Disney Animated Film Eras

Fantasia Leopold Stokowski Mickey Mouse animatedfilmreviews.filminspector.com
The Director thanks Mickey Mouse.

Unofficial "Eras" of the Disney Animated Feature films

It is instructive to track Walt Disney animated films by the "era" or "age" in which they lie. The Disney Eras are important, as we will show below. There is a complete list of every Disney era at the bottom of this page, with links to our reviews of each film. The list moves from the "Golden Age" to the "Package Era," thence to the "Silver Age" and then the "Bronze/Dark Age." More recently, there was the famous "Disney Renaissance" of the 1990s, then the "Post-Renaissance Era" and finally the "Disney Revival," the most recent.

Disney brothers with their wives and mother on the day they opened their studio in 1923.

What Is an Era

Walt Disney Animation Studios under its various names (original name: Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio) has gone through many defined cycles, which we term "eras." These cycles were often, but not always, caused by outside events such as wars and changes in society at large. Sometimes, the studio just paused to catch its breath - or temporarily lost its grip. Things happened, people retired, new people were hired, exciting companies with new ideas were acquired, the inspiration came and went in recognizable flows.
Genius is a pretty bird that flies around an empty room featuring an open window - sometimes it flies out, and we are left alone, bereft of its amiable company. And other times, to our delight, the bird unexpectedly finds its way back in again. But you can't capture the bird whenever you want to, for it flies in and out of its own accord.

Primary Causes for Era Changes

I'm not just being poetic with that metaphor: the creative core at the studio means everything in terms of what gets done. John Lasseter has said that during his first stint at Disney in the early 1980s, the studio had, due to retirements of the top talent and the immense seniority of the remnants, degenerated into the hands of "B-animators" who were what remained of the old-timers after the famous "Nine Wise Men" had retired. Now, Lasseter may have personal reasons for denigrating his bosses from those days, but you often can find a common thread among Disney eras by looking at who is making creative decisions when something else more obvious (war, recession) isn't present. People make the difference: you may have a good team today, but lose a few (sometimes unknown) movers and shakers for one reason or another, and everything can "inexplicably" turn sour.

Another factor in changing cycles is corporate culture. Throughout Disney's existence, there has been tension between the creative and corporate sides. Who should decide the scope of animated projects and their associated costs and scheduling (because they are all related and all extremely important)? Both sides are necessary for Disney to thrive, but the balance is delicate. The issue reached a recent peak during the production of "The Emperor's New Groove" (2000). At that point, the executives appeared to prevail when the creative types wanted to expand that project into a grandiose spectacle. Results were mixed after the intended serious epic turned into a slapstick comedy. Thing is, the neutered result still made the studio money and led to a fun tv series - so, who is to say the executives were wrong? The grand epic could have cost a fortune and lost money - or been another "Frozen." We'll never know.

It is, of course, popular for audiences dazzled by Disney animation skills to side with the creative types. However, the executives always have ample reason to worry about letting animators run wild. At least twice before in Disney's history, after the initial financial failures of "Pinnochio" in the 1940s and "Sleeping Beauty" and "Babes in Toyland" in 1959/1961, the studio had been near failure despite prior triumphs ("Well, I guess Disney just doesn't know how to make musicals," Walt is claimed to have uttered in horror after screening "Babes"). Bad times are far from ancient history: "The Black Cauldron," a wildly creative '80s throw of the dice which foreshadowed the wildly successful "Lord of the Ring" films of the 2000s, had produced the nadir of the "Dark Ages" downturn.

