Friday, December 21, 2012

The Birth of the Feature-Length Animated Film

"It's kind of fun to do the impossible."

Walt Disney

By the time I was born, Walt Disney had an established reputation as the first — and last — word in animation.

My memory is that Disney and family entertainment were synonymous terms — and it was implied that animation was a big part of that although I have vivid memories of seeing Disney productions that had no animation whatsoever.

Hand–drawn film animation is a pretty crowded field (although perhaps the field is dominated by computer graphics artists today) — but, like anything else, it had to start somewhere.

And, 75 years ago today, it did.

Animated films had been around for awhile, but they had been in the short–feature form. My parents saw them in theaters when they were children; my generation knew them as Saturday morning cartoons. But, until this day in 1937, no one had made a feature–length movie in that format. And no one had produced an animated feature film in full color.

It's likely that animation would have progressed eventually, anyway, although I think it is equally likely that it would not have come as far as quickly as it did if not for Walt Disney.

And the root of that, it seems to me, has to be "Snow White," which premiered on this day in 1937.

It's hard to imagine the mindset, but the primary objection to the project was the belief that no one would be willing to sit through a 90–minute cartoon. Critics called the project "Disney's Folly" — yet, five years ago, the American Film Institute recognized it as one of the Top 100 movies of all time.

But Disney was a master showman who understood his audience better than almost any of his contemporaries. He knew that, for feature–length animation to be commercially successful, he needed to appeal to adults as well as children.

"Snow White" combined more realistic human features in the prince and Snow White, who faced the most dramatic circumstances, with the cartoonish dwarfs, who provided most of the comic relief.

One can argue that, with its tale of Prince Charming awakening a slumbering (and beautiful) Snow White with a kiss, the story and characters perpetuated stereotypes under which women have struggled for the last 7½ decades.

But, recently, Judith Welikala and Emily Dugan wrote in The Independent of how Disney's female characters have — to borrow an old advertising expression — come a long way, baby.

(I suppose it could be argued that they might not have come as far as they have in Disney movies if Disney had not died in 1966.)

The heroines of Disney's early movies, wrote Welikala and Dugan, had to have "a handsome prince, a tiny waist, a pearly white smile and an urgent need to be rescued."
Queen: Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?

In three–quarters of a century, they have evolved to be more independent, more self–reliant. More liberated.

Princess Merida of this year's "Brave," they observed, is "the first Disney princess who does not have a love interest."

That may be, as a columnist and Disney historian told Welikala and Dugan, more a reflection of the times. Women were more dependent on men in the 1930s. They entered the work force during World War II and many were reluctant to leave it after the war ended.

More and more women found themselves having to make the choice between their professional and personal lives. Although women were frequently told they could "have it all," most have found it a tricky — and elusive — accomplishment.

In many ways, "Snow White" is a glimpse into the values that prevailed in the 1930s — much as TV shows from the 1950s are said to epitomize that time in our social history — a time when children were told fairy tales they continued to believe into adulthood.

Kind of a time capsule — in full color.