If I Met Walt Disney

Walt Disney & Mickey Mouse

Walt Disney & Mickey Mouse

When people ask me who I would want to have dinner with out of all the people who have ever lived my choice always comes down to two people; Jim Henson and Walt Disney. When I say that the follow up is usually a condescending “Why wouldn’t you choose Jesus if you’re such a good Christian?” The answer to that is simple. As a Christian I KNOW I’ll see Jesus one day. With Disney and Henson I can’t say I know that. I’m fairly certain there isn’t the slightest chance Jim Henson was a Christian given what I’ve read about the man. With Walt it’s much more of a grey area so I’m hopeful.

There is an interesting book called “How to Be Like Walt” by Pat Williams that is the only book that I’m aware of that talks about Walt’s faith at all although I find some of the connections made to be quite stretching it. In the modern politically correct Disney corporation Walt is always depicted as being nonreligious but there are indications that he may have been a Christian. Much of his childhood background centered around Christianity and many of his films had inclusions of faith. Snow White prays to God for Grumpy to like her. Geppetto’s wish for a real boy is presented with the childless toy maker kneeling in prayer. We saw this carried over into films like Pollyanna where the fire and brimstone preacher learns about sharing the love of Christ through the orphaned daughter of missionaries through “the glad texts” and I’m sure I’m forgetting a few others. Since everything baring Walt’s name while he was alive required his approval it was all filtered through one man. Because of this these entertainments reflect the values and personality of Walt Disney. Throughout the body of Walt’s work there was a reverence for God and Christianity. I’m even told that Disneyland once had an operating country church in Frontierland and on Main Street U.S.A. Can you imagine if Disney did that today? But I find things like this to be rather interesting even though they are rarely discussed and seem to make people uncomfortable and even angry.

From what I’ve read Walt Disney was a lot like my Grandma McCray. She was from his generation and had that same Midwestern ideal. She never went to church but she would ALWAYS get offended if the church lady across the street left her a tract or anything like that. She took it as an insult against her faith. I have no idea if my grandma was truly a Christian or not as she died when I was a child but I have always remembered that about her. Actor Dean Jones often tells a similar story about after his own conversion to Christianity he reached out to Walt about Jesus and Walt took it as an attack and scolded him for it. So I hope that Walt was like my grandma so then I don’t have to speculate what he was like and get to meet him.

I’ve always been a great admirer of Walt Disney. He knew what the people wanted and he got to do some pretty amazing things. It’s a shame he was a chain-smoker and went out of this world the way that he did. When you see what he was able to accomplish in only a few years it’s rather impressive. Essentially the final 12 years of his life are what forever secured Walt’s place in the American experience and animation history. He had failed and rebuilt his company many times over by that point but it was during the whole live action, Disneyland, and television period that his success truly came to fruition. By all accounts he was a marvelous man and although he wasn’t the only one responsible for his great accomplishments (I’ll cover some of the unsung heroes behind Walt in some later posts) it cannot be discounted that without Walt’s leadership and guiding hand none of these other talents would have achieved as much as they did behind Walt’s driving force to motivate them. Walt was the embodiment of American values and the great American success story. He came from humble beginnings, strived to be the best that he could be, and ultimately became one of the most important people who ever lived. He revered the past, was proud of his country, and he always had his eye on the future. We have not seen very many people like Walt Disney. Only a handful. Steve Jobs was perhaps a similar figure in the realms of technological advances. I can’t think of very many others. Some point to Steve Spielberg and George Lucas but Spielberg has no where near the golden touch of Walt Disney and George Lucas only remakes the same film over and over again in different genres. Nope, there has never been another innovative film maker like Walt Disney but Jim Henson comes pretty close.

And don’t believe a lot of the PC spin the Walt Disney Company puts on Walt. Walt was a conservative republican. There’s a famous story of Walt wearing a Goldwater button on his lapel when he received an award from LBJ. Walt was anti-union because of what he had lived through with his own studio strike in the early 1940’s. He also “ratted out” communists to Senator Joe McCarthy. This was not a man who was a liberal in the modern sense of the word. I have read just about every book that’s ever been written about Walt Disney and I’ve read plenty of American history books and he was very much reflective of a conservative republican of his day and that’s okay. He was who he was and no one should try to hide that or downplay it because it doesn’t fit the modern Hollywood ideals and standards.

