I’d like to take a break now from my usual rumblings about computers, gaming and violent heavy metal music and discuss one of my other, more bizzarre interests.

Yep, Disney.

I’m something of a Disney nut, hampered by lack of income and certian realism factors (i.e., going to Disney World perperually is infeasible) but I’ve always liked what Walt’s company has been able to come up with, from the animation styles to whatever new fangled rides they come up with.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to go see Snow Dogs or anything (in fact, I think appearing in any live action movie with the name “Disney’s…” in the start of the title is a death-knell for a career), I don’t always get out to go see the animated flicks, and I don’t always agree with what they do (more later) but I do enjow most of what the Walt Disney Company comes up with.

The part of Disney I’m most interested is their Animated Features. Disney was the first company to take the usually four- to five-minute format of the animated short and suggest that it might be suited for a full-length movie. Now, in the late 1930’s when they conjured up this idea “full length” was somewhere between seventy and ninety minutes, a far cry from the 2.5 hours movies average today. While this may seem like something that could be done away with successfully today, when I found out the South Park movie was 83 minutes I felt disappointed until I watched it – it seemed like a full two hours (perhaps I was just too used to the half-hour format). Their first Animated Feature was 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, some 84 minutes long. Over the last 65 years they have made 40 Animated Features, and according to them this is their list:

  1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – December 21, 1937
  2. Pinocchio – February 2, 1940
  3. Fantasia – November 13, 1940
  4. Dumbo – October 23, 1941
  5. Bambi – August 13, 1942
  6. Saludos Amigos – February 6, 1943
  7. The Three Caballeros – February 3, 1945
  8. Make Mine Music – August 15, 1946
  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 – Febrary 15, 1950
  13. Alice in Wonderland – July 28, 1951
  14. Peter Pan – Febrary 5, 1953
  15. Lady and the Tramp – June 22, 1955
  16. Sleeping Beauty – January 29, 1959
  17. 101 Dalmatians – January 25, 1961
  18. The Sword in the Stone – December 25, 1963
  19. The Jungle Book – October 18, 1967
  20. The Aristocats – December 24, 1970
  21. Robin Hood – November 8, 1973
  22. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh – March 11, 1977
  23. The Rescuers – June 22, 1977
  24. The Fox and the Hound – July 10, 1981
  25. The Black Cauldron – July 24, 1985
  26. The Great Mouse Detective – July 2, 1986
  27. Oliver and Company – Nov 18, 1988
  28. The Little Mermaid – November 17, 1989
  29. The Rescuers Down Under – November 10, 1990
  30. Beauty and the Beast – November 15, 1991
  31. Aladdin – November 11, 1992
  32. The Lion King – June 15, 1994
  33. Pocahontas – June 23, 1995
  34. The Hunchback of Notre Dame – July 21, 1996
  35. Hercules – June 27, 1997
  36. Mulan – June 19, 1998
  37. Tarzan – June 18, 1999
  38. Fantasia 2000 – January 1, 2000
  39. The Emperors New Groove – June 2000
  40. Atlantis: The Lost Empire

These are the films that when you see them showing in a movie trailer will denote themselves as “Disney’s __th Animated Feature”.

You’ll notice the list of Animated Features is somewhat exclusive. The most important exemption is that none of the “direct to video” features are included. No The Lion King II or The Return of Jafar. Also notice that none of Pixar’s films are included – they merely have a licensing deal going with Disney.

Also somewhat confusing is what qualifies as “animated”. Animated/live action fare is mostly disqualified (no Bedknobs & Broomsticks or Pete’s Dragon), but The Three Caballeros, along with the two Fantasia films do flirt with live action a bit. The only Animated Feature sequel is The Rescuers Down Under, after which Disney instituted a “no sequels on the big screen” rule (Toy Story 2 was originally a direct-to-video sequel, but it turned out to be “too damn good” to waste on that market).

1959’s Sleeping Beauty was the last fairy tale Disney did until The Little Mermaid broke the trend thirty years later. In the 80’s the amount of money made on the films dipped so bad that they started to lose money – The Black Cauldron lost over $30 million (a high price in 1985). Mermaid was the first to break even in some time. The peak was 1994’s The Lion King, which had the largest opening weekend ever for an animated film until Monsters, Inc. beat it this year (and may go on to top the overall gross as well). The grosses have mellowed out a bit, but Disney still churns them out. There’s never been an Oscar for animated film (and if there is this year then either Shrek or Monsters, Inc. are a lock for it) but over the years many of these films have either won or been nominated for Oscars in technical achievement categories. The only one to ever be nominated for Best Picture is Beauty and the Beast.

Absent from the list is 1946’s Song of the South. Whether it ever qualified for AF status is debatable (it was a live action/animated hybrid) but one thing’s for sure – Disney wants to all but bury it. I saw it back in 1986, but I don’t completely remember all of it. Most of it centers around the stories told by Uncle Remus, a black slave on a southern plantation. Consequently, Disney caught a lot of hell when they re-released it back in 1986 for its 40th anniversary and pulled it off of theaters. The NAACP and others complained that it sugar coated slavery (I wonder what they think of Gone with the Wind) and the term “Tar Baby” has come to be a derogatory term for blacks. While Disney will probably never release it on any home or theater formats here in the states ever (ignore the problem, it will go away), they did put it on VHS in Europe (a much sought-after item) and they still have a Splash Mountain ride in Disneyland and Disney World, with characters from the film.

