they frequently experimented with their format too. Pinocchio is split into episodes like the original novel, Dumbo‘s script was written in chapters, Fantasia is presented as a concert, and Bambi was conceived as a symphony revolving around the four seasons. Mary Blair and Eyvind Earle provided background art for several of the Golden Age films too. This experimentation shored up after the war due to the constant financial risk finally getting to Walt, but the strides made during the first five can’t be ignored.
I wonder whether the anime fans who hate on Disney aren’t thinking of the so-called Disney Renaissance films instead of the studio’s early work. With regard to some of the most hated Disney cliches, like the morally unambiguous villains and the “Disney Princess”, the Golden Age films generally come up clean. Bambi‘s villain is never seen, Pinocchio and Dumbo don’t have villains so much as an unaccommodating and prejudiced society, and the concept doesn’t apply to Fantasia. Likewise, of all the Disney films stretching into the 70s, only 3 are traditional “Disney Princess” stories. The Renaissance films fare far worse, largely because each one conforms to the same static formula instead of evolving organically from a few base ideas as the older ones did. Both eras had their share of corniness, but the Renaissance era’s reliance on cheap pop culture gags have made those films age much worse than the vaudeville-esque idiots of classic Disney. If anything, the heavy reliance on comedy in the Renaissance films goes against the very spirit of the Disney feature. Though Disney has always been an extremely conservative studio, Walt and co exposed themselves to a wide range of artists to keep ahead of the game and reading about the company’s history I was surprised to see names like Len Lye, Alexander Alexeieff, Oskar Fischinger, Jean Cocteau, and Igor Stravinsky turn up. By contrast, the only source of artistic inspiration in the Renaissance movies is the Broadway musical. He may have butchered the material in the process (as most music critics agree Stokowski’s arrangements for Fantasia did), but at least Walt was attempting to do something elevated. By contrast, there isn’t much room in the modern American animated film for classical music and literature.
There’s also the fact that during the 30s and 40s Disney was stacked with talent. Though Walt was “the Supreme Court”, to quote Ward Kimball, it was the hard work and distinctive voices of individual animators and directors that made Disney a success. The radically different styles of Ward Kimball, Woolie Reitherman, Milt Kahl, and Bill Tytla, to name a few, helped cultivate an unique identity for each major release. Compare Kimball’s egg-headed, pigeon-chested, oval feet eccentricities, a major influence on the characters in Alice in Wonderland, with the studied, angular designs of Milt Kahl, whose art dominated from 101 Dalmatians and on. Though directors are harder to isolate (Sharpsteen evidently liked fancy FX, Wilfred Jackson was great with musically oriented pieces, and David Hand generally did well with the dramatic stuff but that’s about as deep as it gets), individual sequences like Norm Ferguson’s ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’ in Dumbo or Reitherman’s climactic finale to Sleeping Beauty still manage to stand out. And as Disney’s influence over the theatrical shorts receded, anarchic comedy directors like Riley Thomson and Jack Kinney were able to take a stab at established characters. Even if this means more often than not you’re recommending individual parts rather than a completed whole, nevertheless you don’t have to search far to find the hand of an individual artist. In a world where “producer auteurs” like John Lasseter and Jeffrey Katzenberg regularly suppress rising talents like Chris Sanders and Brad Bird in the name of “giving the audience what they want”, the older Disney films can feel strangely idiosyncratic.
If this all seems like a feeble, relativistic defense of the Disney style, it’s because the films themselves are too diverse to be discussed collectively, and in a lot of cases it’s unclear what was intentionally nuanced and what was merely coincidental. Pinocchio is a kind of secular Pilgrim’s Progress set against the backdrop of 19th century Bavaria, Dumbo is essentially the story of Hollywood, where ethnic minorities used performance as a way of achieving social legitimacy, Bambi‘s cyclical structure can only really be interpreted alongside the musical and visual cues, and so on. But what makes the Disney films worth revisiting more than anything is that they form a tradition. In the same way that Hollywood’s continuity system, with its invisible craft and character actors, was the bedrock of 1960s New Wave filmmaking, so too is Disney (and Golden Age animation in general) the foundation for almost all animation that followed. Even in anime, where its ostentatious camerawork, cheap production, and layout-dependent KA finds it at odds with American convention, the underlying traces of the Disney system can still be found. After all, you can’t have that capital-M Modernism without an established canon to respond to.