Evolution of Animation: Part Three – Emergence of Features

Contrary to popular belief, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is not the first feature-length animated film. That honour goes to an Argentinian film from 1917 called El Apostol (The Apostle). In fact, Argentina is somewhat of a ‘ground zero’ for feature-length animation, as the first four such films were produced in the country. Sadly, all four of these early examples of the genre are now lost, meaning we may never see these historically significant films ever again.

Snow White can’t lay claim to being the oldest surviving feature either, not by a long shot actually, as said film pre-dates Disney’s feature debut by over a decade, the film being a German production called The Adventures of Prince Achmed which utilised a silhouette style of animation, achieved by manipulating cutouts and thin sheets of lead under a camera.

There would be several more features before we end up with the film many falsely claim as being the oldest feature, but there is one claim that can be accurately made about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and that is that it was the first feature-length animation to be presented in Technicolor (it’s also the first feature film animated on ‘cels’ what is now considered the traditional way of animation) but no amount of bells and whistles was going to convince Walt Disney’s critics that Snow White would be anything more than an embarrassing flop.

In the defence of said critics; their arguments weren’t without merit. With a budget of $250,000, the film was already ten times more expensive than an average Silly Symphonies short, and that was before the cost of the film started spiralling out of control. In the end, the film wound up costing $1,488,422.74 an almost unheard amount in 1937, a budget inflation that required Walt to mortgage his house to pay for.

So, with Walt’s studio, reputation, and home, on the line, there was some trepidation around the film, to put it lightly, and looking back in hindsight, it’s the kind of thing that was going to make or break the industry as a whole. If the film was a success, then other studios would go down the feature route, and create a fertile breeding ground for animation as a whole; whereas, if the film were to flop, not only would Disney go down with the ship, but so to could the entire sector. Disney was even then the biggest animation studio in the Western world, its influence still massively far-reaching, had Snow White not been a success, the domino effect would have been catastrophic.

Luckily for animation and the world at large, Snow White was a success and a massive one at that. It premiered to an audience consisting of many people who were quick to dismiss it a few months prior, this very same audience would give the film a standing ovation. Mass press coverage would follow this, including an appearance by Walt and the titular Dwarfs on the cover of Time magazine, buoyed by glowing critical reviews, the film was riding a wave of positivity that would see it become a cultural phenomenon.

It wasn’t just the critics who fell in love with Snow White and her charms; the film was a hit with audiences too. After its wide release in January of 1938, the film would go on to earn four times more money than any film released that year, and its success was not exclusive to the United States either, playing for unprecedented periods of time in overseas (overseas for the film, that is) markets such as Australia and the UK, during its run in London, for instance, the film grossed more than it did during its exclusive opening engagement at Radio City Music Hall in New York, with box office receipts exceeding $500,000 in London.

After all was said and done during its initial theatrical release, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had earned over well over $10 million, and became the most successful sound film released up to that point (it would soon lose this honour to 1940’s Gone With the Wind) after facing criticism and mockery in the run-up to release, Walt Disney well and truly had the last laugh.

With future re-releases and restorations, Snow White’s lifetime gross now stands at a staggering $418 million, a number which Walt could not have possibly imagined in his wildest fantasies, one which would have been unthinkable in 1937, when many were writing the film off as an ego-driven pet project.

The film was significant in several other major ways too, all of which have remained a cornerstone of Disney’s business ever since, that of merchandising. Snow White was the first feature film whose merchandise was released prior to the movie, meaning we have this film to thank for the now common practice of the heavily-hyped merchandise launch that we see for big franchises such as the MCU or Star Wars. Given how much money Disney rakes in for merchandise alone, I’d say the studio has a lot to thank its first feature for.

It also pioneered the concept of having a hit song as part of the film. When you think of Disney, its soundtracks are one of the first things that come to mind. Indeed, this is another aspect in which this film broke the mould, as prior to its release, a soundtrack was deemed to be of little value to move studios; it was only after the success of such songs as ‘Whistle While You Work’ and ‘Heigh-Ho’ that studios began to realise the potential of music in film, in much the same way this film proved the worth of feature-length animation, it also proved the worth of a films soundtrack.

Given the financial and critical success of Snow White, it seemed inevitable that more studios would follow suit with feature-length production, and that was proven to be the case with the 1939 release of the Fleischer Studios adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels.

To say that Fleischer Studios were merely copying Disney’s approach would be unfair to studio namesake Max Fleischer, who had wanted to make an animated feature since 1934, with his distributor Paramount baulking at the idea due to financial concerns (the studio had already needed a bankruptcy reorganisation) but it was Paramount who, after seeing the phenomenal success of Disney’s masterpiece, ordered a film for the Christmas 1939 release period.

This created problems for the Fleischer Studios, it is fair to say. Not only did this only give them 18 months to develop and produce the film, but the studio was in the midst of moving its operations from New York to Miami, Florida. In contrast, Snow White had taken three years to go from idea to fully-fledged film.

As a result of this very narrow production window, time took precedence over quality, and deadlines were pushed to the limit, to the extent of Paramount almost pulling the plug on the project altogether.

Nonetheless, despite overworked staff and overstretched deadlines, Fleischer delivered Gulliver’s Travels on time for Paramount’s projected Christmas release window, and although it lacked the brand recognition that Disney had built for his feature debut, it was still a success, despite it attracting inevitable comparisons with Snow White.

Despite the success of the film (it earned $3.27 million in its initial US theatrical run) it was the start of a downward financial spiral for Fleischer. The studio that had brought us such characters as Popeye and Betty Boop were already stretched following the ruthless production of Travels, and despite the film making profits worldwide, Paramount still levied a $350,000 penalty to the studio for going over budget, this would hasten the financial difficulties that would see Fleischer Studios sold to Paramount in their entirety after a second feature Mr Bug Goes to Town failed to recoup its losses in 1941.

After these early successes laid the groundwork for what could be achieved with feature-length animated movies, Disney and many other studios were poised to take this new direction and run with it; but a dark spectre laid on the horizon, one which would change the face of the world, and bring with it new hardships. The world was poised on the brink of war, and animation was going to be on the front line.

Coming up in Part Four: The Second World War and Propaganda. Disney takes aim, Private Snafu enlists, and the world finds out just how important animation can be as a tool of war.

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