Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney and Animated Cartooning
Written to Celebrate Mickey’s 75th in 2003 but, Until Now, Never Published
When I was first learning to draw by copying pictures from comic books, I answered, when grown-ups asked me what I was going to be, “An artist.” Later, as the 1940s unrolled a little more, I learned that the kind of artist I aspired to become was “cartoonist,” and when I answered adult queries with that, the response, inevitably, was, “Oh, so you’re going to work for Walt Disney.”
For a certain period in our cultural odyssey Walt Disney was The Cartoonist. His was the name that came immediately to mind when “cartoonist” was invoked. And Disney, in the popular mind as well as in actual history, is inseparable from Mickey Mouse. When contemplating Disney and the empire he created, we should keep in mind what Disney himself said in 1954: “I hope we never lose sight of one fact: that this was all started by a mouse.”
“Uncle” Walt’s admonition turned prophecy. Disney Studios adopted Mickey as its logo image, and he became the most famous rodent on the planet. But fame was not without its cost: to serve as logo, Mickey was blanderized into total inoffensiveness—that is, his personality was ruthless suppressed and a varnished corporate seal affixed in its place. Management developed a long list of taboos about how the Mouse could appear and disport himself in public, and a squad of executives, dubbed “Mickey Police,” monitored Mickey’s image world-wide. But before Mickey was an image, he was a mouse, a mouse with a sense of rhythm.
It was seventy-five years ago on November 18, a Sunday in 1928, that an audience at New York’s Colony Theater saw the first talking animated cartoon. But Disney’s “Steamboat Willie” was not just an animated cartoon with sound added. In “Steamboat Willie,” sound was integrated with movement, the characters moved in the rhythmic patterns dictated by the beat of the music. The star of “Willie” was, as we all now know, Mickey Mouse, and the little rat became the rock upon which Disney founded an empire, his “Magic Kingdom.”
The official birthday date has now passed into history, and I must say, I’m disappointed. I expected more folderol. Sometime before the anniversary year, Disney Corp hired Andy Mooney to revive the Mouse’s image, and Mooney, fresh from his billet at Nike, dubbed Mickey the Disney “swoosh,” but the revival of the swoosh seems to have wheezed, sputtered and fizzled.
I went to the local Disney Store on the Hallowed Date (November 18), expecting to see some Mickey manifestation in more than the usual cascade of plush toys, but–nothing. Everything seemed pretty much the same as usual. No flood of Mickey figurines or dolls or engravings or whatever else might have been conjured up to cash in on the occasion. In fact, judging from the store and its merchandise, there was no occasion.
Down at Walt Disney World in Florida, seventy-five statues of Mickey Mouse were unveiled, hand-decorated by such non-artistic celebrities as Ben Affleck and James Gandolfini, and these artifacts are destined to tour the nation, but nothing was happening at the local Disney Store. I’m not going to make up for the oversight here, but I am seizing the opportunity that Mickey’s 75th affords to reflect upon what Walt Disney did and what he represents in the history of cartooning—not to mention in the history of American culture.
For the next dozen years or so after Mickey’s debut, Disney was the darling of the intellectual community, whose denizens raved, in particular, about his first few feature-length cartoons (“Snow White,” “Fantasia,” “Pinocchio,” “Dumbo,” “Bambi”). But by the end of the 1940s, the intelligentsia could find nothing new and astonishing to comment on in his work, so they turned away from Disney. Until he died.
Following Disney’s death in 1966, Richard Schickel rushed into print with The Disney Version, a book that did much to debunk the Disney myth. Schickel, an acerbic-tongued film critic for Time, saw in Disney, “this most childlike of our mass communicators,” things that were the “most childish and therefore most dangerous in all of us who were his fellow Americans.” The “Disney version of the American vision” is dangerous because it somehow lacks soul, as Schickel sees it. Disney entertains without inspiring. None of his works plumb the depths of human feeling. Ergo, none of Disney’s works are Art. Since Schickel is an “art” critic, he is perforce robbed of his function whenever he confronts a Disney version. Despite what may be a suspiciously trivial motive underlying Schickel’s assessments, much of what he says is worth serious consideration.
