Mark Mayerson

Writer, Cartoonist, Sculptor

Why Are Disney's Pre-war Films Better
Than the Post-war Films?
(May, 1988)

I think that the key to the Disney animated features lies in the films' attitudes toward growing up, and these attitudes change radically from the 1940s to the 1960s.

In the pre-war films, the main characters are living in dangerous worlds. Snow White is the victim of a murder attempt. Pinocchio is captured by a puppeteer who threatens to chop him into firewood, he almost gets transformed into a donkey and he gets swallowed by a whale. Dumbo is separated from his mother, ostracized by his own kind and force to perform dangerous stunts. Bambi has to deal with hunters, their dogs, and disasters like forest fires. These characters have to grow in order to survive and take some kind of control over their lives. If they don't grow, they'll be physically or emotionally destroyed.

Consider the fact that these films were made during the Depression. Life was not easy for the average person, including those working at the studio. It was a struggle just to put food on the table. Consider also that the artists were all pretty young, fighting to establish themselves as professionals and fighting to have animation taken seriously as an artform. The early features were a bid for the same legitimacy afforded to live action films. The studio was in a tight money situation and the failure of a feature was a serious threat to the studio's existence.

In the 1950s films, the characters are all middle class. Alice wants to escape to Wonderland for some excitement. Michael, John and Wendy want to visit Neverland for the same reasons. While these characters are in danger in their respective fantasy lands, they can return to their middle class existences and be a bit more accepting of their daily lives. Lady and the Tramp does not follow this pattern, but starts off middle class and ends up affirming middle class values of family and respectability. There are no threats that compel the characters to action as there are in the pre-war films.

The 1950s were a pretty complacent decade. After the Depression and the war, everybody wanted a return to normalcy. The artists were middle aged, and the urgency and drive of youth were dulled. They were established professionals with homes, cars and families of their own. One gets the feeling that the artists were indulging their characters, as they may have indulged their own children. "We'll let the kids have fun, get it out of their systems, and then we'll rein them back in." The studio was also entering middle age. With the expansion into TV and live action, the studio was more secure and the success or failure of an animated feature was no longer a life or death situation.

By the '60s, the artists no longer treated growing up as a struggle or a time to exorcise wildness. Growing up was inevitable, something that happened even if you weren't ready for it. Wart pulls the sword out of the stone and finds himself king of England. Mowgli sees a girl and give up his intentions to stay in the jungle. Neither moment is treated as particularly dramatic in the films. Neither of these characters is really prepared to take on adulthood by the standards of the pre-war films. They have not learned to master their environments or take moral responsibility for their actions, but their childhoods are over anyway.

The artists were now grandparents, and knew that while growing up might seem a struggle while you were going through it, you'd make it. They'd done it. Their kids had done it and settled down. Now their grandkids were starting on the road. It seems like the artists had lost their interest in narrative, knowing as they did that it was all going to work out anyway, and concentrated on whatever moments they found interesting. There's a certain complacency about the films directed by Woolie Reitherman. They made money, the artists were secure and close to retirement, and there was no reason to reach for anything new. The studio was a money machine by then. The tail end of the baby boom was still fueling the box office and the theme parks were a goldmine. As long as they didn't do anything stupid, like lose a lot of money or make a film that would hurt the studio's image, they could continue to amuse themselves.

It's not unusual to look at an artist's work over the course of his life and chart the changes of outlook. It's less common when dealing with film (though it's a favorite approach of auteurists), but there such continuity at the Disney studio that I think it's valid. For the most part, the animators entered the studio at the same time and grew up and old at the studio. Anyone who disagreed with the art or politics of the studio eventually left, leaving behind a very homogenous group. What we have on film is an autobiography of sorts. It's a chronicle of the artists' attitudes about growing up, viewed over the course of their lives.

It's too bad that while the artists grew up, the films didn't. The films became slicker, but they never really became deeper than they started out. If anything, as the artists grew older and got further away from their subject, the films became less compelling.