Animation History
January 15, 2024 posted by Jerry Beck

What Did Disney Ever Do?

I posted on Facebook this photo above, taken last week when I was at the Disney studio. It is, of course, a picture of me in front of the “studio cast portrait” (as taken by Goofy) in this year’s Oscar shortlisted Disney short film, Once Upon A Mouse.

One of my friends (Maranee Landau) posted this in the FB comments:

I just shared this photo and some jerk just asked me what makes this a big deal? What did Disney ever do?

I’m speechless – I’m without speech. How should I answer him?

I was ready to respond to her – but I thought I’d turn my response into a post instead.

“What Did Disney Ever Do?”

Where do we begin?

First off, I would ask this person if they’ve ever seen an animated cartoon short, TV show or animated feature? Disney or not.

I would ask this person if they’ve ever been to Disneyland, Disney World or any theme park (Universal, Six Flags, etc)?

I’d ask if this fellow or femme if he/she/they likes movies? Live action movies? Fantasy movies, musicals, or action adventure?

Does this person like films with sound? In stereo? In color?

“What did Disney do?” What did Walt Disney NOT do?

When I discuss Disney in my college courses I tell my students to visualize a large tree… very zen… in a grassy field, with nothing else around. The tree represents “animation”. Below the trunk, under the grass, are the “roots” (McCay, Bray, Fleischer, Terry, Messmer, etc.). Above the tree trunk are the branches and leaves – each branch, each leaf represents a different animation technique, art style, stop-motion, limited TV animation, UPA, anime, even CG… everything we have today. The tree trunk itself – is Disney.

Character animation existed before Walt Disney – but the Disney studio established the medium, commercialized it yes, but made it a serious art form too.

“What did Disney do?” Wow. What a question. “What makes this photo (the one behind me) a big deal?”

The photo represents the characters that that fronted Disney’s popular short subjects and feature films spanning the past 100 years. Any of them familiar to you?

No other animation studio has achieved that 100 year milestone – and I doubt any other will. Hanna Barbera (which at 75 technically never went out of business, still existing as a corporate entity on paper at Warner Bros. Discovery) still has 25 years or so to hit 100. As I said, I really don’t think any other studio will break Disney’s record – ever.

Walt Disney was an young artist with imagination and ambition, who took his talents and started a business, joining a nascent field already crowded with experienced competitors. Even with some initial success, the Disney studio was only a small outsider to a growing industry – but became a stand-out among them.

Even if he and his studio produced only one film of such sheer artistry of the likes of Snow White – or a Pinocchio, or Fantasia – their place in film history would be assured. But Disney never rested on his laurels. All along the way, each accomplishment only pushed him to bigger ideas and greater heights.

The company has since evolved in new directions, becoming a behemoth conglomerate unimaginable in Walt’s lifetime. But the things he did during the 20th Century – our culture then, and today, are unimaginable if he hadn’t been. Someone else might have come along to invent the personal computer or the smart phone… but the things Disney did were purely his own.

To those of us in animation, or simply just love animation, that photo is a family album of the highs and lows of a career we all aspire to; the things we wish/hope we can achieve. It’s ‘the stuff that dreams are made of’ (to coin a phrase).

And that’s what Walt Disney ever did.

For more information on Walt Disney and what he did: read a book. Here is a list of biographies of Walt Disney; and here are many other books about his career.


  • In recent weeks there has been a spate of internet comments that Walt Disney had nothing to do with Mickey Mouse –
    it was all entirely Ub Iwerks, and Walt Disney stole the credit.

    (Thanks Public Domain)

    There are people who enjoy living in perpetual ignorance –
    they never studied history in school, and they sure ain’t starting now –
    But they still know everything!

    PS: You recommend they read Marc Eliot’s Book?
    Are you sure you want to enlighten them?

    • Yeah, it’s unfortunate that Eliot’s tome is on that list. No, I don’t recommend that specific book. But it’s overwhelmed there by many other factual ones.

      • It’s a rancid book. I usually get a laugh from tabloid-level fabrication but this one is beyond the pale.