So if I got to meet Walt what would I talk to him about? Well, I’d probably like to discuss what he thought of how his legacy has been treated and company has been handled after his death, (you know, if people actually cared about things like that in the afterlife but for the sake of this article we‘ll just imagine that they do.) I’d love to know what his opinion would be on modern Disney films and things like that. I’d talk to him about his life and career and how and why he did the things he did; something no Walt Disney biography ever gets into. What made Walt tick? I’m sure we can make a fairly accurate guesstimate on what he’d think about some things. Even back in the 1970’s acclaimed Disney animator and member of the 9 Old Men that all around rascal Ward Kimball put it this way. “A lot of people ask me if Walt is cryogenically frozen in a vault somewhere….well I don’t know but one thing’s for sure. When they thaw him out there will be Hell to pay!” (Ward Kimball, in fact, was the joker who started the rumor of Walt Disney being frozen.) What’s amazing is Ward said this in the 1970’s when the Walt Disney company was making lackluster live action films and mediocre animated features. EPCOT was being turned into a theme park instead of the Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow that Walt had envisioned. If Ward, who knew Walt fairly well, was so certain how displeased he’d be being plopped into 1970 can you imagine if Walt were plopped into 2012?

Original Disney Channel Logo. Copyright Walt Disney Productions, All Rights Reserved.

In 2012 there are like 3 Disney channels and not a single one of them shows classic Disney movies or cartoons. When I was a little itty bitty kid The Disney Channel was fresh and new and the reason we got cable in the first place. All through the 80’s I’d watch all of this great stuff Walt made in the 1930’s, 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. I remember watching “Good Morning Mickey” and “Donald Duck Presents” and knowing all of those old cartoons by heart. Even now some of them come back to me word for word when I rediscover them on DVD. I watched “Walt Disney Presents” every day and even cried when I learned that Walt Disney was dead and had died 14 years before I was born. I remember watching the original “Mickey Mouse Club” at supper time every evening and I saw so many of those great special effects films and I believed that leprechauns were real, that nannies could fly, and that a Volkswagen could be alive. Disney films were the stuff that dreams are made of. You also had magical optimistic efforts like Pollyanna and thrilling adventures like “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and “The Swiss Family Robinson”. Films like “The Absent-Minded Professor” and “The Shaggy Dog” were hilarious and, “Old Yeller” made you cry, and there was also patriotic fare like “Davy Crockett” and “Johnny Tremain”. There were also kids shows geared to my age group that were fun and silly and entertaining like “Welcome to Pooh Corner” and, my favorite, “Dumbo’s Circus”. I remember telling jokes I learned from the puppets at the end of each episode in a school talent contest when I was 5 years old. The Disney Channel was hands down the greatest network on cable and was very influential in the type of guy I became.

When I was in high school the tween stuff began to flood into the network. It began innocently enough, a film here and there but soon the tween material made up the entire daily run of The Disney Channel. Soon the Walt era stuff was segregated to the late night owl time slot where it was set up like the way American Movie Classics used to be before it went to pot. I’d often record the night’s line up, dubbed “Vault Disney” so I could watch it when I got home from school. By that point many of these Disney films and episodes had become like old friends and they were greatly missed. The tween drek just didn’t measure up in quality to the old school Walt era stuff. It didn’t even come close nor did it try. It didn’t even feel like Disney. I even think that some of the 1970’s Disney films, as quaint as they are, have a certain kind of charm to them. A few weeks ago I found a DVD of “Unidentified Flying Oddball”, probably the ultimate embodiment of what a post Walt Disney project was, in the 3.00 bin at F.Y.E. and I was so excited to see it there and add it to my collection. Call me nuts but even that kind of a film far surpasses the tween stuff.

