Walt Disney: The Man Behind The Mouse

Chris Anderson

4 min read

As the 50th anniversary of the death of Walt Disney approaches, MOJEHMEN examines the animator’s legacy and life’s work.

Disney. It’s a name that encompasses so much, from movies and animation to theme parks and merchandise, backed up by original characters, interpretations of classic fairy tales and the ownership of other companies and franchises, including Star Wars and Marvel Comics. At the start of 2016, Disney announced quarterly earnings of US$2.9 billion, largely on the back of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, with ongoing favourites such as Frozen and Mickey Mouse also contributing.

Did founder Walt Disney ever envisage a business of this size? Neal Gabler, who wrote the 2006 biography of the legendary animator, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, believes so. “Walt was always thinking of ways of expanding his franchise,” he says in a Q&A featured in the hardcover edition. “I think he would have been impressed with how his theme parks have grown, and how the company has embraced computer-generated animation, as he was always searching for the next new thing.”

Life and death
With December 15 marking 50 years since Walt Disney’s death, his legacy will be under the spotlight again. The Walt Disney Film Archives: The Animated Movies 1921-1968 is a new book celebrating the material that Disney oversaw in his lifetime. Editor Daniel Kothenschulte, like Gabler before him, was granted access to the Disney Archives, perusing old notes, storyboards, artwork and personal documents, building a vivid picture of the man and his work.

Kothenschulte explores Disney’s earliest attempts at becoming an animator in Hollywood, the creation of Mickey Mouse and the formation of his own company. His first full-length feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), his artistic experimentation, Fantasia (1940), and his last features, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree (1966) and The Jungle Book (1967), are all covered in lavish detail.

1933: An early Mickey Mouse cartoon set on a building site.

1933: An early Mickey Mouse cartoon set on a building site.

Flight of the animator

Something touched on by Kothenschulte is that Disney was a pioneer of animation, helping to develop the art form within Hollywood. He championed cel animation, painting onto a transparent sheet, rather than the more common ‘cut-out’ method, using stop animation and paper shapes, as he found it gave better results. With Steamboat Willie – the 1928 short that introduced Mickey Mouse – he created the first animation with synchronised sound, and he was one of the first filmmakers to animate characters that looked like real people, often tracing the movements of actors to add realism.

But while he was strong technically, Disney apparently struggled as a businessman. “He had no regard for money,” says Gabler. “Until Cinderella (1950), the animations, with the exceptions of Snow White and Dumbo (1941), were financial disasters. He lost millions. It wasn’t until Disneyland that the studio pulled itself out of the economic slough. That is certainly not how most of us perceive Walt Disney.”

When asked to elaborate, Gabler points to Disney’s refusal to scale back on the nature of his productions. “Walt was constitutionally incapable of cutting corners, enforcing economies, laying off staff,” he says. “The only thing about which Walt Disney cared was quality – it had the psychological advantage of letting him perfect his world.”

1940: Fantasia artwork.

1940: Fantasia artwork.

Chasing the dream
Was this idea of creating the ideal fantasyland anything to do with his tough upbringing? Born in Chicago in 1901, Walter Elias Disney, the fourth of five siblings, did not find childhood easy. “Whether it was true or not, Walt Disney always felt that he had lived a childhood of great deprivation, both financially and emotionally,” Gabler explains. “His father, Elias Disney, was a hard man, and forced young Walt to deliver newspapers. The route didn’t leave time for play, but it did leave time for drawing, which is how Walt sought his release. One might make the claim that Walt spent his entire life compensating for his lost childhood by creating a perfect world.”

He also invited others to share their ideas. For his own book, Kothenschulte has published the full transcripts of story conferences held by Disney with his staff. “This is something very rare,” he says. “Other studios don’t have this. Walt Disney liked to have everything documented. He had stenographers present during all these story meetings, which could go on for hours, just making up ideas. Walt was the key story man, as you can see, but everyone had an opinion. It was a very open discussion.”

1967: A cel from The Jungle Book - the last production Walt Disney worked on.

1967: A cel from The Jungle Book – the last production Walt Disney worked on.

Parks and recreation
Disney’s vision later took shape physically in the form of theme parks – the first of which, Disneyland, opened in Anaheim, California, in 1955. It was a success from the start, and Disney decided to replicate it on the other side of the US. He had purchased land in Florida and announced the construction for Disney World by the time of his death in 1966, and in addition to Magic Kingdom, with its various rides and themed zones, had planned to build his city of the future – Epcot (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow).

Disney World’s Magic Kingdom opened in 1971, with Epcot becoming the adopted name of a more educational sister theme park that launched in 1982. How would Disney find it all if he visited today? “Well, the first thing he would probably do is nitpick,” says Gabler. “Walt was a perfectionist who was never satisfied, but I think he would have been impressed by the scale of the park and by some of its new attractions.

“The one thing in which he would have been deeply disappointed would be Epcot, which he had originally conceived as a fully functional city with as many as 100,000 inhabitants – a place where he could test the latest concepts in city planning and technology. He would have been shocked to see it as a kind of glorified world’s fair.”

Disney, a heavy smoker for much of his lifetime, died of lung cancer on December 15, 1966. Gabler explains why, as an entrepreneur, he continues to fascinate. “His visual sensibility is arguably one of the two most important of the last century, along with Picasso,” he says. “I thought that if one could understand Walt Disney, one could go a long way to understanding American popular culture.”

The Walt Disney Film Archives: The Animated Movies 1921-1968, US$169, is available from taschen.com. Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler, US$16.75, is available from amazon.co.uk. Images: © 2016 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

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