This lesson did not go unremarked by the young
Walt Disney, then working at his Laugh-O-gram Films studio in Kansas City, Missouri. His first major character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, was a straightforward appropriation of Felix; when he lost the rights to the character in a dispute with his distributor, Disney simply modified Oswald’s ears and produced Mickey Mouse.
Far more revolutionary was Disney’s decision to create a cartoon with the novelty of synchronized sound.
(1928), Mickey’s third film, took the country by storm. A missing element—sound—had been added to animation, making the Steamboat Willie illusion of life that much more complete, that much more magical. Later, Disney would add carefully synchronized music ( , 1929), three-strip The Skeleton Dance Technicolor ( Flowers and Trees, 1932), and the illusion of depth with his multiplane camera ( The Old Mill, 1937). With each step, Disney seemed to come closer to a perfect naturalism, a painterly realism that suggested academic paintings of the 19th century. Disney’s resident technical wizard was Ub Iwerks, a childhood friend who followed Disney to Hollywood and was instrumental in the creation of the multiplane camera and the synchronization techniques that made the Mickey Mouse cartoons and the Silly Symphonies series seem so robust and fully dimensional.
For Disney, the final step was, of course,
(1937). Although not the first animated feature, it was the first to use up-to-the-minute techniques and the first to receive a wide, Hollywood-style release. Instead of amusing his audience with talking mice and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs singing cows, Disney was determined to give them as profound a dramatic experience as the medium would allow; he reached into his own troubled childhood to interpret this rich fable of parental abandonment, sibling rivalry, and the onrush of adult passion. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs lobby card Lobby card for the 1937 motion picture Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. © 1937 Walt Disney Pictures. All rights reserved.
With his increasing insistence on photographic realism in films such as
(1940), Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1941), and Dumbo (1942), Disney perversely seemed to be trying to put himself out of business by imitating life too well. That was not the temptation followed by Disney’s chief rivals in the 1930s, all of whom came to specialize in their own kind of stylized Bambi mayhem. Fantasia A lobby card featuring a scene from the “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment in Fantasia (1940). © The Walt Disney Company