By the time I got to college The Disney Channel had completely thrown away all of the Walt era content and completely replaced it with the tween stuff. By that point I had some online friends pretty high up in the Walt Disney Company (if you can still find the petition to oust Michael Eisner from around ten years ago I was the 6th person to sign it and high above the Who’s Who of Disney dignitaries like Frank and Ollie and Diane Disney Miller. That surprised a lot of people and even opened a few doors for me for being so outspoken in what I though. I always have been VERY opinionated. 😀 ) and I voiced my frustration. They all cited declining ratings. (Yeah, right. And I also believe that the reason the pirates no longer chase the women in “The Pirates of the Caribbean” ride is because the figures wore out and not because of political correctness. Um, hello, they’re pirates! Even in the song they gleefully boast on how roguish and rascally bad eggs they are!! And if the anamatronics had really worn out they would have been replaced. I also loved the explanation that the audio was destroyed even though it appears on the official ride soundtrack album Disney put out around the same time. Nobody buys your political correctness, Disney…) At the time Ted Turner made an offer to buy out the Walt era library for his station, Turner Classic Movies, since the company that bore Walt’s name had no interest in airing the material anymore. Disney flatly turned Turner down which wasn’t surprising but Turner had a point. Disney was putting a bushel over their greatest asset; the films produced by their founder and upon which the entire empire is built upon. Sadly, we’re getting to the point where in a few years no one will remember ANY of Walt’s greatest cinematic achievements and that is a disgrace.

I wrote an angry letter to The Disney Channel and was told to fear not as a new line of DVD’s would make these films available to me again. When the Vault Disney line came out I enthusiastically supported it but had a hard time finding it in stores. By the third wave the “Vault Disney” label was dropped from the packaging and replaced with the word “special edition” and after that all of the work in progress “Vault” titles were just dumped to DVD with the bonus features that had been completed. In many cases films were dumped to DVD without even being cleaned up or in their original aspect ratio. Walt’s legacy had been dumped on again.

After The Disney Channel dropped the Walt content my family dropped cable. I only ever watched The Disney Channel, TV Land, AMC, The History Channel, and The Discovery Channel anyway. By that point TV Land was no longer airing older shows I enjoyed, AMC was showing newer films with lots of commercials, and The History Channel began doing programs about the Founding Fathers being Satan Worshiping members of the illuminati and ancient aliens so we dumped the whole thing. I began to just buy the materials I loved on DVD so I’d always have them and have them for my own children to see one day since we can’t count on The Walt Disney Company being the stewards of Walt Disney’s legacy anymore. I’m sure Walt wouldn’t be happy about that either.

Epcot & Walt Disney World Logos. Copyright Walt Disney Productions, All Rights Reserved.

Epcot & Walt Disney World Logos. Copyright Walt Disney Productions, All Rights Reserved.

In the early 2000’s the Disney parks had dropped in upkeep quality too. I’ve never been a big Disney theme park person only because I grew up in Pennsylvania and both Disney parks were over a thousand miles away. I’ve only been to Disney World twice. Once when I was 4 or 5 and once when I was 16. I’m long overdue for a return visit. I’ve never been to Disneyland but have always wanted to go because that was the park Walt actually oversaw. So while I appreciate and love the theme parks I’m just not as familiar with them as I am with the films because I haven’t experienced them as often. When Walt ran Disneyland he made sure it was ALWAYS clean and kept nice. The place was spotless and it was geared around the family and accessible to all people. When Disneyland first opened the admission price for the day was only a dollar. Last I knew it was well over a hundred. That’s not exactly in keeping with inflation, now is it? Online I was always reading stories about chipped paint, burnt out light bulbs, trash covering places, and whole sections of the parks closed indefinitely like Tom Saywer Island and the 20,000 Leagues Submarine ride. When I was there in 1996 there was a terrible bathroom situation at Forth Wilderness that they didn’t address until the following morning so I couldn’t take my shower. I wasn’t very happy about that and I was totally surprised by how Disney let that go. (It was pretty bad….someone plastered the bathroom and showers in human excrement so you couldn’t use the bathroom. It was totally disgusting.) With Walt you knew that Disney meant quality and by that time it had come to mean declining quality to increase profits to a lot of people. This is what lead to Michael Eisner’s ousting. Eisner had begun as a good guy but I’m of the opinion that he just lost his way as time went on. We see this all the time among America’s politicians after they’ve been there too long. I think that was what happened with Eisner and if you watch the excellent documentary “Waking Sleeping Beauty” it becomes clear that the loss of Frank Wells that lead to the break up of the Disney management team was the beginning of the end.

