Disney (Walt Disney Company)

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Disney (Walt Disney Company)

When it was founded in 1923, Walt Disney Productions consisted of a small cracker-box studio in Hollywood housing a small group of creative artists headed by a young visionary who had recently arrived from the Midwest to produce cartoons for the movies. Beyond that, there was little more than a paper menagerie of barnyard animals and a mouse nicknamed "Mickey" who emerged at night to seek crumbs left behind by the artists. Five years later, that mouse had made the jump to the silver screen starring in Plane Crazy (1928) with the assistance of artist Ub Iwerks who supplied the artwork and Walt Disney, himself who came up with the trademark squeaky voice. The company was on its way.

At the end of the twentieth century, The Walt Disney Co. was considered by many to be the most influential company in the world surpassing even its founder's vision as it has established footholds not only in motion pictures but in such diverse industries as television, electronic media, book publishing, hotels, transportation, tourism, amusement parks, real estate, sports, and communications. In an industry where "vertical integration" had become increasingly important, Disney and its chief rival Time Warner have their corporate fingers in more pies than any other entertainment entities. Yet, the mouse continued to lead the way.

Perhaps, the most recognizable logo in the history of the world, Mickey Mouse has left his footprints on every country and culture in the world but the road to success has not been entirely without its share of ups and downs. Walt Disney was born in Chicago in 1901, the son of a ne'er-do-well father who drifted from one job to another. He learned to work hard early in life and had very little escape from the drudgery of his life except for the drawings he would create when no one was looking. This early experience instilled two traits in Disney that would follow him for all of his life. One was that he learned the value of hard work and became a compulsive "workaholic." The other was a firm belief that the public thirsted for escapism and "happy endings."

In 1919, Disney went to work for the Kansas City Film Ad Company where he put his drawing talents to use working on short animated commercials for local merchants. He also met another young artist named Ub Iwerks. Together the two learned the fundamentals of animation and decided to strike out on their own producing a series of ads and comic shorts called Newman's Laugh-O-Grams for the local Newman's Theater. In 1922, Disney took the Newman's concept further by creating pure entertainment oriented theatrical cartoons satirizing popular fairy tales. Unfortunately, he had the habit of spending more money on the production and technical aspects of each film than they brought in. The result was that, artistically, the films were quite polished for their time with full background detail and a full spectrum of wash tones that served to establish the basic Disney style. Financially, however, the company was forced to go out of business because it's production costs were simply too high.

In 1923, Disney moved to Hollywood with his brother Roy and formed the Disney Brothers studio to produce short subjects which combined both live action and animation. The impetus for the move was based on an experimental short subject based on Alice in Wonderland which was a reversal of rival animator Max Fleischer's Out of the Inkwell series which featured a cartoon clown having adventures against a live background. Disney's version featured a live Alice character juxtaposed with cartoon backgrounds and animated characters. The series, which was dubbed Alice in Cartoonland was picked up by a Los Angeles distributor named M.J. Winkler. Yet, with the formation of the company, both Disney brothers realized that animation was not a one or two man job. Additionally, Walt realized that he was not the animator that his friend Ub Iwerks was so he hired a small staff including Iwerks and an up and coming animator named Hugh Harmon. Some of the titles in the "Alice Series" included Alice's Wild West Show (1924), Alice's Egg Plant (1925), and Alice Chops the Suey (1925). These shorts were innovative in that they integrated the real and animated action, showing a live girl jumping out of an animated ink well or blowing animated smoke rings or being splattered with cartoon eggs. Yet, at the speed that the small studio was required to turn them out (approximately one every two weeks), they couldn't experiment with too many ideas and the novelty began to wear off.

Disney quickly introduced a new character and series—"Oswald the Lucky Rabbit." These cartoons reflected a higher quality of animation and experimented with a variety of visual effects, particularly the manipulation of light and shadow, not seen in the Alice series. In addition, the use of an animated central character as opposed to a live figure made a certain reality defying flexibility possible. In one adventure, Oswald attempts to kiss a medieval maiden's hand and arm and keeps pulling more and more arm out of her sleeve until he has a seemingly endless expanse of arm to kiss. In another cartoon, his car expands and contracts to fit a variety of continuously changing road conditions.

Like the cartoons themselves, the planning sessions for them were equally flexible. Instead of formal scripts, the stories were conceived at what amounted to corporate bull sessions consisting of Disney and four other animators. Ideas were tossed into the ring until a basic plot evolved. Disney would then divide the elements into four sequences with each animator responsible for his own area of the cartoon's action. Each animator could then freely improvise within his own area subject to Disney's approval.

The Oswald series was so fresh and innovative that it made Disney's company a modest success. Yet, when he approached his current distributor Charles Mintz who had taken over the Winkler Company for larger production budgets, Mintz refused and took both Oswald and all of the key animators who participated in the project away from Disney. Only Iwerks remained. The experience made the Disney brothers determined to own all of their own films and copyrights in the future.

