"Walt Disney Biography" page was reviewed and edited by assistant professor of literature in English literature at University of Birmingham, Dr. Louise Kane, BA Hons, MA (University of Oxford), PhD (De Montfort).
Walt Disney Biography Introduction
Walter Elias "Walt" Disney was born December 5, 1901, in Chicago, IL, USA.
Walt Disney, December 5, 1901 - December 15, 1966. Father of two daughters, as one might expect Disney was something of a work-a-holic, a chain smoker who liked to smoke his cigarrettes down to the butt. After Disney's death, his wife Lillian remmarried and died in 1997 at 98 years of age. Lillian stated that Disney was a wonderful father and grandfather and that he was a good husband to her. Disney lived in pain the last years of his life, and died of cancer at the age of 65.
Disney’s mother and father, Flora and Elias Disney, had moved to Chicago in 1890.
In 1906, when young Walt was four years old, the family made another move—this time to Marceline, Missouri, where they purchased a small farm.
Life on the farm was tough and Elias struggled to raise his family.
After four years of back-breaking work, the family sold out their farm, barely breaking
even on their initial investment. With four years’ hard work and nothing to show for it, the family then found themselves in Kansas City in early 1911.
However, Walt’s experience living in Marceline had a profound effect on his later life.
It was on the farm that he learnt to draw, copying pictures from the cover of his father’s favourite socialist magazine, Appeal to Reason.
In Kansas City young Walt, now a student at Benton Grammar School, had his first exposure to movies in a nearby theatre.
In the early 1910s, movies were a nascent phenomenon. Largely the creation of Thomas Edison, working in New Jersey, motion pictures came into existence in the mid-1890s,
but by the years 1904-1914, movie theatres proliferated throughout the United States and other parts of the world .
Millions in the United States attended movie theaters on a weekly basis by 1914. Disney became enamored with the movies and they became a regular part of his life.
He courted his future-wife, Lillian, by taking her to the movies.
Vaudeville and burlesque were also influences on Disney’s early life; at Benton Grammar School his classmate Walter Pfeiffer’s
family were avid theatre-goers and Disney began spending increasing amounts of time with them. Disney also continued his drawing and sketching,
especially caricatures, which he created for 25-cents apiece in a local barber shop. For the better part of his childhood and into his teenage years he had an arduous
for which he received only a small allowance, his father taking most of the money for family expenses.
In 1917, Elias Disney moved his family back to Chicago. Now 16, Walt briefly attended McKinley High School and took night classes in drawing at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.
After a brief spell as the cartoonist for the school newspaper, Disney dropped out of school and began a stint working in France as an ambulance driver with the Red Cross.
In 1919, the 17 year old Disney moved back to Kansas, where he began to develop his career as a cartoonist.
After working for several advertising agencies, including A. V. Cauger and the Kansas City Film Ad Company,
Disney decided to establish his own animation company with Fred Harman, a former co-worker at the Ad Company.
At this point Disney’s “Laugh O’Gram” cartoons became hugely popular in Kansas. His empire had begun.
Yet this early success was short-lived. Thwarted by financial concerns, Disney and Harman’s firm soon went bankrupt. Undeterred, in late 1923
Disney decided to set up another studio, this time in Hollywood, with his brother Roy O. Disney acting as his business partner.
Here, Disney continued work on the Alice Comedies he’d begun back in Kansas, as well as producing the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon series
and beginning work on a new character: Mickey Mouse. It was at this point that another important event in Disney’s life took place.
In early 1925, he had hired Lillian Bounds as a celluloid painter.
The pair soon fell in love and married in July of that year.
Disney Biography - Disney and Politics
Walt's father was a socialist, in part influenced by his family’s English and Irish roots. Despite copying cartoons from Appeal to Reason,
Disney soon deviated from his father's socialist persuasions and became increasingly conservative, in the American political tradition (more along the lines of Reagan's ideology),
as he got older. He became staunchly anti-communist, as Hollywood, of which Disney was now a part, was affected by labor strikes and struggles with perceived communist ideologies.
Although Disney felt he would be a political cartoonist, he ended up pursuing a genre that, in the early 1920s, was gaining popularity: children's cartoons.
Disney's first cartoons: Mickey Mouse
The first children's cartoons started appearing from before 1914. Felix the Cat (not Disney) preceded Mickey Mouse. Although many of us can still remember the TV jingle,
"Felix the Cat, the wonderful, wonderful cat, whenever he gets in a fix he reaches into his bag of tricks,"
Felix failed to gain the huge success that Mickey Mouse achieved. One of the reasons for this was the cartoon’s characterisation.
