Despite all the innovations in the early years of US cinema that eventually led to the emergence of the "cartoon," it is Fantasmagorie (1908), by Emile Cohl (1857–1938) with its surreal stick-figure animation, that should be understood as the first two-dimensional cartoon film. Its bizarre narrative shows off the possibilities of the new form and signals "metamorphosis" as the core language of animated stories. Inevitably, though, it is the US tradition that defines the form in the public imagination, beginning with cartoon versions of comic strips and quickly embracing vaudeville and slapstick film comedy as the touchstone for its development as an indigenous American art. The pioneering work of Winsor McCay (1871–1934), including Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), arguably the first "personality" animation, was hugely influential on the aspirational Walt Disney (1901–1966), who became the key figure in creating an animation industry and ultimately in determining a critical view of animation as a film art. Disney's entrepreneurial and editorial skills drove his company and created a small-scale studio that could compete with the major players in the Hollywood system. The Silly Symphonies , made throughout the 1920s and 1930s and arguably some of the studio's greatest works, preceded the groundbreaking Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the first full-length, sound-synchronized Technicolor cartoon. Though challenged by the innovations of the Fleischer and Warner Bros. studios, Disney's masterpieces, Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1941), and Bambi (1941), consolidated the studio's hyperrealist "fullanimation" aesthetic, and defined animation as a form.
Once Disney prioritized its feature-length works, Warner Bros. and MGM successfully advanced the cartoon short. Warner Bros., with key figures such as Tex Avery (1908–1980), Chuck Jones (1912–2002), and Bob Clampett (1913–1984), modernized the cartoon by making it more urbane and adult and more self-consciously "cartoonal" by foregrounding the very mechanisms by which cartoon narrative and comedy was achieved.
As the postwar world changed, the cartoon adapted, but its production costs and declining popularity led to the closure of many of the major studios' theatrical cartoon units and to a watershed for Disney, which failed to produce the classics of old. Chuck Jones had made masterpieces for cinema screens in the last throes of theatrical exhibition ( What's Opera, Doc? , 1957), but the television era had begun in earnest, with Hanna-Barbera making more economically viable cartoons using a minimalist "reduced" style with simple and repeated movement cycles, and prioritizing witty scripts and characterful vocal performances. Ruff and Reddy debuted in 1957, and Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear soon became popular favorites, but it was The Flintstones (1960), the first prime-time animated sitcom, that vindicated the company's cost-effective methods. Though the 1960s proved to be a time in which animation was arguably at its lowest ebb in the United States, the shifting political climate encouraged more independent work, and by the early 1970s, with the work of Ralph Bakshi (b. 1938), the cartoon fully embraced the counterculture and its value as an "adult" language of expression.
Fritz the Cat (1972), Heavy Traffic (1973), and Coonskin (1975) engaged with the sexual, racial, and political mores of an America embroiled in the Vietnam War and coming to terms with the implications of Watergate. Though not entirely successful, Bakshi's work was nevertheless a last hurrah for traditional animation, as it became clear that the rejuvenation of the form in the mainstream arena would be determined by the recovery of Disney classicism and the rapid development of the new computer-generated aesthetic. The former only came in the late 1980s with the work of Ron Clements (b. 1953) and John Musker, who with The Little Mermaid (1989), and later, Aladdin (1992) and Hercules (1997), revived Disney's fortunes, ironically by using a more self-conscious, Warner Bros. style. In the midst of their achievements, Beauty and the Beast (1991) and the phenomenally successful The Lion King (1994) also resurrected Disney's classical animation aesthetic in the guise of the romantic musical. Interestingly, though, it was the computer-generated sequences in these films—the ballroom scene and the charge of the wildebeest, respectively—that signalled fully how computer-generated animation would eventually overtake traditional cel animation as the signature look of the animated feature. With the closure of the 2D animation department at Disney in 2003 came the tacit admission that 3D computer-generated imagery (CGI) was the new language of animation. Ironically, for all of that, the work of Hayao Miyazaki (b. 1941), with the Oscar ® -winning Spirited Away (2001); Bill Plympton (b. 1946) with Mutant Aliens (2001) and Hair High (2004); and Tim Burton (b. 1958), Henry Selick (b. 1952), and the Aardman Studios working in 3D stop-motion proved that "tradition" was never very far away.