The Weird and Wonderful World of Disney

23 Apr

Walt Disney was ‘The Showman of the World’, the king of family entertainment whose visionary genius continues to touch the lives of countless millions to this day. In a career spanning almost half a century Disney succeeded thanks to a rock-like faith in his own fantastic imagination. To this he added a single-minded determination that only the best was good enough: “They know they’re going to get a certain quality, a certain kind of entertainment… That’s what Disney is,” was his boast. It was a boast that went on to win him 48 Academy Awards – more than anyone else in history. Disney was a shy, self-deprecating and insecure man in private, but adopted a warm and outgoing public persona. He had high standards and high expectations of those with whom he worked. Although there have been accusations that he was racist or anti-semitic, they have been contradicted by many who knew him. His reputation changed in the years after his death, from a purveyor of homely patriotic values to a representative of American imperialism. Nevertheless, Disney is considered a cultural icon, particularly in the United States, where the company he co-founded is one of the world’s largest and best-known entertainment companies.

Legend has it that in the Middle Ages a family emigrated from the Norman fishing port of Isigny in France to Ireland and called themselves D’Isigny. This gradually became Disney, under which name the family emigrated to America generations later. Walt Disney was born on December 5, 1901 and soon showed a real talent for sketching the animals on the farm near Marceline, Missouri where he grew up. When his brother Roy joined the army during the First World War, Walt went to France with the Red Cross and put his talents to good use camouflaging the ambulance he drove by covering it with cartoons. Back in the States in October 1919, Walt moved to Kansas City, earning $50 a month as an assistant in a commercial art studio where he met another cartoonist, Ub Iwerks. The two friends soon moved to an advertising company, producing one-minute cinema advertisements, which inspired a pilot comedy called Alice in Wonderland that mixed live and animated action sequences. But it failed to stop the company from going bankrupt and in 1923 Walt headed west for California. He arrived in Hollywood with forty dollars in his pocket and a copy of his pilot film. His brother Roy helped him set up a small studio in their uncle’s garage, and having sent back to Kansas for his friend Iwerks, he set to work continuing production on the Alice comedies.

The Disney Brothers Studios continued the Alice films for four years till in 1927 Walt and Iwerks invented Oswald the Rabbit. The success of this little character turned sour when the distributor took the copyright and all the money Oswald made. From then on Walt Disney vowed he would own everything he created. Without pausing to mourn the loss of Oswald, Disney and Iwerks set out to find a new character. Walt sketched a mouse called Mortimer, his wife Lilly preferred a different name for the character, and on November 18, 1928 Mickey Mouse made his screen debut in Steamboat Willie. Mickey’s success brought big changes. The company’s name was changed to Walt Disney Productions and Disney merchandise began to appear. All this time Walt was continually striving to perfect the art of animation. In the Silly Symphonies series they started in 1929 to synchronise the action to a pre-recorded soundtrack instead of the other way round. By the mid-1930s the Disney Studios had hundreds of employees and Walt was able to concentrate on fulfilling one of his greatest ambitions, the production of a full-length animated feature film. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a hit at its premiere in 1937, a gamble that assured his domination in the field. In 1940 the next two features, Pinocchio and Fantasia, did not do well at first due to the outbreak of war but they were critically and commercially acclaimed on their re-release.

Disney then turned to his dream of Disneyland, an adventure park for the masses, which took fifteen years to turn into a reality. Just like a movie Disneyland was designed to lift people out of their everyday lives into a world of fantasy and make-believe – and it worked. In the ten years after its opening the attractions had more than doubled in number, and public attendance had amounted to a then-staggering total of 42 million. However, one big mistake Walt Disney realized he’d made in planning Disneyland was to make the area too small, leaving the surrounding land wide open to exploitation by people eager to cash in on his success. So when he started to plan an even bigger venture on the East Coast, he had his company buy up acres of swampland around Orlando, Florida using pseudonyms. Only when they’d secured 28,000 acres, an area twice the size of Manhattan, did Walt and Roy Disney reveal their plans. Even bigger and more sophisticated than its predecessor, in addition to the Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World would incorporate the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, and for the rest of his life Walt’s work was mainly concentrated on his beloved EPCOT Centre, created to promote scientific knowledge and international understanding. Sadly it was a dream that Walt never saw completed in his lifetime. The completion of Walt Disney World was taken over by Roy after his brother’s death in 1966, who also named it in Walt’s honour. “Everyone knows the Ford car but not everyone knows it was Henry Ford who started it all,” he explained, “people will always know this was Walt’s dream.”

Views of Disney and his work have changed over the decades, and there have been polarized opinions. Although Disney’s films have been highly praised, very popular and commercially successful over time, more recently Disney has been regarded by some as a paradigm of American imperialism and intolerance, as well as a debaser of culture. Disney has also been accused of anti-semitism, although none of his employees‍ —‌ including the animator Art Babbitt, who disliked Disney intensely‍ —‌ ever accused him of making anti-semitic slurs or taunts. The Walt Disney Family Museum acknowledges that ethnic stereotypes common to films of the 1930s were included in some early cartoons, however, Disney donated regularly to Jewish charities and his studio employed a number of Jews, some of whom were in influential positions. Disney has also been accused of racism because some of his productions released between the 1930s and 1950s contain racially insensitive material. The feature film Song of the South was criticized by contemporary film critics, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, and others for its perpetuation of African American stereotypes, but Disney later campaigned successfully for an Honorary Academy Award for its star, James Baskett, the first black actor so honoured. Whilst Walt Disney never, either publicly or privately, made disparaging remarks about African Americans or asserted white superiority, it is however possible that, like many white Americans of his generation, he may have been racially insensitive. Floyd Norman, the studio’s first black animator who worked closely with Disney during the 1950s and 1960s, said, “Not once did I observe a hint of the racist behaviour Walt Disney was often accused of after his death. His treatment of people‍—‌and by this I mean all people‍—‌can only be called exemplary.”

When Walt Disney died on December 5, 1966 the world mourned the loss of an artist of genius. Disney’s remains were cremated two days later, and his ashes interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California (there is no truth to the rumour that his body was cryogenically frozen). In a heartfelt obituary the Los Angeles Times summed him up as “Aesop with a magic brush, Hans Andersen with a colour camera… No man in show business has left a greater legacy.” His legacy is The Walt Disney Company, a multinational mass media and entertainment conglomerate headquartered at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California. It is the world’s second largest media conglomerate in terms of revenue, after Comcast. While the company is best known for the products of its film studio, Walt Disney Studios, which is today one of the largest and best-known studios in American cinema, its other three main divisions are Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, Disney Media Networks, and Disney Consumer Products and Interactive Media. Disney also owns and operates the ABC broadcast television network; cable television networks such as Disney Channel, ESPN, A+E Networks, and Freeform; publishing, merchandising, music, and theatre divisions; and owns and licenses 14 theme parks around the world. Mickey Mouse remains the primary symbol and mascot for Disney, which in the vernacular is still referred to as ‘The House of Mouse’.

One Response to “The Weird and Wonderful World of Disney”

  1. theburningheart July 14, 2017 at 2:39 pm #

    There are some claims that Walt Disney was adopted by his family, and he was born from all places, a small village in Almeria Spain called Mojacar, he confided to his friend Salvador Dali.

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