Roy Disney and the Post-Renaissance Funk

Disney Animated Film Eras animatedfilmreviews.filminspector.com
Roy E. Disney's father was Walt's brother, the one who basically financed Walt's early career and made the studio possible. Roy held roughly 1% of Disney shares and was on the board of directors until he resigned in 2003. He was not the "bad guy," but he also wasn't always right and caused a lot of turmoil at the company.
Studio executives remember the "bad times" and where they can lead if not addressed promptly, and if they don't, Disney's (NYSE: DIS) shareholders are happy to remind them at every March annual meeting. What happens is that pressures erupt in one area and the executives must relieve them in another: even as "Groove" was in production, Roy Disney was still dawdling along with his "Fantasia 2000" homage, having spent almost an entire decade wrapping up a sequel that shouldn't have been too difficult to piece together in a few years (it was just a collection of classical music videos that Walt could put together in a couple of years, how tough could it have been?). The frustrated executives watching the "Groove" empire-building may have figured that their job was to act as good shepherds, herding along with the animator sheep who had grown too big for their britches during the Renaissance years and now took charge to try to lead the herd. While nobody could say "No!" to Roy Disney while he was working on the "Fantasia 2000" monument to Walt, other projects were more vulnerable. At the time, it may have seemed to the executives like trying to herd cats, and the animators, well, we won't talk about what they were thinking. The creative types don't appreciate those kinds of pressures. A lot of hard feelings resulted. A lot.

To illustrate just how bad it was, after "Fantasia 2000" flopped, Michael Eisner picked a fight with Roy E. Disney - or perhaps it was the other way around, it really doesn't matter now. One could read into this a belated reaction to Roy's shaky oversight of "Fantasia 2000" which may have been perfectly appropriately, but Roy had one key trump card: his last name (this brings to mind what Henry Ford II said to Lee Iacocca: "my name is on the building"). Roy dramatically resigned from the board of directors in 2003 with a scathing letter that called the company "rapacious and soulless", adding that he considered it to be "always looking for the quick buck." He took his beef to the Internet with his provocative new website SaveDisney.com. In a fight between a Disney and a non-Disney within the Disney world, the non-Disney is bound to lose. Eisner had to resign in 2005 due to a variety of factors, with the fact that the Disney family had turned on him a key factor.

All this took a lot out of the company because hard feelings at the top inevitably filter down to the minions. It is only natural that they make judgments on who is right or wrong and take sides based on rumor, conjecture, reputation, self-preservation, ambition and scant real information. The tone of a company's culture is set at the top, and during the Disney/Eisner fight, it was horrible. This board fight was one of the key factors underlying the Post-Renaissance period funk, where suddenly nothing seemed to go right. It is no coincidence that Disney revived shortly after Eisner left and everything settled down.

Too much or too little restraint definitely hurts creativity. An erratic focus on the bottom line may have contributed to the end of the "Renaissance" period and the beginning of the "Post-Renaissance" era, which perhaps not so coincidentally happened right around the time of "Groove" (too much restraint?) and the absolute aimlessness of the "Fantasia 2000" project (too little restraint). More recently, with the acquisition of Pixar and procedures put in place at Disney by its new ex-Pixar chief Lasseter, the pendulum has swung hard toward the creative side. This has contributed to the "Disney Revival" era exemplified by "Frozen." This is an illustration of internal personnel changes causing a change in eras. But what happens if the creative types start feeling they should be calling the shots and expanding their slapstick comedy projects into "Gone With The Wind"? The pendulum might swing too far again.

The Names of Eras Have Significance

Needless to say, no other animation studio has anything remotely similar to Disney's lengthy history. Comparing, say, the 20-year history of DreamWorks Animation (a stellar company headed by a former Disney chief) to that of Disney's 90 years is like comparing the United States to the Roman Republic/Empire. The former has lasted 200+ years, the latter was around for 1000+ years (2000 if you include its direct successor state, the Byzantine Empire). Time alone, with its unpredictable vagaries and the corporation's responses, makes the Disney experience instructive. Thus, Disney's history is an invaluable resource for learning purposes by other companies, which inevitably are going to face the same sorts of fluctuating tensions and challenges (if they last that long).

The names of the different ages are important because they say something fundamental about that group of films. The "Golden Age" films showed the young Disney animators at their breakthrough best; the "Silver Age" films were the mature ("silver-haired") Disney animators again churning out a high-quality product. The Silver Age was more a continuation from the previous Golden Age than anything dramatically exceeding or expanding upon it, but, since it did not enlarge the boundaries of the art form with a breakthrough such as "Snow White," its success was of a different character. It also saw some minor degradation of quality in the interest of cost-cutting: for instance, the xerographic process introduced with "One Hundred and One Dalmations" in 1961 was perhaps necessary for the studio's survival, and Walt ultimately came to accept it, but it made the brilliant hand-drawn features look slightly more cartoonish. There were some layoffs of skilled animators during the period as a result of such cost-control measures.

