Creator / Walt Disney

"He was a storyteller—a showman—a dreamer—a genius."
—Film critic Leonard Maltin, The Disney Films

Once Upon a Time, there was a boy who wanted to entertain people. He attempted various careers to find out how best to do that—acting, cartooning, filmmaking—until he decided to try and break into the new and expanding field of animation. Since cartoons were mainly a novelty at the time, he had little trouble absorbing all there was to be known about it, and then he began pushing the envelope. After several of his animators were recruited out from under him, and his mascot character stolen away, it seemed all hope was lost for this aspiring animator.

Then he (or his pal, Ub Iwerks, more likely) drew a rough draft of a little cartoon mouse.

If you haven't already guessed at his identity, he was Walter Elias Disney (December 5, 1901 — December 15, 1966).

Walt Disney's animation studio, Walt Disney Productions, which he founded with his brother Roy, became a pop culture phenomenon. Mickey Mouse became beloved by children everywhere during The Golden Age of Animation, and soon after his Three Little Pigs short met similar fame and success. Then, Disney decided that short cartoons weren't enough, considering the set fees for that format could not cover their big budgets enough for good profits, and that he would gamble on making a feature-length film. At the time, some scoffed at the plan, calling it "Disney's Folly" and saying the animation wunderkind had bitten off more than he could chew. They were quickly silenced when they saw the movie (or, perhaps even more importantly, its profits). Seventy years later, it is number 34 in the American Film Institute's 100 Greatest American Films list, and the only one to be animated.

After completely dominating the field of animation, and inspiring many new techniques in the field, Disney, a driven perfectionist who was never satisfied with any of his work, began to move in other directions — namely, television and theme parks. Again, he was ahead of his time in both fields, turning potential disasters into huge successes. His ultimate dream was never realized — a fully-functional city, where people could live and work, centered around an arts college, which his detractors have noted sounds disturbingly in the details like The Prisoner's Village, or, more realistically, like an industrial paternalism project. He died of lung cancer (Walt was known to be a chain smoker) before EPCOT was finished, and without his guidance the plan soon became another theme park. However, thanks in part to his prescient foundation of the California Institute of the Arts which taught major film greats like Tim Burton and John Lasseter, his legacy lives on with the Walt Disney Corporation, one of the most powerful media enterprises in the world. The Disney studios are symbolized by an image of Cinderella's/Sleeping Beauty's castle.

Walt Disney earned fifty-nine Academy Award nominations, and of those he won twenty-six, giving him more awards and nominations than any other individual.

There are numerous Urban Legends. Rumors about Walt Disney being less friendly than many people would see him are common. He was rarely satisfied with the films his studio produced and was intensely critical of his employees (and perhaps justifiably afraid of unions, as he once had an entire animation staff sell him out to work with a competitor) but stories also abound of Walt's supposed racism, sexism and antisemitism, and supposedly he never actually drew anything, took credit for people's work, and was so extremely paranoid with the threat of communism he put innocent people in jail during the McCarthy Communist witch hunts. Many of these attitudes can be attributed to the time in which he lived - most of America at the time saw little problem mocking blacks, Jews, Native Americans, and women, and reporting suspected communists was actively encouraged by the government. In truth Walt employed several Jewish and black animators, was close with his female employees, and devoted to his daughters. However, he didn't help his case with some of his actions - for instance, he was the only Hollywood figure prepared to meet Leni Riefenstahl, director of Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will, when she visited Hollywood.

Perhaps the oddest Urban Legend that after his death Walt's body was placed in a cryostasis chamber under Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland. (Everyone knows it's really just his head that was frozen in Cinderella's Castle at Disney World, of course. When it's not under Epcot.) The actual truth is that he was cremated.

He is played by Tom Hanks in the film Saving Mr. Banks, about the production of Mary Poppins.

In 1999, Time Magazine named him #24 on their list of the 100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century.

In September 2015, PBS aired a two part documentary called "American Experience: Walt Disney" which deals with Walt's life and reveals more info behind Walt outside his public persona and his relationship with his family. It will include new video footage and never before seen or heard audio recording from him.