The Disney version (by which Schickel means short and feature-length cartoons, nature films, live-action features, books, comics, records, Disneyland and Walt Disney World—in short, everything touched by Uncle Walt during his highly productive life) was enormously successful and continues to be because it appeals to a profound need in a changing industrial and technological society. The upsetting effects of living in such an environment force people “to seek new identities,” Schickel says, “in a world that appears no longer to offer them traditionally reassuring values.” Quoting Eric Hoffer, the once-celebrated philosopher longshoreman, Schickel sees modern man as “juvenile”—“the archetypal man in transition.” When we are subjected to constant changes, we re-enact “to some degree the adolescent’s passage from childhood to manhood.”
The Disney version comforts us in this progress because it reaffirms those traditional values we fear are lost: the Disney version is inevitably set in “an imagined past”—the small town of rural America (setting for all of Mickey’s films of the 1930s and many of the live-action films) with its sense of community or the fairy tale world of childhood. Whether affirming small-town turn-of-the-century virtues or evoking nostalgic memories of childhood, the Disney version (Schickel implies) fails to provide spiritual nourishment for the archetypal man in transition: Disney does not help the “juvenile” in us grow to maturity.
Disney did more than construct an imagined past: he idealized it. The fairy tales he adapted to the screen were purged of whatever unsavory elements lingered from more primitive times and then sweetened to confection. The process robbed the ageless stories of their mysterious appeal to the human subconscious. And by making everything so cute, Schickel suggests, “Disneyfication” succeeded chiefly in stopping the pulse of life—and with that, all possibility that we may be moved to more than fleeting emotional involvement.
When Disneyland appeared, the intellectuals found the rhetorical fulcrum upon which to wedge the lever of their attack on Disney. Now, they said, Disney’s trying to do to real life what he did to the stories he re-told on the screen: he’s trying to purify and sanitize, to reduce everything to its sweetest, cutest, and most palatable elements. When Time did a story on Disneyland and Disney World, it was admitted that the Disney dream has all but come true: both of these “parks” are essentially urban communities, purified of all the realities of life (dirt, trash, sex, economic necessity, etc.). Automated to the ultimate degree, the Disney parks recreate the rosiest of childhood dreams about life, making fantasy real. Within the gates of those parks, Disney has indeed succeeded in doing to real life what he did to the stories his studio animated.
Disney even gave us the metaphor for what he was doing. In one of the first of his true-life films, “Nature’s Half Acre,” a monstrous brush (without a manipulating hand) whips across the screen, splashing color that ingeniously runs down the screen, forming shapes as it runs, until—lo and behold!—a landscape emerges. Slowly the hard linear edges of the painting dissolve into a photograph of precisely the same scene. The Disney effort has been exactly that: whatever is touched with the magic brush is transformed into a perfect (and sanitary) image of what the brush paints. Real life (the photograph) is made to conform to the fantasy life (the painting).
A generation ago, when the underground press gave Mickey and Minnie genitals and sex lives, it was merely a sort of desperate, last-ditch effort to stop the Disneyfication of everything by recalling to mind by means of a jolting shock those aspects of life that Disney was brushing out with his magic brush. It was effective satirical comment—and wholly justified. The Disney version is indeed sanitized to the point of cloying sweetness. About that there is little disagreement.
But there is some danger that we’ll relax in the self-satisfied comfort of our unanimity of opinion on Disneyfication and let that opinion stand alone—unjustly—as a complete assessment of the man and his works.
In recounting Disney’s accomplishments, Schickel often allows a note of scornful derision to creep into his prose. Behind that scoffing lurks the essential snobbery of the art critic who deprecates whatever he sees if it isn’t Art. Schickel complains that Disney’s story-telling techniques are entirely conventional. It’s “discouraging,” he says—“particularly when the animated film and the stories ir usually adapts seem particularly suited to the deftly allusive new style, with its bold leaps through time and space, its sudden juxtapositions of seemingly unrelated material, its quickness of mind and spirit, its sheer pleasure in the film as film” (my emphasis).
