Book Review: The Walt Disney Film Archives

Full Title: The Walt Disney Film Archives: The Animated Movies 1921-1968

Author: Daniel Kothenschulte (ed.)

Publication Date: 2016

Publisher: Taschen

Pages: 260 pages

Kothenschulte #1

Hello everyone, and welcome to another review! I’ve recently added a few new titles to my animation library, so for this month’s book review, I wanted to explore one of the most sumptuous. I had my eye on this one for many years before finally getting it and, having had a week off work recently, I was able to finish it at last. This is a real collector’s item, huge and heavy, boasting lavish printing of the highest quality that makes the colours leap off the page. There seem to be other editions – a smaller, more affordable one and an even more over-the-top “art” edition that was limited to 2,500 copies – but I felt this version would be the best pick for me.

Beginning with a foreword by John Lasseter (who had not yet fallen from grace at the time this was printed), we then get an intro from editor Daniel Kothenschulte, who frames Disney’s legacy in artistic terms – after all, this is Taschen – and explains the book’s aim in tracing the evolution of the distinctive Disney style across its earliest decades.

What follows is an animation lover’s tour-de-force, a 31-chapter journey through Disney history from its foundation in the early 1920s up to the end of Walt’s life in the mid-1960s. Each chapter in the collection includes an essay from a noted animation historian: Robin Allan, Didier Ghez, Mindy Johnson, J.B. Kaufman, Katja Lüthge, Leonard Maltin, Russell Merritt, Andreas Platthaus, Brian Sibley, Dave Smith and, of course, Charles Solomon, along with a few essays courtesy of Kothenschulte himself.

Kothenschulte #2

All nineteen of the animated classics from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) through The Jungle Book (1967) are given a chapter each (apart from the two South American package features, which share one), but the book doesn’t stop there. Additional chapters focus on Disney’s early Laugh-O-Gram studio, the birth of the Disney studio from the Alice Comedies to Mickey Mouse’s debut, the Silly Symphonies, the creation of the cutting-edge Burbank studio lot in 1940, the studio’s wartime films and shorts, the trilogy of space documentaries shown on the Disneyland TV show, and the abandoned western shorts of the 1950s. There is also a chapter on Winnie the Pooh, focusing mainly on the two shorts which Walt oversaw in his lifetime, as well as chapters on the live-action/animation hybrid films The Reluctant Dragon (1941), Song of the South (1946), So Dear to My Heart (1948) and Mary Poppins (1964).

Kothenschulte #3

Each chapter opens with a piece of artwork to represent its subject, alongside some technical specifications, a list of key crew and cast members and a poster, where applicable (even a potentially dry section like this is beautifully designed and laid out). Then comes a double-page spread of screencaps from finished works, followed by the central essay and a great deal of gorgeous artwork, with plenty more following in the pages afterwards.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the book, something not seen in many others, is the inclusion of transcripts from the actual story meetings from which these beloved classics were born. These are included for every film up to Sleeping Beauty (1959), after which Disney began to use screenwriters and thus relied less on traditional story meetings (by the 1960s, Walt had also begun to lose interest in animation as other projects took up his attention, something explained in more detail in the book). Even Dumbo (1941), a film for which few story notes survive, gets a small sample – the research is that detailed. It’s great to see how organically certain elements of these stories formed in the back-and-forth conversations, and you gain a real insight into the way Walt thought and fostered his team’s creativity.

Kothenschulte #4

The Walt Disney Film Archives is easily one of the most engrossing and comprehensive explorations of Disney’s history under Walt, particularly because it includes in-depth explorations of some of the studio’s less frequently discussed works. The story of the studio, from its inception in the silent world of the roaring twenties to the rapidly changing times of the swinging sixties, is masterfully told by its accomplished contributors, with Kothenschulte’s editing maintaining a smooth flow from one essay to the next despite the many authors. Naturally, this being a Taschen volume, the subjects are treated with the utmost respect as high art, but the various writers’ obvious enthusiasm for the medium keeps it from ever feeling stuffy or pretentious.

Kothenschulte #5

For me, it was especially nice to see the package films of the 1940s being shown some love, as they’re usually relegated to a footnote in other Disney art books, if they get mentioned at all. Many other parts of Disney history that I knew little about are also covered with great care and detail; I particularly enjoyed the chapters on the Silly Symphonies and the creation of the new studio at Burbank.

Kothenschulte #6

If I had to criticise anything, it would be that certain chapters seem to gloss over some of the more uncomfortable contemporary criticism instead of addressing it directly – particularly in matters of race representation. The chapters on Dumbo and Peter Pan (1953) make no mention of the problematic portrayals of the roustabouts, the crows or the Indians (not to mention the unpleasant demise of Bobby Driscoll after he was pushed out of Disney following the completion of Peter Pan), and there is only the briefest mention of the “editing” done to the Pastoral Symphony section of Fantasia (1940) in later releases. The Song of the South chapter even makes a conceited effort to rebuke the notorious criticism by extolling the film’s apparently exceptional animation and storytelling (when most who’ve watched it seem to consider it an utter bore).

However, that issue aside, I had a wonderful time delving into this treasure trove of a book; it will no doubt become a cornerstone of my collection, and I look forward to returning to it time and time again in the years ahead. (Even the bibliography was fun – I quickly added several new titles to my Amazon wish list!) I only wish there was a second volume to accompany this one, to continue this richly and beautifully illustrated story into Disney’s dark age and renaissance periods… Taschen themselves refer to it as a “first volume”, so there’s hope!

Thank you so much for reading, and I hope you get the chance to check this one out for yourselves! I cannot recommend it enough, truly – much props to Taschen and Kothenschulte for producing this. As ever, I’m hoping to find time to return to longer posts in the near future, but there are plenty more books on my pile still to be explored in the meantime. Until next time, take care and staaay animated!

Buy it on Amazon:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Disney-Archives-Animated-Movies-1921-1968/dp/3836576155/ – UK

https://www.amazon.com/Walt-Disney-Film-Archives-XXL/dp/3836552914/ – USA

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