Whatever you may think of the man, or his company, or his legacy, or any of the flaws to be found in such – which are not the point of this post – the fact remains that Walt Disney was one of the most skilled, ambitious, and influential storytellers of the modern age.
The story begins with the setting of the stage. Moving pictures were new, sound with moving pictures was new, and animation was new. It was so new that it had largely been just a gimmick, a trick performed at fancy parties. That was changing, but the Fleischer Brothers were into some pretty weird stuff, even back then, as evidenced by the Betty Boop commercials. It also wasn’t all that appealing to look at either. Novel, perhaps, but nothing astounding.
Then came Disney.
Walt was a man with drive, vision, and passion. He dreamt big and went for it. That wasn’t an easy thing. There are still legends of how much he spent and borrowed, during the Great Depression and much to his brother’s chagrin, pioneering new techniques and technologies, developing animation into something more palatable, even enchanting, to the human eye, an effort that continues to this day, a century later.
Mickey Mouse paved the way for The Three Little Pigs, which was an absolute success not only for the children’s story and how it was told, but because it was seen as a great fist risen in defiance of the rampant poverty of the Great Depression. Soon after, the first several techniques Disney developed were combined and field tested in The Windmill, another success. And then these techniques were used again when he did something no one had ever done before: he made a feature-length movie that was entirely animated. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was not only the first of its kind, but it was so much nicer just to look at than previous animations were, and it told an enchanting story.
Believe me, when you spend long enough looking at the earliest animations, Snow White becomes an absolute relief to watch. I can only imagine that, to people who had never seen any such thing before, it was absolutely awesome. Thus, it was a million-dollar (again, during the Depression) sensation. Naturally, everyone else tried to copycat it, because that is what Hollywood does.
He undertook a massive workload to achieve his ambitions, and the stress of that took a toll which, among other things, got him forcefully sent on vacation more than once, also by his brother. Considering the iron, even overbearing, will which Walt clearly possessed, I call that a superhuman accomplishment.
And what did Walt do with all of this? He told stories for the entire family.
Before he came along, animation was decidedly not meant for children at all. True, his iron-handed will may have taken us too far in the other direction, where Westerners still, to this day, think of animation as something almost exclusively for kids, but I believe he meant to do something good, and that is exactly what he did. He may have absolutely bastardized the source material for many of his stories, but I cannot count the number of times I’ve looked at modern stories (cinematic, animated, or otherwise) and wished the people behind them realized that they can explore the same themes, characters, and lessons with less disturbing, graphic, and explicit content. Walt Disney, I think, just wanted to do something similar: to take the lessons presented in more grisly stories like the classic fairy tales and make them more accessible, and less traumatic, for children.
For far too long, people taught their children to be good with the promise of monsters and Hell if they were bad, and while there is some validity to that… it’s not the only way to get the job done, ya know?
Yes, I know I say that in regards to a set of stories that are famous for killing the villains in the end, but they’re actually far less gruesome than fairy tales were. I mean, having the evil queen fall to her death because of a lightning strike is not at all the same thing as having Snow White and her prince make the queen dance while she’s dying, because her feet are locked in red-hot iron shoes.
In diminishing how gruesome and disturbing the stories were (he was on forced vacation when they brought in the Fleischer Brothers for the pink elephant scene in Dumbo), Walt Disney opened the stories up to be more than just cautionary tales and fiery sermons. He made many of the stories we tell more enchanting, more palatable, and that left room for colorful characters and themes of dreaming big and pursuing those dreams. That seems to be at the very core of everything he ever did in his career. He made cartoons, television shows, animated movies, and theme parks, all built on the idea of actually enjoying, and improving, your life.
Snow White gets her prince, Cinderella lives happily ever after, Aurora and Prince Philip are married after he slays a dragon for her, Pinocchio becomes a real boy, the children who love Peter Pan learn to grow up, and more. Zorro fights for the oppressed, the Swamp Fox fights for his country, Johnny Tremain helps to build America from the bottom up, and so many children, like Jane and Michael, have so many adventures to learn from. Even the theme parks tell stories of the past, of the future, of nature, of imagination, and so much more.
All the power Disney wields is rooted in the power of stories, and Walt Disney was a most excellent storyteller. He was an expert in setting the moods, creating the setting, building characters, and teaching with themes. I don’t think it’s going too far to say he helped to evolve the way in which we tell our stories. Not to say he is the greatest ever master of the craft, but he was very good at what he did.
He was, undoubtedly, a Master of Storytelling of the highest order.
And I, for one, am thankful for the stories he told, the company he built, the legacy he left behind, and for the man himself… regardless of the flaws found in all of the above.