Walt Disney, more than any other animator, made the cartoon short an integral part of the motion picture experience. He also pioneered the feature-length animated film with the ambitious Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Disney was not the sole creative force behind the production of his films, however. He started out teaming with Ubbe (“Ub” for short) Iwerks, who did the animation work on most of Disney’s early films, including the Alice in Cartoonland series in 1923, a pioneering effort to mix live action and animation. The two then developed the character of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in 1927 and launched a successful series of shorts until they lost the rights to the character in a corporate battle. Although they were left with neither a star nor financial backing, Iwerks and Disney responded by coming up with Mickey Mouse. The silent Plane Crazy (1928) became the first Mickey cartoon, and it was a hit.
But Disney, ever the innovator, wanted to work on a cartoon that used music, sound effects, and dialogue, and with Iwerks he created Steamboat Willie (1928), for which Disney himself provided Mickey’s high, squeaky voice. The film was a smash success. Disney shrewdly resisted all attempts to buy out the character or his fledgling company, determined to control his own commercial and artistic destiny. Mickey Mouse memorabilia itself became an industry, with Disney supervising the licensing of Mickey’s image on everything from wristwatches to coffee mugs. In 1930, however, Iwerks left Disney to pursue his own creative dreams, a move that stunned Disney and forced him to rely on other animators. Iwerks created two successful cartoon series on his own, Flip the Frog and Willie Whopper, both distributed through MGM, but although Iwerks’s cartoons were fresh and funny, they never achieved the popularity of the famous mouse.
By the late 1930s, it was obvious to Iwerks that his solo career was not going well and he rejoined Disney, although now only as a salaried employee; when he had left Disney in 1930, he sold out his interest in the company, thereby missing out on a fortune.
Disney continued experimenting in his short cartoons, using classical music in The Skeleton Dance (1929), the first of the “Silly Symphony” series, and producing the first cartoon in Technicolor, Flowers and Trees, in 1932. By 1933, his use of color and the fluidity of the animation had progressed to an astonishing degree, and his team scored a major hit with the short Technicolor cartoon Three Little Pigs (1933), featuring the Depression Era hit song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” which rapidly became an international sensation.
At the same time, Disney introduced the rest of his most famous cartoon characters, including Donald Duck, Goofy, Pluto, and Minnie Mouse.
He also continued experimenting with new processes, such as the multiplane camera, which used several layers of plastic cels on which the animated drawings were inked, to create a greater illusion of depth and perspective. He followed Snow White with Pinocchio in 1940 and Bambi in 1942, and also created what many consider his masterpiece, Fantasia (1940), a film that used classical music to illustrate a variety of animated sequences, some abstract, others more narrative-based. The film cost a fortune to produce and failed commercially when first released, but Disney’s canny distribution practice of re-releasing his films every eight years or so for a new generation of youngsters assured that it would eventually turn a profit. He employed famed conductor Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra to record the film’s sound track, which included selections by Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and Stravinsky. But purists found the film vulgar and kitschy, and Disney’s own comments on the film (seeing one sequence for the first time, Disney reportedly exclaimed, “This will make Beethoven!”) did little to help critical reception. But despite these reservations the film was certainly a technical triumph, presented in a Cinema-Scope-like format a full thirteen years before that process was generally adopted, and employing multiple-channel stereophonic sound.
During the war years, Disney’s company cranked out patriotic shorts and training films for the armed forces. But as the war ended, Disney’s autocratic management style began to grate on his employees, who often remained un-credited, and they eventually went on strike for better pay, working conditions, and professional recognition. When the strike was eventually resolved, neither side was entirely satisfied with the result.
The family atmosphere was gone, but Disney continued to produce a series of box office hits, moving into live-action features and television in the 1950s, with the daily “The Mickey Mouse Club” and “Disneyland,” a weekly anthology series designed to exploit his vast library of old material and advertise new features from the company. In 1955, Disney opened Disneyland, a vast 160-acre amusement park in Anaheim, California, that rapidly became the most famous theme park on the planet. He kept planning new projects and films until his death in 1966, and he left behind a vast organization that bears his name.