The first time in my life I ever cried watching a movie, it was a Disney movie: The Lion King. You know which scene I’m talking about. But the interesting thing is that I didn’t cry the first time I watched it. My family owned that film on VHS so I watched it multiple times. Then one day during a random rewatch, long after I had memorized the plot and could sing along to all the songs and practically recite all the film’s dialogue, it just finally hit me, after the wildebeest stampede ended and Simba tried to wake up his dad, my eyes were watery. You have to remember this had never happened to me while watching a movie before! It wasn’t the first time I had been emotionally invested in a fictional story but it may have been the first time the emotional investment actually moved me to tears! Of course I was a kid so at first I laughed it off while rhetorically asking my brother “Why do I have tears in my eyes?” I was either ignoring or denying the fact that the movie had made me sad, probably because it was embarrassing to admit, or maybe I just couldn’t fathom the situation, but there was no denying it had a huge effect on me, and it speaks to the storytelling skills of the filmmakers because I was a person who never cried during movies, let alone because of a cartoon lion. Incidentally as an adult who has become more comfortable expressing emotions, all I have to do is just think of that score by Hans Zimmer and I will instantly get teary-eyed.
This goes back to the studio’s foundational principle. Disney’s ability to make you feel genuine emotion for animated characters is one of the studio’s biggest claims to fame in the animation and film industry. Steamboat Willie (1928) was a nice calling card for Disney’s innovative spirit thanks to its use of sound but it was during the 1930s when Disney finally mastered personality animation and ambitious storytelling so well that they were able to not only get laughs out of audiences but also invite empathy, which was on a whole other artistic level next to most animation studios at the time, and that was probably a big reason why Disney’s Silly Symphonies often got the most critical acclaim and Oscar attention.
Standing out from the crowd was in Walt Disney’s nature as a producer. The Silly Symphony cartoon The Old Mill (1937) was basically a mood piece with less emphasis on gags than the average Hollywood cartoon and more emphasis on artistic expression and evoking feelings. An idea expanded upon in Fantasia (1940), a film which was the ultimate example of how ambitious Walt Disney was and his desire for animation to be taken more seriously. Until that movie, dinosaur battles on screen that were meant to be dramatic were relegated to films like The Lost World and King Kong, while hand-drawn animated dinosaurs got their long necks tied in a knot by Daffy Duck. That was literally the state of the animation industry at the time Fantasia came out, so that T-Rex/Stegosaurus battle in the “Rite of Spring” segment pushed the envelope in ways modern viewers don’t realize.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) famously made audiences cry when Snow White was poisoned by the apple, not so much because they didn’t know the film would end happily ever after but because the filmmakers did such a good job selling the character as a loveable person and selling the despair of the Dwarfs who cried at her funeral. From that point forward, characters who felt real and could evoke real emotion were the standard at Disney, often aided by heartfelt music like in Dumbo (1941) during the “Baby Mine” sequence, and brilliant direction like the minute-long scene in Bambi (1942) between the moment Bambi’s mom died and the moment Bambi realizes that his mom had died.
Other Disney films with scenes that I thought did a good job evoking feelings of sadness from me personally include Cinderella (1950), Old Yeller (1957), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993), Tarzan (1999), and if you include Pixar movies, Toy Story 2 (1999), Finding Nemo (2003) and Coco (2017), so the studio’s legacy for heartfelt storytelling remains strong, and eternal props to all the artists behind these films who do more than enough to keep that tradition alive to this day, because it’s one of my favorite things about Disney movies. Now I have to end this article because it’s time for me to cry over Mufasa’s death for the hundredth time.