Walt Disney – good old Uncle Walt – must be chuckling on high. With the fiftieth anniversary of his death just around the corner, the company he created is now a vast multi-national entertainment empire, the second biggest media conglomerate on the planet, a cinematic colossus that owns everything from Snow White to Star Wars, while running one of America’s biggest TV networks, the world’s most popular chain of theme parks, and a multi-billion-dollar merchandising operation – not to mention a record company, sundry real estate interests and a cruise line.
It’s all a far cry from the two-bit partnership Walt set up with Roy Disney – his pretty much forgotten brother – back in the Hollywood of the early 1920s. Initially, the plan was to market a series of Alice in Wonderland-themed animated short films Walt had created, but it was clear, even then, that the man behind Mickey Mouse, fancied himself as good a businessman as he was an artist. No doubt, he would have more than approved of just how things have turned out.
It’s not just the company Disney founded that has flourished since those days, however – so have the legends surrounding Walt himself. The myth – perpetuated by Disney Studios to this day – tells of an innovative artistic and business genius who rose from humble beginnings to fame and fortune, revolutionising the world of cinema and delighting audiences throughout the world along the way.
Much of this is, of course, true. It’s undeniable that Disney and his designers transformed animation into an art form, revolutionising the techniques used to bring their drawings. Perhaps even more significantly, raised the status of cartoons forever, elevating them from being a five-minute into being a fully fledged lead feature.
The picture we have of Disney as an entrepreneurial genius, though, is perhaps less deserved. It’s fair to say that his company’s commercial success owes as much to luck as to anything else. His first few business ventures were all resounding failures and the embryonic Disney Studios might have suffered the same fate had it not been for one cartoon creation…
It’s probably not the one you’re thinking of. The studio’s original star was not a mouse, but a rabbit called Oswald who starred in 26 short films. It was here that’s Disney’s dubious business skills became apparent. He lost control of his creation to Universal Studios, having failed to secure the copyright.
Oswald’s hasty replacement was a suspiciously similar-looking rodent, a mouse originally dubbed Mortimer, until Disney’s wife persuaded him Mickey was more box-office friendly. It was pure chance, then, that led to the birth of a true cinematic legend
Mickey made Disney’s reputation, winning him the first of his astonishing 26 Oscars. To this day, he remains the most honoured filmmaker in Academy Award history. Ironic really, given that Mickey wasn’t even Walt’s creation.
Though Disney provided the preliminary sketches, it was Ub Iwerks, his partner, who first rendered Mickey in a form that we would recognise today. Disney did, however, provide the mouse’s squeaky, high-pitched voice right up until 1947.
While Disney may not have been entirely responsible for the creation that kick-started his company, few could argue that it was anything other than his visionary genius that ultimately propelled the studio to greatness. It was Walt who embraced complex new techniques, while encouraging his artists to refine their skills and make their drawings ever more lifelike. This ushered in the Golden Age of Animation, the era in the late 1930s and 1940s when the Disney studio churned out a seemingly never-ending stream of classics – Snow White and The Seven Dwarves, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Bambi …
In process, though, he once again came close to destroying the company. Snow White (1937), for example, went wildly over budget, nearly bankrupting Disney in the process. Meanwhile, the Second World War was hitting box-office receipts hard, especially in Europe, with Bambi (1942) making a huge loss. By 1944, Disney Studios was US$4m (HK$31m) in debt and being kept alive solely at the discretion of the banks.
It was until the release of Cinderella (1950) that the company found a firm financial footing, with the movie raking in an impressive US$8m (HK$62m) in its first year alone. Disney, though, had little to do with that. By then, he’d become a somewhat semi-detached presence, his attention fixed on new projects, such as Disney-themed TV programmes and his pet obsession – Disneyland, a fabulous family-friendly amusement park.
In fact, Disney had very little direct input into any of the animated classics his company produced in the last decade and a half of his life. While it was true that he oversaw the production of Sleeping Beauty and 101 Dalmatians, the actual work was left to Disney’s leading artists – a group known as the Nine Old Men.
While the Nine Old Men were creating the masterpieces which were to define Disney Studios, Walt was getting involved in politics. A founding member of the right-wing, anti-Communist Motion Picture Alliance For The Preservation Of American Ideals – alongside John Wayne and Ronald Reagan – he also appeared before the US Congress’s Un-American Activities Committee, denouncing several of his former animators as Communist agitators.
Disney’s political leanings have attracted considerable criticism since his death, with him frequently billed as an anti-Semite, a racist, and a rose-tinted apologist for the more unsavoury parts of American history. Those who knew him and worked with him, however, are unequivocal in denying the charges. Well, the first two at least.
While Disney was happy to employ Jews in senior positions in his company, doubts remain. Examples of offensive Jewish and black stereotyping abound in his earlier films. In 1938, he even offered Leni Riefenstahl – a notorious Nazi propagandist and filmmaker – a tour of his studios just a month after Kristallnacht, the infamous night when Jewish shops, hospitals and religious establishments across Germany were ransacked. While Disney may not have been a racist, many of those he chose to associate with clearly were.
Despite Disney’s unsavoury politics, the company he founded seemed to suffer no ill effects. By the time of his death in 1966, Disney was synonymous with providing clean, wholesome family entertainment – not just in the cinema and on TV, but also at the increasingly successful Disneyland park.
Disney’s determination to create Disneyland had proved to be one of his few undoubtedly wise decisions and ultimately saved the company. Just a few years after his death, Disney Studios went into decline.
A series of ill-thought out projects in the 1970s – most notably, The Black Hole, a costly attempt to make a Star Wars style science fiction blockbuster – left the company financially vulnerable. By the 1980s, it was only Disneyland – and its sister attraction Disney World – that kept the company afloat, generating nearly three quarters of the group’s entire income.
Things had to change. In 1984, a new boss, Michael Eisner, was appointed. This was the first time someone from outside Walt’s family had been made head of the company. He upgraded and expanded Disney’s cinema output, producing such hits as Good Morning Vietnam and Pretty Woman; while at presiding over a new generation of animated classics, including The Lion King and Aladdin. Disney’s second Golden Age had begun.
Over the course of 30 years, Eisner and his successor – current boss Bob Iger – reinvented Disney, taking it from being a faltering film company to becoming a true multi-media giant. They bought television networks, most notably ABC and the ESPN sports channel. They acquired a number of production companies, ranging from the Muppets to Marvel Entertainment. They even paid an eye-watering US$7.4bn (HK$57.4) for Pixar, the innovative animation company behind Toy Story and Finding Nemo fame. More recently – in 2012 – they paid US$4bn (HK$31bn) for Lucasfilm, the makers of Star Wars.
They also opened four more enormous theme parks – in Japan, France, Hong Kong and Shanghai. All the while, Disney continued to maintain its reputation for highly successful animated feature films. Its 2013 mega-hit Frozen, for example, is the highest-grossing animated movie of all time. At the last count, the Walt Disney Company’s market value was some US$179.5 billion (HK$1.39tn).
It’s a success story that Walt himself could scarcely have dreamt up. Certainly, not back in the days when he lost the rights to his first creation, Oswald the Rabbit, with all hope of a successful future in the film industry seemingly at an end.
Even in the case of Oswald, though, Walt eventually got the last laugh, if somewhat posthumously. A few years back, in a deal with Universal, Disney re-acquired the rights to the veteran bunny without even handing over a cent. Today, Oswald is a video game star – proving that Walt Disney’s characters, like the company he founded, have a seemingly endless ability to adapt and prosper.