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Walt Disney Company, The

Entry updated 21 December 2023. Tagged: Community, Film.

Popularly referred to as Disney, this media conglomerate has been known by the above name since 1986. Its first iteration was the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio (1923-1926), named after its founders Walt Disney (1901-1966) and Roy O Disney (1893-1971); then The Walt Disney Studio (1926-1929); followed by Walt Disney Productions (1929-1986). Roy Disney's input to the various Disney companies involved business rather than creative matters; he was CEO until 1971 and President (the post previously held by his brother) from 1945 to 1968.

Most of Disney's releases were fantasy and the most notable earlier ones are covered in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, whose Disney entry [see under links below] is a gateway to the company's productions until the mid-1990s, with sections on "Live-Action Movies" "Animated Movies", "Television" and "Comics".

The present entry is divided into two sections, covering the company 1 when Walt Disney was in charge and 2 after his death. The latter event inevitably weakened the sense of identity resulting from its main creative force also being the person in charge, a situation reinforced by the subsequent absorbing of other companies.

1. The Walt Disney era.

In 1920, after being laid off by the commercial art studio that employed him, Walt Disney created short cartoons, called Laugh-O-Grams for a local theatre: some involved reworkings of fairy tales set in the present day, such as Puss in Boots and Snow White. He formed the Laugh-O-Gram Studio in 1921 to produce them: employees included fellow animation pioneers Hugh Harman (1903-1982), Rudolf Ising (1903-1992), Friz Freleng (1905-1995) and Ub Iwerks (1901-1971). Harman and Ising would eventually be hired by Leon Schlesinger (1884-1949) to create the first Warner Bros. Cartoons (Freleng would join them there); later, after briefly working for the Van Beuren Studios, they moved to the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer animation studios in 1934. Iwerks would work with Disney until 1930, when he founded his own studio, but returned in 1940.

The Laugh-O-Gram Studio went bankrupt in 1923, but by then Disney had created the first of his live action/animation hybrid shorts, the 57 short Alice Comedies (1923-1927), very loosely inspired by Lewis Carroll's Alice books. These he sold to Winkler Pictures for distribution, setting up the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio to produce them. Disney then came up with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (1927-1938; 1943) for Winkler Pictures, which after the first 27 shorts decided to make them themselves (hiring Harman, Ising and Freleng). Disney and Iwerks now designed Mickey Mouse, whose first short to be released (though the third made) was Steamboat Willie (1928). As well as the immediately successful Mickey Mouse, Disney also produced the popular Silly Symphony (1929-1939) series. Despite a hiccup when Iwerks left (most of the early Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony animations were drawn by him), the Disney shorts flourished, with new characters such as Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy and Pluto being introduced.

Walt Disney's subsequent success was in part due to his "nine old men", animators who joined the company in the 1920s/1930s and shaped its productions in the following decades. They were Les Clark (1907-1979), Marc Davis (1913-2000), Ollie Johnston (1912-2008), Milt Kahl (1909-1987), Ward Kimball (1914-2002), Eric Larson (1905-1988), John Lounsbery (1911-1976), Wolfgang Reitherman (1909-1985) and Frank Thomas (1912-2004). They all worked on his animated feature films from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) to Robin Hood (1973), with at least four involved with each of the later films up until The Great Mouse Detective (1986).

After Steamboat Willie, Disney produced about 440 theatrical shorts until the mid-fifties (not counting over 30 instructional and propaganda films for the army, industry and the Office for Inter-American Affairs), but only 25 more until Walt Disney's death. Though the shorts featured anthropomorphized animals, Supernatural Creatures and objects coming to life, with plots often using Mythology and folktales, there were only a handful of science fiction stories. These were The Mad Doctor (1933), where a Mad Scientist kidnaps Pluto: Mickey follows, entering the spooky castle housing the laboratory – where the scientist is explaining to Pluto he intends to vivisect and combine him with a chicken, to discover what the resulting offspring would be. This is one of the best Disney shorts, the mood being one of Horror and visually interesting – from Mickey walking down a geometric corridor to the scientist cutting up the dangling Pluto's shadow. Anti-climatically, it turns out to be a dream (see Clichés). Mickey's Mechanical Man (1933) is about a boxing match between a gorilla and a Robot built by Mickey. The Worm Turns (1937) has Mickey – whose lab coat suggests he is a Scientist – using an ancient formula to creates a "courage builder" chemical spray, which he tests on bullied animals (and a fire hydrant): it works, though courage is perhaps confused with aggression. In Modern Inventions (1937) Donald Duck visits the Museum of Modern Marvels, where the advanced Technology is rather mundane (such as a mechanical chair that provides barber and shoe cleaning services), but he does get into a dispute with a robot butler. The Vanishing Private (1942) has Private Donald borrowing some invisible paint from the Camouflage Corps's Experimental Laboratory, eventually getting covered in it (see Invisibility). Other shorts had occasional sf-related scenes, such as the complicated but working Lie Detector in The Practical Pig (1939).

