If you’re like me, it can be lots of fun learning backstage stories behind the making of movies. But often as a fan it can be tricky to know where to find behind-the-scenes content. So many websites, podcasts, blogs, books… where to begin? How to know where all the good stuff is? For Disney specifically, there’s no shortage of documentation, and if you’re looking to learn more about Disney’s Golden Age, you’re in luck. As a refresher, the Golden Age is the first period of Disney’s feature animation slate, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942).
This era of Disney history is well documented and has plenty of resources for fans to dive into to complement their viewing experience. But before we dive into those resources, a bit of explaining.
About the Disney Canon
The resources listed below will hopefully be a delight to you no matter when you find yourself enjoying them, but they’ll have extra special meaning if perused within a Disney canon viewing.
A rite of passage among animation and Disney fans alike is partaking in a viewing of the entire Disney Animation canon — every film ever produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios, from 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs all the way through their most recent title, which at the time of this writing is 2019’s Frozen 2.
Whether you marathon it or stretch it out, go chronologically or out of order, or even choose to watch an isolated “Era” by itself without viewing any of the others for the time being, a canon viewing can provide even the most scholarly fans with newfound context and appreciation, much like reviewing a director’s filmography provides insight into their style as an auteur.
This article is meant to provide some fun resources for fans looking to sink their teeth into some truly insider’s knowledge. Like I said, you’ll learn a lot regardless of whether you’re setting out to watch the entire Disney animated library hereafter or not, but watching at least the five films of the Golden Age in order and then exploring these resources will amplify your appreciation.
About the Golden Age
It’s easy to forget that Walt Disney and his animators were pioneers of their art form. Most of us know that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first full-length animated film, but do we comprehend what that really means? There was no precedence. No reference. No formula. No rulebook. They literally defined what an animated film was.
Disney set the bar high for anyone to follow in their footsteps by approaching storytelling as artistic expression, both visually and narratively. This commitment to artistic devotion elevates everything within these five films in the Golden Age to be so much more than they would be without this intentionality. Dumbo is a perfect example. From a story perspective, it isn’t as grand or weighty as something like Snow White or Fantasia. It’s a relatively simple tale. Even still, the animators’ skill propels it to be a film whose every frame is.a work of art.
In viewing the five movies of the Golden Age in order recently, I especially discovered newfound appreciation for Bambi. I admittedly found it boring as a kid. Now, though, I feel like I could watch it over and over, particularly given the attention to detail of Tyrus Wong’s background paintings. They are spectacular. I wanted to pause every scene to study the landscapes. Truly a marvel of animation and a tour de force of storytelling, enjoying Bambi as an adult is a prime example of what I hoped I’d find in viewing the Disney canon together.
That being said, this was the first time I watched some of these films feeling strange about a few of their thematic choices. This was something I didn’t expect. While all five films in the Golden Age are undeniably classics and worthy of the legacy they’ve withheld for nearly an entire century now, there are certain points that set off a red flag in 2020. For example, it’s hard for me to be completely onboard with the dwarfs being enamored with Snow White’s romantic affairs and demanding a kiss as they leave for work. Meanwhile, the lead crow in Dumbo being named “Jim Crow” in reference to segregation laws is simply unfathomable.
I say this to say that revisiting some of the beloved movies from a time period that is now far removed from our present day may spark some unsettling revelations we didn’t realize were problematic as children. These movies, as special as they are, got a few things seriously backward. On the other end of the spectrum, though, rather than “canceling” these works of art, I think the better route is to have a healthy conversation acknowledging their rare missteps and learning how we can all contribute to being better.
What to Read
The Disney Treasures and The Disney Keepsakes by Robert Tieman
If there was ever a Disney History 101 class, these would be its textbooks. These coffee-table books are relatively short in length (60 pages each), but bountiful in content. Tieman, a manager of the Walt Disney Archives, provides an overview of nearly every project produced during Walt Disney’s lifetime. The Disney Treasures covers most of the tentpole classics while The Disney Keepsakes, as a follow-up volume, tracks the second string, if you will.