        • I am an avid reader of American history, and it is by far the worst history book I have ever read, in an genre, at any time, in any topic.

          • Yeah, I first saw that book in middle school and when I saw that FBI paper for “The Mickey Mouse Club” (which was done because the show wanted to do a segment about the National secret bureau and had to go through a lot of headache inducing red tape just to do it), I know it wasn’t for me. Later on, I saw a great drawing by legendary Disney artist and Imagineer, Bill Justice where Donald and Goofy are burning copies of that book which are my exact feeling on that tripe biography.

  • Years ago some magazine put together a list of the 100 most influential figures in human history. I don’t remember if Walt Disney was on it. Probably he was. But there were more than a few names on it that I didn’t even recognise.

    I had a girlfriend who was always telling me “I can’t believe you never heard of” this writer, that band, or whatever else she was talking about. She made the most out of any opportunity to make me feel like a drooling ignoramus. As for me, I’ve come to terms with the fact that the things I’m most passionate about aren’t necessarily of any particular interest to others. If somebody asks me “What’s so great about Beethoven?” — and there are people who have — I can tell them in a few simple sentences, and if that doesn’t make an impression I let it go. I’ve ceased to be shocked by what other people don’t know.

    Not everybody cares about animation, movies, theme parks, or anything that happened before they were born. That doesn’t mean they’re “jerks”. The joy I get from watching cartoons is something I wish I could share with everybody, but maybe some people can experience the same joy from other sources, and maybe they’re not missing out on any more of life than I am. It would be a pretty boring world if everybody had exactly the same tastes and knew exactly the same things.

    • I’m somewhat confused by your comment.

      You would prefer that people NOT know who Walt Disney is? It’s okay to be ignorant?

      This person flaunted their ignorance in a public forum, on social media. Should we not enlighten them? Especially as they gave us the opportunity, by asking the question that heads this column.

      As an educator I feel it’s my duty to respond – in hopes it helps others who might be curious as to who or what this mysterious “Disney” figure might be. Paul, you seem to add additional information to the columns here regularly. We all appreciate your daily input. This post attempts to do the same.

      The questions about who Disney was and what he did, who Max Fleischer or Chuck Jones were; about animation in the 20th Century – I deal with this everyday as a professor at various schools, and as proprietor of this blog. It’s literally my job to answer these questions. Having posts here that answer these questions is what we do.

      A more informed public is better for all of us.

      • I understand that educating people about animation history is your life’s work, and you’ve done more than anyone to establish it as a legitimate subject of scholarly inquiry. But there’s a difference between teaching students in a classroom and singling out some random person on Facebook — and doing so, moreover, on a blog that the person in question is unlikely ever to read, being frequented by animation enthusiasts who all know very well who Walt Disney was and what he did. (I assume you’ll be sharing this post with your friend to be passed along.) Your remarks are succinct, well-reasoned, and for the most part respectful, though the final injunction to “Read a book” comes across a bit like “Get a clue.” Still, I can’t help being reminded of the adage about leading a horse to water.

        One of the reasons I give social media a wide berth is the ease with which comments can be completely misconstrued, as you did when you asked if I “would prefer if people NOT know who Walt Disney is?” Of course I wouldn’t. The very idea. I merely said that I’m not shocked that some people in this day and age might not know anything about Walt Disney, and I refuse to insult or pass judgment on them if they don’t. Besides, long experience has left me acutely aware that other people don’t order their lives on the basis of what I would prefer that they do.

        As for whether “It’s okay to be ignorant,” the fact is that we all know some things and are ignorant of others. That’s how anyone can learn something from anyone else. There are vast lacunae in my own personal knowledge that encompass wide-ranging subjects and entire spheres of human endeavour. I’m aware, for example, that soccer is a multi-billion-dollar global industry that dominates the cultural life of many countries, but I couldn’t tell you the rules of the game or name even one of its professional players. In many circles this would mark me as abysmally ignorant and out-of-touch. And you know what? I’m okay with that.

