By Michael Idato
Disney turns 100 this year.
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In many respects, Walt Disney Animation Studios is, to slightly misquote Gilbert and Sullivan, the very model of a modern major studio. A billion-dollar library of assets playing out on one of the world’s most successful streaming platforms while factories crank out shelves of action figures, acrylonitrile butadiene styrene posed and painted to mimic iconic moments from the studio’s films and TV series.
At its heart is the studio’s chief creative officer Jennifer Lee, who wrote and co-directed Disney’s mega-hit Frozen and its sequel Frozen II. As one of the few women leading a major Hollywood studio, she is a poster for modernity. And yet, at her side, is the imperceptible but ever-present ghost of the studio’s founder, Walt Disney. In real terms, it is one of Hollywood’s great silent partnerships.
Moana and Flounder (from The Little Mermaid) meet in Once Upon a Studio.
“Everyone has their own idea of what would Walt think, and what it tells you is their relationship with Walt, whether it’s as a ghost, it’s the same relationship we have with the films and anything he created, which [is that it] becomes ours,” Lee says. “The number one thing he said [in his lifetime] is keep innovating, keep taking risks, keep trying.
“I think about all the struggles he had, but also what his ultimate goal was – because what happens in a world, even more so, is people assume the goals, they assume what your intent is, they assume things, and that can make it really hard to see what you’re supposed to be doing. You have to be pushing that all away, and you have to focus on, how does this make me feel?”
Disney latest big animation hope, Wish, features idealistic Asha and a little ball of cosmic force called Star.
In one sense, Walt Disney Animation Studios is just one piece of the larger puzzle of The Walt Disney Company. The other pieces include Disney Entertainment (which oversees the Disney+ platform, Walt Disney Records and content assets such as Lucasfilm and Marvel); there is the company’s sports empire ESPN and Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, covering everything from theme parks and a cruise line, to games and consumer products.
But Walt Disney Animation Studios, which Lee steers, sits uniquely at the centre of the mosaic. It was founded on October 16, 1923, by brothers Walt and Roy Disney, who landed in Los Angeles from Kansas City, Missouri, with an eye on Hollywood, then in its creative infancy and filled with possibility for anyone with an entrepreneurial mind. This year marks the centenary of the Disney brand, but last month was properly the 100th anniversary of the animation studio, which was born when a monochromatic mouse named Mickey first stepped onto a steamboat.
Walt Disney wanted to build a place where “families can come, bring their inner child and leave their troubles behind,” says Lee, referring to both the studio’s physically intangible story content, and its bricks-and-mortar assets, such as the iconic theme park Disneyland. “He said, I want people to feel they belong. Everyone is welcome. Those are the things he held on to, his true north, all the time. And he had to do that even when people said no.”
Walt Disney Animation Studios chief creative officer Jennifer Lee.Credit: Art Streiber
Disney’s words sit with her when she’s struggling, Lee says. “Even when it comes to storytelling, [we] don’t think from outside in, [we] don’t carry the outside. There are plenty of people who can help me with the outside. I stay connected to the creative work, the storytelling, the concept of what do these films do?
“These [stories exist] so people can see themselves, they can feel connected, they can find aspiration, they can find hope, they can see opportunities, they can laugh, when sometimes it is an escape from life,” Lee adds.
In transformational terms, even Walt Disney’s own imagination might have struggled to grasp how far and wide the studio’s vision has grown. From its first feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and the luscious Fantasia (1940) to Toy Story (1995), the Star Wars and Marvel franchises, and the studio’s most successful film ever, Frozen (2013).
The key to its success, Lee says, is that the business has achieved a unique balance in terms of creative and commercial ambition, in an industry where the latter often dominates the strategies of the landscape’s biggest players.
“I have to make sure we’re keeping our eyes on the right thing. And I think by having us be filmmakers, it gives us permission to do that, and I think it keeps that part pure, which I think it has to be. It gets harder and harder to do that. And so you need folks who are a part of that, with that commitment, making sure it stays there,” Lee says.
The studio is marking its centenary with two very different productions. In Once Upon a Studio, written and directed by Dan Abraham and Trent Correy, Disney characters step out of the frames hanging on the walls of the studio’s Roy E. Disney Animation Building and get organised for a group photo to mark the anniversary. Wish is a more conventional Disney film, which takes its name from the lyrics of the song When You Wish Upon a Star, originally written for the character Jiminy Cricket in the 1940 film adaptation of Pinocchio. In it, Asha (voiced by Ariana DeBose) senses a coming darkness and wishes upon a star to save her kingdom.
Disney’s first feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, from 1937.Credit: Disney
The intention of the two pieces, in terms of meeting the moment, is to create a feeling of celebration, Lee says. “We have to put that first, that’s what Walt wanted, and that’s what we do,” Lee says. “What I love about Wish, too, is that it’s not afraid to go there, it’s a big epic story, there are some tough moments, but it also doesn’t take itself too seriously.”
Significantly, it is the studio’s first fully original fairytale, Lee adds, in that it is not based on the works of literary figures such as Hans Christian Andersen or The Brothers (Jacob and Wilhelm) Grimm, whose works have inspired many Disney stories. “Even Frozen, where I think we went way far away from the source, [we] still had that source,” Lee says. “And what I want people to see is, we’re not afraid to continue to take risks, but at the same time, celebrate what we’re a part of and have always been, and the parts of our legacy that we all connect with, that we have made sure that those come with us on this journey.”
