Friday, March 18, 2005


Today it is sometimes fashionable to knock Walt Disney Studios. They have been mocked for being overly family friendly. They have been derided for their sometimes less than stellar movies. Even their legendary founder, Walt Disney himself, has come under attack from time to time. But while Disney has released some less than classic films from time to time (anyone out there remember The Monkey's Uncle or The Aristocats?) and while there can be no doubt Walt had his faults (who doesn't?), there can be one thing that cannot be disputed. Walt Disney and Disney Studios were one of the most powerful forces shaping American pop culture in the 20th century.

Like most people born after 1929 (when Mickey Mouse made his debut), I grew up watching Disney products. And like many people I have enjoyed many of the animated shorts and feature films prdouced by the studio. Indeed, in some ways Disney's presence was more immediate for me. Walt Disney's hometown, Maceline, MO is just 43 miles from Huntsville. Disney's presence can be felt everywhere--even their elementary school is named for Walt. While Walt has had an impact on Marceline, Marceline had its impact on Walt. Disneyland's main street was based on that of Marceline!

While the Disney name now brings to mind major motion pictures and the amusement parks, it all started with animated shorts. Disney first produced a series of shorts based on Alice and Wonderland for M. J. Winkler and later her husband Charles Mintz. He later produced a series of shorts featuring the character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit for Mintz, eventually losing the character to Mintz. Fortunately, Walt would create a new character who would be more famous than Oswald ever was. Initially called Mortimer, the character was finally named Mickey Mouse.
Mickey Mouse made his debut in 1929 in the short "Steamboat Willy." It was on that cartoon that the Disney empire was built. Mickey swiftly became the most popular cartoon character around.

The Disney animated shorts aren't seen often, so I rather suspect most people have forgotten how brilliant they were. Most people my age were lucky to see some of them on The Wonderful World of Disney in the Sixties and Seventies. Disney Studios was one of the first to synchronise animation and music ("The Skeleton Dance" from 1932 being a prime example). They were also pioneered the multi-plane camera technique, first utilised on the short "The Old Mill." They were even among the first to use colour ("Flowers and Trees" being the first colour Disney short). Besides all of this, Disney introduced some of the most enduring cartoon characters in the history of film. As popular as Mickey had been, Donald Duck would prove even more popular. Eventually, he would have an entire family, from nephews Huey, Duey, and Luey, to sweetheart Daisy. Beyond Micky and Donald, there would also be Goofy, Chip and Dale, Pluto, and yet more.

From animated shorts, the next natural step would seem to be an animated feature film. Suprisingly, this was not the traditonal wisdom when Disney first announced Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. For the entirety of its production, it was called "Disney's folly." Many expected it to fail. It came as a surprise to all but Walt and his crew when the film was a success. This was a considerable feat, given it took four years and $1.7 million to produce, during the Depression at that! Disney would follow Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with yet other classics. Surpisingly, with the exception of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, I would not get to see any of the classic Disney animated fetaures until adulthood. Fortunately, through re-releases, VHS tapes, and the Disney Channel, I have gotten to see most of the classic Disney features. Beyond Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (the only one I've gotten to see in the theatre), my favourites would be Sleeping Beauty and Dumbo. To me Sleeping Beauty is one of the great animated feature films, with beautiful animation, well developed characters, and even a bit of action. Dumbo is the classic story of an outcast. I really had to feel sorry for the poor fellow and I was happy when his ability to fly redeemed him in the eyes of others. I have yet to see Pinnochio or Bambi, which I have on the word of others are the greatest Disney films of all time. Indeed, I have heard many describe Pinnochio as the greatest animated movie of all time. I have heard that Disney has shut down its hand drawn animation unit and is switching entirely to computer animation. I truly hope this is not the case. While I love computer animation, I still think there is room for old fashioned, hand drawn animation. Indeed, the beauty of such films as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Sleeping Beauty beg for more such films to be made.

Eventually Disney would start making live action feature films in addition to its animated features. Fortunately, I got to see many of these on The Wonderful World of Disney over the years. Of course, Walt had combined live action and animation in the old Alice shorts. And in 1941 The Reluctant Dragon became the first Disney feature to combine live-action and animation. It should not have been a surprise when Disney Studio released their first live action film in 1950, Treasure Island based on the Robert Louis Stevenson classic. Disney's version of Treasure Island is the definitive movie version in my mind. Another of Disney's early live-action features is another one of my favourite films, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Directd by Robert Fleischer, the son of Disney's old animation rival Max Fleischer, it is a great film. To this day I cannot think of Captain Nemo without picturing James Mason. Disney would even look to the old West with Old Yeller, perhaps the best film about a boy and his dog. Eventually, Disney would produce comedies as well as adventure films. The Absent Minded Professor remains a classic to this day in my mind. I've always thought that the quality of Disney's features declined quite a bit in the Seventies, with several Love Bug sequels and such films as The World's Greatest Athlete, but the studio would eventually recover. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is the greatest pirate movie this side of The Crimson Pirate, while I still love Hidalgo as a good, old fashioned adventure film (a shame it didn't do better at the box office).

Of course, eventually Disney would conquer television as well as theatres. In fact, like the majority of my generation, my first introduction to Disney was The Wonderful World of Disney. Walt Disney appeared on television as early in 1950, in the special One Hour in Wonderland, promoting his new film Alice in Wonderland. This would be followed by The Walt Disney Christmas Show in 1951. In 1955 Disney Studios would become the first major Hollywood movie studio to enter television production. Disneyland debuted that year, beginning an incredibly long run. While its name changed over the years, The Wonderful World of Disney (the name with which I am most familiar) remained essentially the same. It would show segments specially made for the series (the Davy Crockett series being the most memorable), Disney's feature films, and classic animated shorts. Watching The Wondeful World of Disney is one of the fondest memories I have from my childhood. It seems to have been for many others as well. Althogh cancelled many times, it keeps returning to television.

Of course, Disney would also produce other series as well. Nineteen fifty eight would see the debut of Disney's version of Zorro. The series would prove to be one of the most durable shows made for children, joining The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid among boy's favourites. I have very fond memories of watching it as a child...well...I have fond memories of watching it as an adult, too. Disney would also produce The Mickey Mouse Club in 1956. Not having been born yet and never seeing it until it aired on the Disney Channel, I don't really have fond memories of it. And I was much too old for its revivals.

Arguably, Disney Studios may well be the most successful Hollywood studio of all time. While all of the studios have produced their share of classics. And while Warner Brothers and MGM can boast their own cavalcade of animated stars, it seems to me that Disney Studios is the only one that has seen success in animation, live action features, and television. In fact, for the longest time Disney was the only studio to produce animated features! Regardless of what anyone else thinks of them, I must say that I will always have a place in my heart for Disney, even when their fortunes may not be as good as they once were.

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