Most of the Disney AF’s tend to be musicals – all the better to sell soundtracks, my dear. Also, usually when there’s an animal or two (or when the animals are the main characters) they can talk – but the “traditional” animals (cats, dogs, etc.) usually won’t talk to humans (in 101 Dalmations and Lady and the Tramp they had to “pretend” they didn’t talk when humans were around). In Pocahontas, none of the animals talked at all, causing quite a stir of people who plain didn’t like that sort of thing. Also, whereas most Disney AF’s have a happy ending of some sort (usually it’s built into the pre-existing fairy tale) Pocahontas didn’t. Not by any coincidence was Pocahontas‘ predecessor, The Lion King, the last Disney AF (so far) to be a runaway hit.

The Lion King was also the last in some other things as well, most importantly the last of the Katzenberger flicks. Jeffery Katzenberger was the head of Disney’s animation department and the executive producer on Disney’s AF’s through Lion King. After feeling snubbed when he didn’t recieve a high ranking (and recently abandoned) position at Disney he left to form Dreamworks SKG (with Steven Speilberg and David Geffen) and head that animation department. While The Prince of Egypt was a hit under him, he struck out with The Road to El Dorado and Antz, but he’s back in black with Shrek.

Another notable departure from Disney was Don Bluth. An animator for them, he left to form his own studio where he made the critical smash The Secret of NIMH and All Dogs Go To Heaven, but has yet to experience a theatrical hit. His last attempt was Titan: AE. He’s most known, however, for doing the animation behind the Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace Laserdisc Arcade Games. Most of his studio’s money is made churning out The Land Before Time direct to video sequels (for which they stopped affixing numbers to after part 9).

But of course for me the most fascinating/important thing about the Disney Animated Features is their eventual positions on home formats.

Until the mid 70’s and the introduction of Laserdisc the idea of a Disney Animated Feature on a home format wasn’t even a question. Disney made some films available on Laserdisc, expanding the idea when VHS came out. They would, however, hold back certian films from release, the idea being that these could continue to make more money in movie theaters. To this end, they would continue to re-release older films to the theater periodically to make more money.

One of the last Disney AF’s to be denied the home video format was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The film was cleaned up and restored for re-release in 1987, the 50th anniversary of the film. However, it didn’t make as much money as Disney had hoped, so they finally released it to home video in 1989. That video has since mostly sold out and Disney has not made any new printings of it until recently (more later). Fantasia saw a similar fate, being put out in 1990 and having not been put out again until recently.

Disney has a policy of making certian films available on a home format and then at some point ceasing manufacture of them for a certian period of time (usually a decade). Snow White saw this fate, with its recent re-issue being twelve years later. Disney does not (usually) go to the extreme of removing the film from stores, they simply don’t make more. As a result, while these films don’t neccessarily become impossible to obtain, they do dwindle in supply. Several years back, however, Disney re-released Pinocchio to theaters and took the extra step of not only recalling unsold copies of the Pinocchio video, but also purchasing back copies from rental retailers. However they discovered that, since it was in fact already in most people’s homes, the re-release bombed. As a result, Disney usually opts for “limited screenings” of re-issued movies. Right now Beauty and the Beast is playing in IMAX theaters (limited enough) and next year The Lion King gets the same treatment.

And then in 1997 came DVD. Disney originally passed on the format (as others did) and then signed on for DIVX, the pay-per-view DVD variant. While their motives were likely rooted in money, Disney maintains that the added security of limiting the set of players that could view the discs (i.e., no DVD-ROM copying) was their reasoning. However, DIVX never took off and in 1999 died without Disney ever having released an AF on it. Later that year Disney released nine “Limited Issue” DVD’s, eight AF’s and the DTV sequel Lion King II. I bought the eight AF’s, since the threat was that once these “Limited Issue” DVD’s were gone they would also likely be in the vault for a decade. As I still now see these DVD’s on shelves (alongside their non-Limited reissues) I wonder how limited they were. Interestingly, the last AF to ever see release was 1985’s The Black Cauldron, the only Disney film other than last year’s Atlantis to be rated PG. The reason was simple – the movie wasn’t popular, but in 1999 when it was released to video and DVD it was “sprung” on people who had never seen it.

But then Disney turned around and decided to quit being so stingy. They decided that their entire AF catalog, minus ten, would continuously be available. These would be under the moniker of “The Gold Collection”. The other ten, which include Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, Lion King, Aladdin and others, will be available as “The Platinum Collection”. They will be released one per year and will have a limited production run, after which they will go back into the vault for a decade. 2001’s entry was the double DVD Snow White. October 2002 will see Beauty and the Beast, and 2003’s is likely The Lion King. New releases, such as The Emperor’s New Groove and Atlantis will be available as soon as the VHS is released but their ultimate fate is to be decided.

Disney’s been advertising that January 31st is the last day for Snow White on DVD. If this is the same as years past, this really means they’ll be merely halting production of the disc, rather than revoking it from stores. However that is of course not the impression the commercial leaves. January 31st is also the last day for the Tarzan discs, but they’re not advertising that one so well. That having been said, I went out and picked up Snow White just in case they change their minds. Perhaps I’m a Disney sucker, but we’ll see come Febuary 1.

Next up is Febuary’s release of Return to Neverland, a Peter Pan sequel involving Wendy’s daughter and an ageless Pan. This summer we see Lilo & Stich, about a Hawaiian child on an adventure with a silent and psychotic alien (the trailer explains a little more) and then next October there’s Treasure Planet – think Treasure Island in space. This movie signals for some the return of Disney Animation to the mainstream, as it looks awesome so far.

In any event I’m off to play with the 84 minute Snow White movie, after which I’ll probably play with the 900 minutes of features.