In the last analysis, Schickel’s chief grievance is that Disney didn’t produce anything better than he did, that he didn’t produce Art—that he produced only entertainment.
A curious criticism—much like denigrating a comic strip because it isn’t an oil painting. And scarcely a fair criticism, considering that Disney never aspired to produce Art; he wanted only to entertain. And to make money. He did both, and in the course of doing both, he virtually created the modern animated cartoon industry.
It’s entirely fitting that Mickey’s official birthday is November 18—the date of the first public showing of a sound animated cartoon but not the date of Mickey’s first appearance in public. Mickey first starred in “Plane Crazy,” a silent film which had a trial showing in a Hollywood theater on May 15, 1928. The November anniversary date thus commemorates not so much Mickey’s birthday as the technological advance that “Steamboat Willie” represented. That advance revolutionized the animated cartoon.
Even Schickel agrees: “The synchronization of visual imagery with musical sound definitely separated the film cartoon from its heritage, the newspaper cartoon, and gave it an expressive potential far above that of its ancestor.”
It’s appropriate that we celebrate a technological advance and not the creation of a cartoon character because Disney’s singular gift was not as a creative artist: it was a genius for developing and exploiting technological innovation. (Disney actually drew nothing after about 1926. He was known to apply to his animators for hints on how to draw Mickey for autograph hunters; and he even had difficulty reproducing his well-known signature.)
Schickel correctly sees Disney as an American type—the midwestern “go-getter,” the kind of person who seeks opportunity in order to seize it and turn it to advantage. Nowhere does Disney illustrate the type better than in his bringing sound to cartoons. After the first “talking movie” in October 1927, most Hollywood producers hesitated about the advent of sound—if they were not downright fearful of its consequences. Not Disney. He saw the coming of sound not as a threat but as an opportunity. He seized it and took the country by storm.
Disney did not achieve his triumph without having paid tuition in the time-honored college of hard knocks. His childhood, Schickel notes, “no objective observer could possibly describe as happy.” Perhaps it was childhood deprivation that compelled Disney in later years to create that “imagined past,” a falsified past in which he could live again, as it were, the childhood he never had.
By the time the Mouse was born, Disney had learned plenty about the animation business. He learned it mostly by himself, tinkering with cameras in a Kansas City garage where he established his own production company, Laugh-O-Gram, in the early 1920s. The ill-fated enterprise collapsed in a few years, thanks chiefly to a luckless association with a film distributor who went bankrupt. Disney followed suit and then left town for the West Coast, where the movie business was The Business.
Soon after he arrived in Los Angeles in 1923 with a change of clothes and some drawing materials in an imitation leather suitcase, the twenty-two-year-old cartoonist contacted another distributor and revived an earlier scheme for a novel series of cartoons. His “Alice Comedies” reversed a Max Fleischer gimmick in which cartoon characters were pulled “out of the inkwell” to cavort on artists’ drawing boards: based vaguely upon Alice in Wonderland, the novelty of Disney’s conception was that Alice was a real girl, but her adventures took place in an all-cartoon setting. Live-action footage was superimposed on cartoon backgrounds with animated animals.
Disney’s association with his new distributor came to grief in 1928, when the distributor, who owned the rights to Disney’s products, stole away not only Disney’s animation staff (except Ub Iwerks, his one-time partner whom Disney had brought with him from Kansas City) but their latest creation—Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Charles Mintz occupies a nefarious niche in the history of animated cartooning. The story of Mintz’s chicanery and the birth of Mickey Mouse is patented Disney Studio fare and can be found in virtually any history of the Studio or biography of Disney. The particulars at hand come from Disney’s World by Leonard Mosley.
