Disney's Animated Classic Children's Movies of the 1930s and 1940s

The Early Years, When Feature Animation Began

Dumbo Movie

From its first hand-painted films to today's computer-generated Pixar wonders, Disney has ruled the field of animation. While films animated by computer may be intensely beautiful and mind-bogglingly complex, there will never again be anything like the first Disney animated children's classics, lovingly drawn and painstaking assembled, cel by cel.

(A warning for parents who may not have seen these films in many years. Like most classic tales, they speak directly to fears of kidnapping, cruelty, violence and the deaths of children, parents, heroes and villains. Make sure your young ones are ready.)

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Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; - 1934

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Disney

Predicted to be “Disney’s folly” because of its long production time and astronomical cost, Snow White was the first full-length animated feature, and it became a monster hit. Glowing with color and filled with sumptuous 1930s visual detail, the movie also boasted catchy tunes and unforgettable characters in a classic folk tale (setting the Disney pattern for years to come). Small children may be frightened by Snow White’s terrified dash through the night forest, the menacing Wicked Queen and her poisoned apple, and Snow’s singing voice, high enough to crack her glass coffin. (Did I mention the queen sends a guy to cut out her heart?) Nevertheless, it’s a must-see for those who love classic animated films. Heigh-ho!

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Pinocchio; - 1940

Pinocchio. Disney

Acclaimed as a masterpiece among masterpieces, Pinocchio remains visually stunning and utterly entertaining. The story of a lonely woodcarver’s puppet who magically comes to life and wants to become a real boy is sweet, scary and ultimately uplifting. The good guys are adorable, the bad guys are either comically inept or truly evil and nature - in the form of Monstro the Whale - is beautiful and terrifying. A tremendous hit, with popular, hummable tunes and exquisitely detailed art. (Gepetto's carved mechanical clocks are amazing.) The movie was so influential that its characters, dialog, and creativity are embedded in the national consciousness. (May my nose grow two feet if I’m fibbing. Jiminy Cricket!)

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Fantasia; - 1940

Fantasia. Disney

Nothing like the sentimental folk tales that preceded it, Disney’s third animated feature was an experimental effort to popularize classical music. Wildly creative, magnificent in scope and concept, and occasionally a touch boring with its plodding narration, the hugely expensive film did not at first make money. Over time, Fantasia grew in popularity, especially when the counter-culture of the 1960s recognized that it was nothing short of trippy, and all kinds of people wanted to see it -- many of them stoned. Fantasia is a series of eight choreographed classic compositions, including Mickey Mouse as the ‘Sorceror’s Apprentice,’ a satanic ‘Night on Bald Mountain,’ and those graceful hippos in tutus in the ‘Dance of the Hours.’

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Dumbo - 1941

Dumbo. Disney

Dumbo was intended to make up for the losses of Fantasia and to re-establish Disney’s role as the provider of sweet, sentimental animated films for children. It worked. Based not on a fairy tale but instead a popular children’s book, Dumbo is the tale of a circus elephant baby with gigantic ears, laughed at by the other elephants but loved by his mother. When his mother gets angry at cruel children taunting her baby, she’s locked away from him, and Dumbo gets the most humiliating jobs in the circus -- until he and his friend Timothy Mouse discover that his huge ears allow him to fly. A guaranteed tear-jerker with a happy ending.

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Bambi; - 1943

Bambi. Disney

The last of the truly great early Disney animated films, Bambi is the story of a fawn growing to adulthood amid the dangers and joys of the forest, haunted by an unseen villain: man. Disney directed Bambi's animators to base their characters on real animals, and while they’re still anthropomorphized, the effect is magical. It's sweet and silly, but also full of danger and tragic loss. Renowned for its art direction, Bambi's high points are breathtaking, and its silly sequences forgivable if not downright charming. “Twitterpation” never did catch on as a noun describing the adolescent yearnings, thank goodness. Yuck. (Important tip: Despite the names of countless doe-eyed cheerleaders who came after him, Bambi is actually a boy deer.)