Walt Disney has become a 20th century icon of Americana. Like many mythic American figures, he had a humble beginning, an ambitious entrepreneurial spirit, and a passion for modern technology. Born in Chicago, he enrolled at the Kansas City Art Institute at age 14. Toward the end of World War I, when he was 16, Disney volunteered to drive ambulances in France. Upon his return home, he worked for a commercial art studio in Kansas City; there he teamed up with artist Ub Iwerks, who would become his lifelong business partner. Together, they moved to the Kansas City Film Ad Company to make animated commercials; this spawned their first brief business venture, Laugh-O-Grams, which sold satirical cartoons to a local theater. The success of these cartoons inspired Disney to create his own animation studio, where he independently produced such shorts as Puss in Boots (1922) and The Musicians of Bremen (1923). As the cartoons cost more to make than they earned, this first studio was not financially successful. In 1923, Disney (who, legend has it, had only 40 dollars to his name), his brother Roy, and Iwerks, went to Hollywood to begin producing the Alice in Cartoonland series of shorts that combined animation with live-action.
In 1927, Disney and Iwerks created their first popular character, Oswald Rabbit. Unfortunately, a bitter dispute with the cartoon's distributor resulted in Disney losing the rights to Oswald. The distributor also hired away most of Disney's staff and produced more Oswald cartoons without him. Disney's next character was the beloved Mickey Mouse, whom he starred in two silent shorts, Plane Crazy and Gallopin' Gaucho. For his third Mickey cartoon, Steamboat Willie (1928), Disney used sound. The success of Willie led Disney to create the "Silly Symphony" series, in which the characters' antics were synchronized to prerecorded music. As most animators did it the other way around, this was an innovation. The best known of this series was The Three Little Pigs (1933), which contained the hit song "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf." During the 1930s, many of Disney's other beloved characters began to appear, including Minnie Mouse, Pluto (originally called Dippy Dawg), Goofy, and Donald Duck. And as they developed, so did his use of technology. Disney began using two-strip color in 1931; by the mid-'30s, he was using three-strip Technicolor, and he had exclusive use of the process for three years. At his growing studio -- which employed hundreds of people and included its own art school -- the revolutionary multiplane camera was developed, which allowed for more fluid, realistic animated movements with greater perspective and depth.
In 1934, Disney began working on his first feature-length animated film, a project he'd been dreaming of for years. No one in the industry supported his idea, believing that such extended exposure to animation would give the audience headaches. But Disney, driven to experiment further with his newfound technology, was not dissuaded; in 1937, he released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a film that went on to gross nearly eight million dollars in its first release. Soon, other such features followed. Audiences liked them for many reasons: the animation was spectacular, the tunes were hummable, and the stories -- ultra-sanitized versions of the originals -- were reassuringly upbeat during the troubled war years. The one exception was Disney's technical masterpiece, Fantasia (1940). Though it didn't initially do well, subsequent, more sophisticated audiences have come love it. During World War II, the Disney studios also churned out propaganda films for the government; the best-known was the documentary Victory Through Air Power (1943).
At one point during the early '40s, it looked as if all of Disney's dreams would disintegrate when most of his staff resigned over his authoritarianism and insistence upon absolute artistic control. Still, Disney continued turning out shorts and features, some of them, such as Song of the South (1946), combining live-action with animation. Beginning in the 1950s, Disney made live-action adaptations of classics and pseudo-documentaries, which, like his fictional features, presented a sanitized, anthropomorphic version of nature. Wanting complete control over his empire, he formed Buena Vista Distribution Company for his films. And, in 1954, he launched his long-running television anthology, Disneyland (later dubbed Walt Disney Presents), which was broadcast in various incarnations for 30 years and consisted of animated shorts, live-action serials, and movies. In 1955, he opened Disneyland, his 160-acre fantasy theme park in Anaheim, CA, which eventually spawned the massive Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL, a Disneyland in Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Euro Disney in France.
During his heyday, Disney was awarded 29 Oscars for his films, and, by the 1960s, he had become the king of American entertainment. But many felt the quality of his work was in decline; the animation was not as rich, and he did not produce as many shorts. His live-action films, with a few notable exceptions -- such as Mary Poppins (1965) -- were also becoming routine, and had a hastily made feel to them. Still, he remained a beloved figure. So when he died of acute circulatory collapse following the removal of a lung tumor on December 15, 1966, the world paused to mourn his passing. His legacy lives on in a whole new generation of Disney animated features, including The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Lion King (1994), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996). ~ Sandra Brennan, Rovi