Mintz had taken over Disney’s distribution company by marrying its owner, Margaret J. Winkler. At the time, Disney was still cranking out the Alice Comedies. And Mintz had the prescience to realize that the Alice Comedies had about run their course by the end of 1926. Moreover, he was on the verge of signing a contract with Universal to provide a series of animated cartoons, and Universal wanted something new. With that as incentive, Mintz was able to convince Disney to abandon Alice, and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was devised. Oswald proved to be more than the star of a successful animated cartoon series: he prompted inquiries about merchandising and licensing, and that incited Mintz’s greed.
When Disney went to Mintz’s office in New York in February 1928 to renew their contract (hoping for a slight increase in payment), Mintz made his move. He offered Disney less on a new contract than on the previous one, telling him to take it or leave it, but if he didn’t take it, Mintz would take Oswald. Disney didn’t own Oswald, Mintz told the filmmaker: Mintz did. He also revealed that he had been secretly recruiting Disney’s animators to leave and form a new company with him. If Disney didn’t accept the terms of a new arrangement in which Mintz and Universal would become his partners and hold all rights to the character, then Disney would be effectively out of the Oswald business. After fuming for almost a month, Disney declined Mintz’s offer. And according to Disney legend, Mickey Mouse was invented on the train ride back to California from New York in late March.
Mickey Mythology holds that Disney conjured up the Mouse by recalling an actual mouse that used to visit him at his drawingboard in his Kansas City studio, the one he moved into over a restaurant after leaving the garage. “It used to crawl across my desk and I’d feed it bits of cheese,” Disney said, according to his publicity department years later. The tale was fairly elaborately embellished: “I got quite fond of it and looked forward to its visits. It was so tame—and cheeky, too, I guess—it would take cheese right out of my fingers and then curl up and go to sleep in the palm of my hand. It was a good thing I didn’t have much work in those days because I couldn’t do any drawing until it woke up and scampered away.”
And when his income evaporated, he worried about the mouse. “I was afraid I’d given it a taste for cheddar and it would get itself killed trying to steal the cheese the guys downstairs were using to bait their traps in their restaurant kitchen. So one day, I took it to the woods outside of town and let it go. I hope it made it. I called him Mortimer.”
Disney’s wife Lillian, who was reportedly with him on the storied cross-country train ride, thought that “Mortimer” was a sissy name and suggested “Mickey.”
Lillian’s role in the creation of the Mouse is probably the part of this fable that is closest to the truth. More likely is that Mickey was created by Ub Iwerks at the Disney shop while the boss and his wife were coming back from New York. While in the Big Apple, Disney had told his brother and partner, Roy, that he’d relinquished Oswald to Mintz and that they therefore needed a new star. He told Ub, too, and Iwerks undoubtedly set to work at once.
His biography, The Hand behind the Mouse (by Leslie Iwerks, Ub’s granddaughter, and John Kenworthy, a freelance author), says Ub remembered Walt entertaining a mouse at his drawingboard when they were working together in Kansas City, and the biographers suggest that Iwerks found additional inspiration in one of the old humor magazines, Life or Judge, where he saw a drawing of a mouse by a cartoonist named Meeker, who specialized in cartoon critters. But Iwerks almost certainly resorted to the conventions of the day’s animation techniques in visualizing the Mouse. Because animation requires thousands of repetitive drawings, simple shapes like circles were favored by animators in those days; and pipe-stem limbs are easier to draw and make move than more elaborate anatomy. Oswald was all circles and pipe-stems. And he was black, too—just like Mickey except he had long ears. Mickey’s physical appearance was pretty clearly based almost entirely upon Oswald.
When Disney arrived in Hollywood, he approved Iwerks’ mouse, and they began production of the first Mickey movie, “Plane Crazy,” taking as inspiration the national excitement that had been generated the year before (and thrived still) with Charles Lindbergh’s successful solo flight across the Atlantic.
