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100 years of Disney: Catapulting cartoons to global fame

Nadine Wojcik
October 16, 2023

With $40 in his pocket, producer Walt Disney made his way to Hollywood. 100 years and countless classic films later, he leaves behind an enduring, multi-billion dollar legacy.

Cartoon characters Minnie and Micky Mouse on stage.
'It all started with a mouse:' Disney's immortal stars Minnie and Micky MouseImage: Sven Hoppe/dpa/picture alliance

"Just remember, it all started with a mouse," Walt Disney declared in a TV program in 1954.

At that time, his film production company had already been in business for more than 30 years and was one of the most successful in the US — with cartoons!

Mickey Mouse had not only become a screen hero, but was already smiling on T-shirts, footballs and toothbrush cups. One year later, in 1955, the cartoon mouse even came to life at the first Disneyland to open in California.

Walt Disney, who was born in 1901 and grew up on a farm in Missouri, started out as a commercial artist and then discovered animated films. With just $40 in his pocket, he set off for Hollywood and, on October 16, 1923, founded the Walt Disney Company, today a billion-dollar enterprise.

"It's kind of fun to do the impossible," was one of the cartoon pioneer's convictions.

Walt Disney with pictures in front of him, drawing sketches.
Workaholic Walt Disney: Drawing and defining a legacyImage: UIP/dpa/picture alliance

Hidden behind this carefree statement was an intense, almost manic work ethic and workload, but also an unwavering belief in his own ideas. Time and again, the farm boy was on the verge of bankruptcy. His projects were considered too daring; with the latest film technology always being tested and and perfected. Driven, Walt Disney was soon sleeping on a couch in his studios, hardly seeing his own children, yet working hard in order to enchant other, unfamiliar children with his on-screen fairy tales.

An Oscar accompanied by seven miniature ones

Walt Disney made film history in 1937: "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" was the first full-length animated film to hit theaters — Mickey Mouse and Co. had previously only starred in short films. At the time, no one could have guessed that an additional 60 feature-length films would follow to this day.

Film still from 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,' 1937.
'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' was a huge success in 1937Image: United Archives/picture alliance

After all, the daring producer Walt Disney had made a dramatic miscalculation: Instead of $250,000 (approx. €228,000), $1.5 million were required to complete the film; instead of 18 months, his cartoonists worked for three years on an idea that was considered complete lunacy in Hollywood. A feature-length animated film? Who's going to line up at the box office for that?

As became apparent after the film's release, it turned out that quite a few people would: "Snow White" grossed around $8 million — at a time when a movie ticket cost an average of 25 US cents.

Translated into 10 languages, the film went on to be a box office smash in 46 more countries.

Disney received an honorary Oscar at the following year's Academy Awards — or more precisely, and true to the film's title, eight: one normal-sized, plus seven miniature Oscar statuettes.

Working at Walt Disney Studios, on the other hand, was allegedly not always a fairy tale.

Maybe not a nice guy?

Requirements to work overtime, poor wages and a boss who micro-managed every stroke of the pen: those were the working conditions at the company, along with a boss whose creative ego demanded one name be shown in the opening credits — that of he himself, Walt Disney.

Even today, his signature adorns the logo of the billion-dollar corporation.

Yet it wasn't Walt Disney's talent alone that led to the success of the company.  He founded the studios together with his brother Roy, who later took over the finances.

The mouse that started it all was designed by art director Ub Iwerks, but apparently according to the strict specifications of the character's inventor.

Incidentally, Mickey Mouse was also created during an entrepreneurial low point: during a train journey back to Los Angeles. In New York, Walt Disney had been unable to reach an agreement with a distributor, who snatched his then successful short cartoons, "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit," from right under his nose.

Mickey Mouse and merchandising

Walt Disney was both a visionary and a businessman. And he had a knack for discovering talented people.

Oddly, it was during the Great Depression at the end of the 1920s, when companies went bankrupt and many families became desperately poor, that merchandising was born.

