Disney (founded 1923) In 1923, Walt Disney (1901-1966) moved from Kansas to California and, with his brother Roy, set up the Disney company. A year later, Walt was joined by fellow animator Ub Iwerks and together they produced numerous short cartoons. In 1928, they invented the character of ‘Mickey Mouse’, introducing him to the public in the groundbreaking Steamboat Willie (1928), the first cartoon with synchronised sound. The first Disney merchandise, featuring Mickey Mouse, was produced in the following year. Mickey proved immediately popular, and not only ensured the success of the company but established its identity, the mouse becoming so much its symbol as to be almost interchangeable with his chief creator. From the early 1930s through the early 1940s, Disney developed his company in size and substance.
This expansion was marked particularly by his employment of a core group of animators, known as ‘Walt’s Nine Old Men’, and by their contributions to the first five animated features, beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). The subject and style of Snow White and its successors revealed the extent to which Disney was determined to reinvent European traditions of both narrative and draughtsmanship, directly for an American audience, and then subsequently for Europeans themselves. Many of Disney’s most memorable films were based on classics of European literature, and especially works rooted in folk culture or aimed at children. They were at once suggestive of a deep and established heritage and remarkably direct, rich in themselves but also open to further interpretation and variation. Disney’s own interpretations tended to fall into two categories, the first being light and parodic, as in Gulliver Mickey (1934), the second being full-blown and serious, perhaps with ambitions to the definitive, as in Snow White (1937). The Nine Old Men perfected drawing styles appropriate to such interpretations, so that they could learn from, even be joined by, European illustrators; Arthur Rackham certainly influenced sequences of Snow White, while Kay Nielsen actually worked on Fantasia (1940). Such was the artistry of the Nine Old Men that, while their work was taken over by assistants and copyists, their own first drawings remained equal to the finished feature seen by the cinema audience. The critical and financial success of these early Disney features facilitated an expansion of the Walt Disney Company, which was halted only by the Second World War. During the war itself, the company made training and propaganda films for the military. Then, in the austere post-war period, it simulated the scale and ambition of its earlier features by combining short films to produce ‘packages’, such as Fun and Fancy Free (1947) and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad (1949). It also branched out into ‘True-Life Adventure’ nature films (from 1948) and appearances on television (beginning with the first Christmas special in 1950). A return to the financial success of the pre-war years was heralded in 1950, with the appearance of a new animated feature, Cinderella, and the first of the company’s live-action features, Treasure Island. Thus the studio began a second phase of classic animated features, created by many of the established animators, and including Peter Pan (1953) and the first Cinemascope cartoon feature, Lady and the Tramp (1955). Yet, it was only with the opening of Disneyland, the first true theme park, in California in 1955, that the company ensured financial security and was able to attempt new projects. Chief among Walt Disney’s plans at the time of his death, in 1966, was EPCOT, the ‘Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow’ to be established in Florida. However, succeeding Disney executives considered this utopian project for a garden city to be unfeasible and so rationalised its ambitious designs, building only the associated theme park, Walt Disney World with, eventually, its special presentations of the present and future world. Soon after the opening of Walt Disney World, in 1971, the Walt Disney Distributing Company was founded to produce merchandise. The Disney company has continued to seek pragmatic, commercially viable, means of sustaining Walt Disney’s vision, both in its film production and its attendant products. Further reading: Dave Smith, Disney A to Z. The Official Encyclopedia, New York: Hyperion, 1996; Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, Disney Animation. The Illusion of Life, New York: Abbeville Press, 1981