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Disney’s Seven Eras of Animation: From The Golden Age of ‘Pinocchio’ to the Revival Era of ‘Encanto’

Disney may be the undisputed king of animated features, but there have been highs and lows along the way.

Disney has been a powerhouse in animation since Snow White stumbled into the home of seven diamond miners. The company seems flawless, but taking a look at Disney’s several eras of animation, it has had almost as many lows as highs. Disney’s animation seems to have a pattern of hitting home runs and then striking out. So much so, one could bet on Disney’s next era tanking, but could the latest era be the one to break the spell, like Belle? Before that’s unraveled, it’s important to understand the history of Disney’s several eras.

The Golden Age

The Golden Age of Disney is where it all began in 1937. During that time, five animated feature films set the bar for the craft as well as music in film. Pinocchio would go on to become the first animated feature to win a competitive Academy Award. Actually, it won two: Original Score and Original Song for “When You Wish Upon a Star. The aforementioned, along with Snow White, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi ultimately laid the foundation for Disney with stories of princesses, adventures, talking animals, and of course, musical moments. As great as all of that seemed at the time, with the U.S. about to enter World War II, Disney was about to take a major turn.

The Wartime Era

Rightfully dubbed The Wartime Era, Disney didn’t do much from 1943-49 other than push war propaganda with anti-Nazi messaging, war bond-buying encouragement, and overall support of the troops. The budgets and staff were as low as the morale around the office. Walt Disney couldn’t afford to spend time, money and effort on much, so the company opted for several anthologies, most of which are long forgotten except for The Three Caballeros and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. WWII undoubtedly left noticeable cracks in Disney’s foundation, but the next era would fill them with big business.

The Silver Age

With the end of WWII in 1945, the U.S. saw the Baby Boom soon after. It seemed like the dark clouds had passed and life was going to be okay for the foreseeable future. Families were thriving with disposable income to spend at places like drive-ins, and with that Disney entered its restoration era AKA The Silver Age in 1950 by going back to the fairy tale basics with Cinderella. Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan soon followed, but like an infomercial — wait, there’s more!

Five years into this era, Disneyland opened, and the company took its biggest leap into becoming more than an animation platform. It was becoming a full-on brand. When the theme park opened, not even a dozen animated films had been released. It was a huge swing, but it went out of the park. The Silver Age raged on for around 20 years with classics like Sleeping Beauty and 101 Dalmatians setting the tone of the era with beautiful, painterly animation. Unfortunately, Disney was about to take another hit. Not only did the U.S. enter the Vietnam War in 1964, but two years after that the company lost its namesake when Walt Disney passed away.

The Bronze Age

Disney soon found itself struggling without the creative guidance it’d had for almost 30 years. The lack of insight from Walt Disney showed in The Bronze Age. During that time Disney adopted xerography. This new approach to animation saved time, but having to utilize heavy lines left movies looking funkier than their predecessors. Many describe the look of movies like The Aristocats, Robin Hood, and The Rescuers as “scratchy”. In many ways though, the realism in the colorization matched the tone of the U.S. during the Vietnam War. Why be vibrant and magical when the world feels muted? However, it was not intentional as Disney was just dealing with the loss of the man behind it all. The scramble to keep the Disney magic alive after Walt Disney’s passing delivered movies that with time would be celebrated, but by the end of the ‘80s came a significant change and instantaneous commercialism.

The Renaissance Era

In 1989, The Little Mermaid propelled Disney into what is arguably its best, The Renaissance Era. Disney went back to the basics, but with a twist. They once again were fairy tale focused, but musically leaned toward grand performances that could be likened to Broadway. It’s that format that would go on to make the Renaissance insanely lucrative.

This era was like The Silver Age on steroids because the movies were elevated in every way shape and form, and the commercialism and branding were there. Putting time and effort into the characters, movies and music of this era paid off in many ways. Disney wasn’t a stranger to awards shows, but suddenly their movies were competing against non-animated movies. 1991’s Beauty and the Beast became the first animated movie to win Best Picture at the Golden Globes, as well as the first animated movie to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Accolades like that then helped the company land some of the biggest names in Hollywood for their films, something that wasn’t too common before Aladdin when Robin Williams (Mrs. Doubtfire) stole the show as Genie.

