- Disney’s oldest films from the 1930s and 1940s paved the way for animation as an art form.
- Make Mine Music (1946) was an anthology film featuring ten short shows and was created to showcase different types of music.
- The Three Caballeros (1945) celebrated Donald Duck’s 10th anniversary and took viewers on a journey through Mexico and Brazil.
- Victory Through Air Power (1943) was based on a book that predicted the use of aircraft in war and inspired further military aircraft use.
- Saludos Amigos (1943) was commissioned by the US government to strengthen alliances in South America and popularized Donald Duck and Goofy globally.
The Walt Disney Company is celebrating its 100th anniversary, making it a great time to look back at its early days. Disney movies are beloved by people of all ages. However, staying relevant for a century is no easy task, and the company’s oldest movies certainly paved the way. Keep in mind that some of them were very experimental, while others remain controversial.
Today, we are looking at Disney’s 10 oldest films, which all came out in the 1930s and 1940s. This period before hit films such as Cinderella (1950) and Peter Pan (1953) showed the world that animation was a form of art that people could watch. The list below includes only the 10 original theatrically released Disney movies, which were all animated, though some did include live-action segments.
The Early History of The Walt Disney Company
The Walt Disney Company officially opened in October of 1923 when Walt Disney and his brother Roy signed a contract to create a series of short films. Walt and fellow animator Ub Iwerks had already tried and failed to start a studio a few years earlier, eventually running out of money. After the initial failure, Walt moved from Kansas City, MO, to Los Angeles, CA, where his brother was living.
The new Disney Brothers Studio was successful and saw slow growth as they focused on creating short films. The company changed its name to The Walt Disney Company in 1926, around the time they moved into their new studio. This era was shaped by the Alice Comedies and later by Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. These productions were created for other companies, such as Universal Studios.
It wasn’t until 1928 that The Walt Disney Company had its biggest hit with Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie. After years of sustained success, Walt Disney envisioned that animation could be used for an entire film rather than the simple shorts. This idea led the company to transform the entertainment industry as the original movies proved that audiences were willing to sit through an entirely animated feature film.
10. Make Mine Music (1946)
|Producer(s)||Walt Disney, Joe Grant|
|Box Office||$3.275 million|
|Release Date (USA)||August 15, 1946|
Make Mine Music is one of the lesser-known Disney releases as it did not feature a central character. Instead, this anthology film contained ten short shows, each with its own plot. Despite coming out in 1946, Disney was still reeling from employee shortages caused by WWII. Some of the clips from Make Mine Music were actually from previous projects, such as Fantasia.
Walt Disney originally thought Fantasia would be a mass success, so he started creating pieces for a follow-up. After the movie flopped, the company decided to create Make Mine Music to showcase different types of music. The film also adds some narration during the segments rather than just music. While this is one of the few animated movies missing from Disney Plus, you can purchase a physical copy.
9. The Three Caballeros (1945)
|Producer(s)||Walt Disney, Norm Ferguson|
|Budget||Unknown (Expenses partly covered by US government)|
|Box Office||$3.355 million|
|Release Date (USA)||February 3, 1945|
A significantly more well-known Disney film is The Three Caballeros, which is one of the few early Disney films to feature a Mickey Mouse character. While you won’t see the main mouse, you will see his friend, Donald Duck. The Three Caballeros serves as a 10th-anniversary celebration of Donald’s first appearance.
The movie partly centers around Donald watching movies about Latin America that he received as a birthday gift. He also gets two other presents, Jose and Panchito, who come to life and take him through Mexico and Brazil. Although this movie has overarching themes that center around Donald Duck, it comprises multiple segments that take place throughout South America.
8. Victory Through Air Power (1943)
|Release Date (USA)||July 17, 1943|
One Disney film that you are unlikely to ever find on Disney Plus is Victory Through Air Power. Unfortunately, it has largely been forgotten and is often not counted in the studio’s early work. The movie did go to a limited number of theaters, though it had little fanfare. However, Victory Through Air Power remains a major part of Disney’s history.
The film is based on a book of the same name that foretold the use of aircraft in war. This was a personal project for Walt Disney, who felt the book’s message was vitally important. The movie combines a mix of animation and real-life footage of aircraft. There is still some controversy over the film, as it directly inspired further use of military aircraft to drop bombs.
7. Saludos Amigos (1943)
|Producer(s)||Walt Disney, Norm Ferguson|
|Budget||Unknown (Expenses partly covered by US government)|
|Box Office||$1.1 million|
|Release Date (USA)||February 19, 1943|
Saludos Amigos is another anthology film from Disney that actually serves as a predecessor to The Three Caballeros. The film consists of four segments that feature various existing and original characters. It starts with a quick backstory that explains how Disney animators traveled to Latin America for inspiration. The reality is that the United States government sponsored the trip as part of a goodwill tour.
Saludos Amigos was commissioned to keep good ties with key allies in South America at a time when several nations were aligning with Nazi Germany. The film was a major success in strategic alliances, and it also helped further popularize Donald Duck and Goofy among global audiences. In addition, it inspired Disney animators to continue exploring stories in the region.
6. Bambi (1942)
|Box Office||$267.4 million|
|Release Date (USA)||August 21, 1942|
Bambi is one of Disney’s most popular films of all time. Even people who have never watched the movie are familiar with its tragic story. Animals have remained a major part of Disney’s storytelling, but Bambi was a significant stepping stone. Like many early Disney movies, Bambi is based on a book that was in the public domain.