Disney felt that Felix the Cat never evolved, remained two-dimensional, and didn't grow in personality.
Mickey Mouse was different, and much of Disney's own animated personality was incorporated into the Mickey persona.
When Mickey Mouse was first created he was to be known as Mortimer Mouse. Lillian objected and the name was changed to Mickey.
The origins of Mickey Mouse can be traced to the problems Disney experienced with the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series.
Despite the popularity of Oswald, Universal Pictures, the cartoon’s distributor, appropriated Disney's character and, in 1928,
attempted to reduce the fee Disney received for the cartoon’s production.
Disney had not taken the necessary legal steps to protect his creation and, left with little room for manoeuvre, had no choice but to create a new character.
He morphed his rabbit into a mouse, changing the ears, coloring and body. Oswald the Lucky Rabbit had become Mickey Mouse.
While several figures influenced Mickey Mouse, with many recognising that the creation of Mickey Mouse was in part indebted to Charlie Chaplin,
Disney stated that Mickey Mouse was a creation devoted to Horatio Alger. Alger was a 19th-century American writer who had studied under Henry W. Longfellow
with the hopes of becoming a poet.
He wrote scores of novels concerning the American Dream, of a poor boy becoming rich through hard work and diligence.
For a time he was a minister, but was found guilty of molesting young boys. Nonetheless, Alger’s novels became a popular American literary tradition during the early 1900s and his portrayal
of poor but honest young boys ‘made good’ echoes through the affable character of Mickey Mouse .
Mickey Mouse's first film wasn't “Steamboat Willy” as most of us might think, but rather it was a flick of Mickey humorously flying a small plane,
"Plane Crazy". This was a reflection of Disney's infatuation with airflight, influenced by the Russian militarist Alexander P. deSeversky's Victory Through Air Power.
His second cartoon feature was that of dancing skeletons, a horror-spoof. Disney next featured Mickey Mouse in “The Gallopin' Gaucho”.
Neither of the first two Mickey flicks were successful, until finally Disney created “Steamboat Willy”,
which succeeded in iconizing Mickey Mouse.
While Disney, like his father before him, was not a heavy drinker—he enjoyed the odd scotch in the evening as an adult after he had become successful—he was a heavy smoker.
He provided the voice for the original Mickey Mouse, until this excessive smoking rendered his voice incapable of carrying the character, at which point another actor,
Jimmy MacDonald, took over the role . Disney received a medal from the League of Nations for his Mickey Mouse creation.
He met with a number of presidents, receiving a medal from Lyndon Johnson, and was even received by such politicians as Mussolini.
Disney and his Family
In December of 1933 Lillian gave birth to a little girl, Diane Maria Disney. The Disneys later adopted a second little girl, Sharon Mae, in December 1936.
Walt and Lillian remained together until his death of cancer and circulatory failure in December 1966. Although, the California-based Disneyland had been open for more than decade,
work on Disney World, in Orlando, Florida, was only just beginning.
The plans for Disney World were still being approved by the city officials and Walt never got to see the project come to fruition.
After their initial venture in 1923, Disney’s brother Roy remained his business partner and continued to work with the Disney empire even after Walt’s death.
The more sensible and level-headed of the pair, Roy frequently got into blowout fights with his impetuous brother Walter, who had something of a volatile temper,
but after these fights it would mostly be Walt who first attempted to go make amends.
While trying to get started in finishing Peter Pan after the war, Walt and Roy got into one of their many angry shouting matches. Roy yelled back at Walter,
"Look you're letting this place drive you to the nuthouse. That's one place I'm not going with you!" Walt later tried to reconcile saying,
"Isn't it amazing what a horse’s ass a fellow can be sometimes." Both smiled and the argument was assuaged.
Perpetually aware of his temper, Walt’s family and employees were cautious with him. On one occasion, he reached across the dinner table and slapped one of his daughters across the face.
When he went to work he looked forlorn. An employee asked him what was wrong, so he told her. "There must have been a good reason," the worker said.
"Damn right," Disney replied, “she gave me that dirty Disney look." Disney’s older daughter, Dianne, is said to have inherited his hot temper, frequently clashing with her father,
whereas his younger daughter—the "little girl" of the family—apparently did not inherit Walt’s fiery disposition.
On the other hand, despite the aforementioned occasional incidents, Disney was considered by his family to be a good father.
His wife spoke fondly of him,
both as a husband and father, and the Disney family is very loyal to their father to this day.
Disney, a workaholic chain-smoker with a hot-head and explosive temper, was good to his family and others, and was consequently very well-liked.
