Happy Wednesday everyone! Just want to thank Anthony from Moved by the Mouse once again for jumping in and working on Walt Wednesday!
On December 5th, 2011, Walt Disney (born in 1901) would have turned 110 years old. If some are to be believed, all we have to do is take him out of a cryogenic freezer and we’ll be able to have him around for another few decades. (Which leads me to wonder whether all those years in the freezer would count towards a person’s age. But I digress.) As his birthday came and passed, I started to think a lot about his legacy and how it has guided those at the studio in his wake. Has the philosophy of “What Would Walt Do?” been an effective credo for the studio that bears his name?
When Walt died of lung cancer in December of 1966, he was just barely into his 65th year. He was still basking in the glow of what was arguably his greatest cinematic achievement, Mary Poppins. He had now made an indelible mark on animated film, documentary film, live-action narrative film, and any number of combinations thereof. Walt also had a major toehold in the music, distribution and television arenas with Disneyland Records, Buena Vista Distribution and Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, respectively. His Disneyland theme park in Anaheim was a smashing success and he had the foresight to use the New York World’s Fair as a high-profile testing ground for his latest attraction technologies.
Things showed no signs of slowing in the mid-sixties as Walt led the company’s expansion in all those areas, giving special attention to his parks, such as the Mineral King Ski Resort in California and the EPCOT project in Florida, which he saw as his next big innovation. It was something far greater than a theme park- it was a living, breathing, functioning community that reached far beyond just recreation. One viewing of the film Walt made to pitch the idea, which proved to be his last appearance on celluloid, makes it clear that it was ahead of the country, much less the company, in forward-thinking ingenuity.
With Walt gone, there would inevitably be shifts in directional focus and questions of what the next steps would be. Who would not want to look to the ideas of such a creative genius to advise them in his absence? First of all, many of the projects that were in the pipelines for years to come had Walt’s fingerprints on them. Things such as Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, and The Jungle Book owe much to his guidance and vision. However, it’s what happened after these projects that will keep Disney geeks like me debating for years and years to come.
Part of the frustration seems to lie in the fact that the Disney company did not always seem to ask what Walt would have done, but rather what they could do that is like what Walt had done already. These are obviously two completely different questions and the latter led to some pretty derivative work throughout the seventies and eighties. The Aristocats became The Jungle Book meets 101 Dalmatians with cats. Bedknobs and Broomsticks became Mary Poppins in wartime with Angela Lansbury. (Of course, this doesn’t mean that films and projects in this vein are without merit. Bedknobs especially holds a unique place in my heart even if I can never get the darn lyrics to “Substitutiary Locomotion” right.)
After a bit of a dark period for the studio, things began to pick up again starting in the late eighties, when movies like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast re-established Disney as major industry players by thinking outside the box while implementing lessons learned in the past. In other words, creative folks were doing the kinds of work that Walt would have done, but filtered through their own artistry. They were changing the game and going in a new direction. If you haven’t already seen the fantastic documentary on the period called Waking Sleeping Beauty, do yourself a favor and seek it out immediately.
By contrast, though, some of the higher ups seemed to take on the WWWD credo as an excuse to mine familiar territory until they stripped it bare. New films begat sequels (of diminishing quality, mostly). Sequels begat sequels. Films begat television series. Attractions begat movies which begat sequels. All of the above begat merchandise. And, of course, begat buckets of money. Disney often felt more like a mill and less like a creative enterprise. Instead of constantly seeking out what’s new and fresh, they took successes that were the result of risk-taking, and did their best to replicate them like the Xerox machine that gave the 101 dalmatians their spots. Going out on a limb became a last resort while plagiarizing themselves became the norm.
When it comes right down to it, Walt stood for an odd but fabulous fusion of keeping the past alive while moving steadily into the future. You see that throughout his career from the introduction of new technologies into his animated films based on classic tales to his creation of a world where Tomorrowland’s vision of what lies ahead sits across from Frontierland’s depiction of the roots of how we got there. This dichotomy is why many of us are so drawn into the world that he created.
One thing was for certain, however, and that was that Walt didn’t like to repeat himself. He has been quoted as saying, “I do not like to repeat successes. I like to go on to other things.” This is where I think the whole idea of WWWD has gotten twisted. The heart of Walt’s triumphs are that he was always looking towards the next great thing, knowing that he may very well fall flat on his face. He bet on his instincts and trusted that, in the end, he would come out ahead. If Snow White or Disneyland, both referred to as “Disney’s Folly”, had failed, and they were far from sure things, there might not be a Disney Studios today. And many of his greatest achievements were disappointments that are now seen as ahead of their time, like Fantasia or Sleeping Beauty.
I think that the guiding principle that should be taken away from Walt’s time on Earth can best be summed up in a quote from a modern-day underperforming Disney animated gem, Meet the Robinsons, which ends with a quote from the man himself. Walt said, “Around here, however, we don’t look backward for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things…and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” If the Disney Company and we, as keepers of Walt’s memory, are going to ask what Walt would do, the answer should be clear. Whether we are glancing at what has come before us or focusing on what’s ahead, we should always keep moving forward.