Once Upon a Time: The Mouse Made It to 100

Banner The Mouse Made It To 100
Banner The Mouse Made It To 100

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“It was all started by a mouse” is a saying that most have heard at some point in their lives. Famously said by Walt Disney, this famous line has gone on to be an excellent and apt description for the Disney company’s colossal success. Disney’s creation and ownership of the celebrated Mickey Mouse as intellectual property (IP) was the start of it all—cementing its name in the world of animated films and imaginative storytelling. In celebration of the famed Disney studio’s centennial anniversary this year, let us take a look back at some of the legendary studio’s influence and breakthroughs.

The Centenarian Birthday Celebration

For its most recent milestone, simply named “Disney 100”, Disney released a tributary and celebratory short film. The Disney 100 short film titled Once Upon a Studio, is a nostalgic journey through the vast and colourful tapestry of Disney’s animation legacy. The short film acts as an anthology, showcasing many of the diverse animation characters that Disney has created for the scene, effectively encapsulating the magic, charm, and creativity that have made Disney a household name in the world of entertainment. From the early yet iconic classics like Mickey Mouse and Princess Belle, to the more recent and visually stunning characters like Elsa from Frozen or Moana from Moana, the short film spans decades of Disney’s animation evolution.

Beginning at the Roy E. Disney animation building, the 12-minute film’s premise is, true to the studio’s imaginative vision, rather whimsical—the 543 characters come “alive” after the Disney staff, named “Imagineers”, leave the office for the day. Assembling in front of the building for a once-in-a-lifetime picture, the camera itself is clumsily set up by Goofy. Providing viewers with a captivating reunion of well-loved Disney characters, the film is enjoyable for viewers of all ages and lets one witness the evolution of animation techniques and Disney’s storytelling legacy.

Spanning across more than 85 feature-length and short films in Disney’s legacy, this tributary short film was one that I enjoyed. I grew up watching various Disney movies such as Tangled, Lilo and Stitch, and Robin Hood, making Disney a big part of my formative years and childhood; seeing some of the oldest characters interact with newer ones in High Definition (HD) animation had me feeling somewhat emotional towards the end of the short. The film seemed a lot like a passage through time because of the shuffled line-up of characters and intentional preservation of the difference in animation styles between older and newer movies. The studio’s choice to include characters from lesser-known (or otherwise underperforming) pictures like Prep & Landing, and those from more popular or awarded films, felt like a subtle nod towards the journey that Disney has gone through, acting as a love letter to animation as a whole. In particular, I adored their choice to have both two-dimensional (2D) and three-dimensional (3D) animated characters. Including traditional hand-drawn animation for older pictures like Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs and Winnie The Pooh instead of re-animating them with modern computer-generated imagery (CGI) gave audiences like myself a chance to relive some of our favourite Disney characters in their most organic form and in a new story. Clearly, this was also an effective way to trigger nostalgia for older viewers while showcasing and cementing the studio’s 100-year legacy and evolution. 

Once Upon a Studio is a nostalgic rollercoaster of Disney magic. As the characters come to life, one cannot help but smile. There are multiple scene-stealing performances by the brooms from Fantasia, and even the dalmatians from One Hundred and One Dalmatians get in on the action. The short film also acknowledges the creator of the franchise, making it a semi-tearjerker; Mickey looks over at a photograph of Walt Disney and thanks him in a touching moment. Having a medley of Disney characters, voiced by returning original voice actors, and having it all end in the iconic rendition of “When You Wish Upon A Star ” partly sung by Jiminy Cricket who sung the song first, is bound to make one reminisce about their growing up years. 