Remembered in his NY Times obituary as a “weaver of fantasies,” he was well-known for his wicked, self-deprecating sense of humor .
Although he was very ambitious with his ideas, he didn't take himself too seriously, as is reflected in his humorous work,
a quality that gives to his most fondly remembered characters their unique brand of folksy appeal that has lasted for generations.
Disney, Child Abuse and Implications for Disney Fantasies and Films
Disney was the victim of physical child abuse
himself from his boyhood years until the time he was 14,
his father apparently thrashing Walt and his brother often with whatever he could get his hands on .
The last event of child abuse occurred when Walt was 14 years old. Unhappy with his speed of work, his father sent him to the basement for a beating.
His older brother Roy shouted out encouragement, "don't let him do it to you again, don't let him treat you like a boy."
When his father grabbed the handle of a hammer to beat Walt,
Walt grabbed it from his hands and held his father's arms. His father broke down and cried and never beat him again.
Interestingly, a scene in the animation Disney film Pinocchio so vividly corresponds with this experience of Walt at 14 that it is striking.
It demonstrates that memories of child abuse are long-lasting, even for adults many years later.
Disney's own troubled upbringing is a reminder that often times child abuse takes place behind the scenes, and that it is passed on from generation to generation,
but at the same time, that it is possible to break that chain of abuse.
Some children find their escape in fantasy. However, children and victims of abuse need to be anchored; they need nurturers and protectors.
Those working within the education sector, both in the United States and other countries, play a vital role in assisting and caring for children.
In some states in the U.S. and other countries, there is a need for early childhood or special education teachers.
Preschool and Kindergarten teachers of high quality are of much value and special education teachers perform a vital role in caring for children with special needs.
Writing prior to WWI, Sigmund Freud made the accurate comment that we are enamored by fairy tales (in Germany and other European countries,
Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty had existed as folk tales for centuries before the Brothers Grimm began to collect and document them in written forms in the 1700s)
as a result of trying to regain the childhood that we may have lost through oppression experienced in these formative years. This seems to be true of Disney.
His abusive childhood may have led him on a campaign to create the perfect fantasy world that he did not experience as a boy.
One co-worker observed that
Disney worked with an almost demonic fervor, like he was being driven by demons. While Disney was a creator, his past apparently still haunted him and his workaholism
in creating and re-creating childhood fantasies may have had deeper psychological roots nurtured by his efforts to escape from the past.
Sigmund Freud astutely observed that our interest as adults or children in the fantasy world of fairy tales is often the result of trying to
rediscover or preserve a childhood that may have been lost due to abuse.
It seems likely that, at least in part, Walt Disney’s desire to create an ideal fantasyland for children may have been driven by this motivation.
Mickey Mouse - "a little idol"
Mickey Mouse became bigger than even his creator. Referring to Mickey Mouse as a "little idol," Disney said, “We’re restricted with the mouse…[h]e's become a little idol. The duck can blow his top and commit mayhem, but if I do anything like that with the mouse, I get letters from all over the world. 'Mickey wouldn't act like that,' they say."
Violence in Children's Cartoons
Disney was not a purist when it came to artworks, nor was he an idealist: "give the people what they want," he proclaimed.
His driving ambitions were success-oriented; popularity and commercialism played a vital role in his choices.
He encouraged a young artist to abandon pure art in favor of money and popularity.
This was especially true during the making of such movies as Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, when the company was under much financial pressure.
Action-packed, violent scenes
were deliberately added and accentuated to hook the audience and draw crowds, particularly in Peter Pan
The need for commercial gain has undoubtedly contributed to increasingly violent scenes within cartoons,
a problem which has long-since attracted popular debate and continues to provoke controversy today.
A recent survey revealed that 8 out of 10 Saturday morning children's cartoons contained violent characters .
Exposure to violence
, can affect a child's mental, emotional and neurological development.
Children's mental health disorders
such as anxiety disorders
some attentional problems
and childhood depression,
might be connected to exposure to frightening scenes in movies.
Some children have nightmares as a result of feeling terror having watched scenes in such movies as
and Snow White
Maleficent, Dragon Incarnation - Disney Films
Because many children see children's movies such as Disney films or TV cartoons hundreds or thousands of times during their childhood years, it can have a significant impact on a child's cognitive and emotional development, establishing thought, emotional, and even behavioral patterns, which can be carried with them into adult years.
Disney Studios and War Propaganda Films During World War II
During World War II, troops occupied the Disney studios in California. Disney plunged wholeheartedly into the war effort.
