Before Disney went full speed ahead with their animated film in the 90’s, they spent each decade between the 30’s and 80’s producing only one or two films a year. Similar to how Marvel ended up producing one or two movies a year to three or four and even television series. We will be covering Disney films before that time though, looking at some of the success the Mouse House had before they hit their stride. Some of the best animated films by Disney that has changed animation forever, altering history and the way audiences view films. We will be taking a look at Disney films before the 1990’s.
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The Little Mermaid (1989)
Loosely based on the fairytale written by Hans Christian Andersen and directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, most known for their work on current Disney feature films The Princess and the Frog and Moana. A film about a young mermaid princess named Ariel, and her craving to be part of the surface world. Her dream comes true when she is tricked by Cecaelia named Ursula to be given feet as a replacement for her tail in exchange for Ariel’s voice. The switch is complete and Ariel is sent to the surface where she meets Prince Eric, while Ursula’s plan comes together as she attempts to replace Ariel and marry Prince Eric. The film received two animated straight to DVD films with The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea and The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning. A live-action adaptation is currently in production starring Halle Bailey as Ariel and helmed by Rob Marshall the director of Chicago, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Mary Poppins Returns. Won the Academy Award for Best Original Song and Best Score in 1990.
One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)
Based on the 1956 novel by Dodie Smith, Disney’s 17th animated film directed by Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, and Wolfgang Reitherman. When a ambitious song writer and his Dalmatian Pongo meet a woman with her female Dalmatian, they fall in love and start a family with more Dalmatians. Perdita ends up giving birth to a hundred and one puppies, however there is another issue at hand. A fashion socialite Cruella DeVil makes it her ultimate goal of obtaining the puppies and use their fur to make coats. Her evil plan begins when she successfully kidnaps the puppies, Pongo and Perdita are alerted by the other animals and a rescue mission begins. The film received a straight to DVD animated film, 101 Dalmatians 2: Patch’s London Adventure. A live action adaptation was made in 1996 with the same name and starred Glenn Close as DeVil, it was followed up with a sequel 102 Dalmatians. Another live-action reboot is currently in production focused on Cruella DeVil titled Cruella, starring Emma Stone as the title character and directed by Craig Gillespie the director of Lars and the Real Girl and I, Tonya.
Sleeping Beauty (1959)
The 16th animated film from Disney comes their adaptation of Charles Perrault novel and directed by the team that crafted One Hundred and One Dalmatians. After an evil sorceress named Maleficent arrives at ceremony to celebrate the birth of the King’s Daughter, Maleficent places a curse on the princess that will cause her to prick her finger on a spindle for her 16th birthday and put her into a deep sleep that can only be reversed if she is kissed by her true love. She ends up falling into the curse until the admirable Prince Phillip makes a daring choice to save Princess Aurora from Maleficent’s curse. Sleeping Beauty was never given an animated sequel like some of the other entries on our list, but it did receive a live-action adaptation. Released in 2014, Maleficent was a story told from the perspective of the evil sorceress and the premise was changed to establish a relationship between Maleficent and Aurora. Brilliantly played by Angelina Jolie, it received a sequel in 2019 titled Maleficent: Mistress of Evil.
Lady and the Tramp (1955)
Rather than being based on a previous novel, this film is adapted from a 1945 story from a Cosmopolitan magazine titled Happy Dan, The Cynical Dog by Ward Greene. A musical romance about an uptown American Cocker Spaniel named Lady who meets a stray Schnauzer mix named Tramp. A romance blossoms between Lady and Tramp, as Lady decides to follow Tramp through city life and live as a stray. She is opened up to a completely different world which strengthens the relationship between Lady and Tramp. The film was followed up with a direct-to-DVD sequel titled Lady and the Tramp 2: Scamp’s Adventure, following the adventures of Lady and Tramps son Scamp. As well as a live-action remake exclusively featured on Disney’s subscription service at launch, the film was not well received despite the star power of Tessa Thompson as Lady and Justin Theroux as Tramp along with other star power such as Sam Elliott and Janelle Monae.