In 1928, Disney and Iwerks fashioned another animal character to replace Oswald. However, Mickey Mouse who made his debut in Plane Crazy followed by Galloping Gaucho was not an immediate success. Although the animation and story ideas were good, the character itself looked like Oswald with shorter ears and a longer nose. There was nothing intrinsically interesting about the character to separate it from the multitudes of other animals cavorting on the screen. It took the invention of sound in 1928 to make Mickey Mouse a superstar. While the first live action sound films such as The Jazz Singer (1928) put the sound in somewhat gratuitously counting on the technology to thrill the audience, Disney created an integrated film in which sound and images worked together. When Steamboat Willie was released at the end of the year, audiences were captivated by the idea that a character plainly drawn with pen and ink could actually sing and dance in rhythm. The secret was that Disney began with song and music first and then drew the characters and backgrounds to reflect the sounds.

Disney built on the success of Steamboat Willie by working with his musical director Carl Stallings to create animated cartoons based on specific musical pieces. The first of these was Skeleton Dance (1928), a non-character cartoon that demonstrated animation's ability to evoke mood and atmosphere. Suddenly cartoons were no longer the poor relative of live action feature films but works of art in themselves. In the years that followed, Disney created the Silly Symphoniesseries of music-based animation and introduced new characters including Pluto (1930), Minnie Mouse (1933), and Donald Duck (1934). In 1932, he switched to the new medium of Technicolor for Flowers and Trees and won the Academy Award for "Best Short Subject." After that, the young company maintained an exclusive agreement with Technicolor for all of their animated productions.

But, cartoon shorts could only evolve so far. Disney became determined to create a feature length animated film. Although conventional Hollywood wisdom dictated that an animated cartoon could not hold audience interest beyond seven minutes, Disney envisioned a fairly simple structure, which would allow one sequence to flow into another and in which musical numbers would evolve from and add to character development, as a viable formula for such a film. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938), he created seven distinctly individual personalities in addition to his main characters, a feat which never before had been accomplished in animation. To accomplish such distinction, Disney crafted the characters, particularly Snow White, in such a degree of detail that they could convey human emotions in a believable manner. Audiences reacted to Snow White as if the characters were real, showing a variety of emotions ranging from horror at the sight of the queen's transformation into a witch to happiness as Snow White frolics with the dwarves and charms the woodland animals.

Following Snow White came a steady flow of animated features, each one expanding the techniques of animation. By the beginning of the 1940s, the company geared up to produce a steady stream of animated features and literally become an animation factory employing hundreds of artists and technical personnel even though the studio had not gained "major" status as a full production/distribution entity on a par with Warner Brothers or Columbia. Pinocchio and Fantasia appeared in 1940, blazing a trail for such other notable productions as Dumbo (1941), Bambi (1942), Cinderella (1950), Sleeping Beauty (1959), and 101 Dalmations (1961). Interspersed with these animated features were documentary and live action productions, including The Living Desert (1953), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), and Mary Poppins (1964). During the early 1950s, Disney founded his own distribution company, Buena Vista, to release these films thus freeing him from his reliance on RKO and other larger companies to determine the venues for his products.

But Disney did not confine himself to one medium. In 1954, he made the jump to the new medium of television with a weekly series called Disneyland which would be followed by an afternoon child-ren's series the Mickey Mouse Club. In 1955, he fulfilled his personal vision by creating an escapist world in Anaheim, California, in which reality dare not intrude. The Disneyland theme park featured a nostalgic Main Street USA and four thematically constructed "lands": Adventureland, Fantasyland, Frontierland, and Tomorrowland. Each of these lands reflected motifs first delineated in Disney films or television programs. It was a "first" for the entertainment industry in that for the first time, viewers could actually enter the world of their favorite Disney films and interact with fictional characters. The company also led the way in creating spin-off products from the films and theme parks with lines of toys, clothing, records, and similar merchandise. By the end of the 1950s, Walt Disney was America's undisputed king of family entertainment.

After its founder's death in 1966, the company coasted along for a number of years turning out acceptable products and fulfilling several of Disney's unrealized dreams, notably an updated East Coast version of Disneyland, Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, in 1971, and the futuristic Epcot Center several years later. Under the management of Disney's successor E. Cardon Walker, the company was faced by a defection of a number of its leading animators led by Don Bluth, who felt that the company's standards had deteriorated after Walt's death. Yet, after venturing out on their own, they quickly discovered that while they could duplicate the legendary Disney animation, they could not capture the elusive Disney touch which transformed drawings into real characters capable of expressing human emotions within innovative storylines.

Walker's successor Ron Miller, faced with declining film revenues created a new division called Touchstone in 1984 to turn out more adult products than the Disney image would allow. This prompted Roy Disney, still a major shareholder in the company to resign from the board of directors, initiating a management struggle for control of the company which by the mid-1980s was producing only four films a year and was reliant on the theme parks for the bulk of its revenue (nearly 83 percent in 1983 alone).