It was during that time that he was creating Peter Pan
, Alice in Wonderland
, as well as some other projects.
All of these projects were postponed until after the war, with the exception of Bambi
, which continued.
One animator left for the war and returned four years later,
resuming his animation work on (a film concurrent with Bambi
) the very same sequence that he had left behind to fight four years earlier.
During these years, the studio produced Chicken Little
. Although the movie has been reproduced in recent years,
it was originally a war propaganda film that depicted the evils of mass hysteria. The studio had been preparing for its wartime role since before Pearl Harbor.
Disney succeeded in "exerting a vast influence on the thinking of both the public and policy makers" at a time when other movie companies were entertaining
an "entertainment hungry" United States with war musicals and war movies .
It was a few years after the war finished that Disney started making plans for his Disneyland dream in California.
In 1941 Disney was troubled: threats from workers, dissatisfaction, political tensions and questionable alliances all combined to produce an image of
Disney as a man who, at this period of his life, was saying and doing things he later realized were unwise.
He had already suffered a nervous breakdown of sorts around 1931 and left for an extended vacation with his wife to recuperate and regain his health.
His doctor tried prescribing treatments until the time that he returned from his rest, but on his return Disney assured him that he was no longer in need of such help.
The prolonged vacation seemed to have had a positive effect, but in 1935, during the production of Snow White
, he again started having the same
feelings of emotional fatigue and took another extended rest,
which again gave him sufficient strength to continue his work.
During the war years, Disney and his team were responsible for scores of war-training and war-propaganda movies for the navy, army,
and especially the air force. Disney had read Victory Through Air Power
, written by the Russian author Alexander P. deSeversky,
and this book became the basis for the most pivotal of Disney's war films while also bolstering public confidence in airpower.
, a long and arduous project, was finally completed, Disney immediately commenced work on a movie version of Victory Through Airpower, with deSeversky even coming in to assist.
He [Disney] applied his skill to explaining bomb sights and factory methods with the "same zeal that he had to recounting the exploits of Mickey Mouse and Snow White" .
The Dwarves themselves were actually featured on a war film produced during that time period. Donald Duck also was used in a cartoon where he wakes
up from a dream about working in a Germany munitions factory,
with a song and the famous duck saluting Adolph Hitler scene. It delighted audiences, although it was banned in Germany.
The Disney team often did their wartime work with little thought to making money. Disney animators designed 1,400
insignia emblems for military uniforms at the mere cost of $25 each, making no money on the project.
"I had to do it," Disney said, "those kids grew up on Mickey Mouse, I owed it to them."
The ideology of heavy use of air power was part of Disney's philosophy for the war and his movies on this subject had a profound influence on Winston
Churchill, who sent to the United States for a copy of Victory Through Airpower.
This led to a decision by Churchill to focus more on the use of airpower, which broke a deadlock in war strategy at a point when the United States
and Britain were planning assaults on Germany. Churchill was in conference at the time with Roosevelt. Roosevelt was amazed by the way
Disney's airplanes masterfully wiped ships off the seas. The Joint Chiefs of Staffs also viewed the film and it had a powerful influence on their war plans.
The Disney movie proved to be the tie-breaker, and a huge air offensive was planned and implemented that proved to be a part of the Allied forces’ winning strategy for D-Day.
Details of ways to eliminate hydropower dams of the enemy were visualized by deSeversky and animated by Disney, before actually being carried out by the Royal Air Force,
who went on to bomb the Rhineland dams in almost the exact method proposed by deSeversky and later in Disney's films.
When Walt was in Washington he was invited to a meeting with highly-placed naval officers who complained about his neglect
of naval power in favor of air power. Walt stuck to his strong support for air power and it continued to be a major theme of his war effort
in animated films until the end of World War II,
when Disney studios resumed their emphasis on children's cartoons.
After the war, Disney was under financial pressure for hits. Alice in Wonderland, one of
Disney’s first post-war projects, had the pace of a three-ring circus, but, in Disney's words, had plenty of entertainment and the potential to satisfy everyone.
However, animators soon tired of the project, as did Disney, and everyone was relieved when it was finished. As it turned out, the movie wasn't financially successful.
Contrastingly, Dumbo, which was made on a limited budget of less than $1,000,000, was a great success commercially.
Background of the Bambi Film and the Novel by Felix Salten
The Disney classic Bambi was the only film that continued to be produced by Disney animators during WWII.
The story behind the movie is particularly interesting; the novel Bambi, ein Leben im Walde (Bambi, A Life in the Woods) by Felix Salten was first printed in 1923.
