Walter Elias Disney (December 5, 1901 December 15, 1966), one of America's most famous animators and entertainment entrepreneurs, has quite an interesting history. He started out as a boy who wanted to entertain people. He attempted various careers to find out how best to do thatacting, cartooning, filmmakinguntil 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 by his old employer, it seemed all hope was lost for this aspiring animator.
Walt'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 The 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. The Disneyland theme park was a particular accomplishment, and in some ways may be his greatest legacy; because of the sheer scope of the park and what it had, and still has, to deal with logistically, Disney and his "Imagineers" ended up pioneering enormous leaps forward in urban and transport planning, lessons that would end up being adopted the world over from the example Disney parks provided (though, ironically, cities outside of America would make much more use of these lessons than America would). His ultimate dream was never realized the "Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow", 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 (1967)'s Village, or, more realistically, like an industrial paternalism project... to which Walt would likely have grouchily replied "yes, that's what we call 'good central planning'". Disney did genuinely believe, thanks to the massive amount of experience from Disneyland, that his EPCOT was the way forward for urban planning and that America's sprawling cities were going to run into major problems if they just continued to sprawl outward haphazardly as they had following World War II.
Disney died of lung cancer (though he didn't smoke in public in order to project a wholesome personal image, Walt was known to be a chain smoker when in private) 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 Company, 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 hired several Jewish, female, Hispanic and black employees (Floyd Norman, Mary Blair, Rudy Zamora, and the Sherman Brothers to name a few) was close with his female employees, had a rabbi as one of the three military chaplains invited to the opening of Disneylandnote , and was very devoted to his daughters and grandchildren — EPCOT, by all accounts, became his obsession in large part because of how worried he became for their future by the Sixties. 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 (and no, he wasn't a Nazi sympathizer). That said, rumors that he was anti-union and supported McCartheyism are true and easy to substantiate — he reacted to a 1941 strike by not only firing many employees, but reporting them as communists, caricaturing them in his films, and on one occasion physically assaulting strike leader Art Babbitt.
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, and the rumor was further spread by friend, animator, and royal prankster Ward Kimball.
He is played by Tom Hanks in the film Saving Mr. Banks, about the production of Mary Poppins. Thomas Ian Nicholas played him in the film Walt Before Mickey, which is about Walt's early years in animation before creating Mickey and founding his successful independent animation studio.
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 included new video footage and never before seen or heard audio recordings from him.
See Mr. Alt Disney.
Tropes Related to Walt:
- Alter-Ego Acting: Disney had a soft spot for Mickey Mouse, the character to whom he owed his success. Walt voiced Mickey for many years, and once jokingly said "I love Mickey Mouse more than any woman." Walt may have said it jokingly, but according to his wife Lillian, it wasn't that far from the truth.
- Amusing Injuries: Slapstick is actually prominent in some of his work.
- Animated Adaptation: The bulk of the 19 animated features made in his lifetime were based on pre-existing stories. The only features he made that weren't based on any pre-existing stories were Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. The bulk of Make Mine Music and Melody Time consist of original story material as well, but have a couple segments based on pre-existing stories, such as Casey at the Bat, Johnny Appleseed, Little Toot and Pecos Bill. Several of the Silly Symphonies were based on classic fairy tales as well.
- Animal Wrongs Group: Several Disney stories revolve around cutesy animals who are either killed by humans or saved in the nick of time Bambi and 101 Dalmatians being among the most famous. This has helped make 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 (machines and so on).
- Art Evolution: While Disney himself hardly drew any drawing himself after 1926 since he was famous enough to hire animators, said 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.note Disney is still associated with top-notch art work.note
- Author Appeal:
- Disney felt particularly passionate about rural America in the early 1900s, and as a result, some of his works are Period Pieces from this time. He also animated several American folk tales, such as Paul Bunyan, or folkloric characters of American history like Johnny Appleseed and Davy Crockett. Disney was pretty genuinely a patriot, and felt strongly about making sure children remembered America as it was (particularly after the post-WWII era began changing America too dramatically).
- On the comical end, Walt unapologetically loved butt jokes, especially ones involving characters getting their butts jabbed, burned or maimed in some way. They're one of the most frequently used gags in his cartoons and animated features, and many of them have at least one—this kind of humor even popped up in some of his theme park attractions.
- 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.
- 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 (1967) 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.
