Walt Disney was born 110 years ago this week and, if someone decided to build a Mount Rushmore for Hollywood next to Griffith Observatory, we all take it for granted that he would be in granite. Disney the brand is among the strongest in the world but Disney the man has a more elusive legacy. We invited filmmaker Jon Favreau (the “Iron Man” movies, “Elf,” “Cowboys & Aliens”) to share his thoughts on that legacy. Favreau has been in a Disney state of mind recently — he’s doing research for a project called ”Magic Kingdom,” a fantasy set within the confines of the Anaheim theme park – but, as he writes, Disney has been in his dreams since he was a child.
I was born in 1966, the year Walt Disney passed away. He would’ve been 110 this week. I’m too young to have had a first-hand memory of him. In fact, I didn’t even know Disney was a man until late in my childhood. Disney was a place (Disneyland) and it made cartoons (Mickey Mouse) and it made movies (Snow White). I later learned that Disney was a person and not a swirling entity defined by Disneyland, Mickey Mouse and Snow White. Or so I thought.
As childhood slipped away, I clung to it through the discovery of Walt’s entire catalog of animated content. Even the earliest nightmare I can remember having was my family’s Toyota driving past me on a New York city street with Mowgli from “The Jungle Book” sitting where I belonged behind my parents. As I got older I became enamored with Fantasia and all of its psychadelia in the revival houses of Greenwich Village. Even as an adult, I am caught in the guts whenever I see Dumbo cradled in the trunk of his caged mother, no doubt accessing repressed pain through emotional back channels to when I lost my own mother as a kid.
And I’m not alone. In some families this emotional connection spans four and five generations. We have incorporated these myths into our own psychological makeup, like a tree growing through a chain link fence. In our secular and pluralistic society, the Wonderful World of Disney has emerged as a de facto least common denominator of shared cultural archetypes.
How did this happen? Was it some conspiracy of corporate America? An overachieving marketing exercise? I don’t think so. I’ve been on both sides of the curtain, having climbed from outsider to insider over several decades, and I believe the answer lies in a man who dreamed for an entire generation.
The avuncular television personality we all have grown to know and embrace (and occasionally pastiche, cf. John Slattery in “Iron Man 2″) was a cultivated persona that echoed the most accessible version of himself. In the autumn of his years, Walt had become an international cultural ambassador and the frontman for a giant media company. At his heart, however, Walt Disney was a maverick.
Walt started off, as the legend goes, as a small town hayseed from Marceline, Mo., who had an extra helping of gumption and sought to bring small town sensibilities to a growing and impersonal world. Like a modern day Paul Bunyan, he would single-handedly fight off the final clutches of the Industrial Revolution with elbow grease and good old-fashioned American values. I suppose this is all true (at least as true as a sound-bite snapshot couldbe), but it leaves out the part I most connect with and respect him for. Walt the maverick.
Walt flirted with bankruptcy his whole life. He took every success and let it ride. Both financially and creatively. And the secret sauce was always technology. We think of “Steamboat Willie” as an old timey black-and-white cartoon but, at the time, it was bleeding-edge tech. It was the first cartoon to marry music to picture, creating perfectly choreographed movement. It was far more expensive than they could’ve ever imagined going into the endeavor (a recurring Walt refrain), but they innovated something completely new and it was devoured by the public. And Mickey Mouse, that monetizable confection of I.P., surfed in on that wave and has been with us ever since. He bet the farm, almost lost it all, and then hit the longshot. He paid his debts and cleared a little more than he spent.
It was this business model that Walt rode his entire career, like a lumberjack dancing on a spinning log down the river. And when most people say Walt, they really mean Walt and Roy. His big brother was the yin to Walt’s yang. Walt was “Show,” Roy was “Business.” Walt dreamed it and his pragmatic older brother and business partner made it come true. It was the loving tension between these two brothers that so succinctly embodies Hollywood’s dichotomy of art and commerce. Not Cain and Abel, but Jacob and Esau jockeying for preeminence and their father’s blessing and legacy.
Walt hit the longshot again with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” another first. It was the world’s first full-length animated feature. This project was ridiculed as an investment. Who would accept the tone? Why spend so many man-hours on quality? But, after suffering the slings and arrows of the status quo and running through the coffers several times over, the movie was a huge success. It was a financial and critical victory. Sadly, Walt would never top this experience as a filmmaker. Although we all think of his entire library of animated films a pantheon of excellence, at the time the experience was not so rosy.
Each project delivered diminishing returns both critically and financially. Despite passion and innovation, the films were each more heavily scrutinized and the financial realpolitik of the movie business had to be considered more and more as overhead grew and profits dwindled. Then there was the shadow of the World War, which also diverted the river of fate.
The advent of Fantasound for Fantasia, the use of color in cartoons and television, the pioneering of the medium of television itself as a marketing tool, as a platform for content and as a driver of the creation of content were all bold and prescient moves on the part of the growing media giant. Few of them paid off in the short term and only in retrospect is their importance truly appreciated.
Walt found himself drawn into the current of something larger. He was the face of Walt Disney Inc. The tide had turned and he abandoned the young man’s game of swimming against it. He sat by Roy’s side as his older brother helped mold the company into the giant that it is today. Then something woke up inside of him.
This, to me, is my favorite chapter of Walt’s life. The truly inspiring one. The anointed king and namesake of Walt Disney Studios quietly slipped out the back door. He cashed in and took a handful of talented artists and, with Roy’s blessing, started over. He dreamed of a place. A place where families could come together and experience something unique yet familiar. A place to share an experience that offered comfort in a changing and scary world that seemed dead set on thumbing its nose at tradition and shredding families apart. A place where cutting edge technology and animatronics could create an immersive virtual reality of an idealized past and future, relying on each family to provide the present
Disneyland was Walt’s third act. It was a success on every level and continues to be. Some of my earliest memories are of the park, my eyes pinched closed as my father described everything we passed in the Haunted Mansion doom buggy. My 1988 cross-country trip on motorcycle culminated with my Sportster padlocked in front of the happiest place on Earth. It was this month-long adventure that ultimately inspired me to leave New York and try to make it in show biz. My first screenplay, “Swingers,” was rife with Disneyland references. Even now, with my own three children, I make the pilgrimage several times a year.
There were three shining moments in Walt’s creative career when everything went right: “Steamboat Willie,” “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and Disneyland. Maybe I understood more about Walt Disney when I was a little kid than I did when I grew up. I understood him not as the man, but what he was able to achieve. What touched me. And that is the genius of Walt Disney. Happy birthday, Walt.
– Jon Favreau