The "Bronze Age" or as some might call it the "Dark Age" that followed the Silver Age saw Disney with its top talent gradually leaving and the studio finding it difficult for a variety of reasons to replace it. For some, the Bronze/Dark Age is the most interesting because it shows an empire in temporary decline, with the stories often "dark" (exemplified by "The Black Cauldron") and the often elderly animators still showing flashes of the old Silver Age brilliance but a distinct paucity of inventiveness ("The Fox and the Hound" was a beautiful trifle).

The other era names pretty much speak for themselves. The "Disney Renaissance" saw the studio return to its original focus under Walt Disney. Indeed, "The Little Mermaid" itself was an abandoned project from the Golden Age. The "Post-Renaissance" displayed the difficulty of maintaining the genius and commercial success the studio achieved during the 1990s, with creativity tailing off again. It represented another creative regrouping of the studio after an incredibly fertile period of creativity, like the moribund "Package Era" of the 1940s and the Bronze/Dark Age.

The Disney Revival

One could argue that the influx of Pixar people beginning in 2006 snapped Disney out of the Post-Renaissance malaise, or maybe they just showed up at the right time. The fact is, the people coming and going make all the difference: the death of Walt Disney himself augured the end of the "Silver Age" upon the release of the final animated feature film he personally oversaw, "The Jungle Book." Stuff happens, the studio deals, people leave for one reason or another, new people are hired for other reasons, and an era changes.

We're going with the former proximal cause, that the influx of Pixar people to Disney caused the change in Disney eras. Coincidences are coincidences, but that's simply too big of one. When you boil it all down, though, the Disney Revival was due to an unlikely cause:  Computer-Generated Imagery ("CGI"). However, CGI was an indirect cause: Pixar was the more direct one. It pays to go through this in some detail because this sequence of events is at the core of today's animation industry and represents an epochal upheaval in the industry.

Pixar began in 1979 as the Graphics Group, part of the computer division of Lucasfilm. Thus, there is a "Star Wars" connection there. Pixar was spun-out from Lucasfilm as its own corporation in 1986 with funding by Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs, who became Pixar's majority shareholder. Originally just a special effects firm, Pixar eventually began making entire films itself.

At first, Pixar was just another gamble by the creative Steve Jobs. Jobs was a computer guy at heart, and he had an entire team of software engineers on staff for other reasons (he was trying to come up with a computer to beat IBM and Microsoft with his new company NeXT). Somehow, Jobs' team developed the best animation software in the industry (Disney was in the midst of its hand-drawn Renaissance and was looking the other way), and Pixar somewhere along the line came up with the idea of putting out entire animated feature films on its own (while Jobs' entire computer-building scheme failed miserably). The film business is tough, but the public loved Pixar's bright, exciting, funny films. Disney happily agreed to distribute Pixar's films under an agreement that Pixar executives (primarily Jobs) later thought was entirely too advantageous to Disney. As a new company with no track record, though, Pixar had little choice and, truth be told, was probably delighted at the time to have Disney's assistance.

The Disney/Pixar arrangement was complex. Pixar created and produced its films, while Disney handled all marketing and distribution. The costs and profits were split 50-50, which was only fair. So far, so good. The kicker, though, was that Disney also exclusively gained ownership of all story and sequel rights of Pixar films. Now, Pixar never had made any sequels and didn't have any plans to ("Cars," after the merger, later changed all that). Disney was having a difficult enough time making quality sequels to its own classic films and had no plans to make any for Pixar's films. But it was the very idea of Disney owning some of its work product that gradually (in light of its bonanza success) caused resentment at Pixar, though everyone abided by the terms of their agreements for as long as they lasted.