The film follows whitetail deer Bambi and his woodland friends. He is set to be the leader of the forest when he grows up. It further follows Bambi’s growth and his interactions with the human hunters who come to the forest. Bambi was met with much skepticism at release since it did not feature Disney’s signature fantasy themes. Instead, everything outside talking animals is grounded in reality.
5. Dumbo (1941)
|Box Office||$1.3 million|
|Release Date (USA)||October 31, 1941|
The fifth Disney film ever released is the hit movie Dumbo. Like Bambi, it follows live animals who can talk and have their own personalities. The story is based on a popular children’s book that was in the public domain. Dumbo is also one of Disney’s shortest movies at just over one hour in length. The short runtime helped the studio keep costs down after suffering major losses from its previous productions.
Dumbo, of course, stars a circus elephant who was made fun of because of his large ears. The story largely features Dumbo and his mouse friend Timothy. Dumbo was a massive success for Disney and gave the company a major financial boost. It also went on to inspire one of the most well-known theme park attractions. However, Dumbo has drawn significant criticism for racial stereotyping.
4. The Reluctant Dragon (1941)
|Release Date (USA)||June 27, 1941|
The Reluctant Dragon is another early Disney film that most people have never heard of. Coming off Disney’s period of early success, it provides viewers with a tour of the company’s new Burbank studios. The film is actually a mix of a live-action tour and several animated segments.
This inside look shows how each part of the animation process is carried out. There is an overarching plot that consists of comedian Robert Benchley considering selling the rights to The Reluctant Dragon. It culminates in Benchley meeting Walt Disney and watching the film. The Reluctant Dragon was heavily impacted by the Disney animators’ strike that took place in 1941.
3. Fantasia (1940)
|Producer(s)||Walt Disney, Ben Sharpsteen|
|Box Office||~$80 million|
|Release Date (USA)||November 13, 1940|
Fantasia is Disney’s first anthology collection that pushed the company’s limits with sound and animation. There are a total of eight animated segments, which are all set to music. There is no talking in the film outside of the narrator, though he only appears briefly to explain the upcoming segment. Famed conductor Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra created nearly all of the film’s music.
Fantasia made breakthroughs in sound technology, and Disney even installed multichannel audio, known as Fantasound, in select theaters. Another departure for Fantasia is that it initially played at Broadway-style theaters rather than movie cinemas. Most importantly, Fantasia helped bring Mickey Mouse back into mainstream popularity with The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
2. Pinocchio (1940)
|Box Office||$164 million|
|Release Date (USA)||February 23, 1940|
You would have a hard time finding someone who is not familiar with Pinocchio as it remains one of the best-known films despite being over 80 years old. In Disney’s second feature film, animators retell the popular children’s story about a puppet who turns into a real boy. Interestingly enough, Pinocchio was set to be Disney’s third movie after Bambi, but creative delays caused Disney to shift production.
The story centers around a woodcarver who makes Pinocchio and wishes for him to be real. A fairy grants his wish, and the two begin a journey together. Pinocchio also introduces the titular character, Jiminy Cricket, who serves as the narrator. Despite critical acclaim and the film becoming a massive cultural success, it was actually a failure for Disney, losing the studio over $1 million.
1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
- Runtime: 1 hour and 25 minutes
- First released in 1938
- Described as "beautiful," "dreamlike," and "scary"
- Genre: animation
|Box Office||$418 million|
|Release Date (USA)||February 4, 1938|
Last but not least is Disney’s original animated movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In its early days, Disney Animation Studios made short films, which were often shown before large motion pictures. However, Walt Disney envisioned a full-length movie made entirely with animation. After working for four years and spending over $1.5 million, Snow White became a massive success.
Besides Snow White being the first animated movie in history, it also started Disney’s princess genre that lives on today. The story involves love, betrayal, and mystery, giving audiences of all ages something to enjoy. Not only is the story one of the best Disney has ever told, but the animation still looks excellent 85 years later.
Popular Disney Movies Post WWII
As Disney tried to rebuild its studio workforce after WWII, it dealt with significant worker strikes, which slowed the production of new content. The studio’s only feature film in the late 1940s was Song of the South, which has stirred major controversies over the years. Disney continued to make up for its lack of feature films by releasing more anthology collections, such as Fun and Fancy Free (1947) and Melody Time (1948).
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad was another anthology collection released in 1949 that saw major success. However, Disney began a new era in 1950 when it released Cinderella. The studio followed it up with Alice in Wonderland the following year. From there, Disney went on to release massive hits throughout the 1950s, such as Peter Pan (1953), Lady and the Tramp (1955), and Sleeping Beauty (1959).
There you have it; we’ve covered the first ten Disney Animation Studio films. Surprisingly, Disney managed to release more than ten films within ten years of creating the first animated movie. Unlike many live-action films of the time, these animated classics still hold up exceptionally well. Fortunately, you can now watch the majority of these hit movies on Disney Plus.
|Position||Title||Release Date (USA)|
|#10||Make Mine Music||August 15, 1946|
|#9||The Three Caballeros||February 3, 1945|
|#8||Victory Through Air Power||July 17, 1943|
|#7||Saludos Amigos||February 19, 1943|
|#6||Bambi||August 21, 1942|
|#5||Dumbo||October 31, 1941|
|#4||The Reluctant Dragon||June 27, 1941|
|#3||Fantasia||November 13, 1940|
|#2||Pinocchio||February 23, 1940|
|#1||Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs||February 4, 1938|
The image featured at the top of this post is ©eafaru/Shutterstock.com.