The other animators in the shop were those who had defected to Mintz and would soon be leaving, and Disney assigned them to work on the two remaining Oswald cartoons that his contract called for. And because he no longer trusted them and feared they’d take the newest Disney creation with them to Mintz, he and Iwerks worked secretly on the Mickey project. Astonishingly, Iwerks did everything on “Plane Crazy” by himself—key drawings, in-betweens, backgrounds—everything. Producing at the rate of 700 drawings a day, Iwerks completed the animation in two weeks, a herculean feat that received recognition with Iwerks’ byline on the film’s title card, “A Walt Disney Comedy Drawn by Ub Iwerks.” The early Mickey films were the only ones to carry an artist credit in addition to Walt’s name.
Iwerks labored all day in his office behind a locked door; every night, Walt took the day’s completed drawings home, where they were inked and colored onto cels by his wife and Roy’s, and by Walt’s sister-in-law. At night, Walt returned to the studio to film the work. Altogether, it was an extraordinary achievement.
When Disney looked for a distributor for Mickey, he was determined to avoid another Mintz experience; he therefore broke with the custom of the time by insisting on having complete ownership and control of his product, a strategy that insured he would retain the largest portion of any film’s profits instead of seeing a distributor make off with the lion’s share, as was usually the case in those days—particularly if the film were as successful as Mickey’s proved to be. Never content simply to make money, Disney poured his profits into improving the quality of his films. He insisted on the expensive practice of filming preliminary drawings in order to preview the animation—and thereby to improve it or eliminate flaws. He and his animators also developed the storyboard as a device for plotting whole movies.
Until the introduction of the storyboard, the story content of an animated film tended to be a concoction by animators of a series of gags, funny bits either visual or verbal or both, strung together without much regard for anything but inciting laughter. At Mintz in the early years, for instance, the three principal animators customarily divided a picture into thirds, each working on his segment with hardly any mutual discussion. This method was not much advanced from the earliest days of animation as described by pioneer Walter Lantz: “We might start with the idea of having to go to the North Pole, but that was as far as we would go in working out the story. ... [Another animator] would say, ‘Walter, I’ll pick up the scene with Happy Hooligan coming in from the left. When you finish your scene, be sure he goes out to the right.’ That’s all I had to remember.”
Mintz’s laissez-faire attitude had an unintended benefit: creative animators were permitted to do almost anything they wanted to as long as it didn’t increase the cost of the production. And at this stage in the evolution of the animated film, the freedom to experiment was highly prized. Still, the supervising animators would occasionally remind their teams of their chief obligation: “We want footage,” they might say, “we don’t want Rembrandts.” Shamus Culhane, who started at Mintz as an inker, remembered that “if you had a gag where somebody was hit by something, you automatically had it happen three times because you used the drawings over again.”
Some animation studios devoted more attention to storylines: they knew their films would have greater impact on audiences if the pell-mell comic action had a point. Animators would meet at the beginning of a project to cobble up some sort of plot and to lay out possible gags and humorous sequences, all related to the narrative thread. Disney employed this method until about 1932, when he subdivided his production staff, creating a “story department” with the animators who showed a gift for inventing plots. The storyboard took shape in the story department.
Because so much of the humor of a cartoon is visual, animators tended to sketch their ideas, and plots were outlined with pictures rather than words. At Disney, this practice was formalized into the storyboard, which is simply a series of drawings indicating the key moments of an action sequence, pinned up on the wall in the order of their occurrence. It was simple but revolutionary in its effect: by visualizing the action, storyboards permitted all the creative people involved in the project to critique and improve upon the storyline or individual sequences before starting the time-consuming (and therefore expensive) animation.
Soon after Disney began storyboarding his films, word about the effectiveness of the device spread throughout the animation community, and soon, every studio was using storyboards. And many studios also established separate story departments in imitation of the Disney process. Today, the directors of many live-action motion pictures use storyboards to visualize the action of their films before they begin shooting.
With the advent of color movies, Disney again took advantage of the new technology. When Technicolor developed a three-color process for color film, Disney’s studio developed paint that would stick to celluloid without cracking or burning. And Disney insisted that Technicolor give him exclusive use of their process for two years so he could recoup his experimental investment in perfecting the paints.