Felix Salten was the pen-name of Siegmund Salzmann, a Jewish author who was born in Budapest, Hungary but grew up in Vienna, Austria.
The book was translated from German into English by Whittaker Chambers, who needed to supplement his income while working at a Communist newspaper.
Felix Salten wrote a sequel, entitled Bambi's Children.
Salten's works also inspired The Shaggy Dog, a Disney film in the '60s. Salten, being Jewish, fled to Switzerland during the Nazi occupation.
On an interesting side note, the 1906 book Josephine Mutzenbacher - The Life Story of a Viennese Whore, as Told by Herself,
was an erotic novel first published anonymously in Vienna, Austria in 1906 and has also attributed to Salten.
Well-known in the German-speaking world having been in print in both German and English,
over the 100+ years since its release it has sold over three-million copies, becoming an erotic bestseller described as a
classic". It has been translated into English, French, Spanish, Hungarian and Japanese,
and been the subject of numerous films, theater productions,
parodies, and university courses, as well as twenty sequels, and is still popular today.
The novel Bambi and Disney’s adaptation of it function as deep symbolic representations of the perils of hunting, but also present
a striking or symbolic analogy—a foreboding prophecy of sorts—of what Jews and others would experience with the ‘man hunt’ of humans by the Nazis .
The novel is shockingly violent at times, and glimpses of Salten's past work in pornography
, are apparent in certain scenes.
Incest and even lust directed towards children, or sexuality involving children, is part of the landscape in the original novel.
General consensus was that Bambi was not a novel suitable for young children, but one that children would be better waiting to read until they were older.
Disney's version, while containing scenes of terror, removes the sexual inferences that were part of the original novel.
Development of Disney Characters, Directing of Cartoon Features and Ideology of Disney Cartoons
In 1934, Donald Duck—often described as "the explosive Donald Duck”—made his debut in one of the Silly Symphonies cartoons in an episode entitled “The Wise Little Hen”.
For Disney, “the Duck” was a flexible creation with whom he could do what he wanted. The same was not the case with "that idol" Mickey Mouse; there were certain lines that he could not cross. If he pushed the Mickey Mouse character too far, the public responded unfavorably. So, in a way, his creation became bigger than Disney himself.
Donald Duck, on the other hand, did not reach the iconic proportions of Mickey Mouse and Disney, consequently, had greater liberty in the way he presented the character.
Another well-known Disney character is Snow White. A silent version of Snow White had been produced in 1915.
Disney had watched it and the film would form the basis for Disney's first feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, released in 1937.
Disney acted out each part, from the evil queen to each of the dwarves, his face beaming while depicting the latter.
He gave a two-hour performance when pitching the film to his production team; this performance convinced the team that Disney’s vague idea could become a major-feature movie. At the end of his performance when Disney played out the Prince’s kiss awakening the sleeping Snow White, several production team members had tears in their eyes.
In the movie, Snow White is described as a 14-year-old girl, with Prince Charming an 18-year-old.
The Queen is described in Walt’s production notes as “[a] mixture of Lady Macbeth and the Big Bad Wolf,” a woman whose beauty is transient:
“sinister, mature, plenty of curves, she becomes ugly and menacing when scheming and mixing her poisons.
Magic fluids transform her into an old witchlike hag" .
Child psychology: Disney Princesses have a powerful influence on the mind and psyche of a child.
Disney movies provide a sharp dichotomy between "snow white" purity, and the darkness of pure evil and wickedness. Studying this tendency in Disney films,
Angela Lawson and Greg Fouts of the University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, note that the binary stereotyping of women
as exclusively pure or exclusively evil can become deeply ingrained in a child's mind, causing the child to view people,
or women specifically, as existing within sharply demarcated boundaries .
Snow White and the magic apple - Magic, spells, and spiritism are a strong element in many of the fairy tales recreated by Disney for children.
Reinforcing the idea that Disney films can have a negative impact on how children construe the identities of others,
another recent study has suggested that Disney fairy tale films can encourage fear of the mentally ill, as most of the classic cartoons feature characters who "go mad," or "crazy," usually violently, which gives a distorted image of mental illness .
Disney films for children tend to present good and evil with sharp dichotomy, good being totally pure and innocent, while evil as totally evil and villainous. Children's perception of others may be influenced.
The 'climactic kiss' and Princess Culture affects the perceptions, thinking, actions, and experimentation of children and teens.
Although Disney fantasy movies like Snow White almost always include as a staple element the "climactic kiss,"
as one New York Times writer has described it, Disney preferred to leave discussions about or explicit portrayals of sex as private matters .