Miller resigned under pressure in September 1984 just as Touch-stone's first release, Splash, boosted the film division's earnings to record highs, and became the highest grossing film in Disney history while making a star of Tom Hanks. His successor, Michael Eisner, lured from Paramount Pictures, appeared cut from the Disney mold. He followed up on the success of Splash with two more non-traditional features Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1985) and Three Men and a Baby (1987). These would be followed by the worldwide mega-hit Pretty Woman (1990), a story of a romance between a prostitute and a millionaire which took the old Cinderella story in a modern direction that Walt probably would not have approved of. With chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, Eisner effected a renaissance of the animated feature at a time when conventional wisdom had declared it moribund. Beginning with the critically acclaimed The Black Cauldron in 1985, Eisner started a new golden age of animation which surpassed the box-office successes of the 1930s and 1940s. Yet, the formula was very much the same: realistic characters that tugged at the viewers emotions, superb animation, and memorable music. Such films as The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994) generated grosses in the hundreds of millions prompting many of Hollywood's major studios to jump into animation in order to compete. Beauty and the Beast became the first animated feature to be nominated for an Academy Award.

By the mid-1990s, production at Disney had risen from the four films per year of a decade earlier to more than 20 per anum. Eisner's strategy of producing tightly budgeted films pairing "low cost name talent" such as Richard Dryfuss and Bette Midler who were in temporary career lulls with widely appealing stories paid major dividends. Films such as the aforementioned Pretty Woman, Sister Act, Stakeout, and Honey I Shrunk the Kids achieved grosses that greatly exceeded their small (by Hollywood standards) production budgets. The success of these features prompted the studio to open a third production entity, Hollywood Pictures, in 1990.

Disney had at last acquired major studio status by the 1990s. It's distribution company Buena Vista was regularly in the top one or two in film grosses and it was out-producing all of the studios in Hollywood in sheer number of films. With its ownership of a cable TV channel, a successful video distribution empire, and the ability to distribute its product worldwide via satellite, Disney became one of the earliest studios to realize the financial value of a large library. In 1996, the company purchased the ABC television network for $19 billion, giving it a national outlet for its product as well as an all encompassing venue for plugging its upcoming films. While the network has not regained the top spot it held in the 1970s, it nonetheless presents some of the more innovative new shows on television and is a leader in sports and news programming.

Eisner also took major steps to revitalize the theme park side of the ledger by creating Euro Disney outside of Paris in 1992, a wild animal theme park in Florida in 1997 and by starting a project to expand the original Disneyland in Anaheim, California. The ancillary markets for Disney product were expanded as well. The company refurbished the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood as a showcase for its new releases and added promotional stage acts as well as a place to buy the company's products in the lobby.

On the opposite coast, Disney refurbished a Broadway theater and began to turn its film hits, including Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, into musical plays with new numbers and scenes added to make them successful on the stage. Similarly, several of the animated productions were turned into ice extravaganzas which toured the country blending the traditional stories and songs with fancy skating numbers arranged specifically for the frozen medium.

Yet, the ultimate spin-off of a motion picture concept occurred in the early 1990s when Eisner bought an Anaheim NHL hockey franchise and named it after a moderately successful live action feature The Mighty Ducks. The company purchased the Anaheim Angels baseball team and the highly popular cable TV station Entertainment and Sports Network (ESPN). After these purchases, Disney had only two rivals in the sports arena: Rupert Murdoch with his Fox Sports Cable Channel on the Fox Network; and the ownership of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Angels' chief rival for the L.A. sports dollar.

By the end of the twentieth century, The Walt Disney Company had grown from the small Hollywood studio of 1923 to a recreational empire. With holdings so expansive, the nostalgic Disney vision has been applied beyond mere entertainment. The company's theme-oriented steamship line (floating Disneylands), Disney Stores, innovative theme parks, music, video and television endeavors, have allowed the company unprecedented power to shape the perceptions of consumers, offering people the chance to see, experience, and purchase Disney-styled versions of Americana.

—Steve Hanson

Further Reading:

Bailey, Adrian. Walt Disney's World of Fantasy. New York, Everest House, 1982.

Coleman, Todd. "Mouse Trap." The Hollywood Reporter. November 25, 1996, 29+.

Hanson, Steve. "The Mouse That Roared." Stills, October 1984, 24-27.

Koepp, Stephen, "Do You Believe in Magic? Starring in its own Cinderella Story, Disney Transforms Itself." Time. April 25, 1988, 66-75.

Maltin, Leonard. Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons. New York, The New American Library, 1980.

Schickel, Richard. The Disney Version. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1968.

Smith, Dave. Disney A to Z: The Official Encyclopedia. New York, Hyperion, 1996.

Solomon, Charles. The Disney That Never Was: The Stories and Art From Five Decades of Unproduced Animation. New York, Hyperion, 1995.

Taylor, John. Storming the Magic Kingdom: Wall Street, the Raiders and the Battle for Disney. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.

West, John G., Jr. The Disney Live Action Productions. Milton, Washington, Hawthorne & Peabody, 1994.