Saturday, May 02, 2009

Early Walt Disney animated films: Struggles with funding

The first film was Snow White. Walt Disney bet the entire company on the success of that film because he wanted it to be as high quality as possible. So all the money he had made from his successful Mickey Mouse, Silly Symphony, and Donald Duck cartoons was used to fund Snow White. In addition, Walt Disney packaged his five Academy Award winning shorts together and released it as a film, "Academy Award Review of Walt Disney Cartoons" (

All of the Disney company was riding on Snow White, and the critics called it "Disney's folly" because they thought it would fail. Even Walt's wife didn't think people would want to go see "a dwarf movie."

The success put all of Walt's other productions into place (which is why it took 3 years for Disney's next animated film Pinocchio, but Disney was cranking them out about one a year after that). However, Pinocchio lost a lot of money in the box office, which put Disney into debt. A few of the pre-War World 2 films made profits (Dumbo, Saludos Amigos, and Fun and Fancy Free), and Disney slowly squeezed money from re-releasing his first earlier films, and he continued to make money from his shorts, but Pinocchio put the company in debt, and the other films (especially Fantasia, Bambi, and war films) kept it in debt until Cinderella pulled it out. So Cinderella was the third time that Disney risked the entire company on a single project (Steamboat Willie and Snow White were the previous times)…

0 Academy Award Review of Walt Disney Cartoons (not canon)
May 19, 1937

1 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
December 21, 1937 (premiere); February 4, 1938

2 Pinocchio
February 7, 1940 (premiere); February 9, 1940

3 Fantasia
November 13, 1940 (premiere/roadshow); January 29, 1941 (RKO roadshow); January 8, 1942

3.5 The Reluctant Dragon (not canon)
June 20, 1941

4 Dumbo
October 23, 1941

5 Bambi
August 13, 1942 (limited); August 21, 1942

6 Saludos Amigos
August 24, 1942 (premiere); February 6, 1943

7 The Three Caballeros
December 21, 1944 (premiere); February 3, 1945

8 Make Mine Music
April 20, 1946 (premiere); August 15, 1946

8.5 Song of the South (not canon)
November 12, 1046

9 Fun and Fancy Free
September 27, 1947

10 Melody Time
May 27, 1948

11 The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
October 5, 1949

12 Cinderella
February 15, 1950

Cinderella was a huge success, but Walt Disney lost his passion for animations. It was still there, but he became more passionate about other things (new frontiers for him). Even Cinderella was great, but he saw it as a remake of Snow White. He also just overcame the challenge of keeping the company alive, and he wanted a new challenge.

Disney then took his wad of cash from the success of Cinderella (movie profits, merchandising, and music profits) and turned his attention to TV, live-action films, and Disneyland. Disneyland was his fourth project that he bet the entire company on. Not only did he bet all his profits from TV, animation, and films, but he also built up a debt and had ABC co-own the park (which he bought in 1960).

Of course, he also continued to release all the classics that he had already planned before the war stopped him in 1942 (but you can see that he slowed down on the frequency of his animations because he was concentrating more on TV, live-action films, and Disneyland):

13 Alice in Wonderland
July 26, 1951 (limited); July 28, 1951

14 Peter Pan
February 5, 1953

15 Lady and the Tramp
June 16, 1955 (premiere); June 22, 1955

16 Sleeping Beauty
January 29, 1959

17 One Hundred and One Dalmatians
January 25, 1961

18 The Sword in the Stone
December 25, 1963

19 The Jungle Book
October 18, 1967

Also, most of the later films (from 1960 on) have one thing in common… the director, Wolfgang Reitherman ( He often stated that he repurposed animation long before he became a director. It seemed to be a normal process and a way to cut costs without cutting out quality. Wolfgang was a major Disney animator since 1934. He worked on all the old movies, he was one of Disney’s 9 Old Men (, he began animation direction/supervision starting with Pinocchio, and he became the primary Disney animation director in 1961, directing the following animated films (in addition to shorts):

One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)
The Sword in the Stone (1963)
The Jungle Book (1967)
The AristoCats (1970)
Robin Hood (1973)
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
The Rescuers (1977)



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