Walter Elias Disney was the fourth son of Elias Disney, a peripatetic carpenter, farmer, and building contractor, and his wife, Flora Call, who had been a public school teacher. When Walt was little more than an infant, the family moved to a farm near Marceline, Missouri, a typical small Midwestern town, which is said to have furnished the inspiration and model for the Main Street, U.S.A., of Disneyland. There Walt began his schooling and first showed a taste and aptitude for drawing and painting with crayons and watercolours.
His restless father soon abandoned his efforts at farming and moved the family to Kansas City, Missouri, where he bought a morning newspaper route and compelled his young sons to assist him in delivering papers. Walt later said that many of the habits and compulsions of his adult life stemmed from the disciplines and discomforts of helping his father with the paper route. In Kansas City the young Walt began to study cartooning with a correspondence school and later took classes at the Kansas City Art Institute and School of Design.
In 1917 the Disneys moved back to Chicago, and Walt entered McKinley High School, where he took photographs, made drawings for the school paper, and studied cartooning on the side, for he was hopeful of eventually achieving a job as a newspaper cartoonist. His progress was interrupted by World War I, in which he participated as an ambulance driver for the American Red Cross in France and Germany.
Returning to Kansas City in 1919, he found occasional employment as a draftsman and inker in commercial art studios, where he met Ub Iwerks, a young artist whose talents contributed greatly to Walt’s early success.
Dissatisfied with their progress, Disney and Iwerks started a small studio of their own in 1922 and acquired a secondhand movie camera with which they made one and two-minute animated advertising films for distribution to local movie theatres. They also did a series of animated cartoon sketches called Laugh-O-grams and the pilot film for a series of seven-minute fairy tales that combined both live action and animation, Alice in Cartoonland. A New York film distributor cheated the young producers, and Disney was forced to file for bankruptcy in 1923. He moved to California to pursue a career as a cinematographer, but the surprise success of the first Alice film compelled Disney and his brother Roy—a lifelong business partner—to reopen shop in Hollywood.
With Roy as business manager, Disney resumed the Alice series, persuading Iwerks to join him and assist with the drawing of the cartoons. They invented a character called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, contracted for distribution of the films at $1,500 each, and propitiously launched their small enterprise. In 1927, just before the transition to sound in motion pictures, Disney and Iwerks experimented with a new character—a cheerful, energetic, and mischievous mouse called Mickey. They had planned two shorts, called Plane Crazy and Gallopin’ Gaucho, that were to introduce Mickey Mouse when The Jazz Singer, a motion picture with the popular singer Al Jolson, brought the novelty of sound to the movies. Fully recognizing the possibilities for sound in animated-cartoon films, Disney quickly produced a third Mickey Mouse cartoon equipped with voices and music, entitled Steamboat Willie, and cast aside the other two soundless cartoon films. When it appeared in 1928, Steamboat Willie was a sensation.
The following year Disney started a new series called Silly Symphonies with a picture entitled The Skeleton Dance, in which a skeleton rises from the graveyard and does a grotesque, clattering dance set to music based on classical themes. Original and briskly syncopated, the film ensured popular acclaim for the series, but, with costs mounting because of the more complicated drawing and technical work, Disney’s operation was continually in peril.
The growing popularity of Mickey Mouse and his girlfriend, Minnie, however, attested to the public’s taste for the fantasy of little creatures with the speech, skills, and personality traits of human beings. (Disney himself provided the voice for Mickey until 1947.) This popularity led to the invention of other animal characters, such as Donald Duck and the dogs Pluto and Goofy. In 1933 Disney produced a short, The Three Little Pigs, which arrived in the midst of the Great Depression and took the country by storm. Its treatment of the fairy tale of the little pig who works hard and builds his house of brick against the huffing and puffing of a threatening wolf suited the need for fortitude in the face of economic disaster, and its song "
Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" was a happy taunting of adversity. It was in this period of economic hard times in the early 1930s that Disney fully endeared himself and his cartoons to audiences all over the world, and his operation began making money in spite of the Depression.
Disney had by that time gathered a staff of creative young people, who were headed by Iwerks. Colour was introduced in the Academy Award-winning Silly Symphonies film Flowers and Trees (1932), while other animal characters came and went in films such as The Grasshopper and the Ants (1934) and The Tortoise and the Hare (1935). Roy franchised tie-in sales with the cartoons of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck—watches, dolls, shirts, and tops—and reaped more wealth for the company.
Walt Disney was never one to rest or stand still. He had long thought of producing feature-length animated films in addition to the shorts. In 1934 he began work on a version of the classic fairy tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), a project that required great organization and coordination of studio talent and a task for which Disney possessed a unique capacity. While he actively engaged in all phases of creation in his films, he functioned chiefly as coordinator and final decision maker rather than as designer and artist. Snow White was widely acclaimed by critics and audiences alike as an amusing and sentimental romance. By animating substantially human figures in the characters of Snow White, the Prince, and the Wicked Queen and by forming caricatures of human figures in the seven dwarfs, Disney departed from the scope and techniques of the shorts and thus proved animation’s effectiveness as a vehicle for feature-length stories.
While Disney continued to do short films presenting the anthropomorphic characters of his little animals, he was henceforth to develop a wide variety of full-length entertainment films, such as Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942). Disney also produced a totally unusual and exciting film—his multisegmented and stylized Fantasia (1940), in which cartoon figures and colour patterns were animated to the music of Igor Stravinsky, Paul Dukas, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and others. In 1940 Disney moved his company into a new studio in Burbank, California, abandoning the old plant it had occupied in the early days of growth.
Major films and television productions
A strike by Disney animators in 1941was a major setback for the company. Many top animators resigned, and it would be many years before the company produced animated features that lived up to the quality of its early 1940s classics. Disney’s foray into films for the federal government during World War II helped the studio perfect methods of combining live-action and animation; the studio’s commercial films using this hybrid technique include The Reluctant Dragon (1941), Saludos Amigos (1942), The Three Caballeros (1945), Make Mine Music (1946), and Song of the South (1946).
The Disney studio by that time was established as a big-business enterprise and began to produce a variety of entertainment films. One popular series, called True-Life Adventures, featured nature-based motion pictures such as Seal Island (1948), Beaver Valley (1950), and The Living Desert (1953). The Disney studio also began making full-length animation romances, such as Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), and Peter Pan (1953), and produced low-budget, live-action films, including The Absent-Minded Professor (1961).
The Disney studio was among the first to foresee the potential of television as a popular-entertainment medium and to produce films directly for it. The Zorro and Davy Crockett series were very popular with children, and Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color became a Sunday-night fixture. But the climax of Disney’s career as a theatrical film producer came with his release in 1964 of the motion picture Mary Poppins, which won worldwide popularity.
In the early 1950s Disney had initiated plans for a huge amusement park to be built near Los Angeles. When Disneyland opened in 1955, much of Disney’s disposition toward nostalgic sentiment and fantasy was evident in its design and construction. It soon became a mecca for tourists from around the world. A second Disney park, Walt Disney World, near Orlando, Florida, which was under construction at the time of his death, opened in 1971.
Disney’s imagination and energy, his whimsical humour, and his gift for being attuned to the vagaries of popular taste inspired him to develop well-loved amusements for “children of all ages” throughout the world. Although some criticized his frequently saccharine subject matter and accused him of creating a virtual stylistic monopoly in American animation that discouraged experimentation, there is no denying his pathbreaking accomplishments. His achievement as a creator of entertainment for an almost unlimited public and as a highly ingenious merchandiser of his wares can rightly be compared to the most successful industrialists in history.