Steamboat Willie (1928)

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Steamboat Willie (1928)

Steamboat Willie (1928). 8 minutes. Directed by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. Voices by Walt Disney. Music by Wilfred Jackson and Bert Lewis.

Steamboat Willie is a black-and-white animated Disney short that was the first cartoon of any kind to use completely synchronized sound. It draws thematically from both the 1911 song “Steamboat Bill” and the 1928 silent Buster Keaton comedy Steamboat Bill, Jr., but it was also inspired by the technological revolution launched by The Jazz Singer (1927), the first feature-length movie to use partially synchronized sound. Steamboat Willie is notable today for its historical achievement and for being the first widely successful cartoon to feature Mickey Mouse, but in addition to these accomplishments, it remains extremely silly and a good example of how charming early animation could be.

The story follows the iconic rodent protagonist as he works on a riverboat. A large cat (Pete) orders Mickey around and banishes him from the ship’s bridge. Mickey … Read the rest

Flowers and Trees (1932)

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Flowers and Trees (1932)

Flowers and Trees (1932). 8 minutes. Directed by Burt Gillett. Produced by Walt Disney.

Flowers and Trees broke new ground in 1932 as the first animated short to use three-strip Technicolor. Its producer Walt Disney had exclusive rights to the three-strip process until 1935, which meant that during this period, other animators had to use the two-strip process with its more limited color palette or else continue to rely on black-and-white techniques. The use of cutting-edge Technicolor in Flowers and Trees, while perhaps not as revolutionary as the use of sound in Disney’s Steamboat Willie (1928), was nevertheless a considerable achievement and was undoubtedly one of the reasons that Flowers and Trees won the first Academy Award for Animated Short Subjects, the first color production of any kind to win an Academy Award.

The plot is fairly straightforward. Flowers and Trees follows the antics of two leafy green trees, one male and one female. A dried-out stump tries … Read the rest

Fantasia (1940)

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Fantasia (1940)

Fantasia (1940). 126 minutes. Starring Deems Taylor (as Master of Ceremonies). Music conducted by Leopold Stokowski and performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Story direction by Joe Grant and Dick Huemer. Produced by Walt Disney and Ben Sharpsteen.

Fantasia is almost a complete anomaly in the Disney film canon. The third feature-length animated movie to emerge from Disney’s studios, it does not tell one overarching story but rather is a collection of eight short films inspired by and set to classical music. The sequences range from an abstract depiction of sound (Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”) to a grim scientific odyssey (Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”), from light comedies (Dukas’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours”) to somber material (Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” Schubert’s “Ave Maria”). The movie is one of Disney’s finest achievements, and it elevates animation by pairing cartoons with some of the greatest instrumental music in history. But due to its considerable budget, the … Read the rest

Dumbo (1941)

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Dumbo (1941)

Dumbo (1941). 64 minutes. Directed by Ben Sharpsteen (supervising director). Starring Edward Brophy (as Timothy Q. Mouse), Verna Felton (as Elephant Matriarch), Cliff Edwards (as Jim Crow), Herman Bing (as the Ringmaster), Margaret Wright (as Casey Junior), and Sterling Holloway (as Mr. Stork). With the Hall Johnson Choir (as Crow Chorus) and the King’s Men (as Roustabout Chorus). Music by Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace. Produced by Walt Disney.

I first saw Dumbo when I was very young, along with a slew of other Disney movies, but it was Michael Wilmington’s article on it in The American Animated Cartoon: A Critical Anthology that really made me think of it as a work of art. Wilmington argues that Dumbo is Disney’s finest achievement, both in terms of its visual artistry and its storytelling, and when I viewed it recently, I had to admit that I was astonished by both its innovative style and its maturity. Given that its protagonist Dumbo never … Read the rest

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

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Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). 83 minutes. Directed by David Hand (supervising director). Starring Adriana Caselotti (as Snow White), Lucille La Verne (as Evil Queen Grimhilde), Harry Stockwell (as the Prince), Roy Atwell (as Doc), Pinto Colvig (as Grumpy and Sleepy), Otis Harlan (as Happy), Scotty Mattraw (as Bashful), Billy Gilbert (as Sneezy), Moroni Olsen (as the Magic Mirror), and Stuart Buchanan (as Humbert the Huntsman). Songs by Frank Churchill and Larry Morey. Produced by Walt Disney.

The story of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is probably familiar to most: the young and beautiful princess Snow White lives in a castle and is governed by her evil stepmother the Queen, who forces her to wear ragged peasants’ clothes and perform menial tasks. Snow White encounters a prince one day while cleaning and is smitten. Meanwhile, the Queen asks her magic mirror who the most beautiful woman in the land is. When the mirror tells her … Read the rest