With the ingenious advertising manager Kay Kamen on board, Mickey Mouse's likeness was emblazoned on socks, cereal boxes and footballs from the 1930s onward. Disney Studios soon earned considerably more from their advertising products than from the films themselves.

They are still a central source of income for the company, worth billions of dollars today.

Disney centenary exhibition opens in Munich

Following "Snow White," "Pinocchio" (1940), "Dumbo" (1941) and "Bambi" (1942) were among the films Disney Studios released. But the films were unable to match the success of "Snow White": The anticipated revenues failed to materialize, partly because the European sales market collapsed due to the Second World War.

Since hardly any banks could be found to provide the necessary loans for new productions, the company went public.

Today, according to the Institute for Media and Communications Policy, the Walt Disney Company ranks sixth among the world's most successful media groups and is part of the Dow Jones stock index, which lists the 30 most successful US companies.

During World War II, Disney Studios became an instrument of US propaganda. The studios produced numerous short films and cartoons that glorified US warfare and reproduced stereotypical images of the enemy.

For example, in the well-known propaganda film "Der Fuehrer's Face" (1943), Donald Duck is forced to work in an armaments factory in Nazi Germany and goes crazy hearing shouts of "Heil Hitler."

Likewise, Disney produced educational and training films for the US Army. Critics complained that the company would have been better off spreading pacifist and humanist messages instead of war propaganda.

Many Oscars for Disney

In the post-World War II years, Disney built on the success of his feature-length films — with "Alice in Wonderland" (1951) and "Peter Pan" (1953).

In 1955, Walt Disney had another crazy idea: his fairy tale worlds were to become reality, and so the first Disneyland was built in the US state of California. Later, offshoots followed in Florida, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Walt Disney was awarded 26 Oscars during his lifetime — an unprecedented record. However, he did not live to see the premiere of his last film, "The Jungle Book" (1967), as he died of lung cancer in 1966.

Angelina Jolie playing in the film 'Maleficent'.
'Maleficent' tells the fairy tale of 'Sleeping Beauty' from the point of view of the evil fairy, played by Angelina JolieImage: Disney/AP/picture alliance

Still, the Disney brand lived on, despite a massive financial crisis during the early 1980s. In 1986, Walt's nephew Roy E. Disney took over management of the animation studio and, together with Jeffrey Katzenberg, led a "Disney renaissance": "The Little Mermaid" (1989), "Beauty and the Beast" (1991) and "The Lion King" (1994) were born.

"I think when you relate Disney to anything, you relate it to magic, and imagination and creativity, and I think that's what's so different about our company: It's that we tell stories and we make magic in everything that we do," Betty Cline, director of the Walt Disney Archive, told DW.

From the 2000s onward, the former cartoon company set its sights on expansion. First, it bought the successful animation studio Pixar (with whom it had already produced films such as "Toy Story" and "Finding Nemo"), then swallowed the numerous superhero films with Marvel, and finally, the long-running box office hit company Lucasfilm with the "Star Wars" series. TV series and several prequels, sequels and spin-offs followed.

Of course, in the spirit of its founder, Disney continues to keep pace with technological innovations. Although its own streaming platform Disney+ started somewhat late in 2019 and stumbled at first, its quarterly figures for 2022 now position it in third place worldwide behind Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Criticism about racism and cultural appropriation?

While the billion-dollar corporation may be able to safely overcome financial hurdles, its former core business — fairy-tale films — has come under fire. Following allegations of racist depictions in classics such as "Dumbo" or "The Jungle Book," Disney began adding warning labels to its films.

In response to criticism of cultural appropriation, such as in the marketing of the Swahili saying "Hakuna Matata" (loosely: "No worries") from the 1994 film "The Lion King," the corporation is also now trying to deal more sensitively with the cultural attributes of other nations and peoples. So on the occasion of the 100th anniversary, it launched the long-awaited live-action film version of "The Little Mermaid" — with leading Black actress Halle Bailey.

The "Disney 100" international exhibition tour is currently on show in London, and opens in Chicago on November 18.

This article was originally written in German and first published on April 18, 2023. It has since been updated.