Watching Disney’s earliest movies for the first time

I watched the earliest Disney movies recently. I was curious from the historical perspective, particularly after having read the excellent biography of Walt Disney by Neal Gabler. I’m about to spoil these movies, but you’ve had eight decades to watch them.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937): Walt’s labor of love, and a movie with massive cross-generational appeal when it was released. The animation is indeed superb, but I couldn’t get into the story, perhaps because Snow White never really triumphs at all. The last thing she chooses to do is bite into the poison apple. She doesn’t save herself. She never defeats the evil queen.

There’s really no reason for the queen’s failure. What are the odds that lightning would strike at exactly that wrong spot at exactly that wrong time? Or that seven dwarfs would want to look at a dead girl for several months instead of burying her? Or that Prince Charming would want to kiss a girl who’s been dead for that long? Some evil queens have all the worst luck.

Pinocchio (1940): This movie was far less successful during its initial release, but I found it to be more interesting than its predecessor. It’s incredibly dark at times. That Pleasure Island scene is a horror movie within a children’s movie. All those boys turn into donkeys and never turn back. They clearly know what they’ve become and retain the knowledge of who they were, but it’s too late, and they’re sold to perform slave labor for the rest of their lives. The movie has multiple villains, and none are brought to justice. As Pinocchio gets his happy ending, they’re all still out there, looking for their next victims. All I could think of was the catchphrase of Melisandre from Game of Thrones: “The night is dark and full of terrors.”

And let’s not overlook Pinocchio’s death. He dies even more thoroughly than Snow White did. Though he can breathe at the bottom of the ocean, he’s evidently unable to breathe at the top, so he drowns to his death. We see him face-down in the water, dead. He’s eventually reborn better than ever, of course, but he has to literally die to become a real boy.

Earlier, we also see him getting high off a cigar. This movie pulls no punches. The kids of the ’40s were a hardy lot, and adults clearly didn’t bother hiding the fact that the night is dark and full of terrors.

Fantasia (1940): The perfect movie to have on in the background as you’re doing something else. Though an interesting experiment, it’s no wonder the format never caught on, and it’s no surprise that the best segment is the one with the strongest narrative. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is excellent. The rest varies.

Dumbo (1941): Dumbo is an even more passive protagonist than Snow White (if you can even call either of them protagonists). Other characters shun and humiliate him, and he just takes it. His mother sticks up for him, and she gets locked up for it. His mouse friend hypnotizes the ringleader into giving him a chance, but Dumbo is too hesitant to properly seize the opportunity given to him.

Poor Dumbo is trapped in a downward spiral until he accidentally drinks a lot of alcohol and wakes up in a tree, leading to the realization that he can fly. Then, like Spider-Man before Uncle Ben’s murder, Dumbo uses his super-power to pursue fame and fortune. The End.

It’s an odd movie. Pinocchio’s journey had a clear purpose—to teach kids life lessons through metaphor (and perhaps scare them straight). Cigars nearly make a jackass out of Pinocchio. Alcohol leads Dumbo to a breakthrough of self-discovery. The message is supposed to be about believing in yourself, but there had to be better ways to get there.

Also, Disney+ warns that the movie “may contain outdated cultural depictions.” “May”? Are they on the fence about the roustabouts and crows?