- Beneath the Mask: Disney hid his real personality behind his public persona; both were very different from one another. He has been described as "shy", "diffident", "self-deprecating", "insecure" and as "play[ing] the role of a bashful tycoon who was embarrassed in public" (and acknowledging doing so). Disney recognized this difference:I'm not Walt Disney. I do a lot of things Walt Disney would not do. Walt Disney does not smoke. I smoke. Walt Disney does not drink. I drink.
- Due to the high expectations he had of his staff, the highest compliment he gave them was "That'll work", preferring instead to give financial bonuses to his high-performing employees, or recommend them to others and having these passing them on his praise.
- 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.
- Clark Kenting: He'd put on sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt, then wander around Disneyland, just to check that everything was running smoothly. Apparently, he looked just like any other tourist.
- Classic Literature: He adapted many classic (children's) novels to the big screen.
- Cult Soundtrack: Many of the catchy songs written for Disney movies have become so popular over the decades that they are practically standards.
- 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, etc.) 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 The 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 (copyrighted and/or public domain) literary works a lot.
- 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, until their rerelease years later.
- 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 legendary for introducing subject matter thought somewhat scandalous at the time, such as Mickey's casual cruelty to the animals in Steamboat Willie, a trait that Mickey would later lose as he became less Charlie Chaplin and more Douglas Fairbanks.
- 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."
"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."
- Disney's The Jungle Book (1967) 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:
- Expy: Mickey Mouse was more or less based on Disney's earlier successful 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. Alice from Alice In Wonderland and Wendy from Peter Pan not only share very similar builds, faces, personalities, and roles in the story, but also the same voice actress. The same is also true of Maleficent and Snow White's Evil Queen.
- Fairy Tale: He famously adapted many to the big screen.
- The Generation Gap:
- Walt Disney was a pro-Barry Goldwater conservative and strong anti-communist. His father, Elias Disney, was an ardent socialist who supported Eugene Debs.
- Elias, a jack-of-all-trades with entrepeneurial tendenciesnote , had a tense relationship with the "cartoon animator" Walt, whom the former did not consider to have a "real" job.note . That being said, Elias did help Walt get into art school.
- They did have that entrepeneur side to them in common, thoughnote .
- HA HA HANo: Around 1940, when two of his story men suggested an adaptation of Jack and the Beanstalk starring Mickey Mouse, Walt seemed to like the idea, laughing heartily and inviting other staffers in to hear the idea. When the story men asked Walt when they could expect the idea to be animated, Walt told them, "Never. You've just murdered my characters." Walt did eventually warm up to the idea, and the result was Mickey and the Beanstalk, part of 1947's Fun and Fancy Free.
- He's Back: After being out of the production side of Animation since the 1940s and the poor reception of Sleeping Beauty and the The Sword in the Stone, he decided to become heavy involve with The Jungle Book (1967). Both the critics and artists said that it was like Disney never left. Sadly, that was also his last film that he worked on as he died before the movie could be completed.
- Insult to Rocks: When he saw Fleischer Studios 1939 adaptation of Gulliver's Travels, he took a snipe at it by saying "We can make a better film than that with our second string animators."
- Loads and Loads of Characters: Being a Long Runner, obviously.
- Man of a Thousand Voices: Like his work or not, he was an amazing voice actor.
- Workers at his studio recalled for decades afterward his initial pitch for Snow White in 1934, in which he stood on stage and acted out all the characters - voices and all, even animals - while telling the story. Employees begged him to repeat that performance time and time again, and Walt was only too happy to oblige.
- 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.
- Missing Mom: The long tradition of motherless protagonists in his studio's full-length features, stretching back to Snow White but most famously in Bambi, may have its roots in the death of Walt's own mother, Flora, who asphyxiated not long after Snow White due to a furnace leak in the house Walt had had built for his parents. Walt reportedly blamed himself and never spoke about his mother's death again—according to his daughter Sharon, he would cry and refuse to talk about it if the subject ever came up and he couldn't even bring himself to visit her grave out of guilt.
- Motifs: A featurette on the Peter Pan Blu-ray concerns how many Walt Disney films (and Pixar films by extension) have the motif of flight, as it was something Disney was interested in and felt that was one of the few ways that humanity felt truly free.
