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Celebrating 120 years of Walt Disney: From animation house to global empire


Where would we be without our oval-eared cinematic overlords over at Disney? The modern landscape of cinema is decorated with its impact at every turn, from Marvel’s juggernaut superhero franchise to Star Wars’ wobbling empire to the iconic animation studio that continues to churn out pop culture classics and countless items of merchandise. Though, the modern dynasty of Disney has taken many years to flourish, struggling through many years of hardship as it grew from humble beginnings as a mere animation studio. 

Though the very first Disney feature film is considered to be Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in actuality, the debut of animator Walt Disney was the short film titled Alice’s Wonderland a partly-animated movie starring the young child actor Virginia Davis. After his own studio behind the project, Laugh-O-Gram Studio, went bankrupt in 1923, Disney moved to Hollywood to join his brother Roy who quickly formed Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio and made a name for themselves making further animated Alice adventures. 

Changing their name to the now iconic Walt Disney Studio, the company struggled to get off the ground suffering a financial loss with their next venture Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, before coming up with the character Mortimer mouse whilst on a train ride to California. Under the character’s revised name Mickey Mouse, Disney released their first sound film starring the new character in 1928, Steamboat Willie. 

An immediate film sensation thanks to the synchronised sound and animation that was previously unprecedented in cinema, the Disney brothers began the Silly Symphony series in 1929 which saw the popularisation of the Mickey Mouse character alongside the introduction of a comic strip of the character. By December 1929, the company was recognised as a corporation with a merchandising division, a recording company and more. The popularity of the Mickey Mouse series allowed the company to plan for their first feature-length animation in 1937 after enjoying years of animation success under a new Technicolor palette. 

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Soon enough, Disney released their very first feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, becoming the highest-grossing film of the time by 1939. As pioneers of the art form, the impact of the film’s release would truly not be realised until a generation to come as Disney ploughed on with a flurry of film releases including Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi that would cement their impact on a 20th-century landscape of cinema. 

Such success continued following WWII, as Disney proved that audience appetites were still whetted with a craving for animation, releasing Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan in the 1950s. This led to the creation of Disneyland on July 18, 1955, a relatively new concept that began to grow rapidly and attract visitors from all over the world shortly after its grand opening. Whilst the films of Walt Disney may fluctuate in quality from decade to decade, Disneyland is the one constant of the brand acting as an eternal totem to the power and significance of the brand and cinematic empire.

As the company continued to grow and expand its empire, Disney blossomed into a media conglomerate that dwarfed the initial expectations of the brotherly duo. Passing away on December 15th 1966, the cinematic legacy that Walt Disney left behind upon his death is truly unparalleled, with his name still holding a great deal of influence for fans of the mouse house worldwide. 

A humble and well-liked individual, Walt Disney used to insist on queueing just like all the guests of his park when he visited Disneyland, a token of his honesty and respect for those that helped him achieve his dreams. One wonders what the same man would make of the media empire that his small animation company has mutated into, particularly with its contemporary stranglehold over the modern industry. 

Though the modern landscape of the Disney nightmare may be unsavoury, it’s undoubted that the early works of Walt Disney, the pioneering master of animation, helped to create a brand new art form of cinema. 

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