Walt Disney - An Animated Life
Wishing upon a star
Think of a famous person within the film industry who has brought happiness to several successive generations of children throughout the greater part of the twentieth century - close your eyes for a moment and imagine...
How Walt Disney has created generations of happiness
In December 1901, Walt Disney was born in Chicago, Illinois, USA. His pioneering work with animation has indisputably made him one of the most prominent people in the film industry since the late 1930s.
Is there a family home in the western world which is without a Disney cuddly toy or video? Is there anyone who is unfamiliar with such well-loved characters as Dumbo, Mickey Mouse or Pluto?
Walt Disney was a man of diverse imagination and dreams which he tried so hard to achieve, but he died prematurely at the age of sixty six just when his most daring and imaginative ambitions were yet to be fulfilled. He realised, due to his failing health, largely brought upon by alcoholism and excessive smoking that he would have to entrust these ideas to his successors, even though he had little faith in their ability to carry out such complex aims to his exact specifications.
Roy, Walt's brother did his utmost to bring those plans to fruition when he took over the company after Walt's death but it has always been said that if Walt were ever to come back he would not be happy with his efforts.
A perfectionist by nature, he was forever checking on his employees to see if they were carrying out their set tasks to the letter.
Walt Disney at the time of his first cartoon feature film
Walt Disney's vast legacy of cartoon charachters
The characters which Walt himself created, since ‘Oswald The Lucky Rabbit’ in 1927, (lost to another studio) have all become household names; they were to become part of the very essence of twentieth century life.
The following year saw the birth of Mickey Mouse, who became the star of two silent films before appearing with a full soundtrack in ‘Steamboat Willie’ (1928, black and white). He eventually appeared in colour in 1935.
Walt originally intended to call his new creation ‘Mortimer’ but his wife, Lily, thought ‘Mickey’ was a more suitable name for the tiny rodent. So ‘Mickey Mouse’ it was. It is said there is always a great woman behind the man, and one wonders if Walt would have achieved the same success with the character if he had insisted on his original choice of name.
One of the studio animators noticed that Mickey Mouse was strikingly familiar in appearance. ‘He looks exactly like you,’ he pointed out to Walt. ‘Same nose, same face, same whiskers, same gestures and expressions... all he needs now is your voice!’
So Mickey Mouse was born, an animated caricature of his creator, who spoke with Walt's own voice for the next twenty five years. The early days were not easy; money was scarce and Walt was finding it difficult to persuade anyone to invest in his new animation techniques, which for those days were still ahead of their time.
But the rise in popularity of Mickey Mouse soon provided the break he so desperately needed, and from 1928 to 1934 several other animated characters joined the Disney team. There was a partner for Mickey - Minnie Mouse, plus their playful companions, Donald Duck, Goofy and Pluto.
Disney studios also produced the Silly Symphony series, one of which was ‘The Three little Pigs’ which included the hit song ‘Who's afraid of the big bad wolf?’ Walt would draw on his own experiences, inventing animal personalities which were inspired by his own childhood on a farm where at the age of five he had begun to sketch the various animals which surrounded him.
The feature films
By 1934 Walt felt confident enough to embark on his first feature length cartoon - ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.’ Again he was breaking new ground since this had never been attempted before. Walt now had all the new techniques of sound and colour at his disposal, and soon after its première three years later the film became a smash hit at the box office.
Walt had discovered the recipe for success and for the next thirty years his empire grew, and he continued to produce cartoon characters that were loved by children everywhere.
He adored fairy tales and successfully brought to animation such well known story book characters as Pinocchio in 1940, and Bambi in 1941.Cinderella followed ten years later. Alice in Wonderland (1951), Peter Pan (1953) and The Sleeping Beauty (1959) soon added to this delightful retinue, bringing to the silver screen tales which until then, children had only been able to appreciate in book form. And of course there were the lovable hounds from The Lady and the Tramp (1955) and The 101 Dalmatians (1961).
The last full-length animated film Disney presided over was ‘The Jungle Book’ in 1966, shortly before he died, and since then Disney studios have continued to churn out film after film of box office hits, both animated and live-action, and sometimes a mixture of both.
But all this was never enough for Walt and over the decades, he became bored with animation. ‘Nowadays, I find it hard to laugh at the little monster,’ he said of Donald Duck in later years. It was as if he had become like Victor Frankenstein, blighted by his own creation.
He soon became involved in several awe-inspiring innovative projects on a grander scale. In 1954 work began on Disneyland at Anaheim, California and it was there where Disney characters were not only represented ‘live’ by costumed humans, but they were given their very own kingdom to inhabit into the bargain.
In creating this fantasy wonderland, Walt had succeeded in enriching the lives of many children and some adults too; the ‘Peter Pans’ of this world, who relish a return to the realms of childhood imagination, even if it is only for a day.
By the autumn of 1966 Walt was perhaps the most famous man in the world; at the head of a multi-million dollar organisation and with his health failing fast, he worried continually as to the future of his empire.
By now a desperate man, he speculated on the consequences of his own demise, even considering the possibilities of cryogenic suspension so that he could return at some future date and continue where he left off. Walt had spent the last two years designing Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida and adjacent to the theme park he had plans to build his most ingenious project yet, The EPCOT Centre - an acronym of Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Sadly, he did not live long enough to see these schemes materialise but five years later the Florida Park opened as planned.
Shortly afterwards Roy Disney died too, having carried out his brother's last wishes. EPCOT eventually came into being but it was nothing like the idea Walt had originally envisioned.
As with so many larger than life people there is considerable speculation as to what happened to Walt's body after his death. It was supposedly whisked away quickly and interred in the family plot. But there are some who insist that he has, in fact, been frozen, according to his wishes, and will one day return to reclaim his magical kingdom and put to rights the mistakes of his successors, just as King Arthur, as legend suggests, will one day return to his beloved Britain.
Perhaps, if Walt could return he would be The EPCOT Centre's harshest critic. Though it's probably true to say he would view the many new animated characters which his studio has created since 1966, with a little more kindness, since they, like their predecessors, Mickey and Donald, still continue to brighten the lives of generations of children the world over.
Tour of Disneyland
A glimpse of what might have been...
Oswald wasn't a very lucky rabbit after all
Although sold out to another studio,only to disappear into obscurity, Disney's cartoon character, Oswald, the lucky rabbit does bear a striking resemblance to his more famouse successor!
Disneyland Paris - Walt Disney's dream lives on!
The EPCOT centre
Questions & Answers
© 2016 Stella Kaye