- Nazi Protagonist: During World War II, Disney 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 stuff aimed at children (syrupy-sweet children fare, Bowdlerized Fairy Tales, and overly-simplistic, historically inaccurate, way-too-lighthearted treatment of grim stories, it's easy to forget that some Disney fare used Nightmare Fuel by the tanker truck. Look here for a partial list.
- Odd Friendship: Not a true friendship, but the red-blooded conservative Disney spent time with homosexual Jewish communist Sergei Eisenstein during the latter's brief period in Hollywood. Disney admired Eisenstein's visual approach and montage editing, while Eisenstein was a big fan of animation (his favorite film was Snow White).
- Rags to Riches: In addition to creating the version of Cinderella most are familiar with, the now worldly known Disney came from a poor rural background and 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. Animation was used at the time crude, primitive shorts used as filler in film theaters—-they were new and exciting but hadn't achieved great quality. Disney changed that by revolutionizing the art form, and became the first millionaire in the cartooning business.
- Rail Enthusiast: This was shown in much of his work that featured railroads, such as 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.
- Cool Train: Fictional and real life examples (Casey Jr., Monorail)
- 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.
- Defunct studios like Van Beuren, Famous Studios and Terrytoons which didn't last long. Even Ub Iwerks' studio tried to rival Walt.
- Roger Rabbit Effect: One of his earliest projects, the Alice Comedies), had a real-life girl named Alice inserted in an animated world.
- 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 Disney'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.
- Shown Their Work: Walt insisted his animators do their homework when prepping for the studio's early animated features in order to achieve optimal realism, including hiring models to act out the characters so the animators could see how their clothing moved, or having the animators throw stones through plate-glass windows to analyze how the glass moved.
- Sibling Yin-Yang: As the above entry notes, Walt was the creative genius, while Roy was the financial wizard. Each was equally essential to the success of the company. Walt, of course, became a household word, while Roy, the older brother, is largely known only to Disney fanatics (admittedly a rather substantial subculture). This might have led to a world-class case of Successful Sibling Syndrome, except that Roy was genuinely more comfortable in the shadows. When Walt passed away, Roy put off his own retirement to take over the corporation and make sure "the Florida Project" was completed. He did so, and specifically named it Walt Disney World to honor his brother. Sadly, the effort essentially killed him; Roy passed away just over two months after the park opened, and joined his brother up in Heaven.
- Mickey Mouse and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit are in essence the Toon versions of both Walt and Roy.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Could be the Trope Namer for the Idealistic end of the scale.
- Sliding Scale of Realistic vs. Fantastic: While being very realistically animated with much attention to physical 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.
- Sliding Scale of Shiny Versus Gritty: Shiny at its best.
- Sliding Scale of Silliness vs. Seriousness: Of the sliding scales, Walt probably showed the most range here. His early work, and for that matter almost all of the shorts, are supremely silly. On the other hand, most of the features are decidedly serious, even taking into account the comic relief elements. Fantasia showcases his range, from the "Dance of the Hours" segment through "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" to "Night on Bald Mountain."
- Sophisticated as Hell: Walt firmly believed that animation was a real art form and not just matinee filler, and pushed hard for the medium to be taken seriously. He also unapologetically loved cornball humor (particularly butt jokes) and children's stories, and his films prominently feature them. He even lampshaded it by admitting he was corny, but so were millions of other people in his audience.
- 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.
- Starving Artist: Early in Disney's career, during the time between Laugh-o-Grams and when he founded The Walt Disney Company, Disney was one. He was said to be eating out of can beans, living on the floor of his office, and only showering once a week. When a local dentist wanted a film shot for his business, the dentist went to pay for Walt's shoes to be repaired as they were falling apart and Walt didn't have the money to fix them.
- 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.
- Talking to Himself: Walt did this in some of the early Mickey shorts where he voiced multiple characters - for example, Mickey and the traffic cop in 1931's "Traffic Troubles."
- 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. Walt himself admitted to being asked this question..."You know, I was stumped one day when a little boy asked, 'Do you draw Mickey Mouse?' And I had to admit I do not draw anymore. 'Well then, you think up all the jokes and ideas?' 'No,' I said, 'I don't do that.' Finally, he looked at me and said, 'Mr. Disney, just what do you do?' 'Well,' I said, 'sometimes I think of myself as a little bee. I go from one area of the studio to another and gather pollen, and sort of stimulate everyone. I guess that's the job I do.'"