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Kira Wanandi / Gavel Media

100 Years of Disney: A Century of Innovation, Evolution, and Imagination

This past week, Disney celebrated 100 years of Disney Animation Studios and took the opportunity to reflect on all its accomplishments over the last century. 

Walt Disney Corporation is a powerhouse of a company, worth over $100 billion, with businesses in film, entertainment, theme parks, travel, and much more. But before Disney was the mass media company we know today, it began as a small animation studio in Los Angeles, California, owned by two brothers, Roy and Walt Disney. They began by making short animated films but soon released the first U.S.-based feature-length animated film, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” in 1937. 

As a part of the Disney100 celebration, the animation studio returned to its roots and released a short film, “Once Upon a Studio,'' which brought together hundreds of animated Disney characters from the last century to honor the studio’s legacy. More than 40 voice actors, from Paige O’Hara, who voiced Belle in the original Beauty and the Beast, to Jeremy Irons, who voiced Scar from The Lion King, reprised their original roles for the film.

The film begins after a day of work at Walt Disney Studios. Once all the employees leave for the day, Mickey and Minnie Mouse jump out of a picture on the wall and come to life before gathering the rest of the characters to take a 100th-anniversary studio portrait. 

“Once Upon a Studio'' offers a unique opportunity for interaction between characters from different universes and periods. For example, in one scene, Kristoff from Frozen comes across the Dalmatian puppies from 101 Dalmatians watching Fantasia, and he promptly calls them to join the others for the photo. 

The film also relied on archival audio to bring back the late Robin Willams’ character Genie from Aladdin. With permission from his estate, the creators used outtakes from the original recording and found bites that could be used in the film. 

As a means to preserve the integrity of each character and capitalize on the nostalgic feel of the film, animators used a variety of art styles including computer graphics, traditional 2-D animation, and live-action. “It needed to feel [true to character] so the audience's response would be visceral. We used our animation research library, where we pulled out model sheets for the animators to work from,” said producer Bradford Simonsen. 

One of the final moments of the film, which featured the first Disney princess Snow White standing with the newest Disney princess Asha from the upcoming film Wish, highlighted the evolution of the studio and the push for representation. 

From early in the studio’s history, the princess became synonymous with the Disney image. Children looked up to their favorite Disney princess, and they became role models for a generation of young kids. In the '90s, when Disney began to capitalize on the princess image, criticism also arose surrounding the seemingly limited message presented by these characters. 

Despite many great successes, Disney has not been free from controversy. Critics have long called out the lack of diversity and limited storyline of the princess fairytales. Up until 1992, when Aladdin was released, all the Disney princesses were white, Western characters whose storyline centered around being rescued by a prince. This created a limited scope for whom little girls had to look up to. Disney’s white heteronormative definition of beauty did not fit the diverse demographic of consumers. 

Responding to these critiques, the animation studio has since taken clear steps to expand its representation. Pocahontas (1995), Mulan (1998), The Princess and the Frog (2005), and Moana (2015) all feature princesses of color, promoting a sense of inclusivity for diverse backgrounds. Protagonists like Elsa in Frozen or Merida in Brave have journeys that center around family and personal growth rather than being rescued by a heroic man. However, Disney still has shortcomings to address. Tiana, the first black princess, spends half the movie in the form of a frog, and the characterization of the more “rebellious” princesses is often criticized for being monotonous. 

Disney’s 100th anniversary provides an important opportunity for reflection on the legacy of the legendary animation studio and the way it has shaped generations of people, young and old. Over the last century, an animation studio that began in the back of a real estate agency has grown to hold great influence over the economic and social spheres of society. For many, Disney embodies the epitome of magic and childlike wonder and will continue to do so for years to come. "Once Upon a Studio" ends with the entire cast of characters singing a rendition of “When You Wish Upon a Star,” a fitting capstone to a century of Imagineering. 


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