See Mr. Alt Disney.

Tropes Related to Walt:

  • Academy Award: Walt Disney won (22) and was nominated for (59) more Academy Awards than any other person in history. He received two Honorary awards: one in 1931 for the invention of Mickey Mouse and another in 1938 for Snow White, which looked like this. For many years he won Oscars in the category "Best Animated Short", but he also received some for "Music" and "Special Effects". When he started making live-action films and documentaries he also won a few in those fields.
  • Adaptation Overdosed: Disney has lent his name to animated cartoons, films, comic strips, theme parks, TV series,...
  • Alter Ego Acting: Disney had a soft spot for Mickey Mouse, the character to whom he owned his success. He voiced him for many years and once said: "I love Mickey Mouse more than any woman."
  • All Animation Is Disney:invoked Disney's marketing has been so excessive that he has practically become synonymous with the film genre. He is still the only universally famous animator known by the general public of all ages and to many people it's as if he made every single animated cartoon in the world.
    • This also goes the other way around. Many people think Disney only made animated cartoons, while in reality he also produced live-action movies, TV series and nature documentaries.
  • Amusing Injuries: Slapstick is prominent in his work.
  • Animal Wrongs Group: Several Disney stories revolve around cute animals who are either killed by humans or saved in the nick of time: Bambi and 101 Dalmatians are among the most famous. This has made millions of audiences sympathetic of animals' causes all over the world.
  • Anthropomorphic Personification: Though not the first to do so his work is very much associated with anthropomorphizing animals, plants and objects.
  • Art Evolution: While Disney himself hardly drew any drawing himself after 1926, his animators achieved an enormous technical advancement between 1928 and 1940. Just compare Plane Crazy to some of the sequences in Fantasia and you'll see exactly what we mean. Disney is still associated with top-notch art work.note 
  • Author Appeal:
    • Disney felt particularly passionate about rural America in the early 1900s. In later works such as Lady and the Tramp he nostalgically evoked this imagery. He also animated several American folk tales, such as Paul Bunyan, or folkloric characters of American history like Johnny Appleseed and Davy Crockett.
  • Bookends: Walt's first and last works in any subject tend to match up surprisingly well.
    • The very first Mickey Mouse short Steamboat Willie begins with Mickey entering the scene on a steamboat. Walt's last Mickey short The Simple Things ends with him being chased off screen by a flock of seagulls.
    • Goofy's first short Goofy and Wilbur starts with Goofy riding in on a motor boat while on a fishing trip. His last short Aquamania ends with him (naturally) crashing his motor boat after winning a race.
    • Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, his first animated film, begins with the camera zooming in on the villain as she walks onscreen. His last animated film The Jungle Book ends with the camera zooming out on two of the protagonists as they walk off screen.
    • His first (mostly) live action film Song of the South beings with the main characters riding in on a horse and cart. His last live action film The Happiest Millionaire ends with two of the main characters riding off in a motor car.
  • Berserk Button:
    • Unions. Walt hated artists who attempted to unionize the studio and never forgave Art Babbitt for starting the Infamous Strike.
    • A possibly apocryphal story alleges that two animators created a cartoon of Mickey and Minnie "consummating their relationship" and played it for Walt at his birthday party. Walt laughed along with everyone else, they praised the animation and asked who did it. When the two came forward, Walt fired them immediately and left the building.
  • Bowdlerise: Notorious for sugarcoating classic fairytales and novels too much into children's stories with happy endings. At the same he did keep a lot of hardcore Nightmare Fuel in his early animated features that parents to this day find too scary for their offspring.
  • Classic Literature: Adapted many classic (children's) novels to the big screen.
  • Creator Backlash: When his ambitious film Fantasia failed at the box office Disney was devastated. Audiences didn't react kindly to this animation set to classical music and felt it was pretentious, lacking a coherent plot and not at all the kind of mindless children's entertainment they came to expect from his company. After this flop Disney lost interest in animation. He focused more on live-action films and his theme parks for the remainder of his life. His studio kept making new animated pictures and shorts, but they were all just plain old-fashioned fun children's entertainment that lacked the kind of artistic ambition, experiment or technical innovations Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio and Fantasia had, almost as if he merely wanted to give the audience what they wanted from then on.
