The First “Golden Age”
A Brief History of Disney: Part 4
WORDS BY RICHARD OUZOUNIAN | LIGHTHOUSE IMMERSIVE
After the tremendous success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the well-honed production team that had been created by Disney, their next venture should have been a slam-dunk.
And at first, it looked like that. Though a number of titles were considered for the follow-up animated feature, Pinocchio (1940) was the chosen project, to be based on the classic story by Carlo Collodi about a wooden puppet who dreams of becoming a real boy. The colorful Tuscan background, the assortment of memorable supporting characters, and a leading figure whose central goal cried out for animation –
it seemed perfect.
But six months into production, Walt put on the brakes. “It isn’t working,”
was his reason, and when the team of Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston (who had initially been designing the character of Pinocchio) looked at what they had accomplished to date, they realized that their wooden puppet was brash, selfish, and lacking in appeal. Animator Fred Moore tried pushing him in a more boyish direction, but it was only when relative newcomer Milt Kahl took over that the character and the story surrounding him found its true center.
“They were obsessed with the idea of (Pinocchio) being a wooden puppet,” Kahl would remember later. “My God, it was terrible!” He convinced them that they should draw him as a cute little boy first “and worry about the wooden puppet afterwards.” That was exactly what Walt was looking for, and Kahl became one of the leading lights of the studio for the next 37 years, not only as a designer of characters, but as
one of the premier draftsmen in the history of animation.
But it still wasn’t quite enough. Pinocchio needed a quirky upbeat sidekick to balance out all the larger-than-life villains in the piece. Collodi had created a very minor character in the original, a cricket who briefly advised Pinocchio to do good and was stomped upon for his troubles. Largely thanks to the wacky efforts of the iconoclastic animator Ward Kimball, the cricket was given a name, Jiminy, and a major role in the story. He even wound up singing the song “When You Wish Upon a Star,” which won the Academy Award® for Best Song and in time became the unofficial Disney anthem.
Despite its false start, Pinocchio ended as a beautifully realized work and earned universal rave reviews, such as the one from the New York Times, which enthused that “Pinocchio is here at last and every bit as fine as we prayed it would be – if not finer.” Its reputation has only grown over the years, with Leonard Maltin writing in 1973 that “with Pinocchio, Disney reached not only the height of his powers, but the apex of what many critics consider to be the realm of the animated cartoon.” It also helped establish what is considered by many to be the “Golden Age” of Disney animation.
Walt had assembled a team that he would jokingly refer to as his “Nine Old Men,” an allusion to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s dismissal of the aging Supreme Court Justices at the time, even though Walt’s animators were in their 20s and 30s when he gave them the nickname. Les Clark, Marc Davis, Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery, Wolfgang “Woolie” Reitherman, and Frank Thomas were instrumental in shaping the Disney style and helping execute it through dozens of films right into the early 1980s.
Next up was probably the single most ambitious project in Disney history. It began when Walt decided to give Mickey Mouse’s profile a “boost” with the most elaborate Silly Symphony yet, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Superstar conductor Leopold Stokowski offered to conduct the orchestra, and he did just that with a hand-picked group of 100 musicians. However, Walt realized the project was becoming too expensive for the production of a single short, and Stokowski gave him the idea for Fantasia (1940), an entire film of classical music visualized through animation.
Adding to the spectacle was the invention and presentation of Fantasound, a stereophonic recording and playback system that made audiences feel they were listening to a live symphony in the confines of a movie theatre. Fantasia was the first American feature film with a stereo soundtrack and received superlative notices, but only made its cost back after decades of increasingly popular re-releases.
The looming anxiety of World War II made the next two Disney films, focused on familial and emotional experiences, a much needed respite, their stories of universal humanity told through the perspective of animals. Dumbo (1941), the story of a flying elephant who survives terrible bullying, and Bambi (1942), in which a young deer loses his mother but finds a new life, were both warmly and beautifully made along the creative guidelines that had been established.
Dumbo succeeded in the simplicity of its story and in the sincerity of its emotions. Bambi, which was initially intended to be the second animated feature after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs but had character and stylistic challenges of its own, succeeded through its own simple sincerity and through the visual influence of artist Tyrus Wong, whose ethereal pastel artworks were key in creating the delicate and memorable look of the film itself.
Both Dumbo and Bambi would receive excellent notices and be nominated for a total of five Academy Awards®, but, the “Golden Age” came to an end as the Second World War and its dominance of world affairs took precedence. After the war, things would be different on both sides of the screen.