Disney’s 75-year canon is so cohesive that sometimes it’s hard to remember that these various films were made decades apart in drastically different social environments. Both the culture as a whole and cinematic culture in particular underwent major changes during this time, which Disney films manage to reflect while still maintaining the essential DNA that marks them as part of the same family.
One of these changes was the evolution of title sequences. In Disney’s early days, when title sequences were necessary to display the film’s credits, took their inspiration from theatrical overtures. They had no animation, but were lavishly painted with still images representative of the film’s themes, accompanied by bold orchestral music. The credits of Dumbo (1941), for example, use bright colors and bold fonts to evoke circus playbills. The music is inspired by a circus organ.
There was plenty of room for variation within this formula. Bambi (1942) features only muted silhouettes of leaves, accompanied by a gentle love song that makes heavy use of strings. Long before the advent of the Disney pop star, in this era the studio’s songs took their inspiration from opera and choral music.
This style of title sequence would be used for 20 years, all the way through the last of the Golden Age films, Sleeping Beauty (1959).
Between 1959 and 1961, Disney underwent a major shakeup. Nearly bankrupted by Sleeping Beauty and being weaned off its reliance on Walt Disney himself, it was forced to slash budgets and explore new approaches in order to remain relevant and in the black. Watch how these changes are reflected in the drastically different title sequence of the studio’s next film, 101 Dalmatians (1961).
Animation appears in the credits for the first time, mostly animated text and abstract shapes. Gone are the full-color painted title cards. The art in this title sequence is far simpler, making sparing use of color. Gone, too, is the orchestral/choral soundtrack, replaced with a much looser jazz piece in keeping with the visuals. This sequence is also half again as long as those of earlier films.
None of this is a slight: This may be Disney’s finest title sequence. Notice the careful composition of each shot and the creative use of dalmatian spots as design elements. The music punctuates each beat of the animation. Every part of the sequence underscores what role is being listed: Typewritten text for the writers, character animation tests for the animators, and so on, moving gradually from pure abstraction into more and more realistic scenes before transitioning smoothly into the film itself.
Simplified character animation from the film would remain the most common title sequence style for the next 20 years, but there were many exceptions. The Sword in the Stone (1963), for instance, is a throwback to Golden Age credits, while The Jungle Book (1967) pans across jungle scenes, using rich, liquid colors and prominent use of shadow to set a scene that’s mysterious and a little threatening. The use of the depth-of-field camera marks this as animated, rather than still, footage.
The artistry of 101 Dalmatians did not endure. As the studio’s decline continued, title sequences were an obvious place to skimp. The opening credits of The Aristocats (1970), for instance, use nothing but animated linework recycled from the film.
The Rescuers (1977) is another throwback title sequence that uses painted stills and an orchestral soundtrack. It is distinguishable from a Golden Age sequence only by its use of zooms and pans. However, it’s unique in another way: It’s the first Disney film ever to feature an animated scene before the title sequence. Before this, the film’s actual content always began after the opening credits.
Another major change in cinema took place around this time: The universal use of closing credits. Before the 1970s, most films did not use closing credits, making the title sequence essential. But with the advent of closing credits, title sequences became optional. The only information that needed to be conveyed at the beginning of the film was the title itself.
Animated prologues became common and quickly eclipsed title sequences in importance. A new type of title sequence emerged in response: The fully-animated sequence. These scenes use the same style as the rest of the film; they differ only in containing minimal activity and no dialogue. For the first time, the title sequence contained content that was part of the story, as in The Fox and the Hound (1981).
This was the death knell of Disney title sequences as an art form. Instead of thematically setting the scene, title sequences now had to literally set the scene, and there was very little room for creativity and innovation. However, it’s possible to have an artistic fully-animated title sequence, as demonstrated in The Rescuers Down Under (1990). This short, intense sequence is not part of the story, but instead sets the tone through its music and use of shape, space, and motion.
Fully-animated title sequences continued to appear for the next decade or so, but during the Disney Renaissance, films began to ditch opening credits altogether. Mulan (1998) has a gorgeous animated ink wash title sequence where what initially appears to be an M turns out to be a picture of a mountain, but it’s a scant 40 seconds long.
Title sequences had all but vanished by the 2000s. The last example I can find is Lilo and Stitch (2002), a film which returned to many classic techniques that Disney had otherwise abandoned. This well-executed sequence combines both story content and thematic shots of fish, dolphins, and waves.
The age of the title sequence is over. But in the past decade, a new form of credit sequence has emerged: The closing credit sequence. This sequence appears before the actual credit roll and lists all the people who would have been mentioned in the opening credits. Since it’s necessary to visually distinguish this sequence from the credit roll — and to keep the interest of an audience that’s ready to leave — these scenes have become fertile ground for artistic experimentation. Elements from all the previous eras’ title sequences can be found in Disney’s modern closing credits, plus modern innovations.
The closing credit sequence from Bolt (2008) is typical. The simple cel animation contrasts with the CG of the film, yet fits thematically. It features content involving the main characters, but it’s not part of the story; rather it’s supplemental material that enhances a story that’s still complete without it.
It’s fun to see credits once again being used creatively. Will closing credits stick around? Will title sequences make a comeback? I don’t know, but whatever happens, we will have Disney films to chronicle the journey.