  • Creator Breakdown: Disney suffered a nervous breakdown in 1931 from the pressure of his studio and of his wife Lillian's recent miscarriage. He recovered after his doctor advised him to take a long vacation, and he and his wife did so - their first real vacation in six years of marriage. Throughout his career, he would come close to other similar breakdowns that forced to take leave of the studio for a while.
  • Cult Soundtrack: Many of the catchy songs written for Disney movies have become so popular over the decades that they are practically standards.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Disney didn't have a particular good relationship with his stern father. Later, when Walt started his career in animation, he had his first big hit with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, but his producer happened to own the rights to the character and bought him and most of Disney's studio out. The experience made Disney a huge control freak and very anxious to keep the copyright over his own work, to the point that the company that bears his name constantly badgers Congress to change copyright laws in order to keep his work from falling into the Public Domain.note 
  • Disneyfication: The Trope Namer.
    • Disney had a talent for making otherwise complex – or in some scenes not always that engaging – stories into mesmerizing tales that the general public could easily understand and enjoy. Unfortunately this has also led to some drastic Adaptation Displacement where many classics of world literature have been altered, simplified, and sugarcoated so much that his version became the official version instead of the other way around. To this day you'll find people complaining about film or theatre adaptations of stories they only know from the Disney adaptations, because certain scenes are so different, despite being in the original book. This can be forgiven somewhat in the case of the fairy tales (The Three Little Pigs, Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty,...) because they were carried over by oral tradition and thus varied from storyteller to storyteller. With the literary classics it's a bit more controversial. Pinocchio, Alice in Wonderland, The Sword in the Stone and Jungle Book are perhaps the Disney films that resemble the original source material the least. Even after Walt's death, the Disney Studio is still criticized for deviating and sugarcoating from great literary works too much.
    • For the record, even Disney himself occasionally grew tired of the house style that led to the Disneyfication, since it involved watering down complex artwork or story concepts. However, his attempts to deviate from that style and create more complex and technical films such as Fantasia or Sleeping Beauty wound up being too expensive to turn a profit.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: The early Disney cartoons from the 1920s show only a few sparks of the storytelling brilliance that Walt would become famous for, and are stiff and crude even when compared to other animation studios from that time.
  • Excuse Plot: Surprisingly, despite his acclaim as a master storyteller and his legendary reputation for having anal-retentive attention to detail in his films, Walt firmly believed in using the Excuse Plot in both his short cartoons and feature films, even as early as his Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons. To him, gags based on character motivation and context were what really mattered. Two of his top animators, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, verify this early in their book "Too Funny For Words: Disney's Greatest Sight Gags";
    "At that time, however, even the distributors were questioning whether gags were enough to sustain a whole film and they started asking for more story. Walt, the greatest of storytellers, reacted in a surprising way. "By the time you have a story really started," he said, "it is time to iris out (end the picture), and you have failed to make the audience laugh." Obviously, in Walt's mind, the first priority in any film was the laughter, and too much story quickly became tedious. He never forgot that point throughout his whole life, constantly shying away from projects that had more continuity than entertainment."
    • Disney's The Jungle Book is acclaimed as a legitimate animated feature classic, even though its plot is wafer thin. Walt Disney specifically told the story artists to not read or follow the book, and even chewed them out when they had concerns over the simplistic story, saying the characters and entertainment were more important. Animator and story artist Floyd Norman, who worked on the film, summed it up on his blog:
    "With Pixar's string of successful movies it became popular among animation buffs to quote the familiar mantra, story, story, story. But, I remember it was no less than Walt Disney himself who chewed us out back during the development of "The Jungle Book." Because we thought we had legitimate concerns about the films' simple plot line. Well, we caught the wrath of the Old Maestro head on. "You guys worry too much about the story," Walt shouted. "Just give me some good stuff." And, what was that good stuff Walt Disney was talking about, you ask? Fun, humor, entertainment. In a word, Walt was speaking of gags. "The Jungle Book" didn't need a more involved story line because we already had great characters to work with. Let the humor come out of the situation, the characters, and the story will take care of itself."
  • Expy: Mickey Mouse was more or less based on Disney's earlier succesful character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, only with the rabbit ears changed into round mouse ears. As Disney's film catalogue grew on some critics complained that certain characters in his films were virtually similar in design or personality. For instance, Jiminy Cricket (Pinocchio) and Timothy the Mouse (Dumbo) fulfill the same kind of roles and even have the same height. Snow White and Cinderella, Alice (Alice in Wonderland) and Wendy (Peter Pan), various trusty horse characters,... This got more noticeable in the films released after his death too. Take for instance Lumière (Beauty & The Beast), Timon (The Lion King), Mushu (Mulan) and Naveen (The Princess and The Frog) and tell us if they aren't exactly the same character in a different guise.
  • Fairy Tale: Adapted many to the big screen.
  • Fatal Flaw: He was a Control Freak and his tendency to take credit for everything was one of the catalysts of the infamous Animators Strike.
  • Famous Last Words: His last words were simply "Kurt Russell" scrawled on a piece of paper. Nobody, including Kurt himself, knew what it meant, but the most likely theory is that it was some movie idea that the young Russell would have been perfect for.
  • Follow the Leader:
    • Before Disney, animation already existed but it was very crudely drawn and the stories were random events plots. By the end of the 1920s, audiences started to lose interest in the medium and if not for Disney's innovation of sound the genre might have died out as yet another fad. After the success of his new star Mickey Mouse, Disney set a trend for beautifully drawn animation with fluid motions and stories that were both charming as engaging children's entertainment. Disney also managed to make audiences emotionally care for his characters and spent attention to both the mood, drama, comedy, and music. For most of the 1930s all other animation studios were trying to copy this successful formula. When Disney began making animated feature films he once again set the standard for how such films should be made to sustain the audience's attention for a hour or so. Every animation director is inspired by his work, even if only on a technical level. The downside of this is that many audiences still judge every animated cartoon according to Disney norms: it should be beautifully drawn, child friendly, have cutesy stuff in it and be devoid of any kind of dark, adult or complex material.
    • Disney also influenced virtually every comic strip artist and/or cartoonist, even those who dislike his work.
    • And Disney's enormous influence on film directors and advertisers should also be taken in account.
  • Insufferable Genius: From The Los Angeles Times article "60 Things You Might Not Know About the Magic Kingdom":
    50. Walt Disney and author Ray Bradbury were friends. One day at lunch, Bradbury offered to help rebuild Tomorrowland. Disney is said to have replied: "Ray, it's no use … you're a genius and I'm a genius … after two weeks we'd kill each other!" Later, Bradbury called it "the nicest turndown I've ever had."
    • With regard to Disney and Bradbury's friendship: There's a Halloween Tree in Frontierland at Disneyland.
  • King Incognito: He would sometimes wander through Disneyland dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses to make sure that things were being done to his standards.
  • Lighter and Softer: Early animated cartoons were crude and naughty. Disney made everything more appealing and safe for children to watch. It's still one of the company's trademarks.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: The Disney studios have a large back catalogue of characters, most of them only featured in one animated feature at all. (Since the 1990s and 2000s more sequels and TV series spin-offs of their animated features started to occur, but since Walt himself had nothing to do with these let's just forget these exist.)
  • Mickey Mousing: Obviously the Trope Maker, but not only in Mickey Mouse cartoons. He made music an integral part of all his cartoons and movies.
  • Mistaken for Racist: Disney has been accused of antisemitism, racism, and sexism, but in truth he was just a plain All-American conservative man from the Midwest not more bigoted than the average man in his lifetime. The accusations also forget that two of Disney's most accomplished songwriters, the Sherman Brothers, were Jewish and that he gave the Afro-American actor James Baskett the starring (and Oscar winning) role in "Song of the South".