Snow White Art Books
As the movie that established Walt Disney Animation Studios as a feature-filmmaking force, Snow White has deservedly received an expansive amount of literature over the years. Among the most comprehensive are Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Art and Creation of Walt Disney’s Classic Animated Film and The Fairest One of All: The Making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Both are written by J.B. Kaufman. The former focuses on artwork and is more of a visual catalogue. The latter is a more thorough historical text. You can click on each title to read Morgan’s review!
Pinocchio Art Book
Likewise, Pinocchio has earned its place as a Disney masterpiece and has a lot of history behind its development. Pinocchio: The Making of an Epic by J.B. Kaufman is the definitive behind-the-scenes art book for the film. You can read Morgan’s full review here.
What to Watch
Platinum/Diamond/Signature Edition DVDs & Blu-rays
Snow White, Pinocchio, and Bambi were all given the deluxe home video treatment multiple times over the years, and if you own any given copy there’s a good chance it has a ton of bonus content to enjoy.
Hyperion Studio Tour
Hosted by 21st-century Disney and Pixar animation directors, this half-hour featurette offers a peek inside the Walt Disney Studios’ first home, its Hyperion residence. You’ll find this on Snow White Diamond or Signature editions, or under Snow White‘s “Extras” on Disney+.
The Reluctant Dragon
Not considered among the feature animation canon but still a full-length theatrical film released by Disney in 1941, this hybrid live-action/animated movie offers a tour of Disney’s upgraded digs, its official Burbank studio that still exists today. At the time, this campus was brand-new. This movie feels like a precursor in spirit to the Disneyland television series of the ’50s and ’60s, even showing a young(-ish) Walt Disney. It’s a comprehensive, if a bit air-brushed, look at what studio life was like during the time of the Golden Age. You’ll find The Reluctant Dragon on the Walt Disney Treasures: Behind the Scenes at the Walt Disney Studio DVD and also available on Disney+.
Vintage Short Films
The feature films of the Golden Age would not have been possible without the experimentation and practice of Disney animators in the form of short films. The Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony cartoons of the 1930s especially provide a nice background leading up to the Golden Age. You can find a handful of them easily on Disney+ in the “Disney Through the Decades” collection.
For added context, check out the Walt Disney Treasures DVDs if you can (not to be confused with the book mentioned earlier, The Disney Treasures). These collectible two-disc tin sets from the 2000s mostly highlight the animated short films from Disney’s early days. Any given volume provides excellent context for this time period, with film critic Leonard Maltin giving viewers an unprecedented glimpse not only at the making of whatever project he’s talking about, but also how it connected to the bigger picture of the Disney studio at the time and the Disney company’s legacy today. These sets, if you can get your hands on them, are fantastic primers for those yearning for Disney history.
Taking Flight: The Making of Dumbo
While Dumbo never received a lavish deluxe home video release like some of its Golden Age companions, it was fortunate enough to be the subject of this superb 29-minute mini-documentary. Not only does this go behind the scenes of Dumbo, but it does a great job at giving context to the film’s connection to its fellow Golden Age films. Of all of the “making-of” docs produced about this era’s films, this one does the best at tracking the significance of the entire era itself. You’ll find Taking Flight on Dumbo‘s 70th and 75th anniversary Blu-ray and DVD releases, as well as under Dumbo‘s “Extras” on Disney+.
American Experience: Walt Disney
This two-part, four-hour PBS documentary produced in 2015 tracks Walt Disney’s entire life, and of course the Golden Age was an important part of that. You can find the documentary as a rental on Amazon Video. (Bonus! We interviewed the director, Sarah Colt.)
Shameless Podcast Plug
We’d be remiss to not mention the episodes of Rotoscopers’ Animation Addicts Podcast that highlight some of these classic films.
- Episode 50: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
- Episode 93: Pinocchio
- Episode 146: Fantasia
- Episode 144: Dumbo
- Episode 128: Bambi
What’s your favorite film from Disney’s Golden Age? What would you recommend to learn more about these movies?