The wildly positive public reception of Pixar's films, though, shook Disney to its core. Then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner saw that Disney, despite its own epic '90s success, had drifted off the rails. Lulled by success, which had been built on the class Disney old-time tradition of hand-drawn fairytales, Disney had allowed itself to be replaced by Pixar as the gold standard of animation. Suddenly it was Pixar, not Disney, whose every release was now a major news event eagerly awaited by children and adults. Eisner correctly deduced that Pixar had captured the Zeitgeist and understood what the people wanted better than Disney did: bright, bouncy CGI. The problem for Disney was again figuring out what the people wanted and how to create that itself because somewhere along the line it had lost track of that. There was no way that Disney was going to allow itself to devolve into a mere distribution company for Pixar.

After studying the matter, Disney's first decision was to finally get out of hand-drawn animation altogether and move fully to CGI. Disney was no stranger to CGI: it had been experimenting with and using CGI in its films for 20 years. Disney was an industry pioneer in CGI from as far back as the 1980s with CGI scenes in "The Black Cauldron" and "The Great Mouse Detective." In fact, Disney's CGI experience went back even farther than that: Disney designed the A.C.E.S. (Automated Camera Effects System), as well as the Mattescan system, for "The Black Hole," a semi-successful 1979 live-action film starring Ernest Borgnine. "The Black Hole" for the first time allowed the film camera to move over a matte background painting and a computer-controlled modeling stand, creating embryonic CGI. "The Black Hole" had an opening credits sequence that featured the longest computer graphics shot in the industry at that time, including George Lucas' "Star Wars," a film that had taken CGI to the next level. All this Disney development, incidentally, was due to Lucas not giving Disney access to his "Star Wars" special effects technology under agreeable terms, so you see how these companies have long histories of playing off each other in multiple ways (and, of course, Disney ultimately bought Lucasfilm entirely, but that was much later).

Which, incidentally, is not to slight Pixar's own pioneering status in CGI. Edwin Catmull was the Chief Technical Officer of Pixar when it made "Toy Story," and his involvement with CGI went back even further than Disney's. CGI evolved out of research done at Bell Telephone Laboratories in the 1960s, and the cutting edge technology apparently was first used in the Yul Brynner science fiction film "Futureworld" (1976). Catmull, then a University of Utah graduate student, contributed a CGI sequence of his left hand to that film. He later wound up at Lucasfilm around the time of "The Black Hole." So, if there is a handful (sorry about that) of people in the business responsible for CGI in film, Catmull is one of them. That's why he's now president of Walt Disney Animation Studios, DisneyToon Studios, and Pixar Animation Studios.

Anyway, the bottom line is that despite Pixar's achievements, Disney knew all about CGI long before Pixar made its first film, even if some of Pixar's people also were pioneers in the art (you can see how incestuous and complicated and murky this stuff gets). If not for the game-changing success of "The Little Mermaid," Disney might have continued moving steadily in the CGI direction and beat Pixar to the punch. However, the truth is that the fairytales of the Disney Renaissance looked best in classic hand-drawn animation except for certain minor scenes where CGI solved some problems. So, CGI development at Disney had languished (though still used here and there to great effect throughout the Renaissance, for instance in the classic ballroom dancing scene in 1991's "Beauty and the Beast").

Pixar, not weighed down with Disney's reliance on hand-drawn animation, saw the CGI opportunity beckoning. It wisely approached the CGI problem from the graphics side of the equation, not the animation side, designing their film product around the best graphics software possible rather than vice versa as Disney was doing. Pixar thus cleaned Disney's clock with "Toy Story" and subsequent films, completely substituting hand-drawn cels for computer ones and creating entirely new audience-friendly stories that fit the CGI technology best. It did this rather than take the usual animation approach of relying on established fairytales that looked just fine with traditional animation and working CGI in haphazardly, as Disney was doing. So, the Pixar advantage was both technical and thematic.