Throughout the thirties, Disney continually expanded the range of his subjects. Within a year of Mickey’s introduction, he brought out the Silly Symphonies series—cartoons without a continuing cast of characters. With one of them, “The Three Little Pigs” in 1932, the country acquired a national anthem for the Depression years—“Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf.” (Persuaded against his better judgment to try to capitalize on the success of the cartoon, Disney made three more films with the Three Little Pigs. None were memorable, none duplicated the first’s success—which strengthened Disney’s resolve never to repeat himself. “No more pigs” was the watchword.) And in the Mickey cartoons, Disney introduced over the years an entire cast of supporting players—some of whom (Goofy, Donald Duck, Pluto) starred subsequently in their own films.
Schickel speculates that in developing the Silly Symphonies and Mickey’s supporting cast, Disney was recognizing—whether overtly or unconsciously—the inherent weakness in Mickey’s character as a star of cartoons. In “Plane Crazy,” Mickey was “at best, a fresh and bratty kid, at worst, a diminutive and sadistic monster,” Schickel says. Subsequent efforts to soften his personality resulted in his becoming, simply, “nice”—that is, thoroughly bland. Perhaps Disney, who voiced Mickey in the early years, identified too closely with the Mouse, and in creating his own public image, he created Mickey’s too—that of a benevolent entrepreneur, a corporate symbol. Whatever the cause, Mickey was soon too nice to be a comedian, so the best comedy parts in Disney’s cartoons featuring Mickey’s “gang” fell to Donald and others. All together, theirs is a formidable comedy ensemble. But not one of them in and of himself has the comedic flexibility of Warner Brothers’ urbane con man, Bugs Bunny.
“Snow White” was Disney’s penultimate effort to escape the Mouse, Schickel says, to avoid becoming locked in by his most famous character. To bring the first feature-length animated cartoon into being, Disney took the art of animation several strides forward. To begin with, as Schickel notes, Disney knew that audience attention would flag in a long film if it were done in the style of the short Mickey films. He knew “he would have to add something to the art itself if he was to grow beyond the short subject.”
The something Disney added was better animation. And he added it by training his animators in classes held at the studio. Don Graham, an instructor at the Chouinard Art School in Los Angeles, developed the classes and, most importantly, a technique for teaching realistic animation. Called “action analysis,” it involved a model executing a complete motion that animators then tried to sketch from memory—“giving an impression of the movement rather than an overly detailed rendering of it.”
The technique suited perfectly Disney’s own feeling for what animation should be. Exaggeration was important in animation, he believed; and in capturing the impression of movement, animators were dealing in a species of exaggeration.
In addition to improving the quality of animation, Disney sought to further enhance the illusion of reality with the multiplane camera, an idea developed by Ub Iwerks, for which backgrounds were drawn on several planes, all shot at once, thereby giving the scene depth: as the camera moved into a scene, for instance, the foreground moves independently of the background—just as it does in a film of live action. And the backgrounds themselves were painted in muted tones, browns and greens dominant—with the expectation that audiences watching a long film could better tolerate the softer coloring.
“Snow White” was an enormous success, a marvel. If Disney’s career had stopped after this film in 1937, his place in the pantheon of cartooning greats would still be secure. But Disney didn’t stop. Nor did he go on by simply producing a flock of films featuring the dwarfs. “You cant’ top pigs with pigs,” he said, and then went on to try to top himself without repeating himself.
He made a commercial success out of nature films (despite their being, as Schickle says, intellectually dishonest: anthropomorphizing animals and insects invariably created “good guys” and “bad guys”–scarcely an accurate reflection of nature). And he made more feature-length cartoons–21 of them by the time of his death (not to mention 493 shorts, 47 live-action features, 7 nature films, 330 hours of Mickey Mouse Club shows, 78 half-hour Zorro adventures, and 280 film tv shows).
