The First Three

Deconstructing Disney: The First Three

Dept. of Whimsey and Wonder


The first instalment of an infrequent but ongoing series in which Bahir Yeusuff goes on a musical journey of whimsey and wonder as he watches and reviews every Disney animated feature ever made.

The first three, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Pinocchio, and Fantasia, represented Walt Disney’s first attempts at making feature length animated films for the big screen and truly set the tone for the future of animation. Snow White, released in 1937, was considered a risky endeavour, and widely mocked by the press at the time, referring to it as “Disney’s Folly”. There was a level of cynicism that followed the announcement of the feature film, with many thinking that an animated feature, which was essentially a long cartoon, would never work for the public, and that the medium of cartoons was for children, and would never interest adults. 

How wrong they were.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

The story is, by now, a familiar one. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs tells a princess who attempts to hide from her evil stepmother, who, when trying to impress a magical mirror on the wall, finds out that her stepdaughter was the fairest one of all. As its opening sequence fades into a real shot of the opening of an elaborately decorated story book, the movie boldly announces to the audience that what you will be watching is a reimagining of a story that you may already know. 

Snow White meets Bambi!

What first stands out are the humans in the movie. There is a certain charm in the way the humans are animated. They were not the most perfect representation of the human form, but a tracing of the body and its movements. This was achieved by filming real actors and then drawing over the frames to create animation (Vox released a great video on the topic here).

The movements are fluid, graceful and beautiful, even if a lot of the faces of the characters seem sloppy and incomplete. This style can best be seen in the Queen’s transformation into the old hag. The animation of the Queen itself is slightly stilted, her face lacking in features – much like Snow White and Prince Charming. But as soon as she transforms into the hag, the character is suddenly full of expression – warts, witches’ nose and all. 

Old hag looking through window

It must have been an incredibly difficult and expensive thing to do, as the studio never really attempted lifelike animation of humans again until 10 feature animations later, in Cinderella, released 13 years later.

Pinocchio (1940)

Three years later, Walt Disney releases Pinocchio, the story of a puppet and the man who made him. One night, as he is falling asleep, the toymaker, Geppetto, wishes upon a star, and Pinocchio comes alive. The story then follows the puppet boy as he learns to be a real boy.

Pinocchio in strings

Pinocchio is a truly dark coming of age tale, the boy being kidnapped, turned into a donkey, getting swallowed by a whale, and not listening to his inner voice – made real by Jiminy Cricket. 

It is here where you really see the Walt Disney animators getting into their swing, both in animation and storytelling style. There is truly a sense of horror as Pinocchio gets turned into a donkey. There is also real joy in the end as Pinocchio turns into a real boy and dances with his father.

The First Three Pinocchio dancing with Geppetto

This underlying tone of darkness is a feature of many of the earlier Disney animated features; Dumbo being taken away from his mother, the death of Bambi’s mother, and Prince Phillip fighting a dragon in Sleeping Beauty. The stories go into some really emotionally heavy and dark places, which was surprising to be reminded of in 2019 in it’s careful culture of safeguarding children.

Fantasia (1940)

Later that same year, Disney releases Fantasia, an acid trip of a cartoon, filled with classical music, dancing hippos, crocodiles, and mushrooms, as well as a dark short of Mickey Mouse falling asleep with magical brooms. 

The First Three Mickey Mouse and magical broom

Fantasia is definitely a weird one. Compared to the previous two films, Fantasia does not have a story arc that runs through the film, but is instead a collection of short, beautifully drawn, incredibly trippy, and very avant gardé animated sequences. This was always a favourite of mine as a kid, the beautiful music and images blending wordlessly and wonderfully to create very atmospheric cartoons.

The First Three Dancing magic mushrooms

The first three full length feature films released by Disney really showcase their range. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), with it’s more realistic human design would lead to feature films like Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959). The character design style of Pinocchio (1940), however, seems to be the route Disney eventually settles into, with its caricatured humans replicated in movies moving forward, from The Sword in the Stone (1963), to The Little Mermaid (1989) and eventually the two Frozen movies (2013 and 2019).

For me, the Fantasia style of anthology feature films have always been a favourite. From 1943 to 1948, (in conjunction with World War 2, but that’s another story for another time) the Disney studio released five anthology feature films, Saludos Amigos (1943), The Three Caballeros (1945), Make Mine Music (1946), Fun and Fancy Free (1947), and Melody Time (1948). These films were all based heavily on music and very much follows the format that began with Fantasia

Bahir likes to review movies because he can watch them at special screenings and not have to interact with large groups of people who may not agree with his idea of what a movie going experience is. Bahir likes jazz, documentaries, Ken Burns, and summer blockbuster movies. He really hopes that the HBO MAX Green Lantern series will help the character be cool again. Also don’t get him started on Jason Momoa’s Aquaman (#NotMyArthurCurry).

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