The Walt Disney Company
The 7 Disney Eras of Animation and Their Significance
By: Domonique Cox-Salberg
The Disney Renaissance gave us bookish and feisty princesses, witty humor, iconic celebrity-voiced characters, unforgettable music, and more, and has become the most cherished Disney era for many. Moreover, an era so great, we tend to forget about the others. Totaling seven Disney filmmaking periods, the importance and fascination that comes with revisiting them are discovering the journey and foundation set by one of the greatest animators and his ability to capture hearts worldwide.
The Golden Era (1937-1942)
Since starting in the 1930s, Disney vowed to be taken seriously as a filmmaker, not just a cartoonist. He dreamed big, worked hard, and assembled a team of talented people to make it happen. When Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released in 1937, it was an immediate commercial success, establishing Disney as one of the leaders of animated filmmaking. But surprisingly, this era did not get its name because more successes followed; they did not. Most were largely unsuccessful at the time of their release, only gaining “Classic Status” years later. Nonetheless, these films were all overseen by Walt Disney himself and created the foundation for what was to come. Notably, the wholesome, upbeat tone with touches of darkness woven in between, creating an extreme mood shift that engages all of the audience’s emotions.
With that said, important trends for Disney filmmaking were created during the Golden Era. Snow White was the first of the fairy tale based movies that Disney is recognized for, and Pinocchio started the concept of taking distinguished literature and turning it into child-friendly films. At the same time, Bambi explored the prospects of making a movie through the eyes of an animal. Other defining Disney staples such as embellished villains, comedic sidekicks, and the use of prominent music were first introduced in the Golden Age as well.
The Wartime Era (1942-1949)
Possibly the least known era, at this time, Disney was affected by the arrival of World War II, which was mirrored in their films. Therefore, they faced lower budgets and had smaller teams of animators, especially men, available for their films. Blatant anti-Nazi propaganda played a major role, too; it was weaved into their plots and film characters and contributed to the style and quality change in Disney films. Even commercials and fliers encouraging citizens to support the war and buy war bonds and anti-Nazi commercials were produced.
Content leaning more towards this and the history of the time brought a strain in Disney Studios. Less male animators meant fewer films being released, and in turn, diminished profits, as well as less consistency. The lower budgets made it that the six films produced had to be multiple short films compiled together, comprising each film with noticeably lesser quality in visuals than its predecessors. Moreover, this era is particularly interesting in showing that the war could influence even the Walt Disney Studios.
The Silver Era (1950-1967)
Once World War II ended, Disney decided to bring back big-budget films and be significant within the film industry. The ushering of these films became what Disney is known for to this day, as this era includes Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Peter Pan. Mainly because The Silver Era afforded Disney rebranding that would become synonymous with their company. Including original Disney princesses as the faces, talking animal films, and a more sophisticated tone to show animation could achieve the regard live-action could. Before, animated films were only targeting children, but this era showed Disney shift into doing movies everyone could enjoy.
As for art style and how it differed from the Wartime Era, the quality was better as they produced well-designed and thought-out films. We could say it was more similar to the Golden Era, where both have a fantastic component; however, what stands out in the ‘Silver’ films is that they have a more fairy tale aesthetic and dial back on dark elements of the Golden Era.
There is also a noticeable difference in the backgrounds used during this time. Animators chose to paint by hand from watercolor and essentially redefined the word “fairy tale” by making romanticized backgrounds for their films. Furthermore, there were fewer moral lessons, and instead, they focused more on being a “damsel in distress” as with Aurora and Cinderella. The Silver Era also marks Walt Disney’s death, making Jungle Book the last work he worked on before passing. These films were, for the most part, successful but not favored by critics.
The Bronze Era & The Dark Era (1970-1988)
Following the death of Walt, the Bronze Era came to be a tough time for the Disney Animation Company. Most of the films barely earned money at the box office or even earned their initial capital invested into the movies. Without the guidance and imagination of Walt, there was much trial and error and a period when the company moved away from fairy tales and focused more on darker, secular stories.
Technique-wise, there was a shift from hand-inked films to the use of xerography. It allowed them to save both time and money, allowing animators to print their drawings onto cells directly. Nonetheless, the process still had its limits, and only black lines were possible using this method, which inspired the name “Scratchy Films” because of the heavy black lines in their animation.
Other visual characteristics apparent in The Bronze Era had less scale and grandeur than the previous Disney films and an introverted feel. Additionally, they did not explore more prominent themes and did not have a lasting impression (except for Winnie the Pooh) as previous films did. Still, these films set the foundation for a newer and improved era in Disney filmmaking.
The Disney Renaissance (1989-1999)
The most popular and generally considered the pinnacle of Disney films, the Disney Renaissance experienced profound success at the box office and accolades. It returned to the musical fairy tale storytelling that Disney is now recognized. The Little Mermaid became the first fairy tale movie for the studio in almost 20 years, and it produced the best achievement using xerography. This era also birthed the Broadway formula, meaning they made them intending to have them be translated into a Broadway musical (four films of this time did this).
This age also brought us the talented Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, whom both would soon prove are Disney masterminds and significant to Disney’s musical success during this era. And what marked the end of this period was the financial success of Tarzan and the beginning of a game-changing new style of animation which Disney, at first, struggled to execute.
Post-Renaissance Era (2000-2008)
Unlike the other eras, the Post Renaissance Era lacked any defining themes seen in previous Disney films. Instead, it marks efforts for the studio to find new storytelling methods, such as in Dinosaur and Disney’s first attempt at CGI animation. The Post Renaissance only saw moderate success following such a successful era, partly due to big movie franchises such as The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter drawing in most audiences. Ultimately, this time was a transitional time for Disney’s storytelling and advanced technology.
The Revival Era 2009-Present
Lastly, the Revival Era, also called the “Second Disney Renaissance,” saw the studio go back to what they do best and a few key things falling in their favor. As when John Lasseter took over the animation division in 2006, and Disney’s eventual purchase of Pixar, who at the time was creating innovative crowd-pleasers like Toy Story and A Bug’s Life. Thus, the Revival brought us The Princess and the Frog and the return of traditional animation.
Nevertheless, what followed right after was Tangled and another shot at CGI with traditional animation techniques that paid of financially and critically. Tangled proved, Disney was rivaling the best the Disney Renaissance had to offer. However, Frozen is what made the Revival reach new heights when it took home $1.2 billion worldwide, Academy Awards for Best Original Song and Best Animated Feature.
The Eras Photo Credit: DanChaos1 at Deviant Art