In This Article Walt Disney

  • Introduction
  • The Man (Biographies)
  • The House of Mouse (Histories of Disney’s Studios and Company)
  • Disney’s World
  • Animation Process and Technique
  • Animation Artistry and Influences
  • Music
  • Documentary, Educational, and Nonfiction Films
  • Disney-Lands (The Parks and Other Un-Real Estate)
  • Audiences, Consumers, and Cultural Studies
  • The Biz of Diz (Industrial Analysis)

Cinema and Media Studies Walt Disney
by
Eddy Von Mueller
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0084

Introduction

Few figures of the 20th century have made so deep and indelible an impact on world culture as Walt Disney. Few people have direct knowledge of Walter Elias Disney’s life, his precise contributions to cinema, or the television programs, toys, and attractions that bear his name, but Disney is nevertheless a name familiar to hundreds of millions. Since the early 1920s, Disney, his companies, and his collaborators have been at the forefront of many cinematic and industrial innovations, including synchronized (and later stereophonic) sound, Technicolor, television, and computer-generated animation. Disney expanded into animated features, fiction and documentary live-action filmmaking, self-distribution, and theme parks. Today, the Disney organization stands alone among the few survivors of the studio era with much of its core business and its brand still intact, a brand constantly renewed, vigorously policed, and sometimes aggressively protected. The Disney Company preserves, shapes, and profits by its own history and that of its celebrated founding father-figure. While Disney artifacts can be found in many a middle-class home, the principal archives of Disney materials are curated and controlled either by the company itself or by his heirs through the Disney Family Foundation, and the company and foundation’s various publishing imprints add more than any university press to the ever-growing Disney literature. With Disney’s nominal oeuvre constantly expanding on screens big and small, this bibliography is, of course, anything but complete. Rather, it is a sampling of the historical, critical, theoretical, and aesthetic perspectives on the man, his times, his company, and the motion pictures and places he helped to create. Many more critiques of individual films have been published than could be included here, but you will find examples of most of the prevalent methodologies and approaches used in such critiques. The selected pieces of certain particularly prolific scholars are representative of their scholarship and style as a whole. Likewise, only a fraction of the mammoth resources available online are included here—Cartoon Brew, edited by Amid Amidi, and Dan Sarto’s Animation World Network, are both excellent jumping-off points into that vast terrain. Some readers will no doubt find cause to disagree with some of those selections. Finally, the author is deeply indebted to Dr. Richard Neupert, who began this expedition and contributed much to it.

The Man (Biographies)

Certainly a legend in his own time, Walt Disney had a life story that was and is an integral part of the company’s discursive presence, and his public persona was closely tied to the kind of work his studio produced (Watts 1987). Early biographical materials, produced principally in-house or in the popular press (such as Disney Miller 1959), were as much promotional as biographical, and emphasized those elements of Walt’s personality and personal history most compatible with the company’s commercial ambitions. By the time of his death in 1966, the myth of “Uncle Walt,” the boyish, train-loving Midwesterner turned hard-driving Hollywood Horatio Alger was firmly fixed in the popular consciousness. Tastes and the tide of critical sentiment turned against Walt Disney after his passing, and biographers like Schickel and Eliot (see Schickel 1968 and Eliot 1993) painted grimmer portraits, more cynical and psychologically rich, and often hostile toward so permanent a fixture of the “Establishment” as he had become. These counter-myths compete with sunnier Disneys cast more in the older mold (Thomas 1977, the truth of the man lying presumably somewhere between the poles. The complex and contested state of Disney biography is strikingly demonstrated by the friction between two recent and important studies (Gabler 2006, Barrier 2007), both well-received, extensively researched works by established scholars. In addition to raising the ire of members of the Disney family, Gabler has also been publically taken to task by Barrier, who is critical of Gabler’s methods, research, and publisher. The fact that so many Disney biographies continue to be produced—no matter when you read this, someone, somewhere is writing another one, right now—and that so few of them agree with one another, is a testament both to Walt Disney’s permanence in the cultural landscape and the passion he still commands. In any event, perceptions of Walt Disney, the man, find their way into nearly every discussion of every product of the Magic Kingdom he founded.

  • Alexander, Jack. “The Amazing Story of Walt Disney.” Saturday Evening Post 226.19 (1953): 26–100.

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    Disney was a frequent feature in the Post during the 1950s; this is a typical but illuminating puff-piece profile, which delivers the standard rags-to-riches variant of the Amazing Story in question. “Candid” photos illustrating the piece depict Walt Disney cavorting with employees alongside his family, the very picture of the paternalistic capitalist, an image of himself and his company that Disney frequently promoted.

  • Barrier, Michael. The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

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    This meticulously researched biography takes great pains to explain the personal and business decisions Disney made and corrects factual errors in previous books on Disney. Barrier finds a better balance between the Good Walt and Bad Walt images than is elsewhere achieved in his approach to Disney’s management style and also discusses a number of notable films.

  • Disney Miller, Diane, with Peter Martin. The Story of Walt Disney. New York: Dell Books, 1959.

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    Originally appearing as a series in the Saturday Evening Post in 1956 and 1957, under the title “My Dad, Walt Disney,” this curiosity is the first authorized biography of Walt, as “told” by his eldest daughter. Inevitably very incomplete and overly generous, this affectionate, anecdotal portrait nonetheless offers a revealing glimpse of Walt’s own myth in the making.

  • Eliot, Marc. Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince. New York: Carol, 1993.

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    Dedicated to countering the benevolent “Uncle Walt” myth, Eliot focuses attention on Disney’s personal weaknesses, fears, and traumas. Not infrequently challenged by later scholars, this study appeals to popular psychology and points to themes of family and betrayal within Disney’s life and work, from the content of his cartoons to his collaboration with the FBI.

  • Gabler, Neal. Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. New York: Knopf, 2006.

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    An articulate, detailed biography concentrating on the personal and professional challenges facing Disney from his childhood to the grave. It concentrates on Walt’s creative personality and daring business decisions and includes more than 150 pages of notes and a strong bibliography.

  • Schickel, Richard. The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968.

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    The first of the major revisionist biographies and penetrating at the time of its publication, this book’s picture of a bullying, workaholic, obsessive Disney appeared shortly after its renowned subject’s death in December of 1966. Schickel’s more hard-eyed and acid handling of the legend helped usher in a long period during which the reputation of the man and his studio suffered.

  • Thomas, Bob. The Walt Disney Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1977.

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    Written while many of the author’s principal informants were still helpfully and lucidly alive. Thomas, a reporter and prolific Hollywood biographer, supplies one of the foundational “insider” accounts. Perhaps too uncritical of its “visionary” subject, the book has proved an important resource for many later works, including the author’s own Walt Disney: An American Original (1994), which presents, with minimal revision, the same material.

  • Watts, Steven. Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

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    Another chronology of Walt Disney and his cultural significance, this time from an “American studies” slant, Watts emphasizes the political and social context for the films and their reception. A thorough study of how Disney helped create and sustain many of the central myths of 20th-century America, as well as the myths surrounding him.

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