Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Disney's Five Steps to Cultural Immortality

The Walt Disney Company has a permanent place in our culture.  That most definitely did not happen overnight.  There are several risks that Walt took that people responded to universally.  Here are the five events that lead to the company's longevity and cultural immortality.

Steamboat Willie (1928)
This cartoon was not the start of the Disney empire.  Walt had previously produced Laugh-o-Grams, the successful Alice Comedies and Mickey's direct precursor Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.  The was not even the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Plane Crazy and Gallopin' Gaucho were released first but nobody noticed.  It was the addition of sound that put Disney on the map.  Sound had been used in animation before but never to this detail, and the public responded strongly.

Audiences responded even stronger to the lead character as Mickey Mouse exploded into his own series, merchandise, and an unparalleled legendary celebrity status.  Which is naturally why Walt always held strong to the idea that, "it all started with a mouse."  Technically, it didn't.  But this is what people noticed and cared about.  This cartoon highlighted Disney's ambitious and risk-taking nature and gifted the world with a personality that everybody knows and loves.

Three Little Pigs (1933)
The Silly Symphony series set the standard for animation at the time.  Just like other studios were required to use sound and had character's influenced by Mickey after Steamboat Willie they followed Disney's lead on his Academy Award winning series.  After Skeleton Dance all cartoons needed an emphasis on music.  After Flowers and the Trees they needed color.  Even the series title was imitated as Silly Symphonies lead directly to Looney Tunes, Merry Melodies, Happy Harmonies, Color Rhapsodies and others.

However more influential than Skeleton Dance and Flowers and the Trees is this pleasant cartoon.  There are a number of big achievements in this cartoon.  It was a giant step forward in character animation as there have never been three characters of the same size and design who had such different personalities before.  This also created the Disney tradition of popular songs in their films, which often eclipse the film's own popularity.  Also it held the ability to be reinterpreted to the times.  During its initial release it spoke to depression audiences who were afraid of several Big Bad Wolves.  During World War II it found new relevance as people were afraid of a different Big Bad Wolf.

It can be argued that this is the most popular cartoon of all time.  It remained in theatres for longer than any short and became iconic.  I would label this as the no turning back point for the studio.  This success proves the revered status Walt and his animators had among audiences.  After this cartoon Disney was never going to be forgotten and they now had the opportunity to take even more risks.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
There was no reason this should have worked.  To say that feature animation was a gamble would greatly undersell the enormous risk.  This also represents Walt's insatiable ambition.  Looking at his studio as a business he did not need to expand, he was easily the most successful studio.  Even if Fleischer's shorts were more popular and technically unique Disney beat his competitor in marketing and personality.

But amidst all of the risks and everything that was against this movie succeeding, it did.  It not only succeeded it surpassed all expectations and was the highest grossing movie at the time.  This was also the start of a new medium and the most successful franchise in the history of entertainment.  This became the studios legacy, nothing is more beloved than these features.

From this success Disney, true to form, kept expanding.  From Pinocchio to Fantasia to Bambi nothing was going to stop this new form of storytelling.  Despite several missteps since this initial masterpiece the studio to this day is still dedicated and capable of creating a classic.

Disneyland the TV Program (1954)
Disney had several setbacks since Snow White.  There was an animator's strike in 1941 that hit Walt hard.  World War II also redirected the studio to propaganda efforts and took away several foreign markets.  Despite the lack of revenue the studio nevertheless continued innovating continuing its commitment to animation, experimenting with live-action in Song of the South which lead to the studio moving to full live-action filmmaking with Treasure Island and perfecting nature documentaries with their True-Life Adventures.  However their biggest risk, Disneyland was on the horizon and Walt took another risk to fund his dream: television.

Television was the worst nightmare of a movie producer in the fifties.  But instead of fearing that it would cause him to lose an audience Walt used it to gain even more audiences.  Despite funding Disneyland the Place, Disneyland the TV Series had several other advantages.  It kept Disney's films and cartoons in the public eye, it served as a way to advertise upcoming ventures and helped turn Walt himself into an almost mythical figure.  As the warm and inviting host the show did wonders in raising Walt's profile and making his personality culturally immortal.

The series worked great as a showcase for the past and a preview for the future, but its legacy was when it spent time in the now creating original programming.  The most successful of this was easily Davy Crockett, gifting the studio with another pop culture phenomenon.

Television has been a strong part of the studio ever since.  It continued with Mickey Mouse Club, Zorro, the subscription based Disney Channel, its award winning cartoons of the eighties and nineties, its purchase of ABC (the network to air the initial anthology series), and modern day tween focused Disney Channel. 

Disneyland the Place (1955)
And this is it, Disney's biggest gamble and biggest success.  Of course the company did not end with Disneyland, but this was the achievement that finished the process of cultural immortality.  It is daunting to think about a man who started out as an animator creating this.  Walt Disney had grown from working in a visual medium to his creativity culminating in a physical place.  Disney did not just produce things to be watched, now Disney is a destination.  And that is the most amazing thing about Walt Disney to me, his ambition and innovation was incapable of containment.  It had to transform into something tangible like Disneyland.  The creation of the theme park is one of the most amazing achievements in history.  It is not only part of an incredible legacy, it symbolizes why this is an unparalleled legacy that will never leave our culture.

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