To the modern eye most shorts may be more interesting for the visuals and new techniques being tried out than the actual stories and humour, though they were immensely successful at the time. They also sometimes make use of racial, ethnic and other stereotypes common to the media of the period. The decline in the number of shorts produced was due to a shift in focus to feature films, the setting up of the Disneyland theme park and the company's involvement with Television, starting with Walt Disney's Disneyland (1954-1958). Disneyland itself has had some influence on sf: many works referencing theme parks (see Leisure) – with robotic attractions rebelling or used as a warped reflection on society – are channelling Disneyland. Examples include Westworld (1973), Kit Reed's Magic Time (1980), Steven Barnes's and Larry Niven's Dream Park (1981), K W Jeter's Madlands (1991), Kim Newman's "Tomorrow Town" (15 November 2000 Sci Fiction) and Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003).

Disney's full-length animated films were Fantasy, save for the documentary Victory Through Air Power (1942) (see below). However some of the live-action movies are of sf interest: 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954); The Absent Minded Professor (1961); Babes in Toyland (1961), which is based on the same Victor Herbert operetta as the 1934 Laurel and Hardy film and is mainly fantasy, though the Toymaker's assistant, Grumio, uses Technology – albeit brightly coloured – creating a toymaking Machine and a shrinking ray (see Miniaturization); Moon Pilot (1962); Son of Flubber (1963); The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964), about a college student who builds a mind-reading device (see Psionics); and its sequel The Monkey's Uncle (1965), where he builds a pedal-powered Flying machine (he also invents a drink to provide the pilot with sufficient pedal power) and a sleep-learning device (see Education in SF).

There were also many documentary/educational films, live action and/or animated, whose subjects include history, nature and science. The latter often included sf elements, the first such being Victory Through Air Power (1942). This covered the history of aviation and its current use in World War Two, then moved onto speculation by Alexander P de Seversky (author of the book that inspired the film), on how to end the war: suggestions include "scientific bombing" (such as earth-piercing bombs creating local earthquakes) and giant "long range combat planes".

Four educational programmes for the Tomorrowland section of the television series Walt Disney's Disneyland (1954-1958) are discussed under the entry for their creator, Ward Kimball. They are: Man in Space (1955), Man and the Moon (1955), Mars and Beyond (1957) and Magic Highway, U.S.A. (1958), the first three being Space Documentaries (see also the Moon, Mars and Space Flight). The two non-Kimball Tomorrowland episodes were Our Friend, the Atom (1957) – which promoted the peaceful use of Nuclear Energy (see Power Sources), focusing on its history and present day uses – and Man in Flight (1957), which looked at the history of flight (see Airships, Balloons, Pax Aeronautica, Transportation). The latter included animation from Victory Through Air Power (1943) (see above), though with a new narrative. The Disney theatrical short Eyes in Outer Space (1959), concerning weather forecasting and Weather Control, was created by Kimball and is also discussed in his entry.

Less serious in tone is the short Donald in Mathmagic Land (1959), with bemused hunter Donald wandering a surreal Mathmagic Land (see Mathematics), whose trees have square roots: here "the true spirit of adventure" explains the mathematics in Music, games (see Games and Sports) and technology; and the Golden Section and Rectangle in Art, nature and architecture; ending with infinity and the future's "boundless treasures of science" to be unlocked by mathematics. Similarly, in Donald and the Wheel (1961), the "spirits of progress" discuss the importance of the wheel in history and technology, going to meet its apparent inventor – caveman Donald (see Prehistoric SF): they show him the future (including a brief scene set in space) ... however Donald's response is "I'm not going to be responsible for that, goodbye!". The spirits concede the wheel might have been invented by someone else.

Disney's enthusiasm for science – which, despite rumours, did not extend to having his head Cryonically frozen (see Urban Legends) – is uplifting, though also very middle-class: Magic Highway, U.S.A. (1958), for example, seems to convey that the pinnacle of Utopian ambition is the ability to drive by car to anywhere in the world on vast multi-lane highways. As a generalization, Disney's fictional works are thematically comfortable and sentimental; the live action movies in particular are blandly conventional. Nevertheless there is much to enjoy; Donald is often fun and the animation's artistry can be outstanding; for example, the backgrounds to Sleeping Beauty [1959] are stunning.