    • Paul, I think you’re missing the point.

      A “non-Jerk” would look at the photo, think it to be of little interest to them, and move on to something else which hopefully would be of interest.

      A “Jerk” sees a photo they know little about (or even cares about) ,then reacts by accusing the poster of not only posting something they have no interest, but also of the irrelevancy (to them) of the subject matter.

      • Under those operative definitions, you would never notice anybody at all unless he was being a jerk.

        You may be onto something there.

    • I love both cartoons and Beethoven, so no worries, Paul.

  • There is also the possibility that Walt Disney may have helped to bring about the end of World War II. His film “Victory Through Air Power” promoted the use of aircraft as a means for winning the war. The story goes that FDR did not view the film until Winston Churchill insisted he should see it–and that roughly coincides with the turning point of the war, in which the Allies began to gain more traction. So not only did Disney’s influence reach across the culture, but may have been instrumental in world history.

    Not only that, his Latin American trip with various artists from the studio may have helped to improve relations between the US and the nations of Central and South America. If nothing else, this odyssey gave the world some amazing and sometimes surreal animation, and provided some of Donald Duck’s finest moments on screen. And it transformed the career of Mary Blair, who went on to create many memorable works of art, both non-Disney and Disney, and exercised a cultural influence of her own.

    The question to ask is, would the world be better off without the contributions of Disney and his artists exponentially through the years, or is the world the richer for his having lived and exercised his creative influence? I think most of us here would agree on the answer to that question.

  • I get the impression that the person who asked that question meant, “As a producer, what role did Walt play besides sitting behind a desk while his artists made cartoons?” It feeds into the (very old) theory that Ub did all the work and WD took all the credit. Even Leonard Maltin’s OF MICE AND MAGIC seems to give credit to Iwerks for creating Mickey Mouse in the opening paragraph of chapter 6, but people like our skeptical question asker don’t understand the subtleties of cartoon production, with idea men (Walt) and technical artists (Ub) who took the innovator’s ideas and made them a reality.

    • Ub Iwerks left the Disney Studio by the very early 30s. Disney continued to be successful with the shorts and of course Snow White. The vision was Disneys.

  • In response to the first comment, the Disney/Iwerks contretemps reminds me of the similar one regarding Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in comic books. In my mind, it is literally impossible to separate the contributions of one man (in either case) from the other in their collaborations….and those who try are merely indicating their ignorance of the nature of collaboration in any creative medium.

  • Does the studio cast photo contain any of the characters from Song of the South?

    • No.

      • This may sound odd, but as a kid it never occurred to me that Brer Rabbit, Brer Bear and Brer Fox were supposed to be Black. Sure, Uncle Remus was Black, but that didn’t mean his characters were any particular race. I thought they were a rabbit, a bear and a fox with Southern accents. Kids don’t see things the same way that adults do. I’d be interested to know if other people reacted the same way; as a child, did you see the characters as Black?

        • I was born after SotS was vaulted permanently so I can’t really say, but when I was a kid, I never noticed that Grim from Billy and Mandy was supposed to be Jamaican or Mr. Nezzer from Veggietales was supposed to be black. Some of it I suppose is because they’re not human, but I very much agree that kids don’t see these things the same way adults do. Quite depressing, actually.

          • The crows from Dumbo are the same way that respect.

      • Wow, I guess the Mandela Effect is in action here. I just went back and watched the whole short again, pausing each scene as I went. Admittedly, the final group shot at the end is hard to read on a laptop display, but I would have bet money that they managed to at least sneak Br’er Rabbit in.

        It makes me wonder how many of the people involved in making this short (aside from perhaps Mr. Matinson) even knew the studio produced a feature titled ‘Song of the South’?

        Heck, is the black sheep from ‘So Dear to My Heart’ in there somewhere?

  • Steering a boatload of talent is an accomplishment in itself.

  • Should probably clarify that I mean the characters themselves aren’t human, they’re animals or vegetables or the embodiment of the inevitability of death

    • What made telling stories with animation possible.