Alice in Wonderland (1951)
Based on the Alice books written by Lewis Carroll, originally intended to be a animated/live-action film similar to Mary Poppins. A decision was made to instead produce the film completely animated. A story surrounding a girl named Alice as she discovers a rabbit hole that sends her off to Wonderland. As she meets a cast of strange characters including The Queen of Hearts who is preventing her from returning back home. At the time of the film’s release, it was a total flop. Pushed to television as the first episode to the show titled Disneyland. However, a couple years later the film was re-released in theaters where it gained pop culture status during a “psychedelic” era. Overtime, it ended up becoming one of Disney’s unlikely hit and a cult classic to the studio. The film was also one of the kick starters to the beginning of Disney’s live-action remake with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland in 2010, then a follow-up film in 2016 titled Alice Through the Looking Glass.
An animated musical fantasy based on the fairytale by Charles Perrault and developed by the same team that brought together some of the first animated Mickey Mouse segments. Following the story about a young girl whose father marries a vile woman and introduces her two daughters to Cinderella. When Cinderella’s father passes away, she is placed in the care of her step-mother. Her step-mother forces her to slave away at maintaining the home and lives of herself and her daughters. When the King announces a ball in honor of his son’s quest to find a wife, all the girls begin preparing to meet the Prince at the ball. However, the step-sisters ruin Cinderella’s chance to before. But Cinderella’s night is saved by her fairy god mother who prepares her for the ball. The film was nominated for three academy awards, including Best Original song for Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo. It managed to spawn two animated sequels Cinderella II: Dreams Come True and Cinderella III: A Twist in Time. A live-action adaptation was also produced in 2015 by director Kenneth Branagh, developer of Hamlet, Thor and Murder on the Orient Express.
Based on the book by the Austrian author Felix Salten in 1923 titled Bambi, A Life in the Woods. A story about a young deer who loses his mother to hunters and forced to live among other young woodland critters. A coming of age story about childhood tragedy and coming to terms with the struggles you are dealt. One of the pioneering animated films for Disney, being the fifth one to come out. The film was nominated for Best Original Song, Love is a Song. Along with two other Oscar nominations, it was given a Special Golden Globe award given to Walt Disney for furthering the influence of the film with a Hindustani version of the movie. The movie received a straight-to-DVD sequel in 2006, 64 years after the original. A live-action adaptation has been announced by Disney, but as of 2020 nothing else has been explained about this version of Bambi.
A production by Disney, not based on any other previous novel. Fantasia is instead a collaboration of animated short films, pieced together and featured music by the Philadelphia Orchestra and conducted by Leopold Stokowski. Each segment was introduced in live-action as the Orchestra began their music and the animated segments started. The film didn’t receive any Oscar nominations or award praise, but still was one of the foundations Disney is built upon. Specifically the segment The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which is considered the comeback of Mickey Mouse after a decline in popularity. The film received a theatrical sequel titled Fantasia 2000, which followed the same format of the first film but updated with new styles of animation and music. A live-action film was also developed based on The Sorcerer’s Apprentice that had the same named and starred Jay Baruchel and Nicholas Cage, as well as directed by Jon Turteltaub who produced other live-action Disney films Cool Runnings and National Treasure.
Based on the 1883 Italian novel by Carlo Collodi titled The Adventures of Pinocchio. A story about a woodcarver named Geppetto who carves a puppet of a young boy. The puppet comes to life by a fairy and strives to become a real boy, with the help of Jiminy Cricket, he sets out to figure out how to become a real boy. The movie was nominated for two Oscars and won both for Best Original Score and Best Original Song When You Wish Upon a Star. The second animated film by Disney and one of their biggest achievements at the time, the film never received a sequel like some of the other entries on this list. However, very much like the other entries it is due for a live-action reboot. The film will see Tom Hanks takes on the role of Geppetto and will be helmed by Robert Zemeckis, known for directing some of the most important films in Hollywood such as Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Forrest Gump.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
The first animated film by Disney, setting the standard for Animation and paving the way for massive empire created by Walt Disney. Based on a German Fairytale by the Brothers Grimm in 1812. A tale about a young woman who comes in contact with seven dwarfs and is being followed by an evil witch. When the witch curses Snow White, the dwarfs care for her until the day her prince charming comes to wake her. The film was nominated for Best Score, but was then given an Honorary Award the following year to Walt Disney for his innovative new form of entertainment by crafting the first feature length animated film. To this day Disney has not touched their first film with any animated follow up’s or live-action adaptation. In this case, don’t try to fix what isn’t broke. While the Grimm Story of Snow White has been adapted by other studios, none has been attempted by Disney.
Honorable Mentions: The Aristocats, Dumbo, Peter Pan, Robin Hood