Walt Disney’s creations extend beyond the screen into the imaginations of millions of people around the world. But how much do we really know about the creator?
- Mickey Mouse Wasn’t His First Major Success
Before the titular mouse exploded onto popular culture, there was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. In 1927, Universal was looking for a cartoon character, and Disney and his chief animator Ub Iwerks responded with the rabbit.
Oswald was an instant hit on the screens, and it was the first time anyone had put personality into drawings. The idea of ‘personality animation’ was something that became the cornerstone for all future Disney characters.
On that, Disney remarked, ‘I want the characters to be somebody, not just a drawing’.
Oswald was made into nearly 30 animated shorts and had its own line of merchandising.
Alas, Universal grabbed the rights of Oswald from the pair.
Not to be defeated, in 1928, Disney and Iwerks created history again, this time with Mickey Mouse, for the Walt Disney Studio.
- Everyone Thought Animated Films Were a Bad Idea, Except Disney
At that time, no one made feature-length animated films – no one believed cartoons could sell that way. So when word spread that Disney was planning to make ‘Snow White’ into a film, industry insiders paid no attention. Headlines surrounding the film at that time called it ‘Disney’s Folly’.
For a while, the critics seemed to be winning.
During production, Disney ran out of funding and had to fight a tough battle to secure more money. But the pioneering animator had the last laugh.
Snow White became a massive success, bringing in over USD 8 million at the box office – and that was just at its initial release.
- Disney Produced Propaganda Films for the US War Effort
Initially, Disney was unwilling to work with the US government on propaganda pieces. He felt producing such films would tarnish his reputation as a cartoon creator.
Eventually though, he ended up making significant films for the government.
They included a 1942 animated short ‘The New Spirit’ to encourage Americans to pay their income taxes in support of the war effort. The film, which starred Donald Duck, played in movie theatres across the country, and even earned an Oscar nomination. A year later, Disney made a more scathing film about Hitler, called ‘Der Fuerher’s Face’ which mocked the Nazis.
Beyond these cartoons, the Disney studio also produced training films for the American military, and designed insignia for military units.
- He Won More Oscars Than Anyone Else
At 22 Oscar wins and 59 nominations, Disney’s record remains unbeatable in Oscar history. He earned his first Oscar for Best Short Subject (cartoon) at the 5th Academy Awards.
Then the awards started pouring in.
Disney won in the same category for the next seven successive Oscars.
He was also awarded four honorary Oscars, including one in 1932 for creating Mickey Mouse.
- His Dying Words Are a Mystery
In 1966 – the year of Disney’s death, a note with the scribble ‘Kirt Russell’ was found on his desk. Nothing else was written on the note. The note is thought to reference then child-actor Kurt Russell, who had been involved in a series of Disney films at the time.
But when asked by a Disney employee, Russell said he knew nothing of the note’s significance.
In interviews, Russell spoke of the animator fondly. The actor said that Disney reminded him of his own grandfather who was both creative and thoughtful. Disney of course, took a professional interest in the actor, often asking him questions about his work.
Perhaps Disney had in mind the actor for his next production?
Now, no one would ever know.
Five years after Disney’s death at age 65, the Walt Disney World theme park opened in Florida, US. Now, it’s among the most visited attractions in the world, with millions of visitors annually.
Have you been to Disneyland? Watched a Disney film? Sang a Disney song? Tell us about your favourite Disney moment.