Walt Disney: Master Animator, or Copycat Extraordinaire?

by Elizabeth Gerken – Staff Writer

Walt Disney; just the mere mention of his name conjures vivid and colorful images of the princesses, castles and talking animals we all know and love from our childhood. His influence on the film industry can be seen everywhere, especially in the modern format for western film which essentially copies the format of his earlier works. However, that magical castle Disney rules is built on a foundation of shady marketing and stolen ideas, most of which have flown under the radar of the general public for far too long.

Disney is not a demon for his copycat tendencies, but it should be recognized that he was not very original in his lifetime. For example, only 5 out of the 19 movies he made in his lifetime were original. Everything else was based off of children’s books or old fairytales that he made more appropriate for his young audience. This fact is even more shocking when you realize that almost all of the originals were complete box office flops or were not even released in theaters.

The one success from the original movies was Fantasia, but it was a critical flop directly after its release in 1940 that almost drove the company into bankruptcy and tarnished Disney’s reputation with critics who enjoyed his pre-established mold of unoriginal fairytales. The only other originals with revenue information available are Melody Time which was released in 1948 made 1.85 million us dollars, and Make Mine Music, released in 1946, made 2.25 dollars. These numbers seem small initially but appear even smaller when you realize that these were all off rentals of the movies years after they came out. Now the more popular but unoriginal movies like Snow White made 418 million dollars at the box office from its 1938 release. This massive jump in revenue may be the driving reason for Disney making unoriginal content; everybody knows the story of Snow White and will go see a movie on it but nobody knows the stories of movies like Melody Time because its new and so they wont want to go see it.

Wanting to make money is something that is seen in every facet of life, so Disney wanting to is nothing new and, while him making primarily unoriginal content is not the most respectable thing, it is understandable. The thing that is harder to understand and by far the most unacceptable is one of his major claims to fame: that he was the first to make animation with synchronized sound. This is an outright lie that few people know. The pioneers of sound animation were Max and Dave Fleisher, two brothers from New York running their own animation studio. They are the ones responsible for characters like Betty Boop and Popeye. Although these characters were their big success, their biggest accomplishment was the creation of Song Car-Tunes. Song Car-Tunes were a series of “follow the bouncing ball” style sing-along animations that ran from May 1924 to September 1927. Steamboat Mickey, the supposed original sound animation, was released in November of 1928, over a year after the final Song Car-Tune was released. Disney was able to propel his animation into the spotlight by convincing news outlets to call his the first and not mention the Fleisher’s at all. This shady business worked, leaving Disney with the fame and the Fleisher brothers buried under him in animation history.

Overall, he is not a monster, but he was not a hero either. The combination of unoriginal content and aggressive marketing practices make his good reputation as a filmmaker questionable. He will forever be an icon of animation and a household name across the world but that does not mean that how he became that should be hidden.

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