The History of Disney Cartoons at Walt Disney Animation

in Entertainment, Movies, Movies & TV, Pixar, Television

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It’s now been a century, and the animated works of Walt Disney still lead the world in the industry today.

The name “Disney” has become associated with so many different sectors, including television, movies, theme parks, and vacation destinations worldwide. Despite its now global recognition, however, the Walt Disney Company was off to a somewhat “mousey” and humble start when Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio first formed in 1923. But alas, through trial and error, perseverance, and several uphill battles, Walt Disney Animation now stands out as the oldest-running animation studio in the world.

Many of the most popular Disney cartoons ever created remain timeless Disney classics, forever delighting children and adults even to this day. So, in tribute to its 100th year of being, we at Inside the Magic are honoring Disney’s overall developmental cartoon history and highlighting all of the Company’s major milestones and animation accolades throughout the decades.

Logo for Walt Disney Animation
Credit: Walt Disney Animation Studios

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Early Days of Animation

Before moving to Los Angeles, California, Walt Disney tried a brief stint at animation in Kansas City, Missouri, by launching Laugh-O-Gram Studio in 1921. Its eventual failure didn’t prove entirely fruitless, though, as it provided viable experience and even saw the start of the Alice Comedies that helped launch the new Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio in 1923 (later renamed Walt Disney Studio in 1926).

While there had been other cartoons produced under the Laugh-O-Gram brand before, the Alice Comedies series is often credited as being the first animation produced under the Disney brand, specifically. Not entirely animated, though, these shorts featured unique live-action/cartoon interaction innovation of the day.

The first exclusively animated works came about with the establishment of the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit character in 1927. Oswald may have been Disney’s first official cartoon protagonist, but his creation came while Disney works were distributed under M.J. Winkler Pictures. This resulted in copyright complications when Disney and Charles Mintz, who had taken over Winkler Pictures, parted ways.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon
Credit: Disney Plus

Enter Mickey and Friends

The blow of learning that he did not own Oswald led Walt Disney to establish a new signature protagonist to lead in Disney-exclusive works going forward. Enter Mickey Mouse.

Easily the most recognizable Disney character creation of all time, Mickey Mouse came on the scene in 1928 as a co-creation of Walt Disney and his leading animator Ub Iwerks. While Mickey’s two debut cartoons, Plane Crazy and The Galloping Gaucho, were shown as limited engagements, his third film appearance in Steamboat Willie is often hailed as his breakout role. Not only was it the first one to premier far and wide, but it was also synchronized with sound.

As more Mickey shorts emerged, the star mouse developed more defining morals and cultivated mannerisms. Earlier, this precedent hadn’t been established, and some of Mickey’s antics were less wholesome. There were also several tweaks in design and signature styles—like gloves and shoes.

Before long, Mickey Mouse had a whole slew of new friends added to the mix, many of whom started co-starring and then starring in their own shorts as well. Most notably, these friends included Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, Pluto, Daisy Duck, Clarabelle Cow, Horace Horsecollar, and several others.

Steamboat Willie
Credit: D23

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Colored Animation

Disney signed a two-year exclusive deal with Technicolor in 1932, which enabled them to utilize a new three-strip color film process to produce fuller-color reproductions on a much larger scale. Premiering this new colored film standard was Disney’s “Flowers and Trees” of the Silly Symphonies. All other segments in the series followed suit with the new Technicolor process too.

By 1935, Mickey Mouse black and white cartoons were a thing of the past, when these shorts and others featuring Mickey’s friends all switched over to color. Again, this was the new standard.

Silly Symphonies "Flowers and Trees"
Credit: D23

Breaking Into Feature Films

It wasn’t long before Disney cartoon movies started to emerge. Leading this revolutionary new move was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which was released in 1937. It was even the highest-grossing film of all time until Gone with the Wind overtook the title in 1939.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs opened the door to other animated full-length feature film releases in the following years, including Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942).

Up close clip of Snow White
Credit: Disney

Disney Princess Trends

Through the decades, Disney film productions have embraced many different character protagonists, including animals and children (Peter Pan, Mowgli, Alice). But one trend forever proving successful for the Company even today is its incorporation of Princesses. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs can again be credited as the trendsetter here, with Disney Princess-centered films in the following decades also garnering fandom, including Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959).