2. Post-Walt Disney.

After Walt Disney's death in 1966 the company initially lost impetus, with less memorable – though still successful – films. However, the appointment of Michael Eisner as CEO in 1984 (holding the post until 2005) helped revitalize the organization, with a string of major (though largely non-sf) animation releases from the mid-1980s until the end of the 1990s, known as the "Disney Renaissance"; there were also many notable live action works. Despite a few blips, that success has continued. From the 1980s Disney expanded considerably, creating new companies (such as Buena Vista Television, Hollywood Pictures and Touchstone Pictures) and engaging in numerous mergers and acquisitions, including: ABC in 1995, Hulu in 2019, Lucasfilm (see Star Wars) in 2012, Marvel Entertainment (see Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2009 – with the Marvel Studios becoming part of Walt Disney Studios in 2015, Pixar in 2006, and 21st Century Fox in 2019) – all gathered under the Disney umbrella.

Since 1966, animated science fiction feature films released by Disney or its companies include: The Great Mouse Detective (1986), about Basil, who lives under 221B Baker Street and is the mouse equivalent of Sherlock Holmes, consulted on a case of a kidnapped Scientist; Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988); Doug's 1st Movie (1999), a spin-off of the television series Doug (1991-1999; vt Brand Spanking New! Doug; vt Disney's Doug) – where children find a Monster created by Pollution, whom they name Herman (after Herman Melville); Tarzan (1999) (see Tarzan Films); Dinosaur (2000), about an orphaned Iguanodon raised by talking lemurs (see Dinosaurs); Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001); Monsters, Inc. (2001); Lilo & Stitch (2002); Tarzan & Jane (2002) (see Tarzan Films); Treasure Planet (2002); The Incredibles (2004); Tarzan II (2005) (see Tarzan Films); Meet the Robinsons (2007); WALL-E (2008); Up (2009); Frankenweenie (2012); Wreck-It Ralph (2012); Monsters University (2013) (see Monsters, Inc.). Big Hero 6 (2014) concerns a health care Robot and stolen microbots (that is, microtechnology rather than Nanotechnology), and is loosely based on Marvel comicbook characters, but is not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Incredibles 2 (2018) is a sequel; Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018) is a sequel to Wreck-It Ralph; Spies in Disguise (2019) has a secret agent who discovers the latest secret Weapon he has been issued with turns him into a pigeon, through chromosomal rearrangement; and Ron's Gone Wrong (2021), concerning the development of Robot buddies and a schoolboy who gets a defective one.

Live action science fiction films include: The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969), whose trailer explains "when a campus clown underwent an accidental brain transplant [see Identity] with a high speed Computer, the whole world was after his head" (Disney also remade it in 1995 as a television film), it was set in Medfield College, a locale used in The Absent Minded Professor and Son of Flubber; Now You See Him, Now You Don't (1972), where a Medfield campus student invents an Invisibility formula; The Island at the Top of the World (1974); The Strongest Man in the World (1975) has Medfield college's scientific experiments on animal feed producing a formula that gives super strength (see Superpowers); Escape to Witch Mountain (1975), concerned two orphans with Psi Powers who turn out to be aliens, based on the novel Escape to Witch Mountain (1968) by Alexander Key and being the first of three adaptions by Disney – see Race to Witch Mountain (2009); The Cat from Outer Space (1978); The Black Hole (1979); Return from Witch Mountain (1979), a sequel to Escape to Witch Mountain; Unidentified Flying Oddball (1979; vt The Spaceman and King Arthur; vt A Spaceman in King Arthur's Court), a loose adaption of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), where an astronaut finds his Spaceship exceeding the speed of light and taking him back to the time of King Arthur (see Time Travel) – his inventions, which include a robot, help him defeat Arthur's enemies; Condorman (1981), has a Comic artist building himself a Flying suit to turn himself into a Superhero, then becoming involved in espionage; Tron (1982); Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend (1985); My Science Project (1985); Flight of the Navigator (I); Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989); Arachnophobia (1990); The Rocketeer (1991); Encino Man (1992; vt California Man); Honey, I Blew Up the Kid (1992) (see Honey, I Shrunk the Kids); Super Mario Bros. (1993); The Puppet Masters (1994); Judge Dredd (1995); RocketMan (1997), about a computer programmer who finds himself on the first manned mission to Mars – the eight month trip is supposed to be spent in Suspended Animation but a fellow crew member – a chimpanzee – takes his hypersleep chamber, meaning he spends the journey awake; Starship Troopers (1997); Flubber (1997), a remake of The Absent Minded Professor (1961); Armageddon (1998); Deep Rising (1998), a horror movie about Monsters that board a ship and start killing everyone – they are theorized to have evolved from the Ottoia, a predatory Cambrian worm; Mighty Joe Young (1998), a remake of the Mighty Joe Young (1949); Bicentennial Man (1999); Inspector Gadget (1999), based on the 1982-1986 animated television series of the same name, is about a very heavily Cyborged but not too bright policeman; My Favorite Martian (1999), based on the television series My Favorite Martian (1963-1966). Breakfast of Champions (1999), based on Kurt Vonnegut Jr's 1973 novel is not sf, but does include his fictional sf author Kilgore Trout.

