For all you fans of LILO AND STITCH, MULAN, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME and other more recent Disney films, it may seem a little a arbitrary to draw the line at 1994 and call THE LION KING the last of the "great" Disney animated features. And I admit it is a bit arbitrary, but there is a method to my arbitrariness. I could very well say that BAMBI was the last of the great Disney films and be done with it, or I could just keep listing Disney films all the zippity-doo-dah day and review every single Disney film ever made. But it seems to be that as Walt Disney was the king of the hand drawn animated feature, and computer animation and 1995's TOY STORY has now changed the animation landscape for good (so it seems), 1937 through 1994 makes for a nice, neat little way to think about Disney films, with SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS and THE LION KING acting as two bookends representing the opposite ends of two different golden ages. Yes, completely arbitrary, but that's what I am going with.
There is the equally arbitrary grouping of these films under certain headings, but I feel that works too as a general guide to how I see the history of Disney animation as it developed over the decades. Films tend to clump together naturally, either simply by decade or by style, with certain films (SNOW WHITE, CINDERELLA, 101 DALMATIANS, ROBIN HOOD, THE LITTLE MERMAID) marking new eras. It seems clear to me that CINDERELLA and THE LITTLE MERMAID represent "back to the beginning" points in Disney history, where Disney and his successors made an explicit attempt to recapture the magic of some of the early films (and very successfully in both cases, I might add), whereas 101 DALMATIANS and ROBIN HOOD represent new beginnings. It is obvious that there is a big difference between 1959's SLEEPING BEAUTY and 1960'S 101 DALMATIANS, making a new grouping of cluster of familially linked pictures easy to spot. However, did the new golden age of Disney start with THE LITTLE MERMAID, as I have it, or with the previous OLIVER & COMPANY? Does THE LION KING represent the end of the golden age or the beginning of a new age of computer-enhanced films? I'll work that out as I see each film. As of this writing, I am just getting into the post-Disney years, and if I have to re-sort and re-group them again, I will as I see fit.
In any event, these groupings really don't matter. It's just a personal way of presenting my thoughts on these films, many of which I am seeing for the first time in years, some for the first time ever. And, if I hadn't been enjoying them so much, I wouldn't have bothered spinning old Walt off into his own section. But the best Disney films have blown me away repeatedly, while the lesser ones have still entertained me in one way or another. For me, 1937 to 1994 marks the rise and fall and rise again of Disney films. There are surely some superb Disney films released after 1994, but they belong to a new era of animation, where hand drawn films compete with the likes of TOY STORY and THE CORPSE BRIDE. For 57 years before that, hand drawn animation ruled the movie houses almost completely unopposed by other forms, and for most if not all of those years, Disney ruled the day. - JB