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Disney’s First Five: A Look At The Earliest Feature Films From The House of Mouse

clawssaucers-1-1After you have a kid, you find yourself revisiting kids’ movies that you haven’t seen in 30, 35, or in my case sometimes 40 years.

As my kid grew from toddlerhood into childhood, I reluctantly revisited classic Disney features one by one, and I was pleasantly surprised to find them much better – that is, at once more sophisticated and less sentimental – than I remembered them.

So, for this column I thought I’d rank Disney’s first five feature-length films, with a few comments on each.

Of course these are all well known films, but revisiting them as a parent gave me some new perspectives and new appreciation that I wanted to share.

FANTASIA (1940)

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Here’s the only one of the First Five that everyone admits is flawed.  The animated episodes themselves are great, but the talky live-action interludes are tedious.

There is no re-watchability to the interludes.  After having seen them once, you simply skip over them anytime you return to the film.  Disney clearly meant well, but the condescending (if friendly) tone of the narrators during the interludes has not aged well.

Luckily, every animated episode is wonderful, and it’s hard to pick a favorite.  The “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment was a brilliant way to revitalize Mickey Mouse, who had recently been eclipsed by Donald Duck in popularity.

The “Rites of Spring” segment brilliantly opens not with the dinosaurs – but with the microorganisms that evolved into the dinosaurs over the millennia.

My favorite is the “Pastoral Symphony” episode, blending drama, sensuality, and action within a spirit of innocent play.  I was delighted to find that my kid (at age six) also favored this episode, though he was more into Zeus and the lightning bolts than those cute female centaurs.

 

PINOCCHIO (1940)

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I remember seeing this in the theater (in the 1970s) and being very scared by the Pleasure Island episode, where the bad boys are transformed into donkeys.  My own son, watching the movie for the first time at age seven, had to avert his eyes.

It’s the most moralistic of the First Five, and yet the morals grow naturally from the story and the characters rather than being imposed upon them (or upon us).

It’s also nice how Jiminy Cricket – not Pinocchio – might be the main character.  In a Disney film, small size usually means large intellect – and large heart.

 

SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1938)

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It’s almost shocking how much action and tragedy is packed into Disney’s first feature film, which is also the first feature-length animated film in color.

This film veers close to horror in the startling scene when the beautiful queen transforms herself into the hideous hag.  You can see her body parts transforming on screen.  Again, my son (at age seven) had to avert his eyes.

Snow White herself is almost too good to be true (which is why I don’t rank this film higher), but it’s a sad soul indeed that doesn’t fall in love with her.

Also striking is how much of the film passes without dialogue – how much is conveyed only through the animated characters in their dances, squabbles, or routines.

DUMBO (1941)

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If it’s remarkable how much of Snow White passes without dialogue, it’s even more remarkable that Dumbo himself never speaks a word.

I expected to find Dumbo a sentimental or immature sort of kiddie flick, but I was surprised at all the street-wise banter spoken by Timothy Mouse (like Jiminy Cricket, small on the outside but big on the inside) and at the very bizarre trippy drunken dream after Dumbo unwittingly quaffs a tub of alcohol.

My kid at age six hid his eyes when that weird eye appeared toward the end of the alcohol dream.  Now at age nine (as I write this) he keeps asking to see that part again.

BAMBI (1942)

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Not only is Bambi the best of Disney’s First Five, it’s the best of all Disney animated features – and one of the best American films of the 20th century.

Without sentimentality, without simplism, Bambi depicts an entire life cycle – a “circle of life” that would be depicted successfully again in The Lion King.  Most people remember Bambi himself as a naïve fawn, but for half the picture he’s a teenager or even an adult.

The most common criticism – that the film is too harsh for kids because Bambi’s mother dies – is understandable.  But we shouldn’t shelter children from life’s hardships or life’s complexities; we should introduce such things to children slowly and clearly.  Bambi is a perfect way to do this.

Remember also that Bambi is harshly attacked by dogs late in the film.  Of course Bambi survives, but even with a happy ending, the film clearly suggests that nature – and society – can be cruel as often as kind.

Bambi is rich in other ways as well, such as with an extended silent opening that takes us deep within a forest, a wilderness without people, the type of untamed land that Walt Disney hoped would endure in our world forever.

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