This is good advice for parents today and for film-makers in an age where children's PG and even G-rated movies often have much in the way of sexual innuendo,
some of which goes over children's heads, but some of which keeps them thinking for days and weeks afterward .
However, the fantasy romance element of Disney movies—as epitomised in the climactic kiss—has evolved, according to the
NY Times article, into a distinct type of ‘Princess Culture’ which has taken on a life of its own. Some parents are concerned with the lessons
that such movies teach children, particularly the notion that continuous exposure to the idea of a
Prince Charming plants idealistic seeds in the minds and hearts of impressionable little girls. Additionally, the escalating nature of the
violence of children's movies
is also a concern, as is the sexual content and innuendos of many
today. The sexual innuendo in children's films has increased in recent years.
The Sorcerer's Apprentice was originally a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, written in 1797. The poem is a ballad in fourteen stanzas.
Moving away from the ‘princess’ movie, Disney’s next project after Snow White was The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, produced in 1938.
Originally an old fairy tale interpreted from a poem, the film saw Mickey take on the role as the apprentice whose Sorcerer's powers ran astray disastrously.
The film was choreographed from Stravinsky's “Rite of Spring” (Sacre Du Printemps),
a ballet whose music, with its discord of Russian Steppes and weird dissonances, has a primitive edge to it .
Next came Fantasia, the follow-up to The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Made in 1940, the film now featured Mickey as the blundering Sorcerer, rather than the apprentice.
A new version entitled The Sorcerer's Apprentice was released by Disney Studios in 2010.
The following year, 1941, saw the release of The Reluctant Dragon, a film based on a story from the late 1800s, which portrays the Dragon as friend rather than foe.
Of all the Disney films produced toward the end of World War II,
only three or four were actually profitable, which put considerable pressure on Disney and the company.
After Snow White, Disney produced Pinocchio, which was originally written by Carlo Collidi (Lorenzi) in 1880. Collidi saw himself in the character of Pinocchio,
a boy who was always in trouble, always doing something wrong. Disney pursued the new project with great enthusiasm and was determined to make
Pinocchio even greater than the preceding Snow White feature. “Pinocchio should use every ounce of force he has in his swimming to escape the whale.
This should be the equivalent of the storm and the chase of the queen in Snow White," he directed.
Separation Anxiety and Horror Movies for Children
Disney's Bambi film and Lion King exploit separation anxiety and affects the emotions of some children, and plays on fears to capture their interest.
Psychologists note that many Disney films and other children's films in more recent years capitalize on the
emotions involved with separation anxiety and, in that respect, can lead to emotions in children that might not be healthy in their formative years.
Some have referred to Disney films as horror movies for children
although today, horror movies that are truly horrifying are part of the social landscape of a large percentage of children,
with and without parents knowing what their children are watching through cable and satellite television systems.
However, it can be argued that Disney movies introduced children to the idea of horror for excitement
within the context of children's movies
Another aspect of Disney movies that has drawn criticism is their use of certain words related to the occult and uncanny.
One recent study published in Child Psychiatry analyzed negative stereotyping and the use of "demonizing" words in Disney films, finding an average of 5.6 per film .
The psychological implications for children are many, according to the study. However it is not just Disney that embraces icons of the occult;
much in children's programming similarly embraces the spiritistic theme. One example is Scooby Doo, the new movie which features a long and poignant scene of voodoo euphoria.
Some of the Scooby Doo books contain prolonged conversations or discussions on witchcraft, Wicca, ghosts and the paranormal in general.
Background History, Company Debt, Snow White and Cinderella
Disney moved into the 1950s with a new project in mind: the retelling of the Cinderella story.
Cinderella, released in February 1950, became the first hit movie since Snow White and helped to shrink the company’s debt in the 1950s to $1,700,000.
Cinderella was a French/German children's fairy tale from the 1500s recorded in Grimms’ Fairy Tales (1812). However, it is believed that the first
Cinderella story originated in China in the 9th Century.
Along with themes like love, justice and the rewarding of human kindness, another pivotal, yet more implicit, theme of the
Cinderella story is child abuse. The wicked stepmother and evil sisters abuse Cinderella in various ways, and this is a reason why the story is such an enduring tale:
any woman or girl (or even a man or boy)
who might have experienced abuse as a child can relate to this simple, yet compelling, story.
A. A. Milne, Disney, and Winnie the Pooh
Written by A. A. Milne, the original Winnie the Pooh story (1926) was eventually sold by Milne’s widow to Disney and became, in 1961, the studio’s next major release.
Milne is now remembered primarily as a children’s author, but he also wrote plays, novels, articles, and poems.