Parenthetically, for those with a computer industry historical bent, and without getting into any arguments with pro-Apple people on this (there was a major court case won by Apple on this topic), the CGI issue was extremely reminiscent of Jobs' appropriation of the computer mouse (that had been largely developed by others) for Apple's computers in the late 1970s. Xerox had developed that technology but then practically abandoned it (Xerox itself originally had taken over that fledgling mouse technology from others, a key reason why they lost their court case). Whatever else anyone may say about him, Steve Jobs knew an opening created by others when he saw one. He saw an opening with CGI, or maybe just Catmull did - but someone at Pixar saw it.

By the early 2000s, as the supply of well-known fairytales ran low and the Renaissance ran out of gas, Disney realized it had dropped the ball. Holding his breath and counting to ten because the entire Disney empire had been built on hand-drawn animation, Eisner began the process of making the painful (costly) transition to CGI. Better late than never! Unfortunately, it takes several years to work up an entire animated feature film, so everybody had to wait to see if the grand experiment would work. The 2004 Roseanne Barr comedy "Home on the Range" was the first Disney film to attempt to copy Pixar and create the majority of scenes with CGI. The film was not a success, the animation looking anything but bright and cheery. However, it was a start - and just in the nick of time for Disney, too.

Staying the course and crossing their fingers, the Disney studio bosses in 2005 released the children's tale "Chicken Little," the first Disney animated feature film completely made with CGI. If "Chicken Little" hadn't featured Don Knotts in his final film role, likely nobody would have gone to see it. As it was, the critics hated it, but the film did make a little money. Emboldened, the studio produced the more ambitious CGI science fiction feature "Meet the Robinsons" in 2007. Despite regaining some ground with the official critics, the real critics - the audience - was unimpressed: the film did poorly at the box office.

Clearly, switching completely to CGI was not nearly as easy as Pixar was making it look with its seemingly endless string of epic CGI hits. It wasn't just a technical problem, but a matter of adapting stories to make the best use of technology.

As unrewarding as it may have been, the work on "Chicken Little" and "Meet the Robinsons" was vital to what happened next. Those films proved that while Disney certainly could benefit from Pixar's formula for success, Disney wasn't completely helpless in the CGI arena, either. Pixar's executives, meanwhile, were all too aware of the dirty secret behind their own success, that Pixar had relied completely upon Disney's irreplaceable marketing network for distribution. Without that network, spanning countries around the world, Pixar would not have made nearly as much money that fed the machine that made the hits. This marketing advantage built up since the 1930s gave Disney much-needed power in the relationship, power which it knew might slip out of its grasp over time, but power nonetheless. Pixar, meanwhile, knew after "Chicken Little" that Disney could, in the long run, figure out CGI and regain the industry lead. As John Maynard Keynes noted, though, in the long run, we're all dead, so it behooved everyone to figure out a way to maximize everyone's success. Disney had to take advantage of the situation quickly or it might lose its place as the industry animation leader forever to Pixar, while Pixar knew that Disney could conquer CGI and might regain its audience - heck, Disney practically had invented CGI!

Since Pixar had the technology and Disney had the theaters, with neither able to quickly overcome its deficit, it was time for a deal. Fortuitously, their contract expired in 2004. Rather than do another contract on poorer terms, Disney simply slit the Gordian Knot and purchased Pixar for $7.4 billion in 2006, making Steve Jobs even richer and, weirdly, also turning him into Disney's largest stockholder (now his widow). Money talks. As part of the deal, Disney appointed Pixar executives Edwin Catmull and John Lasseter as, respectively, President and Chief Creative Officer of Disney Animation, where they remain to this day. Pixar remained a semi-independent entity under Disney overlordship, still cranking out its own films.

There's your catalyst for the change in eras from Post-Renaissance to Disney Revival - not the merger itself, but the influx of Pixar creative types who knew how to implement the new CGI technology in a way that audiences loved.

Catmull and Lasseter went to work, and Disney's first CGI feature made after the Pixar acquisition, "Bolt," was released in 2008. It succeeded like Disney films of old and Pixar films of, er, new. Thus began the "Disney Revival," with the success of "Bolt." That led directly to "Frozen," the biggest animation feature film success of all time for Disney.

Does Disney Recognize the Eras?

