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Toon Talk: Special: Disney Goes to the American Film Institute
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by Kirby C. Holt
The quote above was spoken by none other than legendary film director-actor-writer-producer Orson Welles upon his acceptance of the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award in 1975, and it perfectly describes what the AFI is all about; established in 1967 by the National Endowment for the Arts when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Foundation of the Arts and the Humanities Act, the AFI is an independent, non-profit organization created, in part, to recognize and celebrate excellence in the art of film.
Among the methods they use to fulfill this mission statement is the previously mentioned Life Achievement Award, which began in 1973 and has since become the highest honor for a career in film. In 1998, the 100th anniversary of American film, AFI began its AFI's 100 Years …series, a popular and often controversial annual television special that has nevertheless accomplished what it set out to do: increase modern interest in classic American movies. And the AFI Awards, established in 2000, is described as the “annual almanac for the 21st century”, honoring the most outstanding motion pictures of the year.
This year’s 100 Years …program, AFI’ 10 Top 10 (which aired in June on CBS and will be rebroadcast this Tuesday September 22 on AMC and again on November 28 on AMC) was dedicated to counting down “the ten greatest American movies in ten classic film genres“, including animation. As expected, Disney dominated the category, with nine out of the final top ten movies, which thus inspired me to take a look back at how Disney has fared over the years when it comes to being recognized by the AFI.
(For the sake of this discussion, I will only be looking at “official” Disney films, i.e. films released under the Disney banner. Movies released under the Touchstone, Hollywood Pictures, Miramax and Dimension brands will not be included, with two notable animated exceptions: Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.)
We’ll begin with the Life Achievement Award, which, over the past 36 years, has been bestowed upon five actors who have appeared in Disney movies:
- Bette Davis (1977): Starred in Return to Witch Mountain and The Watcher in the Woods (bit of trivia: she was also Walt Disney’s first choice for Mary Poppins!).
- Lillian Gish (1984): Starred in Follow Me, Boys!
- Kirk Douglas (1991): Starred in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
- Tom Hanks (2002): Voiced Woody in both Toy Story and Toy Story 2.
- Sean Connery (2006): Starred in Darby O’Gill and the Little People.
Disney was never the studio to cast big name stars until relatively recently, so perhaps future possibilities for this award -- such as Jodi Foster -- will change their total standing here.
On to the 100 Years … series; the very first, AFI’s 100 Years … 100 Movies, honoring the “Greatest American Movies of All Time”, only featured two Disney movies, both animated. The very first American animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, placed highest, just inside the top 50 at #49. This was the beginning of the AFI’s love affair with Snow White, as it would go on to be recognized on four more 100 Years lists, the most for any Disney movie to date. Fantasia also placed in the countdown, slightly lower at #58.
Other Disney movies among the list’s 400 nominees included Bambi, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, The Jungle Book, Lady and the Tramp, The Lion King, Mary Poppins, 101 Dalmatians, Pinocchio, Toy Story and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.