Walt Disney Goes Back to the Future
By Dick Rolfe, chairman - The Dove Foundation
The financial world has been buzzing with amazement as
the Walt Disney Company announced on January 19th
it planned to acquire Pixar Animation Studios. A
Merrill Lynch stock analyst summarized the views of many
on Wall Street. "We view the Disney-Pixar combination as
a near perfect strategic fit," she wrote. "Pixar's
family-oriented content meshes well with Disney's brand
and is an important cog in its theatrical/home video
distribution, theme parks and consumer products
Walt would be thrilled if he could witness this new
direction that his namesake company is taking. This
so-called new direction is actually a returning to the
original vision he embraced when launching his family
entertainment empire way back in the 1920's.
From humble beginnings in 1923, the Walt Disney Company
became synonymous with high quality, wholesome,
Always on the cutting edge of technology, Mr. Disney and
his fledgling animation company produced the first ever
synchronous sound cartoon in 1932, "Steamboat Willy"
starring Mickey Mouse.
The idea that make-believe cartoon characters could
talk, play instruments, and move to a musical beat was
considered nothing short of magical.
Next, Walt took his craft to a new level, going beyond
black and white cartoon shorts. The first-ever
cartoon was "Flowers and Trees" (1932) which won him his
first of many Academy Awards. The first-ever feature
length fully animated film was "Snow White and the Seven
Dwarfs" released in 1937 at an unprecedented cost of
$1.5 million…in the midst of the Depression.
During the next five years, Walt Disney Studios
completed four more full-length animated
"Fantasia," "Dumbo," and "Bambi".
From 1937 until 1989, The Walt Disney Studios made 28
feature length animated films using the traditional
method of hand inking and painting on clear cellulose
acetate, called a cel. The average Disney film made
during that period contains over 50,000 individual
drawings or cels.
Beginning with "The Rescuers Down Under" in 1990, the
company switched from cel animation to a new
computerized system, called "CAPS," which stands for
Computerized Animation Production System.
About that time, something inside the Mouse Factory
began to change. New management under Michael Eisner and
Frank Wells, made some drastic decisions that arguably
improved the stock value of the company, but moved the
company into a new arena of filmmaking that tarnished
its squeaky clean reputation.
Here is Disney's official account of those transitional
"Moviemaking also was changing in America in the
early 1980s. Audiences were diminishing for the
family films that had been the mainstay of the
company for many years, and Disney was not meeting
the competition for films that attracted the huge
teenage and adult market."
The Eisner/Wells duo orchestrated several moves away
from the traditional Disney fare in an attempt to reach
that "huge teenage and adult market." They launched
Touchstone Pictures in 1984 followed by Hollywood
Pictures. Under the guise of a new brand, Disney began
producing more adult-oriented, "edgy" movies like,
"Pretty Woman" and "Good Morning Vietnam," (both
R-rated) and their first animated movie for adults, "Who
Framed Roger Rabbit?"
The decision to add a wider selection of films for a
wider audience seemed on the surface to be a wise one.
Eisner and Wells further diversified the Disney product
line in an attempt to appeal to an even more
sophisticated audience. They acquired Miramax Films, a
studio known for releasing risky, often risqué movies.
To the stock holder, Eisner was quick to take credit for
expanding the reach and market value of the company. At
the same time he tried unsuccessfully to distance the
Disney Family brand from its "more mature" siblings in
the minds of the theater-going public. Nearly everyone
made the connection, however, and the Disney
organization was becoming embroiled in controversy.
In the following years, Disney's stock value began to
decline radically. Due to rising financial pressures
from without and political pressures from within, the
nearly abandoned Animation Division was re-born in 1989
under the combined direction of Roy Disney and Jeffrey
Katzenberg who never lost faith in the value of an
audience for animated films.
With the new, more efficient technique of CAPS
animation, the original Disney franchise of wholesome
family movies began to regain its foothold as the studio
released a torrent of box office successes at the rate
of nearly one film a year. The string of hits began with
"Beauty and the Beast," in 1991, followed by "Aladdin"
in 1992, and "The Lion King" in 1994, which soon became
one of the highest-grossing films of all-time. They
were followed by "Pocahontas" in 1995, "The Hunchback of
Notre Dame" in 1996, "Hercules" in 1997, "Mulan" in
1998, "Tarzan" in 1999, and "Fantasia/2000."
Then, in another technological paradigm shift, a small
company called Pixar, launched by Apple co-founder Steve
Jobs brought a new, innovative style called 3D animation
to the big screen. Pixar and Disney quickly became
joined at the hip and together they released a string of
28 box office extravaganzas, beginning with "Toy Story"
in 1995 and ending with "Cars" due to be released on
June 9th of this year.
Mr. Eisner left the company with some damage in the wake
of his departure. Most significant was a fractured
relationship with Pixar that looked like the two
companies were destined to go their separate ways for
Now, the reigns have been turned over a new man with a
new (old) plan for the company. Soon after he took over
the helm at Disney, Robert A. Iger, 54, President and
CEO was quoted as saying that one of his highest
priorities was to get the two animation giants "back on
Mr. Iger recently made an extraordinary announcement
that Walt Disney Company would acquire Pixar Animation
Studios for an unprecedented 7.4 billion (with a "B")
dollars. Not a bad return for Steve Jobs, who purchased
the fledgling computer animation division of Lucas
Films, Ltd. in 1986 for ten million (with an "M")
The combination of these two animation giants, coupled
with the selling off of Miramax Studios, brings the Walt
Disney Company back as the undisputed world leader of
wholesome, family-friendly animated films! This is good
news for the kids of the present and future and their
worried parents who are anxiously trying to protect
their innocent charges from an onslaught of unsavory
entertainment content. Hopefully, the new, retooled
Walt Disney Company will help to reinforce a message
most parents communicate to their children; in the words
of a popular Sunday school song, "Be careful little eyes
what you see."
The Walt Disney Company, together with its subsidiaries,
operates as a megalithic entertainment company whose
influence reaches around the world. It operates in four
segments: Media Networks, Parks and Resorts, Studio
Entertainment, and Consumer Products. It is one of the
six most powerful entertainment conglomerates in the
Power in the right hands can be a good thing. Let's hope
this is the case with the new and powerful hands that
guide the Walt Disney Company.
The Dove Foundation is a
501(c)3 non-profit organization. Our mission is to
encourage and promote the creation, production,
distribution and consumption of wholesome family
entertainment. We are supported primarily by donations
from families such as yours who want to move Hollywood
in a more family-friendly direction. All donations are
Copyright © 2006 The Dove Foundation. All rights