Naturally, Disney is not going to go out of its way to demarcate official eras such as the "Dark Age." That would be bad for business, for it would suggest that many entire swathes of films were from "weak" eras that people should avoid. These are unofficial divisions, but that doesn't mean they are just idle gossip. The eras are extremely useful for organizing the seeming chaos of Disney's extensive list of films and if such would be the objective, memorizing them. You only have to remember the era names, then that should jog your memory as to what films are in them. A proper organization is very important.

Each of the eras has practical aspects. Even Disney occasionally will refer to something as being from the "Golden Age" of animation and so forth. The divisions are undeniably arbitrary - "Fantasia 2000" and "Dinosaur" would fit quite comfortably in the "Disney Renaissance" era, and Disney's rebound into the "Renaissance" era arguably began with the golden success of Vincent Price in "The Great Mouse Detective" (though the cartoony nature of "Mouse" does comport more with the Bronze Age films like "Robin Hood"). Some films within the time frame of one era inarguably do belong in another: "The Rescuers Down Under" is probably the most glaring example, being a quintessentially Bronze Age sequel to another Bronze Age product that only by sheer chance of timing wound up within the Renaissance. However, with eras in place, we are only quibbling over individual cases, not looking at a list of 50+ films and scratching our heads in confusion.

There are some oddballs in the film list that are undeniably tough to categorize. "Fantasia 2000" was in production for virtually the entire Disney Renaissance, but took so long to shove out the door after an aimless production and did so relatively poorly after all the deliberation and last-minute revisions that it justifiably drifted into the 2000s "Post-Renaissance" funk period instead. "The Aristocats" in 1970 had the same headline voice actor as "The Jungle Book" and essentially the same creative team. The studio wanted so badly for it to prolong the brilliant Silver Age that it even featured "Jungle Book" characters in the advertising of "The Aristocats," a film in which those characters didn't even appear. However, times had changed, the Silver Age book had closed with Walt's passing and the mounting tragedy of the Vietnam War, and it couldn't be re-opened. The Bronze Age slump had begun, just as surely as the Summer of Love had turned into the Summer of Kent State.

If we could disregard time frames and just look at films' similarities, this would be a completely different list with easy choices to make. "Fantasia 2000" was a sequel to "Fantasia" and thus belongs in the lineage of that film, "Make Mine Music" and "Fun and Fancy Free," which also were "Fantasia" sequels. We also could move the 1991 "The Rescuers Down Under" into the Bronze/Dark Age, since it was a sequel to the best Bronze Age film, "The Rescuers." There are many other similar cases.

However, an era is an era, a finite period of time. That is one rule that must be respected to make any sense of this "era" business at all. Thus, if we did move "The Rescuers Down Under" back to the Bronze Age,  we would have to take with it "The Little Mermaid," which preceded it. "Mermaid" initiated the Disney Renaissance's brilliant return to classical fairytales and was a true turning point. Moving it to another era would make no sense at all. If one of those two films must be out of place, it will be "The Rescuers Down Under," which did not break new ground and was kind of an after-thought anyway (but I'm a big Bob Newhart fan, so I'm glad they made it, regardless of when it was released).

These throwbacks and foreshadowers in eras do serve to highlight the organic and sometimes clunky process of change within the larger dynamic. It's not as though somebody throws a light switch or rings a bell when a new direction presents itself. The animators grope their way toward waxing or waning cycles of creativity, storylines, and agendas. If the studio had known that "The Little Mermaid" would turn out the lights on the Bronze Age, it never would have made "The Rescuers Down Under" at all. It is trial and error and responding to what the public wants, and that is a messy, imprecise business.

What Age are We in Now?

Oh, that's an easy one, I can see you thinking: I know that one! We're in the Disney Revival!

Let's think about that.

These "ages" do not become apparent until after the fact. When you are in a "Golden" age, you never think it will end - but every era ends, good and bad. As discussed, times change, the studio's success changes, the personnel changes, the orientation of the movies change, popular mores change, the internal corporate culture mutates, wars come and go. Some combination of fluidity in those areas creates a change of era. So, looking at recent films and so forth, we leap to the conclusion that we positively, definitely are in the success-laden Disney Revival, exemplified by "Frozen."