  • Nazi Protagonist: During World War II, Walt produced many propaganda films in support of the Allied cause. One of these was about a German boy named Hans, it was to show how Nazi indoctrination can cause a small child to grow up into a bloodthirsty monster. He also cast Donald Duck as a Nazi in Der Fuehrer's Face, showing what terrible conditions the Nazi soldiers were forced to work under (exaggerated both for comedic effect and Patriotic Fervor), though it turns out to be All Just a Dream of the real American Donald Duck.
  • Nightmare Fuel Station Attendant: While his name has become synonymous with syrupy-sweet family fare, Bowdlerized Fairy Tales, and overly-simplistic, historically inaccurate, way-too-lighthearted treatment of grim stories, it's easy to forget that Disney fare (especially the stuff made in his lifetime) used Nightmare Fuel by the tanker truck. Look here for a partial list.
  • Precision F-Strike: Prior to the animators strike, Walt gave an infamous speech to his animators and staff. A says "damn" a few times. Back in the 40's this word was considered shocking to the public. All of Walt's staff left the building in rage and disgust.
  • Parental Issues: Disney's father was a stern, cold man who beat his children and made them do work in order to earn money. Walt loved his mother though and was heartbroken when she died in 1938 - particularly because he felt responsible, since it was his workers who'd apparently caused the mishap that led to her death. His father passed away in 1941. Interestingly enough many of the films Disney made around this time are very emotional Coming of Age stories about children losing either their mother or father: Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941), Bambi (1942),...
  • Rags to Riches: Disney came from a poor rural background. His father was a failed businessman, so his children had to work hard to help him make ends meet. When Disney started making animated cartoons the medium wasn't exactly the best investment for a bright future. Cartoons were merely crude, primitive shorts used as filler in film theaters. Yet Disney managed to revolutionize the art form and became the first billionaire in the cartooning business.
  • Rail Enthusiast: This was shown in much of his work that featured railroads, such as Melody Time short The Brave Engineer and the Casey Jr. scenes from Dumbo. Despite the fantasy nature of the scenes, there are many small details, such as certain moving parts and railroad terms, that were in fact very accurate. Furthermore, one of his stated requirements for Disneyland was that it have a steam train (the Santa Fe Railway was a corporate sponsor, incidentally), which was not only duplicated at Walt Disney World, but the newest version of the company's Vanity Plate has a steam train puffing through the background. Disney himself loved building model railroads in his spare time and a few ones he would ride.
  • The Rival: Throughout the 1930s Max and Dave Fleischer were Disney's main competitors. Near the end of the decade this crown went to Looney Tunes and Tom and Jerry. In animated features he had no genuine competition of any major studio.
  • Roger Rabbit Effect: One of his earliest projects, the Alice Comedies), had a real-life girl named Alice inserted in an animated world.
  • Saved from Development Hell: Walt had planned to adapt Beauty and the Beast, The Snow Queen, and The Little Mermaid after the success of Snow White, but plans for these films were put on hold in the 1940s. Both Beauty and the Beast and The Snow Queen were running into story problems while the budget for The Little Mermaid was running too high for the studio to comfortably sign off on it. In the 1980s, both The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were picked up by Roy Disney for adaption, and both film adaptions (The Little Mermaid (1989) and Beauty and the Beast (1991) respectively) helped kick off The Renaissance Age of Animation for the cinema (it had started a couple years earlier for television, incidentally also due to Disney). The Snow Queen was revisited by John Lasseter in the 2000s and ultimately released as Frozen in 2013, which went on to become the most successful animated film ever made.
  • Scenery Porn: The Disney cartoons have always stood out among their competitors because of their technical advancement. The eye for detail in most of their work between 1932 and 1960 is amazing, with beautiful and colorful backgrounds full of atmosphere. Just watching some of the stills is enough to make you sigh in beauty.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Because of Walt's perfectionism, his films were all exceptionally expensive, but this trope was Walt's basic attitude about the money culture. His brother Roy, who handled the money end of the studio, worried constantly about expenses and tried to keep Walt in line about such. One time, in response to Roy criticizing Walt about expenses, according to production supervisor Dave Hand, Walt raised one of his eyebrows in frustration at Roy and, "in an uncompromising, matter-of-fact, straight-from-the-shoulder answer, said quite simply, 'Roy, we'll make the pictures — you get the money.' That was that." In short, Walt viewed financing as nothing more than a necessary evil.