The new century brought Mission to Mars (2000); Unbreakable (2000); Reign of Fire (2002); Signs (2002); The Village (2004); The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005), based on Douglas Adams's 1978-1980 Radio series (see The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy); Déjà Vu (2006); The Prestige (2006); Race to Witch Mountain (2009); Surrogates (2009); Tron: Legacy (2010); Zokkomon (2011), in which an Indian orphan, left to die by his inheritance-seeking uncle is taken under the wing of a hermit scientist who turns him into Zokkoman, Superhero, to shock the local villagers out of their superstitious beliefs; The Avengers (2012); Mars Needs Moms (2012); John Carter (2012); Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2013); Iron Man 3 (2013); Thor: the Dark World (2013); Guardians of the Galaxy (2014); Ant-Man (2015), part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe; Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015); Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015). In Tomorrowland (2015; vt Project T), the likes of Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla and Jules Verne had created the futuristic City Tomorrowland, locating it in another Dimension; it now sends out animatronic messengers (see AI) to identify suitable people in our world – dreamers, inventors, artists etc – to invite them to Tomorrowland; however, the film also looks at the crises facing Earth (see Disaster), which people acknowledge yet seem too apathetic to try to fix, and compares it with the scientific optimism (see Optimism and Pessimism) about the future that people used to hold (as exemplified by Tomorrowland, one of Disneyland's themed areas, or indeed the Tomorrowland tv documentaries mentioned above). The list continues with Captain America: Civil War (2016); Doctor Strange (2016); Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016); Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017); Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017); Thor: Ragnarok (2017); Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018), based on the Marvel Comics characters; Avengers: Infinity War (2018); A Wrinkle in Time (2018), based on A Wrinkle in Time (1962) by Madeleine L'Engle (Disney had earlier made a television film of the book in 2003); Black Panther (2018); Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018); Ad Astra (2019); Captain Marvel (2019), based on the female Marvel Comics character – see Captain Marvel, which discusses the Superheroes who bore that name; Dark Phoenix (2019; vt X-Men: Dark Phoenix), part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe; Lucy in the Sky (2019), about an astronaut who finds she cannot engage with the world after her first space mission and becomes desperate to return to space; Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019), part of the Star Wars franchise; Terminator: Dark Fate (2019), part of the Terminator (1984) franchise; Artemis Fowl (2020), based on the novel Artemis Fowl (2001) by Eoin Colfer; The New Mutants (2020), part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe; Underwater (2020), with a drilling facility in the Mariana Trench discovering the spawn of Cthulhu (see Cthulhu Mythos); Black Widow (2021), part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe; Free Guy (2021), about a character in a Massively Multiplayer Online Game who becomes self-aware (see AI); Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021), part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Eternals (2021), part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The above list includes co-productions; in the case of Ad Astra (2019), Regency Enterprises (a division of 20th Century Fox which had been recently acquired by Disney) is one of several co-producers. Another film, Earth to Echo (2014), was made by Disney but sold to another company on completion. Since 1994 there have also been many OVA (aka straight to DVD/video) releases: these are usually low-budget sequels to well known films, but some are very successful, such as the animated Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins (2000), a spin-off from Toy Story (1995), which became the television series Buzz Lightyear of Star Command (2000-2001) (see Disney on Television), and a live-action series about talking golden retriever puppies that includes Super Buddies (2013), where mysterious rings give them superpowers and they become Superheroes battling an Alien dictator. Additionally, Our Huge Adventure (2005) was a pilot for the Playhouse Disney series Little Einsteins (2005-2009) (see again Disney on Television). Since 1996 Disney has provided the English dubs (often using major stars as voice actors) for most Studio Ghibli films (see Hayao Miyazaki), including new dubs for earlier films.

With regard to Television, see the Disney on Television entry. Disney has won seven Hugo awards for best dramatic presentation: contemporary Hugos for The Incredibles (2004), WALL-E (2008) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) in the long form category, and the 2015 "AKA Smile" episode of Jessica Jones (2015-2019) in the short form category. Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940) and Bambi (1942) received Retro Hugos many years after their release. [SP]

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