From Snow White to Wish: A Taste-based History of Disney Films

Jules Caldeira
December 19, 2023

In the summer of 1923, a young Walt Disney left Kansas City for California. In October, he and his brother Roy founded the Disney Brothers Studios (eventually Walt Disney Studios). They produced original cartoon shorts, including Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Mickey Mouse, and their Silly Symphonies series. As Walt’s ambition grew, he set out to make the first feature-length animated film in the United States. Despite critics who warned it would be a costly mistake, in 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was met with universal acclaim and set the standard for animated films.

100 years after its founding, the Walt Disney Company is a monolith of entertainment, having released 62 animated films under their banner alone, to say nothing of Pixar and releases through Buena Vista Pictures and other distributors. This past November, they released Wish, their 62nd feature film and a tribute to a century of animation history. Naturally, we at Katch used our data to see what traits might be shared across such a vast catalog. No pixie dust required; just our Genome.

The entire list of films included in this analysis is available at the end of this article. For the sake of brevity and clarity, all 62 films have been divided into three categories. The first is Walt’s Life (1937-1967), which includes all films produced during his lifetime (though he passed before the release of The Jungle Book). Next is Post-Walt (1970-2000) the third of films immediately following his passing and up to the new millennium, and finally the Modern Era (2001-2023), which encapsulates later titles, up to and including Wish.

Beginning with the context and setting of these films, only one film during Walt’s time, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, was set in an urban environment. However, this leapt to 28.57% during the post-Walt era, before easing down to 22.73% of modern films. In addition, tales set in a forest have steadily declined from 26.32% to 13.64% today, totaling a frequency of 21.25% across all films. One interesting trend is how the use of a fairy-tale setting has varied. Under Walt’s purview, such settings accounted for 42.11% of all films, before plummeting to 19.05% in the era after his passing. However, in more recent years, there has been a resurgence in such titles, currently up to 31.82%, likely due in part to the “Disney Renaissance.” Despite this dip and recovery, fairy-tale stories still account for a third of the total catalog.

While early films included intellectual themes in over a third of their stories, they didn’t often focus on internal moral conflicts. Right or wrong was often a straightforward issue. However, after Walt, there was a huge surge in tales of moral uncertainty and other themes, from 10.53% to 61.90%, including films such as The Black Cauldron and Emperor’s New Groove. In modern titles, over half still tackle this ideological issue, which is good, because audiences appreciate multifaceted characters that struggle in the moral gray area, not always just a clear-cut right or wrong.

It’s interesting to see that while titles revolve around such themes of morality, as well as an overall increase in flawed heroes — those who don’t always possess the traits of a typical hero — we see a decrease of villains in primary and secondary lead roles. From the Evil Queen to Ursula, villains have been a big part of Disney history (to the point of having a whole merchandising line dedicated to them). While villains are certainly prevalent in modern films, their impact on the overall identity of a title isn’t always what it once was. Loveable, courageous, sympathetic, and family-dedicated leads have always been a big part of Disney’s appeal. However, we do see an increase in brilliant or clever leads (from zero to 27.27% overall) and a decrease in ones who are naïve (68.42% to 27.27%).

There are some plot themes that, even a century later, just never change. Over 40% of all films have been stories of self-discovery, and 68.55% are tales of adventure, whether that be a fight for survival (Bambi), a treasure hunt or quest (Atlantis), or a desperate rescue mission (The Rescuers). For most of the company’s existence, over half of titles employed the use of talking animals, only recently dropping down to 40.91%, while still maintaining a rate of 55.16% overall. Stories of family have ever-increased from 36.84% to 63.64%, comprising about half of the total filmography, while ones following a squad on a mission have nearly tripled, up to 77.27% (Bolt, Wish).

As iconic as Disney’s love songs have become, from “Someday my Prince Will Come” to “I See the Light,” stories of finding your one true love aren’t as prominent as they seem, only accounting for 17.98% of all 62 films. In the last 23 years, only The Princess and the Frog and Tangled fall into this category, with nearly 24% occurring in the post-Walt era and only 21.05% during his time. However, stories that focus on specific cultures have seen an overall increase. While Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros were the only titles to do so in Walt’s day, this wouldn’t happen again until Aladdin and Mulan, but following Princess and the Frog, we see a push where almost 32% of all modern films are culture-focused, from Zootopia to Encanto and others in between.