  • Shoot the Dog: He sabotaged his relationship with P.T. Trevors in order to make Mary Poppins the classic it ultimately became.
  • Slapstick: Prominent in his work.
  • Sliding Scale of Realistic Versus Fantastic: While being very realistically animated with much attention to physic detail the stories are still rooted in fantasy worlds with magic, monsters, anthropomorphic characters, plants and objects and sometimes physically impossible cartoony gags. His animated short films tend to be more cartoony than his animated features.
  • Standard Snippet: Long before Carl Stalling (Looney Tunes) made it into an art form Disney short cartoons were using countless classical music melodies as background music for certain situations. The man responsible for much of this in the Disney catalog, until his departure from the studio in 1930, was none other than Stalling himself.
  • Sugar Bowl: Disney was a master in creating idyllic fantasy worlds where any child or nostalgic parent would enjoy living. Even if scary or evil stuff happens it is usually defeated or overcome in the end. This gave his work a timeless entertainment value, ideal for forgetting your troubles for a couple of minutes or hours. However, in his theme parks he tried to create these worlds in reality, which crosses into creepy territory for some observers.
  • This Is Unforgivable!: He never got over the Strike.
  • We Used to Be Friends: Disney had a fall-out with a few of his former colleagues or employees.
    • His working partner Ub Iwerks had worked along with him from the very start. When Disney's first succesful character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was taken away from the company by producer Charles Mintz. Disney hadn't read the contract through and it turned out Oswald was technically under ownership of Mintz, who bought over his entire animation studio, except for Iwerks, who remained loyal to Walt. After Mickey Mouse became popular Disney began modernizing his studio and Iwerks, who always insisted on drawing everything himself, felt frustrated by this. He left the company in 1930 and tried to make it on his own. Iwerks' cartoons were no match to the popularity of Disney, however, and by 1940 he returned to the Walt Disney Company as a special effects assistant.
    • Leaving shortly after Iwerks was Carl Stalling, who in addition to his work as a composer and arranger on early Mickey Mouse shorts and Silly Symphonies (including the song "Minnie's Yoo-Hoo," hailed as Mickey's theme song) had even voiced Mickey himself on one occasion. Stalling felt he was not getting the credit he was due for his contributions (even "Minnie's Yoo-Hoo" had been copyrighted in Walt's name alone). Stalling would later say in interviews, though, that Walt seemed to harbor no obvious bitterness toward him for leaving and that the two men had had friendly interaction in later years (including just a few years later when he briefly returned to Disney to perform on the soundtrack for "The Three Little Pigs").
    • A general strike in 1941 caused many former Disney animators to go off and work for other cartoon studios. Disney felt betrayed for the rest of his life and would even blacklist several of them during the Red Scare anti-communist witch hunts of the 1940s and 1950s by naming them during the hearings in American Congress. One he particularly hated for the rest of his life was Art Babbitt. Though the Disney company has rehabilitated Babbitt. In 1991, one year before Babbitt's death Disney's nephew Roy ended the long feud. In 2007 Babbitt was finally named the honorable epithat Disney Legend.
  • What Could Have Been: He himself said, shortly before he died, that if he only had 15 more years to live, he'd accomplish more than he'd ever done before.
  • What, Exactly, Is His Job?: Everybody on Earth knows who Disney is. But his actual profession is far more difficult to describe. Many see him as a cartoonist and an animator, yet Disney drew his last drawing in 1926. Others claim he is a film director, but he only directed a minor few of his movies himself. He is often credited as a wonderful creator and storyteller, but most of the character designs, ideas and technical innovations were thought up and done by other people. The best description may be 'film producer', seeing that Walt invested millions of money in his cartoons and used the profits back for new projects. He could also combine the talents of many people and make them enthusiastic for each new project. And of course he was also a voice actor for his own studio, providing Mickey Mouse's vocals until his voice became hoarse from years of smoking.