A Brief History of Disney

Walt Disney, from the 1937 trailer for "Snow White," via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s a reading list exploring Disney’s more than 80-year grip on popular culture—the animation, the music, the princesses, and the parents killed off in the First Act.

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1. The Fresh Air Interview: ‘Frozen’ Songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (Terry Gross, NPR 2014)

LOPEZ: Disney is not this sanitized place that you might imagine it to be. I mean, they hired Ashman and Menken after they did “Little Shop of Horrors” which was sort of the “Avenue Q” of its day. It was very campy and very kind of…

LOPEZ: …a little off color and racy. And I don’t think Disney has any problem with employing people who have, you know, done off color stuff in the past.

ANDERSON-LOPEZ: It’s funny. One of the only places you have to draw the line at Disney is with religious things, the word God.

 

2. The Disney Renaissance (David Crow, Den of Geek 2013)

A brief history of Disney’s animation highs and lows, though with a slightly pessimistic take on the future. (It was published 10 months before Frozen arrived and dominated the box office.)

I can’t help but wonder when they’ll have another 1989-styled revival and want to lead American animation again, instead of timidly following the competition. Because ultimately, it was the Disney Renaissance that convinced Hollywood that feature animation could play to more than children and do good business. It cleared a path for Pixar, DreamWorks and everyone else Disney now follows.

 

3. Tinkering (Mark Greif, London Review of Books 2007)

It makes good sense to speak of a tradition of Disney biography, made up of forty years of writing about him since his death in 1966. The central faultline of this tradition is represented by the biographer’s decision whether to attribute to Walt Disney all that was ‘Disney’ in name, or to focus on other sources of its success – the genius of the animators, usually, or the contributions of social history. Did Walt make Disney movies – or did Ub Iwerks, Norm Ferguson, Fred Moore, Bill Tytla etc? Did Walt make the Three Little Pigs and Davy Crockett and Tomorrowland matter to America by his own genius, or did he mirror back to America its defiance of the Depression, its Cold War myths of individualism and ‘containment’, its affluent 1960s futurism?

 

4. Secret Lives: Walt Disney (BBC 1995)

A 1995 BBC documentary focusing on anecdotes of racism and sexism in Walt Disney’s work. Late Peanuts animator Bill Melendez has some particularly harsh words about his old employer.

5. Disney’s Snow White at 75 (Mindy Aloff, VQR 2013)

In 2012, no one cares that rotoscoping was used in the preparation of the movie; however, in 1937, when Disney was pursuing animation as a work of art that recreated the breath of life through pencil, paper, ink, paint, lighting, and cinematography, the possibility that audiences might write off this complex technique as “merely tracing” made it imperative to hide the dancers who served as the live-action references for Disney characters. Belcher, in fact, didn’t even know that she had been rotoscoped—only that she had been filmed—until many decades later, when she encountered a Disney exhibit that explained the rotoscoping of her films and then the artistry of the Disney animators who used them as a basis for creating figures from the imagination.

 

6. Some Thoughts on Our Business (Jeffrey Katzenberg, 1991)

The memo that inspired Jerry Maguire: A 28-page internal manifesto penned by Jeffrey Katzenberg, then head of Disney’s film studio:

As we begin the new year, I strongly believe we are entering a period of great danger and even greater uncertainty. Events are unfolding within and without the movie industry that are extremely threatening to our studio.

Some of you might be surprised to read these words. After all, wasn’t Disney number one in 1990? Yes, but our number one status was far from a sign of robust health. Instead, it merely underscored the fact that our studio did the least badly in a year of steady decline for all of Hollywood… a year that was capped off by a disastrous Christmas for nearly everyone. Although we led at the box office in 1990, our bottom line profits in the movie business were the lowest in three years.

 

7. Coloring the Kingdom (Patricia Zohn, Vanity Fair 2010)

Much has been written about the prodigiously talented men who brought Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Bambi, and Dumbo to the screen. But if behind every good man stands a good woman, behind Walt Disney and his “boys”—the all-male assembly line—once stood 100. Walt was the impresario of a troop of young women, most under 25—a casting director’s dream of all-American acolytes—who made the screen light up, not with feathered swan dives or the perfect tip-tap of a patent-leather heel, but by making water shimmer or a tail wag just so. It was a job complicated by his unrelenting perfectionism—Jiminy Cricket required 27 different colors—but reducible to a simple imperative of the time: ever nimble but never showy, their job was to make what the men did look good.

Before my aunt Rae Medby McSpadden died, in 2002, she had begun to tell me the exciting, even cloak-and-dagger tales of her years at the Walt Disney Studios during its golden age.

 

8. Disney War (James B. Stewart, 2005)

An excerpt from Stewart’s book about the downfall of Disney Chairman and CEO Michael Eisner in 2004:

In this respect, Roy Disney felt that Eisner was only the latest in a series of pretenders to the throne Walt had occupied. Why was it, he sometimes wondered, that so many people wanted to embody Walt? Nobody went around Hollywood claiming to be Louis B. Mayer or Cecil B. DeMille. What gave people the illusion that they could fill Walt’s shoes? First there had been E. Cardon Walker and Ron Miller, Walt’s son-in-law, who, as Disney’s chairman and chief executive, had constantly invoked Walt’s memory. Then it was Jeffrey Katzenberg, who claimed Walt’s legacy as head of the Disney studio. They had gone too far; Roy had to step in, and they were replaced. Now Eisner was overstepping the bounds.

 

9. Reaching My Autistic Son Through Disney (Ron Suskind, New York Times Magazine 2014)

Ron Suskind explores how his autistic son Owen found a voice through the lessons and sidekicks in Disney films. The story is an excerpt from the journalist’s book, Life, Animated:

Owen’s chosen affinity clearly opened a window to myth, fable and legend that Disney lifted and retooled, just as the Grimm Brothers did, from a vast repository of folklore. Countless cultures have told versions of “Beauty and the Beast,” which dates back 2,000 years to the Latin “Cupid and Psyche” and certainly beyond that. These are stories human beings have always told themselves to make their way in the world.

But what draws kids like Owen to these movies is something even more elemental. Walt Disney told his early animators that the characters and the scenes should be so vivid and clear that they could be understood with the sound turned off. Inadvertently, this creates a dream portal for those who struggle with auditory processing, especially, in recent decades, when the films can be rewound and replayed many times.

 

10. The Machine-Tooled Happy Land (Ray Bradbury, Holiday Magazine 1965)

Snobbery now could cripple our intellectual development. After I had heard too many people sneer at Disney and his audio-animatronic Abraham Lincoln in the Illinois exhibit at the New York World’s Fair, I went to the Disney robot factory in Glendale. I watched the finishing touches being put on a second computerized, electric- and air-pressure-driven humanoid that will “live” at Disneyland from this summer on. I saw this new effigy of Mr. Lincoln sit, stand, shift his arms, turn his wrists, twitch his fingers, put his hands behind his back, turn his head, look at me, blink and prepare to speak. In those few moments I was filled with an awe I have rarely felt in my life.

 

11. You Blow My Mind, Hey Mickey! (John Jeremiah Sullivan, New York Times Magazine 2011)

Getting high at the Magic Kingdom:

Trevor scrolled it down to a posting, the subject of which read, “Re: Hello from Disney World.” An anonymous person, evidently the veteran of a staggering number of weed-smoking experiences in the park, had done a solid for the community and laid out his or her knowledge in a systematic way. It was nothing less than a fiend’s guide to Disney World. It pinpointed the safest places for burning the proverbial rope, telling what in particular to watch for at each spot.