Classic Disney Animated Movies of the 1950s

Princesses, Peter Pan and Pound Puppies


The 1950s marked the transition from the early Disney masterpieces to a greater focus on fairy tales, and the full emergence of the ​Disney princesses, who would figure in animated musical adventures and relentless marketing from then on.

The ongoing process of “Disneyfication” in the ‘50s meant less darkness and violence and lots more cutesy, but there’s still plenty of plot lines to frighten younger kids. For my money, nothing matches the glory of the final film of the decade, Sleeping Beauty, a visually stunning piece with the best villainess ever to grace the animated screen.

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Cinderella; 1950

Cinderella. Disney

A sweet and faithful telling of the fairy tale, Cinderella features pretty animation and adorable talking mice. Cinderella herself is a little blah, and the songs aren’t nearly up to the standard set by the earlier Snow White, but it’s a perfectly respectable animated feature. The bad stepmother is nicely nasty, the evil sisters ditto, and the animal companions, a must in Disney fare, are charming. And who can resist a pumpkin coach drawn by white mice horses? Nevertheless, I prefer the live-action charm – and far better music – of the 1965 Rodgers and Hammerstein made-for-TV production with Lesley Anne-Warren.

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‘Alice in Wonderland’ - 1951

Alice was a favorite tale for Walt Disney himself, and he considered several different versions combining live action and animation before settling on this fully animated film. The studio made the decision not to follow the look of the famously detailed illustrations from the Lewis Carrol books, but to create a simpler world of bright colors and movement. A nonsensical, trippy series of entertaining vignettes, the movie was a box office disappointment when it was released. But like Fantasia before it, Alice became popular during the psychedelic era of the ‘60s, and retains fans today. Not my favorite, but not a complete waste of time.

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‘Peter Pan’ - 1953

Peter Pan
Peter Pan. Disney

Disneyfied, the James M. Barrie play loses some of its whimsy and a little of its darker tones, but it’s still a lovely adventure. Fairy Tinkerbell, played by a shaft of light in stage productions, is a bit on the curvaceous side here, and although traditionally played by a woman on stage, Disney’s Peter Pan is all boy. Peter and the stalwart Darling family children are menaced by the effete Captain Hook and the ticking crocodile, rescue lovely Indian maiden Tiger Lily (leading to the unfortunate “What Makes the Red Man Red” musical number, ouch), and generally have a marvelous time until it’s time to leave Neverland and grow up. A box office smash, it was the last film overseen by all of Disney’s “Nine Old Men” animators.

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‘Lady and the Tramp’ - 1955

Lady and the Tramp
Lady and the Tramp. Disney

The critics didn’t like it, claiming the animation was below par, but audiences went wild for this charming movie about a purebred cocker spaniel and her romance with a streetwise mutt. The movie is populated with a cast of pampered mutts with collars and tags and their ragged street counterparts, plus a pair of trouble-causing Siamese cats. Chanteuse Peggy Lee voices one of the mutts and has some great songs, and the story is just plain adorable. Who can forget the romantic scene over a plate of spaghetti? This crowd-pleaser, no fairy tale, grew out of drawings one of the Disney animators did of his own cocker spaniel, Lady.

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‘Sleeping Beauty' - 1959

Sleeping Beauty
Sleeping Beauty. Disney

Nine years in the making and the last Disney classic to be wholly hand-inked, Sleeping Beauty is head and shoulders the standout of the decade. The final film personally supervised by Walt Disney himself, it had a different look, with more complex, artful drawings and compelling characters. Princess Beauty does indeed sleep for most of the movie, but her nemesis Maleficent is wonderfully evil, with her horned headdress and pale green skin. Did I mention she turns into a huge, fire-breathing, green-and-purple dragon? Hot. The good fairies can get a little annoying for the adults, but with a lovely score based on Tchaikovsky’s ballet and beautifully detailed drawings, it's is a gorgeous fairy-tale from beginning to end.