  • Jerry, with utmost sincerity: you always know just what to say. People spend so much time trying to resist Disney for one reason or another — sometimes valid, oftentimes not — that they delude themselves into thinking that absolutely nothing left behind by Walt means anything. It’s posts like these that we need more of in the animation history community.

  • That’s quite the attention-grabbing title for today’s posting. This is a good summary of his accomplishments. I wish he had allowed more people to see his films, at least when some of them premiered.

  • Christopher – What do you mean by “I wish he had allowed more people to see his films, at least when some of them premiered”? I think the only films of Disney’s that were a little more expensive for the general public to see was FANTASIA – for theaters that had the “stereo” sound system, but you’d have to get a Disney historian to answer that question. My mother saw FANTASIA complete in a Connecticut movie theater, but I don’t know if she heard it in “stereo” sound. My dad saw an edited version – without the introductions – at a theater in Chicago.

    One of the things that I’m happy about in my good luck in getting to meet and interview “Golden Age” animators like Shamus Culhane and Gordon Sheehan and people who worked with Disney – like Ford Beebe, Jr. – was that they either had “first hand knowledge” of working with Walt Disney – or in Gordon Sheehan’s case – working with animators and artists who HAD worked for Disney. None of these three animators had anything bad to say about “Uncle Walt” – in fact, they generally went out of their way to praise his “genius.” Others who I’ve talked to over the past 40 some years had a few “negative” comments re: Disney and – or his studio were people who got their info. “second hand.”

    I don’t think Walt Disney would like some of the things that are going on in his studio today, but that’s another story!

    • I believe Christopher is referring to the premiere of “Song of the South”. It took place at a movie theatre that, like all public buildings in downtown Atlanta at the time, was strictly off-limits to African-Americans. James Baskett and Hattie McDaniel were not allowed to attend and would have been arrested if they had tried. Walt Disney could have premiered the film in another venue if he wanted to. But he didn’t.

    • Leonard,
      I suspect Christopher is referring to this:

      • Yes, I am referring to his role as his own distributor and his choosing of whites-only theaters for the debuts of some of his films. Thank you.

        • Certainly not unusual for the 1940s. Its not right, but its not like it was a unique crime for American culture in that era. We cannot harshly criticize what we cannot grasp.

  • Walt Disney and D. W. Griffith are the essential names. Both have an abundance of critics.

  • Everyone seems not to realize that Disney not only had to come up with a new character after the loss of Oswald, he also had to finance and distribute the films, something Universal did with Oswald. This was no small thing. Criticisms of Disney and other film makers almost always ignore the climate in which motion pictures are made, Essentially, it’s crap shoot. Disney was always being underestimated and written off.

  • Walt forever changed Animation

  • Disney was and is the “lens” through which animators and studios have looked through for their creative visions. Beginning in the 1930’s, animators and studios were either consciously trying to emulate Disney, or were consciously trying to take a different path. As a result, responding to Disney gave us the smart slapstick and complex characters of Warner Bros., the continued surrealism and rough humor of Fleischer, the anarchies of Tex Avery at MGM, and the mid-century modernism of UPA. Even today, the flourishing of animated feature films from established studios and independents, whether traditional animation or CGI, is creative people challenging or paying homage to the Disney paradigm.

  • A good boss does nothing. That what the people under them are there for. When I studied T. S. Eliot’s MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL I learned the stages from respect to contempt. We are in a generation that showers contempt on yesterday’s great achievers. Jean Cocteau deals with the same subject in his film ORPHEE where the poet (Jean Marais) findfs himself viewed with contempt by his lessers. That’s why they are lesser.

  • This is a great post! It’s always difficult for us, modern people to appreciate the giant shoulders we are all standing on.
    Thank you for writing a bit about those shoulders.

  • It’s hard to think of Disney as an artist… but in the aforementioned Shamus Culhane’s book, he reprinted a memo that Walt wrote about animated movement that totally fixed him in my head as an artist. He also did what a good leader does: delegated his authority to people who can actually do the job.