When Disney bought out Pixar and put John Lasseter in charge I was thrilled. I had come to greatly respect and admire the Pixar people from the films they’d made up to that point and to me Pixar meant quality. After all, they sand the undersides of the drawers. The Pixar DVDs are among my all time favorites because of the fun and care that are put into them. The first DVD I ever got, in fact, was The Super Genius edition of “A Bug’s Life“. I have no idea if Lasseter’s leadership has improved the parks for sure but it sounds like it has. I have noticed I haven’t enjoyed the Pixar films as much after Lasseter became less involved. Some have cited this happened with Walt’s animated films once he got into live action and the theme parks as well. I think the best Pixar films are the string they did with “A Bug’s Life”, “Toy Story 2”, and “Monsters Inc.” While the others have been good they’re more artsy. While some people like that I find it to be overkill. I still enjoy them but they’ve become more like Studio Ghibli films rather than having the Pixar flavor they used to have. “Ratatoullie” is a great example of this. “Wall-E” and “Up” also fall into this category. “Toy Story 3” is more like this kind of film as well than the earlier Pixar efforts. And I’m not saying that I hate recent Pixar films but I just don’t enjoy them as much as when they were looking at the worlds of childhood from a different perspective. All of the first seven films, except “Finding Nemo”, are like this whether it be the secret life of toys, the bureaucracy of being a closet monster, or the daily routine of a super hero. All of the first Pixar films were like this not that it was a formula. It was just what made them Pixar to me. Dreamworks was the studio of throw away pop culture movies that would be forgotten in 6 months while Pixar made enduring classics with great originality. While the originality is still at Pixar they’re more or less lavish art house films now. There’s not anything wrong with that. I just miss the style the early Pixar films had.

I think Walt would probably be disappointed in the hand drawn animation his company now makes. First, the fact that under Eisner they closed it down was appalling. When Walt’s brother Roy wanted to do that after The Sword & the Stone Walt forbade him from doing so because animation was the begging of their empire. The fact that Eisner would do that is what put many over the edge on deciding he should leave. When John Lasseter took over he rebuilt the animation studio but it’s just not the same as it was in the early 90’s. I wasn’t one of the people who enjoyed “The Princess & the Frog” at all. First, I found it to be too watered down and soulless. The film had been plagued by political correctness afoot; the heroine was originally called “Maddy” but once that got out accusations was racism began to fly claiming “Maddy” and “code” for “Mammy” so she was renamed. Then the film was re-titled from “The Frog Princess” to “The Princess & the Frog” because the same critics said “The Frog Princess” was a racist title because it was comparing black people to frogs with big lips and on it went. As Sigmund Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and not everything has racial overtones to it . But because of issues like this and the fact it was set in New Orleans I found this to be more of a marketing ploy to add a black princess to the Disney Princess widely popular merchandising line. By that point characters like Mulan and Esmeralda who weren’t even princesses had been added to the line up to show varied ethnicity.

What I found so greatly insulting is that they took a EUROPEAN fairy tale and set it in the American south in a city that had just been ravaged by a destructive hurricane in order to get sympathy PR rather than take an authentic story from African folklore (and there are THOUSANDS of them!! And plenty of them with Princesses.) and set it in Africa as they had done with every other ethnic princess. Mulan is an authentic Chinese story set in China. Pocahontas is the story of a real American Indian Princess who lived in America. Princess Jasmine is an Arabian princess from an authentically Arabian story. From Snow White to Belle all of their fairy tales originated from and took place in Europe, none were set in America because they‘re light skinned. To not do this was “the black princess” is like they’re saying these folktales aren’t good enough to tell. On top of that they packed the story with undertones of voodoo when the predominant faith of American black people in the south of that time was Christianity. Not that I expect Disney to put doctrine in a film I’m just saying you had both the villain and the fairy godmother type character being different sides of voodoo. It might have been interesting to have put the voodoo villain up against a Christian counterpart to see the entire spectrum at play. After all, the gospel music influence was good enough for Randy Newman to riff on. Why not the story dept. too and faith can play a role in modern Disney film. “Lilo & Stitch” is packed with religious references reminiscent to the Walt films I mentioned earlier so it can have its place and play a role.