Or are we?

Actually, we don't know. The Disney Revival may already be over, capped (or replaced) by the extraordinary success of "Frozen," just as the successful "The Jungle Book" capped the Silver Age. Did an animator in 1969 know that the Silver Age was gone forever? Hardly. Or one in 2001 realize that the Renaissance good times had flown out the window? Definitely not, unless they were psychic. Perhaps we're in a new era already, and I have a potential handy new name ready in case we are: the Frozen Era. Too early to say that, though. We won't know for years what era we are in during a specific point in time until we've all had time to think about and see what directions Disney's post-Frozen films took. The Disney Revival may have ended with "Frozen 2," it's too early to say.

Looking at Disney's schedule of coming releases, incidentally, the odds of an era change after "Frozen" are actually pretty good. But let's not go there until the films are out and discussed.

To summarize, the final two eras I have listed below - the "Post-Renaissance" and "Disney Revival" - are still somewhat tentative, but they make sense. I've been hearing those years matched with those phrases more and more, so we'll go with them. Thank you to whoever commented on this and prodded me along to make that change, along with other helpful comments. I appreciate input like that and try to be responsive, and suggestions usually have a lot of merits. The objective is to get this right, not to be right.

The wild success of "Frozen" appears to have cemented the "Disney Revival" era in the public mind, and that's really what counts - the fans. Every generation of Disney movie-goers wants to have its own era, and what's wrong with that? "Frozen" is a high point for the studio, the crest of a wave, and perhaps the surge is still building - or just ended. Stay tuned - Disney always has more surprises in store.


What we present below are the generally accepted era divisions. We may quibble about exactly which films belong in them all we want, but at least the eras themselves have structural coherence.

The Golden Age 

Brilliant Classic fairytales.
Disney Animated Film Eras animatedfilmreviews.filminspector.com

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs 1937
Pinocchio 1940
Fantasia 1940
Dumbo 1941
Bambi 1942

The Package Era 

War-affected films containing segments.
Disney Animated Film Eras animatedfilmreviews.filminspector.com

Saludos Amigos 1942
The Three Caballeros 1944
Make Mine Music 1946
Fun and Fancy Free 1947
Melody Time 1948
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad 1949

The Silver Age

A return to technical brilliance, without extending it.
Disney Animated Film Eras animatedfilmreviews.filminspector.com

Cinderella 1950
Alice in Wonderland 1951
Peter Pan 1953
Lady and the Tramp 1955
Sleeping Beauty 1959
One Hundred and One Dalmations 1961
The Sword in the Stone 1963
The Jungle Book 1967

The Bronze "Dark" Age

A creative Deadzone.
Disney Animated Film Eras animatedfilmreviews.filminspector.com

Bronze Age I

The Aristocats 1970
Robin Hood1973
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh 1977
The Rescuers 1977

Dark Age

The Fox and the Hound 1981
The Black Cauldron 1985

Bronze Age II

The Great Mouse Detective 1986
Oliver & Company 1988

The Disney Renaissance

A Return to Lost Fairytale Glory.
Disney Animated Film Eras animatedfilmreviews.filminspector.com
The Rescuers Down Under 1990
Beauty and the Beast 1991
Aladdin 1992
The Lion King 1994
Pocahontas 1995
The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1996
Hercules 1997
Mulan 1998
Tarzan 1999


Creative Funk.
Disney Animated Film Eras animatedfilmreviews.filminspector.com

Fantasia 2000 1999
Dinosaur 2000
The Emperor's New Groove 2000
Atlantis: The Lost Empire 2001
Lilo & Stich 2002
Treasure Planet 2002
Brother Bear 2003
Home on the Range 2004
Chicken Little 2005
Meet the Robinsons 2007

Disney Revival

Expanding the Empire.
Disney Animated Film Eras animatedfilmreviews.filminspector.com

Bolt 2008
The Princess and the Frog 2009
Tangled 2010
Winnie the Pooh 2011
Wreck-It Ralph 2012
Frozen 2013
Big Hero 6 2014
Zootopia 2016
Moana 2016

We may be nearing the end of an era, stay tuned.



