Since the very first painting was drawn, one of the most potent ways for humans to tell stories has been art, but with the advent of cinema came a wonder hitherto unimaginable: drawings that move. Of course, animation was infinitely harder to create than live-action motion pictures, but the payoff was that you could make anything happen on screen.
This well of endless possibilities drew many artists and film studios, bringing about works of cinematic art that endure to this day as masterpieces for people of all ages. Here are 10 of these incredibly important hand-drawn animations from the pre-CGI days:
1. Steamboat Willie, 1928
The movie that truly launched the success of the Walt Disney Company and gave it the opportunity to become what it is today, this short animation is also the first to star Disney’s immortal mascot, Mickey Mouse. In Steamboat Willie, we become familiarized with Mickey’s trickster nature and physical comedy. Steamboat Willie was also the studio’s first film to have fully-synchronized sound and a post-produced soundtrack.
2. The Skeleton Dance, 1929
The Silly Symphonies series was notable in that those are works that are entirely dedicated to bringing music to life in ways musicals and operas simply could not. The Silly Symphonies movies would set the tone for many of Disney’s films to follow, where songs and music would play a major part.
3. Snow White, 1937
The first full-length, fully-animated feature film to come out of Disney Studios and the one to set in motion the Disney Princess craze, Snow White was groundbreaking in convincing Hollywood that color was a worthwhile investment as well as showing the sheer potential of animation, and its influences can be seen in Disney films to this very day.
4. Fantasia, 1940
One of Disney’s most ambitious projects and the culmination of the Silly Symphonies series, Fantasia is a full classical concert set to gorgeous animation, telling a variety of different stories, from a (redesigned) Mickey Mouse failing at controlling a magical spell to the very creation of the heavens and earth.
5. Ducktators, 1942
Looking at the beautiful art and listening to the enchanting songs of Disney’s revolutionary movies, it’s easy to forget that the peak of the golden age of animation coincided with history’s darkest era. Not so in the rival Warner Brothers studio. The comedy of the Warners, four Jewish brothers who came to America from Poland, was far more abrasive and wit-oriented in comparison to Disney’s, and oft-times, far more political, frequently taking shots at Hitler and his bedfellows.
6. Anchors Aweigh, 1945
Though not the first film to combine live-action and animation, this film nevertheless included one of the most elaborate mixed-medium dance routines at the time, one that helped cement the legacy of dancing actor Gene Kelly as one of the greatest to lace a pair of tap dance shoes. And if he looks snazzy in a sailor outfit, maybe it’s because Kelly was only recently discharged from service in the Navy at the time the movie came out.
7. Rabbit Fire, 1951
Not all of Warner’s animation was strictly political, but even after the end of the war, the Looney Tunes retained their focus on verbal comedy and wit. One of the most famous comedy skits in animation history, Rabbit Fire (alternatively known as “wabbit season”) set off the feud of one-upmanship between the clever and cool Bugs Bunny and the irate Daffy Duck.
8. What’s Opera, Doc? 1957
Widely-regarded as one of the best cartoons of all time, this hilarious parody of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs is almost an inversion of Disney’s Fantasia. While Disney sought to adjust the subject to the music, showing darker or lighter themes when the music called for it, this Chuck Jones classic isn’t afraid to take the dreadfully-serious Wagner opera and turning it into a farce.
9. Felix the Cat, 1959
Though coming late in the list, Felix the Cat may very well belong in the beginning, as prior to arriving on TV screens in the 50s, the jolly and careless tom predated Mickey Mouse by a full decade and became the first ever animated film star, making his professional debut in 1919. In many ways, Felix influenced not only his counterparts in Disney and Warner but all cartoon protagonists to come.
10. The Lord of the Rings, 1978
For a time, interest in animated movies seemed to have waned, and even the people at Disney seemed to shift their focus to live-action films, but one man would have none of that. Ralph Bakshi, who directed several provocative and satirical cartoons aimed at adults, created one of his greatest masterpieces in his adaptation of Tolkien’s saga, one that would serve as the main inspiration for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, some 23 years later.