If The Walt Disney Company was built on the foundation of short films like Steamboat Willie and Three Little Pigs, feature films are what have sustained the company for so long.
Back in the 1930s when Walt Disney and his crew were making the first American animated feature film in history Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, even some Mickey Mouse fans thought the idea of a full-length animated movie was a disastrous idea. To this day animation is a medium that has never really gotten the full respect that live action gets, but back then many people thought something as fanciful and silly as an animated cartoon could not be taken seriously enough to retain the attention of an audience for the runtime of a feature film (people said movies with color and sound would never catch on either). But the artistic triumph, box office dominance and continuous popularity of Snow White not only opened the door for animation and its possibilities as an artform for animators and filmmakers everywhere, but it can also be attributed to all the things that people love most about Disney films: good characters, a good story and good music, plus elements that have proven timeless throughout history like singing princesses, hilarious gags, good ultimately triumphing over evil and a good time at the movies that both kids and adults can enjoy.
Disney constantly pushed the envelope in the years following Snow White, with Pinocchio telling a story that was a lot more dark, action-packed and ambitious and Bambi more grounded in reality and dealing with themes like death. Not to mention the wildly experimental Fantasia which dared to alienate Snow White fans further with its radical concept of a feature-length animated concert. Of course after World War II cut off the European market, Pinocchio, Bambi and Fantasia all failed at the box office despite receiving a lot of critical acclaim, which forced Disney to stay afloat on cheaper package features like Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, Melody Time and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.
Live action was also cheaper to produce than animation so in the 1940s you had live-action animated hybrids like Song of the South and So Dear to My Heart, and by 1950, they made live-action films with no animation, the first being Treasure Island. Although the fantasy and adventure-based Disney films like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Darby O’Gill and the Little People and Swiss Family Robinson eventually took less precedence than the wacky comedies that rose to dominance in the sixties, largely due to the box office success of The Shaggy Dog in 1959. Disney actually had a lot of successful comedies in the sixties, like The Absent-Minded Professor, The Parent Trap, That Darn Cat! and The Love Bug, so family-friendly comedy has always been a consistent trademark of Walt Disney Pictures ever since.
The slow period for animation in the forties led to a rebound in 1950 with the hugely successful Cinderella, the first full-length animated feature film from Disney since 1942, and that return to basics was followed by the box office success of Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp that same decade. However, the high production costs and underperformance of the beautifully produced but narratively stiff Sleeping Beauty in 1959 led to Disney losing money for the first time since the forties, which led to massive lay-offs and films in the 1960s and 1970s that were produced a lot more cheaply. Although the money-saving techniques and recycled animation of this era was noticeable to the trained eyes of Disney fans, the films were still excellent, and films like One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book were some of the most successful Hollywood films released in the sixties, with financial success continuing to follow Disney into the seventies with The Aristocats, Robin Hood and The Rescuers as well, despite those films typically being put in a lower echelon among the Disney Animated Canon.
While the early eighties had many success stories that made a lasting impact at the company like Tron, Epcot and Disney Channel, this was a particularly dark period for the animation department and even people working inside the company said Disney Animation lost its creative spark. But during the troubled production of The Black Cauldron, which many call the studio’s low point, many things began to take shape that would ultimately elevate Disney out of their hole by the 1990s, including the shake-up of former Paramount president turned Disney CEO Michael Eisner, the introduction of Disney films aimed at adults released under the banner of Touchstone Pictures (which would bring Disney success with films like Splash, Good Morning Vietnam, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Pretty Woman and The Nightmare Before Christmas) and most significantly the dawn of an animation renaissance led by the CalArts generation of Disney animators who gave the studio new life with one hit film after the other. The Little Mermaid in particular revived the long dormant concept of the princess fairy tale musical, with that movie’s huge success leading to a winning streak in the nineties of similar musicals like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan and Tarzan (the huge success of these movies on VHS led to many straight-to-video sequels too, a trend continuing into the following decade that was emblematic of the downside of the Eisner era).
While the 2000s saw a few hit films like Lilo & Stitch and Pirates of the Caribbean, that decade was overall lackluster for Disney movies both financially and artistically (Pixar aside), which was a big part of the reason why Michael Eisner was ousted as CEO in 2005 and replaced by former ABC president Bob Iger. Following that decade and five years into the Iger era, Disney made films that were a lot more well-received by the public, including Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which led to a steady string of remakes of animated Disney films, as well as popular new animated films like Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6, Zootopia, Moana and Encanto.
These films still stand on the shoulders of Snow White, the film that not only popularized animated features across the world but showed the cinematic power and everlasting appeal of animation as a medium. So in addition to being the bedrock of Disney as a company, it is the bedrock of many animation studios, and the ripple effect it caused ultimately helped the animation industry mature and evolve, which is another major reason why Disney is the animation studio I revere the most.