At Large  June 9, 2023  Angelica Frey

8 Experimental Disney Movies From the 1940s

Wikimedia Commons

Opening still from Saludos Amigos

In the 1940s, Disney famously released a series of movies that were either shorter features or a collection of separate segments with or without a vaguely-defined overarching theme, known as “package films.” While they never received the commercial success of the 1950 golden age or the 1990 Renaissance-era releases, Disney’s movies from the 1940s are notable for the degree of experimentation in art styles, themes, and soundtracks, with great efforts of combining live-action and animation, psychedelic and abstract art, and markedly less upbeat themes.

We picked some of our favorite Disney movies from the 1940s that highlight these experiments. We want to note that we excluded Fun and Fancy Free (1947) because, visually and thematically, it’s not as experimental as the others.

Anticipating Psychedelia: Fantasia (1940) and Dumbo (1942)

“Caviar to the general, ambrosia and nectar for the intelligentsia,” was how Los Angeles Times critic Edwin Schallert described Fantasia upon its premiere. The pairing of pieces of classical music with original animation spanned different styles: Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite had a whimsical, almost storybook-like feel with its fairies, flowers, and mushrooms; Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony featured scenes from Arcadia and Mount Olympus, with classicized backgrounds and stylized, classicized character design. 

Yet, other sequences were far more experimental: Bach’s Toccata e Fuga in D Minor had a series of abstract landscapes in bold colors that moved and alternated to the rhythm of the fugue; Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring featured a compressed narration of the origins of the solar system, all the way to the dinosaur extinction; Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours was an experimental show-within-a-show set on a theater stage, with animals appearing as deft ballet dancers. Finally, Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain displayed a series of “infernal” imagery, including fire sprites displaying sensual nudity. 

Fantasia had a massive revival in the late 1960s. “When it was reissued in 1969, with a psychedelic poster, Fantasia was embraced as a ‘head movie’ by the counterculture. Young viewers who discovered it in that theatrical release insisted that the men who made it must have been stoned,” relays film critic Leonard Maltin on the BBC.

Wikimedia Commons

Original theatrical release poster for Dumbo (1941)

The less artistically ambitious Dumbo also had a few psychedelic sequences, with the most notable one being the “Pink Elephants on Parade” song, in itself a hallucinatory fantasy Dumbo experience upon accidentally drinking champagne that had fallen into his water vat.  The number is set almost entirely against an inky black background and teeters between whimsical and nightmarish visions. “The pink elephants play their trunks as if they were horns in a brass band, and the tune they belt out is at turns whimsical and ominous,” writes The Oxford Handbook of Children’s Literature. “The creatures continuously morph into multiples of themselves and combine or divide to form a variety of other shapes, including a pyramid, a cobra, and a marching figure […]The dance of the pink elephants is a collective vision of radical change: the possibility that the stuff of life could be made into anything at all.”

Wikimedia Commons

Bambi, Thumper and Flower, Still from Bambi

Impressionistic Background Art: Bambi (1942) and Saludos Amigos (1943)

Most adults still have terrible memories of watching Bambi, as the idyllic forest scenes are brusquely interrupted when his mother gets killed in cold blood by a hunter, but Bambi’s background art deserves appreciation beyond the actual plot of the film. 

Inspired by the Eastern American woodlands, they were executed by Chinese animator Tyrus Wong, who adopted a markedly impressionistic style in order to keep the focus on the characters: the center of the background is, notably, more detailed than the edges. 

A similar, impressionistic style carries over to Saludos Amigos, Disney’s first “package film”. While most of the shorts are not particularly remarkable in terms of art style or narrations, Aquarela do Brasil (watercolors of Brazil) stands out for its —literally— pictorial approach, which features a blank canvas and paintbrush progressively building the world the sequence is set in. One can’t escape the tongue-in-cheek nature of this execution: it’s set to, and named after the eponymous song by Ary Barroso, who composed it while homebound after a rainy night. Barroso’s Aquarela stands both for the rain and for the painterly quality rain imbues into the landscape

Embracing Mixed Media, and Psychedelic Sequences: Three Caballeros (1945)

The Three Caballeros is, by modern standards, a short-sighted attempt from Disney to branch into Latin American culture. While the content of the segments did not stand the test of time, and while the three Caballeros —Donald Duck, José Carioca, and Panchito Pistoles—are depicted as chauvinistic womanizers, the art direction of several segments still stands out to this day.

The whole Brazil segment is set within a pop-up book, where the characters amble through its pages: in one instance, a live-action sequence featuring actress and singer Aurora Miranda shows her shaking her hips and selling cookies to the tune of “Os Quindins de Yaya.” A similar one, with Dora Luz singing “You Belong To My Heart” catapults Donald into a lovestruck frenzy that translates into a psychedelic animation sequence: Donald conjures bright colors, flowers, and neon outlines of himself and other objects against a backdrop, and the reverie is periodically interrupted by José and Panchito. This setup continues with Donald falling in love with Carmen Molina, who then dons a Charro outfit and a horsewhip doubling as a baton, animating a phalanx of cacti.

 Escapist, Poetic Imagery: Make Mine Music (1946) and Melody Time (1948)

These two package films are notable for featuring completely disjoint segments which, when taken individually, clearly display artistic merit. “Two Silhouettes” in Make Mine Music features the silhouettes of two rotoscoped live-action ballet dancers juxtaposed with animated backgrounds and characters, with Dinah Shore providing the soundtrack. 

In Melody Time, “Bumble Boogie” has the title character, a bumblebee, desperately trying to escape, per the voiceover “from the hectic harmony of an instrumental nightmare.” This segment is reminiscent of Fantasia’s abstract, non-narrative sequences, where music and melodies are rendered visually in a mix of figurative and abstract art. In Bumble Boogie, flowers get more and more similar to musical instruments, something that will be fully explored in Alice in Wonderland’s All in the Golden Afternoon. 

The Mold of Future Character Designs: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

Ichabod and Mr. Toad mark the end of the package-film era, and it comprises two independent medium-length featurettes. One is an adaptation of The Wind in the Willows, the other of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which ended up becoming a Halloween classic. 

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is masterfully narrated by Bing Crosby and characterizes the protagonist Ichabod Crane as both effete and effeminate. Ichabod’s character design is notable for its lanky frame, big ears, and big nose. “A most unusual man,” narrates Crosby. “To see him striding along, one might well mistake him for some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.” His love interest Katrina is more reminiscent of a pin-up model than of a Disney heroine. Still, it’s not hard to notice how their character models resurfaced in subsequent animated features: Katrina’s facial features, including her eyes, nose, mouth, and bangs, patently reappear in Cinderella’s character design, while Ichabod’s lanky frame and unusual appearance is sported in the character of Grimsby in The Little Mermaid and the asylum owner Monsieur D’Arque. 

About the Author

Angelica Frey

Angelica Frey is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. She writes about art, culture, and food.

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