For a long time, the word “Disney” has signified, to a lot of artistic people, a kind of flavorless, textureless gruel of unchallenging blandness. Regardless of the accuracy of that (and it is often accurate) I think it’s always a mistake to dismiss someone’s work of one time because of that of another time; it’s like dismissing Rubber Soul becaus you don’t like Paul McCartney’s solo work. For me, the prewar years of Disney (that is, from Steamboat Willy to Bambi) are an amazing series of artistic feats, with the kind of restless striving after perfection you would associate with the great modernist masters. Disney himself, of course, did none of the animation, background painting, etc, but he was the one pushing and pushing his artists to improve, and also, like Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes, he provided the essential poetic spark that made the work transcend its technical qualities.
I could go on and on about the greatness of all these cartoons–I love the early black-and-white Mickeys (Mickey, a flawless graphic design, is really meant to be B&W); I love the beautiful plotless Silly Symphonies like The Skeleton Dance, Woodland Café, and The Old Mill; I love any cartoon teaming up Mickey, Donald, and Goofy, and of course I love the classic feature films. On a more specific level, the things that impress me, and that I hope to emulate myself in my work, include the huge amount of preparation and planning, the attention to and control of detail, the feeling for texture and design, a theatrical sense of lighting (I remember my dad, a theater director, lamenting that the real world couldn’t give the kind of control over light that a Disney movie has.)
In an animated cartoon everything has to be planned down to the individual frame; and the Disney team worked everything out on paper, refining their characters, settings, scenes, and story to the highest degree of polish–nothing extraneous and nothing left out. I’m a sucker for the backgrounds, where everything is calculated for an effect–I remember a Disney artist discussing a background for Bambi, and showing how the level of detail corresponds to the attention of the audience. The backgrounds for Bambi, under the direction of Tyrus Wong, have an abstract, poetic quality, but when necessary to lead the eye to rest in one place, the level of detail increases, like a camera coming into focus. And everything is like that–movement, color, music; everything is precisely calculated for effect. The cost was enormous, but the results amazing.
Generally speaking, I’m not a big fan of postwar anything–from fashion to movies to architecture, there’s not a lot of art I especially like from the 40s until the late 70s. This is a big generalization, but Disney sort of exemplifies the change to me. In the late 20s and 30s, he poured all his energy, and all of his company’s money (the Disney studio was constantly on the brink of bankruptcy) into the next project, into improving the art, into making beautiful, impractical dreams. After Snow White he made a series of ambitious films, all very different and experimental: Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi; but the only movie that made money and consistent critical acclaim was the cheaply made crowd-pleaser Dumbo (which, don’t get me wrong, I like, but the cost-saving is pretty obvious in comparison to the other movies of the time) and it seems they “learned their lesson”. In 1941 the overworked animators went on strike, which seems to have made Disney himself into a rabid anti-Communist, and certainly completely changed the character of the studio. Disney started to focus on different projects, especially his beloved EPCOT, which in its original form was the ultimate in the high-modernist Le Corbusier ideal of utopia-through-urban-planning. The shorts and even the features were made more and more cheaply–it’s painful for me to look at 50s cartoons, with their ugly, schematic background paintings, and simplified animation.
But those first dozen years or so, I think, are one of the glories of the 20th Century, and continue to inspire and challenge me.