Disney films never really tickled my pickle as a kid; I was more interested in the anarchic fun of Warner's Looney Tunes than a load of fairytale schmaltz and cute woodland creatures. Now that I'm old and boring though, I can appreciate the undeniable skillz that went into the animation and storytelling of Uncle Walt's greatest works. Also I thought I should see them just because I never have, and it might stop people laughing and pointing at me in the street.
Here's what I thought of the first five, before Disney went broke and mad and started making cartoons about how America should really try and get on with Venezuela or some such cabbage.
Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Disney's first animated feature is technically astonishing given its age, but at 83 minutes it's about 70 minutes too long. I understand the desire to show off a lengthy dwarf-washing sequence or hearty dance-off, but when the flimsy plot keeps stopping to boast more of this new-fangled technology it's easy to lose interest. Over 80 years later, Disney still haven't learned their lesson. Have they, Tron Legacy?
Also, I don't want to spoil the ending, but Snow White: what a selfish, shallow bitch.
Disney did some serious game-uppage in the three years between Snow White and Pinocchio. The latter is a non-stop torrent of set-pieces with all the classic tunes and breathtaking animation for which the studio deservedly became famous. Each of Pinocchio's incarnations - marionette, wooden boy and real boy - is rendered differently and completely convincingly, foreshadowing the genius of the Toy Story films (especially the 'Woody's Roundup' TV show sequence) some 60 years later.
I'm concerned there's still an island populated entirely by donkey-boys somewhere though, and I'd also like to know if the US Postal Service still deals in whale-mail.
A series of unconnected, animated videos for classical music's greatest hits, Fantasia tests the patience of all but the hardiest Disney fans. Don't be fooled by the abundance of Mickey Mouse imagery in the marketing: the massive-eared rodent doesn't appear until half an hour of abstract, avant-garde claptrap has passed, and then it's only for ten minutes of vaguely entertaining broom-related mayhem.
The most fun is to be had in the 'Night On Bald Mountain' sequence, which features a giant demon summoning all manner of devilry for no apparent reason except that that's what giant demons do. This section's influence on The Lord Of The Rings' Balrog and Raiders Of The Lost Ark's climactic ghostfest is undeniably obvious.
The animators of Dumbo show off considerably less than in Disney's previous features, but what's there - not least the almost illegally lovable title character - is carefully designed to yank your heartstrings out of your body till you cry. Which you will. And the sequence in which the pissed-up pachyderm hallucinates like he's done enough acid to kill, well, an elephant, is utterly amazing.
The story is so tight that just when you're getting ready for some final-act excitement the film abruptly finishes, which is slightly disappointing given that it's been so good up to then. Better to leave the audience wanting more than outstaying your welcome though, eh Snow White?
With its universal but somewhat tedious "circle of life" theme, Bambi feels like a dry run for The Lion King, with all its key scenes and characters repeated to more impressive effect in the later film. Even (spoiler) Mrs Bambi's notoriously kiddie-damaging death scene is less dramatic than (spoiler) Mufasa's, and way less traumatic than I expected: there weren't nearly enough children in the audience having their realities brought into sharp and painful relief for my liking.
On the plus side, Thumper is brilliant. I want one.
It's also worth mentioning the shorts that precede each feature shown at the BFI: most (though not all) are little slices of genius, and it's easy to see where Pixar got the inspiration for their award-winningly fantastic mini-movies. Here's Flowers And Trees, which played before Bambi. Enjoy it, it's aces.