Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Disney, Walt

(1901-1966) US producer and director of Animated Movies, and co-creator with Ub Iwerks of Mickey Mouse. WD began his career producing short pieces of animation for commercials, then – with Iwerks – set up a small animation studio in Kansas City producing shorts for use as fillers at a local cinema. These Newman Laugh-O-grams, or Lafflets, typically lasted less than a minute and focused on local issues. In 1922 WD created six more substantial Laugh-O-grams: Cinderella, The Four Musicians of Bremen, Goldie Locks and the Three Bears, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and Puss in Boots; the notion of animating and modernizing classic tales guided him throughout his life. These shorts did not pay the bills, and in late 1922 WD accepted a commission to produce a health-education short called Tommy Tucker's Tooth. The money from this enabled him to try a new venture: the Alice Comedies series, of which there were 57 in all during 1924-1927 (including the first, Alice's Wonderland, made in 1923 but never properly released). In each, a young live-action girl, Alice – three girls took the role during the series' run – for one reason or another finds herself plunged into a Toon world and interacting with the characters there. The surviving Alice Comedies are crude but charming. When they had run their course WD's studio, now in Hollywood, embarked on the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series of 26 shorts (1927-1928), which enjoyed some success. Oswald can be seen today as Mickey Mouse with floppy ears and a different tail; there is no real distinction between the later Oswald shorts and the early Mickey Mouse ones, and the Oswald series might have been continued indefinitely had not WD been ripped off by his distributor, Charles Mintz, so that further Oswald adventures came from Walter Lantz. Desperate for a new series character, WD had Iwerks draw up the schema for what was initially Mortimer, then Mickey Mouse; WD's contribution to this creation was the "invention of Mickey's character" – WD did indeed voice the Mouse for a considerable period, and his animators based the character's mannerisms on WD's own. Mickey might have come to nothing had it not been for WD's recognition that sound was where the future of animation lay. The Mickey Mouse cartoon Steamboat Willie (1928) is recorded as the first animated "talkie", although in fact its soundtrack consists of little more than shrieks and crashes (the short was made as a silent, then the soundtrack was cobbled on) and earlier sound cartoons had been made by Max Fleischer and Paul Terry. Yet it was a breakthrough in that WD and his collaborators had ensured the sound was properly synchronized with the on-screen action, so that visuals and sound effects married to create the illusion that they were all of a piece. (Speech came later: Mickey Mouse first spoke in Karnival Kid [1929].)

WD's other great breakthrough – by this time he recognized that he could employ far better animators than he was himself – was the realization that audiences could well be persuaded to sit through a full-length animated feature. This flew directly in the face of received Hollywood wisdom, which had it that animation was purely for kids, whose attention-spans would not extend above a few minutes. WD launched his studio into what many of its members regarded at the time as "Disney's Folly": Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), a project that WD originated and then supervised through every stage of its creation. By the time of its release this movie had cost a then-staggering $1,480,000, much of this bill being due to WD's perfectionism – there can be no accurate estimate of the cost of script, animation, sound, etc., rejected and destroyed because WD did not feel it was "quite right". It seemed impossible that this sum could ever be recouped; but of course it was.

It has become popular to downgrade WD's integral role in the further creations of his studio, but in fact he maintained strict control over its output for the rest of his life and personally developed many of its best productions. It has also become popular to assail his private life and ethics. At this remove it is difficult to establish the truth of such attacks, but it seems that indeed he smoked and drank to excess and swore filthily; on the other hand, it seems he was not consciously racist. That he was an ogre in some ways is not questioned, and certainly he was not quite the "favourite uncle" that he publicly portrayed. But WD made fantasy happen on screen. [JG]

further reading: Walt Disney: An American Original (1976; vt The Walt Disney Biography 1977 UK) by Bob Thomas (a hagiography) and Disney's World (1985; vt The Real Walt Disney 1986 UK) by Leonard Mosley (a muckrake).

Walter Elias Disney

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This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.