A majority of all films (67.87%) are great escapes: lighthearted stories with humor throughout and mild violence, while showcasing many different genres and plot themes. Nearly all films, 88.53%, employed clean/cute humor, with situational humor also averaging about half of the time along with the silly and absurd around a third. Almost every film has a happy ending except for Make Mine Music, which has a sad ending, and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, which is less so but far from happy.

Of course, Disney films have long been praised for their music. As such, it’s no surprise that over 55% have a sophisticated and distinctive musical score. While over half of Walt’s films possess this trait (Snow White, Peter Pan), and three-fourths of films between 1970-2000 (Aladdin, Lion King, etc.), only a third of the more modern titles can say the same (Frozen, Moana). However, this drop is not reflected in all musical traits, as at least 72.73% of titles in each category boast an impactful song-based soundtrack. Typically, the films that don’t have such a soundtrack are non-musical ones, such as Atlantis, Bambi, or The Black Cauldron. Similarly, there has been a decrease in musical films in the last third of the catalog, down to about 45% from 78% in the beginning.

Given the nature of the Disney brand, it makes sense most films will have a bright and uplifting mood. There has also been a consistent increase in active and energetic films, peaking at 77.27% in the modern era and 60.43% overall. They’ve also maintained a predominantly joyful spirit, with over half also embodying a feeling of wonder (Three Caballeros, Fantasia 2000, Wish).

Though only 42% of early films were adventures, this has ballooned to 95.45% in recent years. They’ve also gotten more humorous as well, with over 63% classified as comedies in the modern era, all of which are also family and/or friendship comedies (Chicken Little, Strange World). However, the average is still only 39.41% overall. Nearly half of films can be classified as fantasy, with only 13.64% of titles being sci-fi, though comprising a substantial 40.91% of modern films (Treasure Planet, Big Hero 6).

Almost 70% of all films, particularly those in the early years (84.21%) provide aesthetically rich experiences. Many showcase the beauty of the natural world (Bambi, Tarzan, Moana), but a large majority, 75%, focus on a music-rich experience. Of course, all of these films are family-friendly, nearly always exhibiting only mild or limited violence (some having no violence at all, as with The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh), and an average 36% leaving audiences with a feeling of inspiration as the credits roll, including films like Dumbo, Robin Hood, and Wish.

So what can we do with this information, besides appreciating Disney’s simultaneous consistency yet also evolution over so many years? In discovering trends across such a vast library, we can find ways to market older or lesser-known films to new audiences by emphasizing similar traits. Conversely, perhaps newer films can be presented to longtime viewers who harbor nostalgic feelings for a “golden age” by making those links between new titles and their lifelong favorites. Another option is grouping titles previously thought to be dissimilar for interesting categories on streaming services. The possibilities are endless when tasted-based data is at your fingertips; you don’t even have to wish upon a star for it.

Below are the films used in the analysis of this article:

Walt’s Life: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), Bambi (1942), Saludos Amigos (1943), The Three Caballeros (1945), Make Mine Music (1946), Fun and Fancy Free (1947), Melody Time (1948), The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949), Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), Peter Pan (1953), Lady and the Tramp (1955), Sleeping Beauty (1959), One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), The Sword in the Stone (1963), and The Jungle Book (1967).

Post-Walt: The Aristocats (1970), Robin Hood (1973), The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977), The Rescuers (1977), The Fox and the Hound (1981), The Black Cauldron (1985), The Great Mouse Detective (1986), Oliver & Company (1988), The Little Mermaid (1989), The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Hercules (1997), Mulan (1998), Tarzan (1999), Fantasia 2000 (2000), Dinosaur (2000), and The Emperor's New Groove (2000).

Modern Era: Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), Lilo & Stitch (2002), Treasure Planet (2002), Brother Bear (2003), Home on the Range (2004), Chicken Little (2005), Meet the Robinsons (2007), Bolt (2008), The Princess and the Frog (2009), Tangled (2010), Winnie the Pooh (2011), Wreck-it Ralph (2012), Frozen (2013), Big Hero 6 (2014), Zootopia (2016), Moana (2016), Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018), Frozen II (2019), Raya and the Last Dragon (2021), Encanto (2021), Strange World (2022), and Wish (2023).

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