A Throwback To The First Milestone

On the topic of animation, from the groundbreaking use of synchronised sound in the early years to the more recent experiments with 3D animation, Disney has consistently pushed the boundaries of what is possible in animation. The debut eight minute film of Disney, Steamboat Willie, introduced synchronised sound to the medium, which was previously notably a silent one. Disney spearheaded and led the way to develop methods to synchronise music, dialogue speeches and sounds with on-screen animation. In some sense, we could say that the Disney company has elevated animation from a simple medium to a performative, artistic production piece. Its subsequent landmark animation piece Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which premiered in 1937, was a high-risk gamble for the Disney brothers; Walt notoriously took out a mortgage on his house to finance the adapted film’s production. Luckily for the brothers, the film was critically acclaimed and went on to become one of the studio’s most well-loved classics. A pivotal moment for both the Disney studios and the world of animation, the film initiated an era of animated feature films including Peter Pan and Fantasia, going on to further cement Disney’s name as a trailblazer, and a formidable competitor for other studios in Hollywood. 

Disney Nostalgia

It is common for Disney shows to be a topic of conversation for friends in their adolescence and adults who are reminiscing their youth. For most, because Disney has a strong foundation in the world of entertainment for families and children alike, the company is synonymous with nostalgia. Recognising the influence of television for the entertainment industry, Disney created a network of different channels that cater to different age groups, namely Disney Junior, Disney Channel and Disney XD, the company has fundamentally created a Disney culture for multiple generations of viewers. By having different channels for specific target age groups (for example, Disney Junior for ages seven and below, Disney XD for ages six to fourteen), Disney has struck a chord with many of its audiences, possibly creating a deep sense of nostalgia for most. It is especially so, since a fraction of Disney’s shows progress alongside its audience: sequels after sequels of shows allow viewers to grow up watching the same series, becoming deeply familiar and attached with both the characters and the story itself. Disney’s high profile shows carved out a niche in television shows and launched its cast into stardom—stars like Zac Efron, Zendaya and Selena Gomez had their careers started from the Disney franchise shows, having gained immense popularity first through the Disney viewership crowd. Moreover, because of Disney’s lasting legacy, one would likely experience Disney films and shows, then watch their own children watch those same shows years later, creating a rather specific sense of connection with the timeless and enchanting world of Disney. 

Growth Of The Heroic Empire

A more relatable and memorable milestone in Disney’s development into the colossus that it is now would be its ownership of one of Hollywood’s biggest superhero empires, Marvel Entertainment. 

Disney has always dabbled with whimsical and fantastical characters that are largely based on a combination of fairy tales and imagination—but in the recent decade, the company has been continually expanding its reach in the world of production, distribution and filmmaking. While the Disney studios had never invented cool superheroes like Marvel’s “Iron Man” or “Captain America”, its purchase and subsequent IP ownership of an impressive collection of superheroes has allowed it to cement its reputation in the world of superheroes. Under Disney’s current Chief Executive officer (CEO) Robert Iger, the company has built an incredible collection of characters: beginning with Pixar in the early 2000s, its purchase of Marvel Entertainment has grown its portfolio by a staggering margin. Paired with Disney’s gradual shift to more inclusive works and meeting modern expectations for informative, engaging films, Disney’s assembly of superhero characters allowed it the opportunity to create groundbreaking narratives. Marvel’s Black Panther featured a rarely seen cast: nearly all are black. Not only that, the film also included an almost all ethnically Black cast and crew, and Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first Black director. 

Until its release, Hollywood had hardly seen films starring almost only Black cast; its race- and gender-conscious casting and costuming were critically acclaimed in all aspects—starring a significant number of Black women in powerful and engaging roles. This was emphasised again with costuming that reflects the film’s syncretism: beaded uniforms which feature beading in the Maasai and Turkana traditions. Disney and Marvel went on to create an interconnected universe of superhero blockbusters that became one of the pivotal and trademark films of Marvel Studios, granting both the studio and its parent company Disney bragging rights in terms of notability and earning power.

The Magic Will Last

Disney, as a company, has done plenty across these last 100 years and it is more than likely that the films they created left a mark on one of us. The franchise could have been one of the first films one was introduced to or it was something one stumbled upon on television growing up, but either way, hearing the beginning notes of “When You Wish Upon A Star” would probably throw one into a spiral of nostalgia. While the studio’s animations and blockbusters might be less popular and resonant as we grow older, it will, perhaps, remain as a timeless influence for generations to come, and the Disney magic will last.