Born in Kilburn, London, he also possessed a dry, English sense of humor that inflected his autobiography.
Christopher Robin was the name of Milne’s son. When asked by his father to consider possible names for the story’s central character—a large,
friendly, yellow bear—the young boy, without stopping to think, said "Winnie-the-Pooh", the "Pooh" part of the name coming from a real swan of that name on the family property.
"And so he was," recalled Milne.
Thus, the name of the famous lazy bear in the stories became Winnie the Pooh, even though traditionally "Winnie" is a girl's name while Winnie
the Pooh is definitely a male bear! Unlike the story of Bambi, there is nothing scandalous about the roots of the Winnie the Pooh story, even if a couple of illustrated scenes in the
Pooh series depict Christopher Robin inviting Winnie the Pooh to watch him take a bath.
Consisting of four books, the Winnie the Pooh series is simple and gentle enough for any child.
The trope of a single boy or girl in the midst of fantasy creatures or animals is one that had been developed already in literary history,
most notably in Lewis Carrol's Alice in Wonderland. Carrol, a pen name, was an epileptic, and quite possibly on medications for his
Much has been written about the fantastical elements of Alice in Wonderland and their possible relationship to Carrol's severe
Also, there has been speculation about Carrol's relationship with Alice, based on a real girl (some have said his daughter, others have said a friend of his family)
but these allegations seem to be unfounded.
In the early 1900s, Milne wrote for Punch politically satirical London-based journal. The illustrator of Winnie the Pooh, Ernest Shepard,
was a political cartoonist in the same paper. Although it was not published until the mid-1920s, according to what we can piece together from comments in his biography,
much of Winnie the Pooh was written during WWI when Milne was in the army in England, as a diversion from the rigors of army life.
Shepard’s illustrations have remained largely unchanged since they were created in the 1920s. After the publication of the first book,
the following three books gave the impression of a lazy summer vacation and were all written prior to WWII.
There are references in Winnie the Pooh that seem to reflect Milne's preoccupation with, or comic satire of, the subject of medicine for children.
Two scenes taken from separate Pooh books exemplify this. In the first, Piglet is given "medicine". "MMMM...medicine," says Piglet,
"I don't need any mmmm.....medicine," he says with trepidation. "Take your medicine!!!!!!" is the reply of an overbearing adult.
In the second book in the series, Tigger is similarly given "medicine" to help him with "energy". At the least, this documents the idea that even during
the 1920s giving medicine to children for "energy" and behavioral issues may have been a source of some controversy.
Much has been written by way of analysis of the characters of Winnie the Pooh and their significance.
Eeyore, you might say, displays the traits of a sometimes volatile, depressive alcoholic.
Winnie the Pooh sometime resembles an alcoholic, or a ‘binger’, when it comes to his passion for honey.
Milne was a passionate smoker, pipes being the order of the day in early-20th century England, and
some of the scenes in Milne's stories remind one of a group of men sitting around a bar and ‘chewing the fat’,
telling ‘fish stories’ and the like, over drafts of beer. Serious as some of his works were, unlike those of Salten,
the creator of Bambi, Milne’s books for children are not Orwellian in nature but are, for the most part, innocent books for children that reflect Milne's own experiences
and concerns in life, offering a childish escape into fantasy where important life-lessons can also be learned.
Winnie the Pooh, Bambi and Mickey Mouse are elaborated on this page because these characters
form deep emotional bonds with children. From the earliest age, Winnie the Pooh is inculcated into children’s
hearts through songs, toys and paraphernalia for babies. These type of cartoons—Winnie the Pooh, Bugs Bunny,
today's Dora the Explorer, Bambi, Sponge Bob Square Pants, the Flintstones—contain emotionally-bonding characters
and function as ‘soft-bonding’ cartoons. Bart Simpson and friends, Rocko’s Modern Life and Rug Rats are a little
more advanced in satire and crudeness, but the same principle applies.
While considered to be "adult" cartoons,
Family Guy and South Park cartoon characters, known for their off-color jokes and profanity,
are probably most often viewed by children; the characters are bonding and at the same time sometimes repulsing.
There are other adult-children cartoons more advanced in terms of crudeness but these
are the most well-known and most talked about in the school playground. Unlike Felix the
Cat, the characters are well-developed enough that children can bond to them emotionally in some way. This bonding process lasts well into high school
and, for some, an emotional bond exists with these characters well into a child’s teenage years and adulthood.
Compared to these more recent cartoons, the Winnie the Pooh books offer a genteel, didactic meandering through the questions and problems involved in everyday life.