After that, Mel Gibson (The Patriot) was in Pocahontas,’ 90s teen heartthrob Johnathan Taylor Thomas (Home Improvement) was in The Lion King. Speaking of, The Lion King also scored Sir Elton John for the soundtrack, and later Phil Collins was hired to work on the Tarzan soundtrack. On the commercialism front, Disney was raking in money from movie merchandise like never before. When things like Star Wars and Saturday morning cartoons started to prove that Hollywood could make even more by selling toys of said properties, Disney was going through their Bronze Era and missed out. They weren’t going to make that mistake again during this era.

The first Disney retail store opened in 1987. Perhaps predicting a turnaround, or at least hoping for one. With that, fans could buy in stores, at the theme park, or even get merchandise at places like McDonald’s. There wasn’t a kid alive in the ‘90s who didn’t live for a Disney-themed Happy Meal toy. That’s because Disney stepped up the characterization during the Renaissance. Cinderella and Aurora were great, but Disney started to give their new line of princesses and characters more gumption and personality. Something fans attached to like never before, and when a fan can identify with something on a personal level, it makes them want to buy.

The Post-Renaissance Era

All of that led to new ventures on the animation front with the introduction of DisneyToon Studios, and a collaboration that would cement this era’s claim to fame. Pixar set a precedent and while it was a match made in heaven, the computer animation style of Disney’s new bestie brought to the table led to a rather chaotic time at the turn of the century.

The Post-Renaissance Era that got underway in 2000 should have been called the Age of Frenzied Excess because Disney dropped almost 60 animated movies. That’s more than any era before or after, and very few of them made waves with fans sans Lilo & Stitch and Pixar’s contributions. While Disney films like The Emperor’s New Groove and Atlantis: The Lost Empire did fine, Pixar dominated the Post-Renaissance with Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, and Up. That’s because Pixar had a vision, while it felt like Disney was just tossing out anything and hoping something worked. The company also started to churn out sequels no one was requesting for former Renaissance hits like Mulan and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

It seemed like Disney was trying to keep up with Pixar, as well as the Blockbuster franchises that were emerging. Star Wars had come back with prequels, and they weren’t alone. The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter also had a stake in the game, and those little superhero movies like Spider-Man, X-Men and Iron Man were clearing a new path for moviegoers Disney tried to recapture the wonder of the Renaissance with 2009’s The Princess and the Frog though, and it did well, but with Pixar owning the Post-Renaissance Era, Disney seemed to cave in to the pressure of what was selling. A year after Princess Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) gloriously became Disney’s first Black princess (for about two seconds before she was a frog) and the final traditionally animated Disney film, came Tangled and the current chapter in Disney’s long history; The Revival Era.

The Revival Era

In an era that some would say could be labeled the Second Renaissance, the lines started to blur between Disney and Pixar in terms of style, and while the company took some Post-Renaissance risks with more adventurous movies like Big Hero 6 and Wreck-It Ralph, Disney also fell back on the tried and true format of fairytale-like stories with elements of Broadway tossed in the mix, à la Frozen and Encanto, both of which produced inescapable songs, but since one can’t talk about Bruno…one will just have to move onto where The Revival Era currently stands. Right now The Revival Era has proven fruitful but given Disney’s history, it seems due for another low point.

Disney could have easily been impacted in 2023, but thanks to streaming and the then-new Disney+ app, the company was able to withstand all of that and deliver movies like the aforementioned Encanto, Soul, Luca and Onward. Streaming played a part in not entering a downward spiral toward another Bronze Age, but so did the company’s investments. Star Wars and superheroes were once Disney’s biggest competition at the box office. Now, Disney need not worry because those properties are now owned by the house of Mickey Mouse. Disney has monopolized a great deal of the entertainment industry, but life’s tossed the company unexpected twists and turns in the past. So will Disney dip again like they have three times before? If one were betting on patterns, then yes, but in recent years Disney has masterfully played the game and opened its wallet wide enough to ensure that it’s going to take a lot to tear down this entertainment giant. With more to fall back on today than ever before, perhaps the next era of Disney will be the first to heighten what came before it instead of just having to pick up the pieces of yet another cracked foundation.


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