    • Good point, Henry! Shamus Culhane certainly had “issues” with Disney over the years, but that letter – or memo – regarding artistic integrity that Shamus reproduced in his book was a real eye-opener. I made a copy of it and sent it to my animation teacher, Gordon Sheehan. It didn’t surprise him about what he had heard about Walt Disney – it re-affirmed Disney’s position of a “genius” who knew (most of the time) what “worked” and what didn’t.

  • Take that, Disney haters!

  • I think this post is quite underwhelming as a means to inform, what did Disney ever do? “well you can just go and read a book about his biography”, i understand that you are answering from indignation, and emotion, but for such things there’s social media

    And depending of the book that will probably just paint him under the general idea that people already have of Disney as an entrepreneur, a savvy businessman that after having very short career as an artist, struck gold by becoming a producer and studio manager, known as someone that people on business classes rather than on animation ones should be taking notes from

    What did Beezos ever do, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, or Mark Zuckerberg? i think those are the kind of boxes in arguments that this post should have tried to save Disney from falling into, yes he was a successful capitalist, and his capital came from the animation industry, but is that really it?

    This post should have-highlighted him as a person and artist, to balance out the common idea of him as just a businessman

  • For postwar America, Walt Disney was a quick and easy shorthand for all kinds of bigger things. For some he was a symbol of everything decent and American; for others he represented corporate greed and soul-killing conformity. For boomers he personified the society we grew up with and rebelled against. The fact that he was incredibly successful at what he did made him the handiest ideal or straw target for whoever needed one. It was like some crediting John Wayne with the heroic myths of the west, while others held him responsible for the often ugly history. Wayne embraced the myth, but in the end all he did was successfully portray something that existed.

    To the point of what he did, Disney suffers from the associations of the word “producer”. The Hollywood stereotype is the tycoon in the big office, exploiting / interfering with the genuine talents in his employ, not comprehending what they do or caring, and getting the most money and the biggest onscreen credit. Some indeed fit the stereotype — think of all the artists’ anecdotes from Termite Terrace and MGM about their bosses. But there are producers who personally shape, for better or worse, what bears their name. Disney was decidedly the latter, ever chasing a personal vision. Beyond that, he was constantly betting the farm on ideas that weren’t mere gambles but revolutions.

  • “Once Upon A Studio,” surely.

  • Funny this article came up after I just finished reading “Walt’s Disneyland: A Walk in the Park with Walt Disney”. I pretty much agree with Jerry’s article. A few weeks ago, with the talk of the 50th anniversary of The American Institute’s Life Achievement Award, I wonder if Walt had lived longer he would’ve eligible for such a award. I asked this question on Facebook for the Maltin’s recent semi-weekly simulcast livestream and Alice (Leonard’s wife) said yes and agreed with me since he helped achieved a lot in the film industry. I honestly can’t think anyone else in the history of animation that would be benefited with that award (although, Max Fleischer may have been the closest had Paramount didn’t pulled the rug under him).

  • Let’s say there is a very good reason that the very first studio that has its very own chapter in Leonard Maltins OF Mice and Magic is Walt Disney Production.

  • An astute, yet succinct answer to a question that – depending on the angle one may see from – evokes an unspoken profundity.

  • Well, thank you, Professor Segal. I couldn’t – and wouldn’t – get away with such a profound answer. That just about sums it all up – thank you, again!

  • In other words, he drew little, but more importantly invested his own money into bigger projects he believed in. A idea man and an investor. The 9 Old Men should be credited above all else though. He believed in them and gave them money, but they made most of the art and writing.

  • A great article, Jerry! The best tribute I’ve come across as many people have been alternately singing Walt’s praises or lamenting the current state of his company during this 100 year anniversary. It helps me remember (I shouldn’t need any help, but I do!) just how much there is to celebrate and appreciate! Wow!

  • Fantastic article, Jerry! It’s such a shame there are people who downplay Walt’s accomplishments and even adopt a very cynical tone at that. It certainly begs the question how much people are willing to delve into their own research.

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