How Walt Disney changed the face of cinema
(Credit: Picryl)

The power of dreams: How Walt Disney changed the face of cinema

“All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them.”—Walt Disney

When Walt Disney came up with the animated feature-length film Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1934, not only did his colleagues, animators and the rest of the Hollywood consider the project as “Disney’s folly” but also his wife and brother when he had to mortgage their house to make the film. To them, the idea of making a $1.5million “cartoon” film seemed crazy. However, the moving reaction the film received worldwide was the harbinger of “the Golden Age of Animation”, and motivated Disney to move onto full-length films from directing cartoon shorts. Walt Disney, who has been the most prominent advocate of pursuing one’s dreams and passion, has changed the course of cinema as well as society with his work, inspiring in the young minds a desire to dream and fly. “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible,” he once famously stated.

Born in Chicago in 1901, Walt Disney moved to his uncle’s rural farm in Missouri. All his childhood experiences in the countryside later had a significant impact on him; Walt celebrated his childhood memories by incorporating small American towns and their respective iconography. It was in his home town of Marceline that Walt developed an innate interest in drawing while making a paid portrait of a horse that belonged to a neighbourhood doctor. After the Disney’s moved to Kansas City, Walt’s friend Walter Pfeiffer introduced him to the fascinating world of vaudeville and motion cinema, a moment which had an everlasting impact on Walt’s ambitious mind. To support his father by running a paper route, Walt worked extra hard to keep the fire of passion burning inside him. His early morning schedule, which included him delivering The Times before returning to work on posting the Star in the evening, left him exhausted and fetched poor grades. However, he did not give up the on and even pursued a part-time cartooning course to help his chances of success. As he was quoted saying, “I don’t regret having worked like I’ve worked…I can’t even remember that it ever bothered me. I mean, I have no recollection of ever being unhappy in my life. I look back and I worked from way back there and I was happy all the time. I was excited. I was doing things.”

While Disney enrolled at McKinley High School, patriotism was on an all-time high. Desperate to serve his country, he drew patriotic images about the First World War and forged his birth certificate to be a part of the Red Cross as an ambulance driver. Soon after, he began working for a commercial advertising company where he befriended artist Ub Iwerks which changed the course of his life forever. After Iwerks and Disney were fired from their roles, the pair started their own company together which, unfortunately, ran out of business in a short period of time. At the same time, they worked for the Kansas City Film Ad Company while continuing to harbour their dreams. After years on the grind, Alice’s Wonderland arrived as their first proper collaboration in the Laugh-O-Gram Studio which, in a similar fashion to their previous work, shortly went bankrupt. However, not willing to give up, the financial ruin did not dampen their plans as soon after, in 1927, Iwerks and Disney created the “peppy, alert, saucy and venturesome, keeping him also neat and trim” Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. However, in another hammer blow to his efforts the following year, Disney was cheated of his intellectual property rights as Charles Mintz took over everything. The loyal Iwerks, however, remained faithful and continued to dream the same dream as that of Disney. 

I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing — that it was all started by a mouse.”

While Disney was still working at Laugh-O-Gram Studios, he had a pet mouse which later served as the inspiration for the Disney-Iwerks creation Mickey Mouse, a foil to their initial Oswald. The name had been suggested by Disney’s wife, Lillian, and Walt lent his voice to the character. “Ub designed Mickey’s physical appearance, but Walt gave him his soul,” he once explained. Despite initial hiccups, Mickey Mouse soon became a popular figure and Disney’s keen interest in accepting the use of new technology highly benefitted him. It was Mickey Mouse who catapulted Disney’s career and helped him reach unimaginable heights. 

Later, Flowers and Trees won the Academy Award, and soon after that, Disney received an Honorary Oscar “for the creation of Mickey Mouse”. By the time Disney had produced his first feature-length film, he had already received Academy Awards and esteemed acclaim. It was Snow White and the Seven Dwarves that saw Disney at his creative best, toiling relentlessly to prove himself and his love for the art. The success of this film gave him an impetus to carry on with his other projects. However, the failure of his subsequent films, Pinocchio and Fantasia, in 1938 due to the impending Second World War made the studios spiral into huge debts. 

Disney always realised how important it was to retell a story that was raw, original and emotionally demanding. His films have always been tear-jerkers, a perfect concoction of mirth, cheer, sadness and the regular slice-of-life. However, his infrequent insensitivity to his employee’s problems led to the infamous five-week-long animator’s strike in 1941 during which Disney made an unfavourable goodwill trip that further hampered his image as well as the financial aspects of the studio with a lot of employees quitting, a movement which delayed his subsequent production Dumbo. However, the film, which was made in a simple and ordinary setup, won hearts with the portrayal of the adorable and misunderstood floppy-eared baby elephant Dumbo and his escapades. 