  1. I think the current era is now being referred to as the Disney Revival and spans from Princess and the Frog to today.

    Fantasia 2000-Bolt film I've seen labeled simply as the Post-Reniassance Films.

    Other than that though, you are spot on.

  2. The bronze age u r talking about is more regarded as Dark Age for its luster animation and gloomy atmosphere. There r some bad storytelling as well, but there r forgotten gems

  3. I would break the "Bronze/Dark Age" into three eras. Aristocats-Rescuers as the "First Bronze Age". These movies were at least mildly successful at the time and became the "classics" that 90s kids like myself watched in addition to the Renaissance movies. Then Hound-Cauldron would be the "Dark Age". I know it is only two movies, but that span of 5 years was rock bottom for Disney and almost the end of the animation studio. That's a starkly different feel than Aristocats-Rescuers. Then I would call Mouse-Oliver as the second Bronze Age. Again, a short period of time (which you could add Mermaid too, though the Renaissance is already so well established), but it was a return to the success of Aristocats-Rescuers (very different from fox and cauldron) and the foundation for the renaissance. The only other comment I have is that I include Bolt in the Revival. It was successful both critically and financially and the second movie released after the start of the Lasseter regime. Of course, as you said this is all arbitrary! I appreciate your organization of these eras. It is nice to have a way to refer to everything.

  4. Seeing The Aristocats, The Rescuers, and Robin Hood on the "Dark Age" list hurts my childhood a little.

  5. Well, it's not that we're trying to say that they carried the plague or anything. They were fine films, the best animation of their time. It is simply when you look at them as a group that you see a period of darker themes and a lack of a larger overriding theme such as existed during the more princess-y eras during as the Silver Age and the Renaissance. "The Rescuers" with Bob Newhart is terrific, so are the other films, we're just identifying them as being from a time when the studio itself was having some issues and some of that was reflected on the screen.

  6. This is a great article. Who is the author?

  7. I am flattered. I am the author. You will not find this anywhere else unless it was copied from here.

  8. Amazing article. Several times I tried to explain this when commenting about Disney's production, but without the whole "eras" knowledge, it can be a little difficult. Learned a lot today.

  9. I would break the Silver Age, Disney Renaissance, and Post-Renaissance into two eras. Silver Era: Cinderella-Beauty as the "Second Golden Age". These films were in the princess-y era. Then, Dalmatians-Jungle would be "Silver Era". One Hundred and One Dalmatians is arguably the beginning of the Bronze Age since the production company got in trouble after Sleeping Beauty was produced and things got darker afterwards. Disney Renaissance: Mermaid-Lion as "Disney Renaissance". These films revived the Disney studio. Pocahontas-Tarzan as "Second Silver Era". These films were not as successful as the previous films. Post-Renaissance: Fantasia-Chicken as "Second Dark Age" if you move Bolt into Post-Renaissance otherwise Fantasia-Range. Robisons-Bolt as "Experimental Era" otherwise "Chicken-Robinsons". This was a foundation of the Disney Revival.

    1. Those are top-notch suggestions, Evan. The tail end of what we now have as the Renaissance in particular probably deserves its own category, as "Tarzan" and "Hercules" really don't have a lot to with with "King" and "Aladdin." We'll give that some time to settle in, see if others agree. Thanks for the contribution!

    2. I would also break up the Second Disney Dark Age into three eras. The first would be Fantasia-Dinosaur as the first experimental era. I know it is two movies and a year long but the first movie's successor was originally called "The Concert Feature" but luckily they changed it to "Fantasia" and Dinosaur was not part of the Disney Animated Features Cannon till 2008. and Groove-Chicken as the Second Dark Age. Most of these films were box office failures making it possible for Disney to end. The third would be the second experimental era. These films were the first to be released after Disney bought PIXAR.

    3. I forgot to add that the third era in the Second Disney Dark Age would include Robinson-Bolt.

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