Positive in their outlook, the Pooh stories promote a child-targeted, edifying type of philosophy that forms the basis of most Disney movies.
More recently, the Winnie the Pooh series has been linked with Taoism, and a best-selling book has been written entitled
The Tao of Pooh, which explores the striking parallels between Taoist holy writings and the philosophy of the Winnie the Pooh stories.
This vein is not just present in Milne’s work; a recent biography on Charles Schulz, the creator of the popular Snoopy and Peanuts characters,
interestingly gives insight into Shulz's Buddhist persuasion and how this is reflected his comic series .
Walt Disney's Later Years
We know that Disney was also a passionate smoker
. Despite the warnings from his doctor and family,
he continued to smoke until the time he contracted lung cancer. He often smoked his cigarettes down to the butt and beyond!
This habit eventually led to his physical decline and he died at the age of 67.
He had other health problems; a polo accident led to long-term back problems,
for which, rather than having an operation, he made regular visits to a chiropractor. As a result, he continued suffering back pain until his death and found no relief.
Disney felt that the chiropractic treatments contributed to and prolonged his back problems rather than assuaging them.
In his last years, he suffered with various aches and pains and often used hot compresses throughout the night to alleviate these.
Disney believed in God and was a non-practicing roman Catholic, but was tolerant of all religions.
Christmas and Birthdays were strong Disney traditions. His eldest daughter attended Catholic school, but was married in a Protestant Church, with her husband-to- be
only being baptized there shortly before the wedding.
Disney's daughters had a number of grandchildren; the fifth child of the oldest daughter was named, finally, to Walter's relief, after himself.
Disney had been told by a fortune teller before his work started in earnest that he would die before his life's work was completed.
It became something he never forgot and as we have seen he did, in fact, die before seeing what might be considered the greatest achievement in his name,
Disney World. His brother and son-in-law remained a part of the team after
Disney died, carried the work to completion, and Disney World has now been a universal symbol for more than 40 years.
The 200 best books for children
list by the AYCNP provides examples of wonderful books for young children through their teen years.
Disney Biography and Psychology of Children's Cartoons - References
1. Bowen, H. G. (1955). “Thomas Alva Edison’s Early Motion Picture Experiments”. Journal of the SMPTE
, 64, in Raymond Fielding ed. (1967),
A Technological History of Motion Pictures, 90-6. Berkley: The University of California Press.
2. Bryman, A. (1995). Disney and his Worlds,
19. London: Routledge.
3. Gostin, N. (March 2005). Tears for a Deer
4. Finch, C. (1975). The Art of Walt Disney: From Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdom,
66. New York: Abrams.
5. Fouts, G., Callan, M., Piasentin, K., Lawson, A. (June 8, 2006).
Demonizing in Children's Television Cartoons and Disney Animated Films
Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 37 (1),
6. Gerbner, G. & Siognorielli, N. (1988). Violence and Terror in the Mass Media: an Annotated Bibliography,
28. Connecticut: Greenwood Press.
7. Lawson, A. & Fouts, G. (2004). Mental illness in Disney
animated films. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 49 (5),
8. Lawson, T. & Persons, A. (2004). The Magic Behind the Voices: a Who’s Who of Cartoon Actors,
19-20. Mississippi: The University Press of Mississippi.
9. Obituary: Walt Disney
(16 Dec, 1966). New York Times
10. Ornstein, P. (December 24, 2006). What's Wrong With
Cinderella? New York Times Magazine
For more on this issue, see Olfman, S. ed. (2009). The Sexualization of Childhood (Childhood in America). Connecticut: Prager.
11. Parmar, N. (Sep/Oct 2004). Lunatic Toons: Disney Films
may Teach Children to Fear the Mentally Ill. Psychology Today
12. Magill, F. (1999). The 20th Century A-GI: Dictionary of World Biography, vol. 7,
938. London: Routledge.
13. Michaelis, D. Schulz and Peanuts: a Biography
. London: Harper Collins.
14. Segel H. (1993). The Vienna Coffeehouse Wits: 1890-1938,
166. London: Atlasbooks.
15. Thomas, B. (1977). The Walt Disney Biography,
145. London: The New English Library.
16. Thomas, 139.
Other Biographical References-Further Reading
Barrier, M. (2007). The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney
. California: University of California Press.
Disney's Effect on Children
, Andrew Tennyson (off-site)
For more on Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (Sacre du Printemps), see Eliot, T. S. (Sept 1921).
. The Dial
Thomas, B. (1994). Walt Disney - An American Original. New York: Disney Editions.
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