"He was a storyteller—a showman—a dreamer—a genius."Once Upon a Time
—Film critic Leonard Maltin, The Disney Films
, 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 Company
, 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 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.) 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.
See Mr. Alt Disney
Tropes Related to Walt:
- Academy Award: He won two Honorary awards. One in 1931 for the invention of Mickey Mouse and one in 1938 for Snow White, which looked like this◊.
- Book Ends: 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.
- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, his first animated film, introduces the villain by having her walk onscreen. His last animated film The Jungle Book ends with two of the protagonists walking 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.
- Cool Old Guy: A lot of people call him "Uncle Walt", even if they weren't necessarily related to him.
- The Determinator: To start with, Walt went through many failures early in his career—first, his doomed Laugh-O-Grams studio, the failure of the Alice Comedies, and even after he got his first true hit, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, he didn't even get to enjoy it before he had all but three of his animators hired out from under him by Charles Mintz, the boss of his distributor, Winkler Pictures, and then reminded that he never owned the character to begin with, and given an ultimatum of taking a big budget cut or losing the right to use his own creation altogether. But did that stop him? Nope. He quit the studio shortly after, learning an important lesson of owning everything he made, and to be his own boss from there on out. And let's not forget how Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, "Disney's Folly", turned out — despite Hollywood and even his own wife thinking he had gone over his head and was heading for failure. Not!
- His hatred of unions, tight grip on the animators' creative experiments, and overall work ethic was initially rooted in what Walt had to deal with in the early days. After seeing Oswald The Lucky Rabbit taken from him legally, he worked hard to rebuild his livelihood on Mickey Mouse shorts. His ambition led him to want to create an animated movie feature with the gravitas of live action movies, a daunting, expensive, and revolutionary task made more challenging by the fact that movies were considered kids' stuff and rarely taken seriously in The Thirties, even more so than today. It took the banks who financed such a project plenty of convincing and re-convincing (by Roy Sr., who handled the finances) to get them to back his efforts, Walt didn't always make back a lot of money for the movies (many of them like Fantasia and Pinocchio were Vindicated by History) and what money he did make went back into paying for the next project(s). Along with his artistic ambitions, Walt intended to use some of the money to finance his own animators' school, both to help out young students of the craft, and to teach his employees how to animate in the "Disney style". The cost of wasted ink and paper for "experiments" which had little bearing on the finished product took a toll on finances, so Walt forbade those. A union strike of animators, many of which had ties to Communism, arose in The Forties, which Walt took personally (hence the his testifications to the House Un-American Activities Committee; plus he, like many Americans felt he was doing his duty to his country [plus perhaps his company may have been blacklisted had he not testified]). Disney was under much pressure to deliver (with higher and higher standards), his projects were greatly undercut by World War II, and he only really began stabilizing his empire by The Fifties and The Sixties with hits like Mary Poppins and Cinderella under his belt, and Walt's work on TV. His company especially suffered after Walt's death, until Michael Eisner and Frank Wells stepped in in The Eighties.
- Famous Last Words: Of the cryptic variety. Disney's last communication is generally accepted to be a piece of paper with two words scrawled on it: "Kurt Russell". Nobody—not Disney's relatives, not his friends, not even Kurt Russell himself—has the slightest idea what he meant by this.
- The paper had a couple other names written on it too. And, Kurt's name was misspelled.
- Perhaps Uncle Walt was simply thinking up a new movie for Kurt Russell to star in, being the dreamer he is.
- Farm Boy
- Fun Personified
- Nice Guy: Despite all sorts of nasty rumors, the Disney Regulars who actually worked with Walt seem to have nothing but fond memories of their days at the studios.
- 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.
- Office Romance: Walt fell for his employee Lillian Marie Bounds. They married in 1925.
- Rail Enthusiast: Walt loved trains as a kid when he would serve peanuts at midwestern train stations and loved the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroad very much. He also ran his own miniature railway, the Carolwood Pacific, in his backyard with fellow Disney friends and peers and eventually it grew into the Disneyland Railroad (formerly the Disneyland and Santa Fe Railroad).
- 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 detais, such as certain moving parts and railroad terms, that were in fact very accurate.
- 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. 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.
- Uncle Pennybags: Was a known philanthropist and a well-renowned TV show host, and he is still fondly remembered by many previous co-workers.