In the past few years, the landscape has shifted significantly around Disney and its traditional studio peers. Disney has had to deal with the declining box office for its well-flexed Marvel and Star Wars film assets, as well as a turbulent shift in management. Chairman Bob Iger retired, but returned after his replacement Bob Chapek was fired following a bruising clash with Florida governor and self-styled culture warrior Ron DeSantis. Iger also took a hammering after calling the demands of striking actors and writers “just not realistic”.
Frozen is studio’s most successful film to date.
The studio also very much needs a hit. After Luca and Encanto went (more or less) straight to Disney+ during the pandemic, the next two Disney animated features failed to fire. In 2022, Toy Story spin-off Lightyear earned just US$226 million off a US$200 million budget (factoring in marketing costs, an on-paper loss) and Strange World earned just US$74 million off a US$180 million budget. Frozen III is one certainty for 2024, but another box office success would not be unwelcome.
Meanwhile, at a century, Disney is – extraordinarily – not the oldest studio in Hollywood. Universal Pictures and Paramount Pictures, both founded in 1912, are older. But despite its age, Lee says its future is assured in the hands of the increasingly younger employees who surround her. “They are brand new, right out of college, they’re fighting for a new future, and they want their voice to be heard,” Lee says.
“They are so talented, they may not have the experience yet, but they have the fire. And the folks who have been there for 45 years, they bring experience, they bring truths, they bring hard lessons. There’s no one person that makes these films. There are those of us who carry the vision, but to me, it’s that tug-of-war of ideas [that makes it work].
“You put a thousand people together, and you’re going to get a combination of so many parts of life, and they care so passionately because Disney is part of their soul too.
“Everyone who comes there comes there with a dream to be connected to that, and that they take very seriously. But they all have a very different idea of where it should go. All you can do to make sure there’s a true north.”
Once upon a time in Disneyland
1923: Walt and Roy Disney form Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio
Two young men from Kansas City, Missouri, Walt and Roy O. Disney came to Los Angeles and founded Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio. Their first project was a series of comedic, silent short films, the Alice comedies, about a live-action little girl named Alice (Virginia Davis) and an animated cat, Julius, exploring animated worlds.
1928: Mickey Mouse debuts in Steamboat Willie
One of the first cartoons with synchronised sound and a fully post-produced soundtrack, Steamboat Willie marks the debut of Mickey and Minnie Mouse. It was the third Mickey Mouse film produced (after two silent films, Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho) but the first to secure a distribution deal.
Where it all began: Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie.Credit: Archives
1937: Disney’s first feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Disney’s success in animation emboldened Walt to produce the first animated feature-length film, an adaptation of the fairytale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The film was a critical and commercial success, securing nominations for eight Oscars, including best picture, and winning two: best original score and best original song for Heigh-Ho.
1940: Disney’s most ambitious feature film, Fantasia
Snow White’s success was followed by the animated Pinocchio in 1940 but the studio’s third film, Fantasia, was transformative. Fantasia was composed of eight animated segments accompanied by classical music pieces, conducted by Leopold Stokowski. The film’s most memorable sequence is The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, featuring Mickey.
1955: Disneyland opens in Anaheim, California
One of the first public-facing commercial film studio ventures, Disneyland was divided into areas such as Frontierland, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. Some of the park’s rides, such as It’s A Small World, Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion would become cultural icons. Disney World in Florida opened in 1971, followed by Tokyo Disneyland in 1983, Disneyland Paris in 1992 and other parks around the world.
There have been various incarnations of Mickey Mouse over the years, including in the 1940 film Fantasia.Credit: Disney
1995: Disney’s first Pixar film, Toy Story, is released
The first entirely computer-animated feature film was an artistic turning point for Disney, which had built an empire on traditional hand-drawn animation, including Cinderella (1950) and The Little Mermaid (1989). Toy Story earned almost US$400 million at the box office; roughly equivalent to US$800 million today when adjusted for inflation.
2004-2012: Disney’s billion-dollar expansion
In just under a decade, the studio underwent extraordinary growth, acquiring some of the most valuable cultural assets in the film and TV world: the Muppets in 2004 for US$75 million; Pixar Animation Studios in 2006 for US$7.4 billion; Marvel in 2009 for US$4 billion; and Lucasfilm, which owns the Star Wars franchise, in 2012 for US$4 billion. Those assets would form the engine of the studio’s streaming service, Disney+, launched in 2019.
Woody in Pixar’s original blockbuster Toy Story (1995).Credit: Disney/Pixar
2013: Disney’s most successful film ever, Frozen
Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen and starring the voices of Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Josh Gad and Jonathan Groff, Frozen gave us Anna, Elsa, Olaf and Sven. Frozen’s worldwide box office earnings topped US$1.3 billion, making it the highest-grossing animated film of all time and the first Disney film to win the best animated feature Oscar. (The film’s hit song, Let It Go, also won an Oscar.)
Once Upon a Studio is streaming on Disney+. Wish will be released in cinemas in Australia on December 26.
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