(Credit: Boy Scouts of America)

Disney was a clever and calculative man with sharp entrepreneurial skills which he inherited from his father, Elias Disney. While the United States fought in the Second World War, he covered the costs incurred for his studio productions by making propaganda films, including Academy Award-winning shorts like Der Fuehrer’s Face. Disney, who has often been criticised for being an Anti-semite and racist, and an avid exploiter of blackface minstrels, has had a complicated legacy. However, there have not been concrete claims in this favour. However, the 1941 animator’s strike instilled a loathing for unions and agitations in Disney which rapidly altered his political beliefs from being a Democrat to a Republican. He testified against communist agitators and founded the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American ideals which believed in “the American Way of Life and stated that “we find ourselves in sharp revolt against a rising tide of Communism, Fascism and kindred beliefs, that seek by subversive means to undermine and change this way of life”. 

Having been obsessed with trains and railroads, Disney created a miniature railroad for his backyard and named it Carolwood Pacific Railroad; however, the latter was closed down immediately after it led to freak accidents involving guests. Disney, who was gradually alienating himself from the process of animation, was present at meetings but entrusted the responsibilities on his very loyal and trusted Nine Men. His frequent trips to Griffith Park with his daughters often led him to wish for a cleaner and quieter place, which would be fun for both parents and the children. This idea was used as the foundation for the vision to build Disneyland, a dream world for both parents and children. Having created a place where fantasy and imagination ran free from the reins of everyday drudgery and doldrum, Disney had made dreams come true by having “tastefully combined some of the pleasant things of yesterday with fantasy and dreams of tomorrow”. 

Disney’s success in ventures such as Cinderella, Bambi and more was accentuated by the opening of the theme park which paved the path for his entry into the commercial world of television which eventually became the “most powerful selling aid for us, as well as a source of revenue.” The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse was a major hit while Davy Crockett became “an overnight sensation” with its theme song gaining widespread popularity. With more productions such as 101 Dalmations, Winnie the Pooh, and eventually Mary Poppins, Walt Disney’s career kept growing until this relentlessly creative man succumbed to cancer. Yet, his studio had and still is continuing to spread cheer as instructed by the flagbearer of happiness, Walt Disney himself. 

However, Disney had a very different public persona from his private one. Described as “shy, diffident and self-deprecating”, Walt Disney was not the simple, playful and happy-go-lucky man the world took him for. Disney’s signature style included a strip of moustache and a coat and tie; the picture emanated laughter for Disney had marketed himself in that manner alongside his studio to boost its growth and popularity. However, Neal Gabler, his biographer, had interesting facts to share when he stated: “As I vicariously lived Walt’s life, I was surprised by his obsessiveness, which is so at odds with the media image of genial ‘Uncle Walt.’ Disney was, from virtually the time he was a teenager, a man possessed by a vision, a man who believed that he could ameliorate the hurts he felt he had suffered by constructing a more perfect world and then inhabiting it,” he said. “I was surprised, too, by the price he paid for his obsessiveness: the loneliness, the mental anguish, and the disappointments. He was anything but the happy, simple man we think of when we think of Walt Disney.”

Disney and his works have been a major part of every person’s childhood. The films and the cartoons have shaped their beliefs and ideals, values and morals, cultivating and nurturing the young minds and injecting ideas into them. While some argue about the negative impact of such cartoons, it is needless to say that Disney productions have an infectious charm and happy tone which makes children happy. Disneyworld is on everybody’s bucket list, irrespective of their age or gender. Walt Disney, a pioneer of using new technology, loved embracing new ideas for the betterment of his productions. He never shied away from experimentation and has gifted some of the most ground-breaking works to the cinema industry, daring them to think differently. Although he has been accused of being controlling and not sharing a good rapport with his employees, Disney has created a legacy which, undeniably, constitutes a major part of the film industry. Often considered a “serial visionary”, Disney has been a staunch believer of cultural imperialism where any class can achieve anything with their ability to dream. He has not only changed the course of cinema and animation but also revolutionised the industry by capitalising on the success of his studios via the functioning of an amusement park. 

To sum up, we quote Dick Huemer, an animator for Disney, who said: “You couldn’t help feeling awe in the presence of genius. He demanded control, he had his hands in just about every aspect of production and development, but he created a studio that still lives on today, and is still the mark of quality and respect in the film industry.” Walt Disney is timeless. The wholesomeness and richness of his simplistic content are fantastic and continues to be a great inspiration for children and adults even today. It is indeed Disney who dared us to desire and dream.

“When you believe in a thing, believe in it all the way, implicitly and unquestionable.”

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