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Disney is one of the most successful studios in filmmaking, but not all its beloved works were appreciated during their initial release, and that’s important.

If there is one name associated with success in both the entertainment industry and society at large, it’s Disney. Rarely has a single name become synonymous with not just a person or fictional character, but an entire brand. Disney is one of the most successful studios in American filmmaking, ever since the early days of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

With all the properties owned by Disney, in addition to the company’s history of messing with copyright laws for its own benefit, one might think commercial and even critical failure is an impossibility for Disney, but that simply isn’t true.

Since the 1920s, Disney has been susceptible to bankruptcy, a status the company only saved itself from in the last decade. Although the name Walt Disney Animation Studios carries plenty of prestige, the studio itself never had a stable history. It may be the branch most often credited with Disney’s rise to fame but it has also encountered numerous failures. Surprisingly, some of these failures include animated classics that are considered to be among the all-time greatest.

Why Some of Disney’s Most Beloved Movies Initially Failed

While the “Walt Era” of Disney films is generally considered to consist of the first 19 movies made by Walt Disney Animation Studios, the ones produced while Walt Disney himself was still alive, the definition of Disney’s “golden age” is much narrower. Only the first five features made by the studio, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Bambi, are considered to be part of its golden age. This adds even more irony when only Dumbo and Snow White were successful enough to bring the studio some encouragement and profits.

Pinocchio‘s untimely release date caused it to flop at the box office, but the releases that occurred shortly after World War II ended proved Pinocchio did not disrupt the expectations of the time. It was released at a time when most people did not care enough for cinema to attend a movie screening.

Unlike Pinocchio, Fantasia was not constructed around a narrative, but as a cinematic novelty. The segmented nature of the film, in addition to the focus on classical music, deviated from the standard moviegoing experience, alienating a potential audience that fancies more straightforward entertainment.

Whether it was the extra costs of a ticket brought by the Fantasound system, or the nightmarish bits in sequences such as “Night on Bald Mountain,” general audiences were unprepared for a film, let alone an animated one, of Fantasia’s caliber. Classical musicians and enthusiasts of the genre were equally ambushed by the movie’s rearrangements of the songs, which led to other kinds of criticism.

It certainly got the acclaim it deserves, but Fantasia’s current legacy was only cemented years, if not decades after cinema and audiences’ relationship to it have evolved. The movie’s “artsy” front became a much more accepted and desired form of storytelling and artistic expression.

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Bambi similarly clashed with the public perception of both animal stories and animated films of the 1930s and 1940s. While currently an embodiment of both the Disney company’s cutesy image and the pathos these ubiquitous family films can provoke, Bambi was an innovative work and the recognition it gets nowadays is mostly retroactive.

Having the film focus on these down-to-earth creatures provided new testing grounds for both Disney and audiences. Bambi’s initial mixed reception reflects the reaction to these new ideas. Watching animated animals in a fairly realistic and melancholic setting contradicts Disney’s image and usual style of cartooning. At the time, even if people appreciated the craft of the artists, such a storyline was unthinkable. Like its contemporaries, Bambi would fare better with both rereleases and the evolution of its medium, which demonstrated various angles of the potential of animal characters in a naturalistic setting.

Other Initial Failures Among the Disney Classics

While all of Disney’s 1950s features are iconic and celebrated works of animation, not all of them fared well at the beginning. In fact, one in particular, had to rely on a subculture, not too dissimilar to Fantasia’s own history, to get the appreciation it lacked in 1951.

Alice in Wonderland was a long time coming. Unfortunately, not only did any sort of attachment to the project vanish during production, showing the dangers of overworking an idea for too long, but the public itself was not too keen on the film at the time. It was likely the first Disney film to be truly lambasted on all ends.

Many people, including Disney himself, felt the titular heroine lacked heart, and the cartoonish recreations of John Tenniel’s famous illustrations did not captivate the anglophiles and literary critics in the audience. American audiences wanted to escape from the recent war with clear-cut plots and morals in family films, all of which were absent in Alice in Wonderland.

The lack of understanding that the film could be carried by its character acting rather than its source material’s creative wordplay played a significant role in the initial flops. Only on the small screen would Alice in Wonderland develop a following on the small screen, especially, thanks to the “stoner” subculture that saw the merits of its psychedelic animation.

On the other hand, if Sleeping Beauty were greenlit out of a calculated, money-driven guess, the logic would not have been as faulty. The most critically and commercially successful Disney features at the time were all fairy tale romps, particularly based on stories about royalty. Nevertheless, the last installment of the original Disney Princess trifecta did not captivate as much as expected and encountered more money problems.

Sleeping Beauty was another overly ambitious Disney project that initially cost the company dearly. The scope of its aspect ratio and precise artistic direction made it the most expensive Disney film at the time, and the princess setting failed to entrance people the way Snow White did two decades earlier. Sleeping Beauty’s story came out too late, and its visuals could have been financially feasible in a more forgiving time.

It is hard to see these movies as anything but famous success stories, but monetary and cultural issues gave Disney the short end of the stick. Snow White was fresh in people’s minds and was the paragon of animated films. Maturity, darker themes, and realism in animation, especially with animals, was unthought of beyond the comedy already offered by the existing studios. In the case of Alice in Wonderland, it simply had not found the right people for it yet.

While the current impact of Disney as a company on cinema is a steamy topic, the animation studio went through genuine cultural and artistic struggles that make their work all the easier to appreciate. Current cultures do not put the original Alice drawings on a pedestal, nor are serious and darker films about animals considered farfetched. Disney defied past ideas, but now, it defines them.

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