Although Disney very early ceased to be a cartoonist in the common sense of the term, he is remembered by most who worked closely with him as a masterful story editor. Schickel writes: “His story conferences were models of democratic give-and take, and everyone who ever sat in on one seems to agree that it was as editor and critic of stories that he had his finest creative hours. He had a fine sense of pacing, a gift for stretching and embroidering a basic gag or situation that some have compared to that of the great silent comedians, and, above all, an infectious enthusiasm for ideas, even bad ones, that kept the ideas bouncing until, somehow, the plot or situation or character was sharpened to a satisfactory but not necessarily preordained point.”
If we are tempted to wonder how much Disney actually shaped his creations when the actual work was done by scores of others, we have only to remember that he survived the desertion of his entire animation staff in the late 1920s (not to mention an on-going attrition throughout the years as animators left for other studios, having learned their craft at Disney’s). And his creations continued, regardless, to achieve higher and higher standards for quality.
When the Age of Television dawned and the rest of Hollywood trembled (hoping if they ignored it, it would go away), Disney characteristically seized the new technology as another opportunity. And he used his weekly hour on the tube to entertain—and, not at all incidentally, to promote Disney films and products. The greatest of these in Disney’s eyes was probably Disneyland.
Although the notion of an amusement park was passe to many, Disney took the faded idea and made it shine as an “atmospheric park.” And if Disneyland is “the greatest piece of urban design in the U.S. (think of its performance in relation to its purpose”), Disney World is a glimpse of the urban future, incorporating into its over-all plan a vision of EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow).
With the success of Disneyland, the Disney Studio achieved a financial stability and independence unknown to every other Hollywood studio. Just before he died, Disney was asked what had been the most rewarding experience of his life. “The whole damn thing,” he replied, “—the fact that I was able to build an organization and hold it.”
In building his organization, Disney realized the capitalist dream. He created an entertainment empire operating in every communications medium known to man. Most significantly, Schickel observes, “all its parts—movies, television, book and song publishing, merchandising, Disneyland—interlock and are mutually reciprocating.” Television encourages attendance at Disney movies; movies, watching the tv program. Books (both comic and story) disseminate the Disney creations everywhere, stimulating tv watching and film attendance. All subliminally tout Disneyland, and Disneyland overtly markets them all. And so on ad infinitum in an endlessly repeating cycle.
Schickel is not a little bit horrified by this self-perpetuating financial empire. As he is by “the Disney version.” And by the assembly line techniques perfected in Disney animation that destroy individuality in the name of the house style. But Schickel admits that the imperfections he sees in Disney are but mirrors of the flaws of society at large and the values it espouses. Though he built an enviable machine for taking our entertainment dollars from us, Schickel says, Disney always “gave fair value, as far as he could see, in return.”
If Disney did not create Art, as Schickel would have had him do, he created modern animation. And even if “Disneyfication” sucked the life out of most of Disney’s characters, it also produced many moments of high art in animation—among them, the sustained choreography of the house-cleaning sequence in “Snow White”; Pinocchio’s dance with the puppets; the Mad Hatter’s tea party in “Alice”; the fight with the weasels in Toad Hall; Ichabod Crane’s frantic flight from the headless horseman; and the “Dance of the Hours” with hippos, ostriches, elephants, and alligators in “Fantasia” (the first edition) to cite a few memorable passages that flash quickly across memory’s screen.
And if the sweetening of characters throughout the Disney canon resulted in many of them being incapable of wildly inventive comic action, Disney’s drive for technical perfection somewhat offset his failure to create films that are consistently funny throughout: if “in the late films complexity of draftsmanship was used to demonstrate virtuosity and often became an end in itself,” as Schickel’s indictment reads, the demonstration still set a pace for the art.
A Gallery of Disney and Mickey—model sheets for Mickey (including sketches done by Disney himself in the 1920s) and a playful assortment of pictures from The Art of Mickey Mouse, an astonishing compilation by Craig Yoe, plus portions of the storyboard for “Plane Crazy,” the first Mouse flick.