(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)
The earliest days of the Walt Disney anthology TV series aired among the earliest days of television itself. So just as television as a medium was trying to figure out what it could be, the concept of what the show could be was equally flexible, changing from week to week. This chameleonic ability to shift was baked into the title cards for the show, which introduced the viewer to the four lands that also made up the original Disneyland theme park: Adventureland, Fantasyland, Frontierland, and Tomorrowland. But the theme park and the TV series both only existed because of pioneering animation. Shorts and features alike were, and remain, the backbone of the Walt Disney Company.
So it was natural that the Walt Disney anthology TV series – then known as Disneyland – would want to blend education and entertainment to explain how the foundation of the company had come to be. “The Story of the Animated Drawing” aired on November 30, 1955, as part of the second season of Disneyland, purporting to walk the viewer through centuries of artistic history, from cave paintings of thousands of years ago to the beautiful imagery of Fantasia.
“The Story of the Animated Drawing” has a lot of ground to cover in just under 50 minutes. Of course, the Disney version of how drawings turned into animation is speedy and trimmed back to ensure that it also includes sections of Disney animation itself. (Roughly the last 15 minutes are dedicated to playing the “Nutcracker Suite” section of Fantasia.) But the episode is designed in such a way to make sure that the spotlight doesn’t shine entirely on Disney. This early episode hinges heavily on the screen presence of Walt Disney himself, as he was beginning to cut an avuncular figure with audiences who previously knew his name better than his on-screen persona.
Disney’s folksy quality is still a bit stodgy here – later episodes of the anthology TV series would get him interacting with animated characters, kids visiting Disneyland, and park Cast Members, where this one limits him to his office. “The Story of the Animated Drawing” excels, though, because of what Disney is presenting. The episode boasts black-and-white footage of early animation pioneers like Winsor McCay with his “Gertie the Dinosaur” footage that was inserted into a vaudeville show where he performed; and J.R. Bray with his Colonel Heeza Liar short series.
What’s remarkable about these early characters – Felix the Cat also gets briefly name-checked – is their own fleeting legacy. “Gertie the Dinosaur” is likely the best-known example (at least among film and animation buffs) that gets name-checked here. The short film is known apocryphally as the earliest animated film, though McCay had released two others in the preceding years, and the character’s impact lives on at the Disney theme parks. (If you’ve ever visited Disney’s Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World, and admired the massive dinosaur figure in Echo Lake…well, that’s Gertie the Dinosaur.) But many of these animation breakthroughs are merely a century or so old, and so many of them are easily forgotten.
That’s one reason why “The Story of the Animated Drawing” is such a valuable inclusion on the Disney+ service, though there’s plenty more that could be said about the art form and its lengthy history. It’s hard to quantify, if you just watch Disney’s own films, exactly how much has changed in the course of animation over 100 years. But just watch “The Story of the Animated Drawing” to see how far the studio was able to progress by just 1955. Just 40 years before this episode aired, it was the height of technological prowess to watch a live man “throw” a pumpkin into the open mouth of an animated, black-and-white dinosaur. The synchronization of animation and sound didn’t exist then, either.
One element of the episode that adds an interesting wrinkle is “black-and-white”. Though it was easy enough to go to a local movie theater and watch a film – live-action or animated – in color, the same wasn’t true of television in 1955. “The Story of the Animated Drawing” is presented entirely in black-and-white; not just the flashbacks to the earliest examples of animated characters, but Walt’s hosting segments as well as the entire “Nutcracker Suite” that serves as the episode’s climax.
Disney was all too happy to switch networks with his anthology show in 1961, after seven seasons aired on ABC in black-and-white. When the show returned on NBC in the fall of 1961, it was dubbed Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, and the opening episode, “An Adventure in Color/Mathmagicland”, was designed to showcase what a color TV show could look like. (That episode, featuring the 1959 animated short Donald in Mathmagic Land, is sadly not available on Disney+. Maybe one day.) The use of black-and-white is intriguing, though, because another early episode of the anthology show, “Man in Space”, is in color and streaming on Disney+.
In some ways, this special accomplishes something else without even trying to: it proves the necessity of color in animation. The “Nutcracker Suite” segment of Fantasia is beautiful and an effective visual distillation of Tchaikovsky’s most famous piece of music…but it looks far more muted in black-and-white.
“The Story of the Animated Drawing” was released around the same time that Disney was talking about The Art of Animation, an early book that was intended to not only document how Disney’s animators captured various lively actions through artistry, but to document the history of the medium. But it wasn’t until a couple decades later when two of Disney’s Nine Old Men, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, collaborated on The Illusion of Life that a book was truly able to capture the principles of Disney animation.
Though Walt Disney himself was already shifting away from animation as his top priority at Disney – this episode aired only a few months after Disneyland Park opened in Anaheim – he wouldn’t ever truly dismiss the medium or its importance. In 1961, he was one of the chief founders of the California Institute of the Arts, better known as CalArts; those among you who aren’t artistic or well-versed in animation history may be unaware of its own legacy, but CalArts is the school that attracted students like Brad Bird, Tim Burton, Henry Selick, Andrew Stanton, and yes, John Lasseter.
The point here is that the legacy of “The Story of the Animated Drawing”, its intent to both educate and entertain a wider audience about the power of how a hand can bring to life characters and environments, is vast beyond the existence of an episode of television. As with the other episodes of the anthology TV series, it’s both a good thing that you can stream this on Disney+ (replete with a title card warning of potentially offensive content) and frustrating that the episode airs largely free of context. If you’re impressed by the decades of animation offered on the streaming service, this episode is a necessary watch to grasp how it is that so many of the studio’s beloved films came together as part of a fledgling medium.
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