The trend has only continued into the Disney Renaissance Years and beyond. Over time, the requisite status for being a “Disney Princess” shifted to include other female Disney cartoon characters not necessarily of a particular royal association (either through birth or marital status). One excellent example here is the titular character of Mulan (1998/2020).

Disney Princesses taking selfie
Credit: Disney

Related: Fun Facts About Your Favorite Disney Princesses

The Disney Renaissance

Starting in the late 1980s and lasting throughout the 1990s, there was a Renaissance renewal of interest in Disney animation. This was the time when we got all those major blockbuster movies, like The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994). During this time, there was also a massive growth in cartoon television shows following the launch of the Disney Channel (1983).

Some of the most popular Disney 90s cartoons (and some from the 1980s) even featured beloved classic characters from previous Disney works of long ago with an all-new spin. Well-known examples here include DuckTales (1987), Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers (1989), Talespin (1990), Darkwing Duck (1991), Goof Troop (1992), Quack Pack (1996), and others.

Collage of various shows from the Disney Afternoon lineup
Credit: Disney

Partnering with Pixar

Before officially becoming a subsidiary of Walt Disney Studios in 2006, Pixar was initially a separate production studio. The first significant partnership between the two came in 1995 when Pixar released its first fully computer-animated feature-length film Toy Story for Disney. This led to Pixar signing a five-film deal for other computer-animated works in the coming years, including A Bug’s Life (1998), Toy Story 2 (1999), Monsters, Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003), and The Incredibles (2004).

"Toy Story" promo image
Credit: Disney Plus

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Shifts to Computer-Animation

For a time, traditional 2D hand-drawn cartoons existed side-by-side with the increasing number of 3D computer-animated works that were rising by the early 2000s. Plenty of other studios were already starting to utilize computer animation, and it was only a matter of time before Walt Disney Animation took a page from Pixar and got into the act as well.

In 2005 Disney produced Chicken Little as its first non-Pixar fully computer-animated movie. Meet the Robinsons followed in 2007. Later successes have included Wreck-It-Ralph (2012), Big Hero 6 (2014), Zootopia (2016), and Encanto (2021).

Even with newer computer-animated works proving lucrative, Disney still got some other traditional 2D works out before discontinuing the process. The Princess and the Frog (2009), for instance, even jumpstarted yet another Disney Princess revival interest that carried over into the 2010s, although all follow-up Princess films since have been computer-animated.

These primarily include Tangled (2010), Frozen (2013), and Moana (2016). Brave, released in 2012, marks Pixar’s first Disney Princess movie. Disney’s last 2D hand-drawn feature-length film came with the release of Winnie the Pooh in 2011.

Frustrated Tiana
Credit: Disney

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Further Developments in Disney Animation

Even though Disney has discontinued the production of traditional hand-drawn feature films, 2D animation hasn’t disappeared entirely from the Company. Throughout the 2010s and even now into the 2020s, various Disney Channel and Disney+ cartoons have been produced using a 2D animation format (sometimes flash animation or cutout method) more reminiscent and nostalgic of traditional Disney artistry.

Some examples include the newer Mickey Mouse shorts (2013 to 2019), Rapunzel’s Tangled Adventure (2017 to 2020), DuckTales (2017 to 2021), and The Wonderful World of Mickey Mouse (2020 to 2023). As of 2020, Disney Animation has also started releasing a series of experimental shorts for Disney+ called “Short Circuit” that rely on traditional hand-drawn animation.

One of the newest innovations in Disney Animation, though, is still in the works. It’s the new Disney film Wish, which is expected to be released in November 2023. The film will incorporate a new hybrid style that blends computer animation with traditional watercolor techniques.

The effect will present a nostalgic, more reminiscent look of classic Disney, which is fitting given the film’s tribute to that classic wishing star that inspired so many Disney dreams over the last century.

Photo from new movie "Wish"
Credit: Disney

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What’s your favorite animated Disney film or Disney animation style? Let us know in the comments.

in Entertainment, Movies, Movies & TV, Pixar, Television

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