As we reach the end of Disney’s Golden Age, we enter one of the most contentious eras in Disney’s timeline, the Wartime Era. While most eras have people debating about which films go at the beginning or end, this era has people debating whether or not it’s even worth being included in Disney’s official canon at all.
As I said in my article on Disney’s Golden Age, some people want to include every film completed during Walt’s life as part of the Golden Age of Disney animation. However, they usually also want to completely disregard all the films created during the Wartime Era.
Yes, all the films created in this era are made up of several shorter pieces and, yes, many of these shorts are not up to the high standards that many people have set for Disney animation as a whole, but the Wartime Era is still an important part of Disney’s history and is still considered canon by the Walt Disney Company to this day.
The Wartime Era was born out of necessity, as there were a number of factors in play causing any work on feature length films to be suspended. As the name would suggest, these films were all created during World War II, which had already had a detrimental effect on the studio, not just because several animators had been drafted into the war, but also because the war caused the box office failure of over half of the films during the Golden Age.
After the success of Snow White, only Dumbo was able to turn a profit. As the war was centered heavily in European countries, those markets were completely cut off from foreign studios like Disney. Without the European market, Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi were all initially box office failures.
After the release and failure of Bambi, Bank of America would only loan Disney the money it needed to keep going if it temporarily restricted itself to the production of shorts. After that, the production of any full length features was suspended until after the war.
The other reason for stepping away from the production of feature films was that during the war, Disney was heavily involved in producing content for the US Army. From military training to civilian propaganda films, 95% of Disney’s animation in 1942 & ’43 was created for the military.
One of the biggest wartime projects was a series of Latin American themed shorts designed to promote goodwill between the United States, and Mexico, and South America. The government wanted these shorts to serve as a way to counter any Nazi propaganda that had been spread south of the border, and to ensure that both Americas would be united against the Axis powers. In order to create these shorts, Walt Disney and some of his top animators took a research trip to Mexico and many South American counties to study the cultures. The shorts resulting from this trip were later compiled into two features, Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros.
Following the production of war materials, Disney still wanted to create feature films. But, without the funding for feature length films, he decided to follow the same idea used to make Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros – except this time they weren’t using any of their war materials. For two of the films, Make Mine Music and Melody Time, they went a more Fantasia route, grouping together shorts mostly themed around music. These were not as high class as Fantasia, but it worked. For the other two, Fun and Fancy Free and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, they took two longer narrative shorts and packaged them as one feature length film.
While none of these films were runaway hits, and are to this day some of Disney’s least popular and least known films, they were enough to keep the struggling studio going during a very rough patch in their history. While they may not be considered masterpieces, there is some great content in these films and all are worth watching at least once.
Over the next three weeks we will be looking at the films from Disney’s Wartime Era. Come back tomorrow for the next installment of our Disney Canon Countdown, and the first film from the Wartime Era, Saludos Amigos!
Have you seen any films out of this little-known period of Disney’s history? Which Wartime Era film is your favorite?
Jonathan North is writer, photographer, video editor, and animation fan from Iowa. He studied advertising and design at Iowa State University, and also has degrees in multimedia and art. His favorite movie is Fantasia, and his favorite cartoon is Gravity Falls. Or maybe Steven Universe. He can’t decide. You can find more of his work on his blog, as well as his Podcast and YouTube channel, where he reviews animation, movies, TV, or whatever else his guests feel like talking about. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, @jonjnorth.