I’m just not a fan of political correctness at all and I always find it leading to stupid decisions like this. It’s because of this “The Princess & the Frog” left me feeling kind of fake. But when you’re doing a film from a marketing perspective rather than to make an entertaining film I guess this is to be expected. When the film failed to do well Disney blamed the title being a girl title…even though “The Little Mermaid”, “Aladdin”, “Beauty & the Beast”, “Mulan”, and “Pocahontas” had all been hugely successful film WITH “girly titles” It couldn’t be that the audience saw “The Princess & the Frog” for what it was? Disney so adamantly believed this that “Rapunzel” was recrimsoned “Tangled” and the long in development “Snow Queen” has now been redubbed “Frozen”. I really can’t see Walt doing something like this. You can call me overly sensitive and all that but I just feel that the what “The Princess & the Frog” was done exploited black Americans into the whole notion “Oh, she looks like us” rather than doing a story that truly did some justice to African culture as the other Disney Princesses had done. I may be wrong but it’s just my opinion.

I ultimately think what Disney lacks in all areas is a leader. As I mentioned earlier when Walt was alive everything was filtered through Walt. Today everything is filtered through middle management. In many cases these middle managers want to feel like they contributed something so they add to whatever it is that’s in the pike. By the time what may have started out as a great idea gets to the end of the pipeline it may be a watered-down mess that it lost all the impact it might have once had. “Treasure Planet” was a film like this. I’ve heard from more than one person that “Treasure Planet” was the most micromanaged film ever made by feature animation and it shows. It’s a shame too because it was a great concept and had a great look and feel to it. While not a bad film it could have been so much better. “Atlantis The Lost Empire” is another film like that. It was such an innovative idea for an American animated feature but it was hindered by micromanagement. The film needed to be 2 hours long to have been what it was intended to be and to have really had a chance to shine. Because American animated features at that time ended exactly at the 90 minute mark so does “Atlantis”. It’s a shame that “Atlantis” failure lead to the “Team Atlantis” television series being cancelled as it might have been the most interest animated series Disney ever made.

I also think Disney wasted their “cheap-quels” unit. I call them cheapquels and get a lot of flack for it because I’m told it’s an insult to the animators who work on them. No, I’m not insulting the animators. I’m insulting management for making them work on them. How that sequel division should have been utilized is to make animated “B” pictures. Think about it. There may be a film or story that might make a great film but it might not fit into the full blown animated spectacular box that Disney feature animation was at that time. So why not do these stories as direct to video “B” pictures? You could see films that Walt had attempted but was forced to abandon because they were too experimental done in this format. “Don Quioxte”, “Hiawatha”, and “The Bremen Town Musicians” are only a few of these sorts of films that substantial work was done on before being abandoned. The holy grail of unmade Disney films, however, is “Chanticleer & Reynard”. Much of this prepreduction work found its way into “Robin Hood” and there was talk of making it again in the 80’s. “Chanticleer & Reynard” combined two French plays into one story and was supposed to have come out after “101 Dalmatians”. When they held the banker meeting one of the bankers said “You can’t make a personality out of a chicken” and “Sword in The Stone” was made instead. Don Bluth made “Rock-A-Doodle” based on the “Chanticleer” play but it’s not exactly what the film would have been. When you see the Marc Davis artwork you want to see these characters come to life. And now that we’ve had films starring chickens like “Chicken Run” that were huge money-makers perhaps the time is right to revive “Chanticleer & Reynard”. But that’s what I would have done if I’d had that overseas division going because it would create more properties under the Disney tent and would have increased the stable of characters that could be merchandised.

So if I got to meet Walt I’d probably ask him to take a look at my own work too. Sometimes people ask me if I’m disappointed I don’t work for Disney. My answer is not really. I may have intended that future for myself when I was growing up but God had other plans for me. I don’t think I could have ever been a cog in the wheel because I’m far too outspoken. I’ve had a vastly different career than I’d ever expected having but I find it to be a lot more rewarding to. In a lot of ways I do what Walt did but I wear all the hats now. Everything I do is filtered through me and has my own perspective. It then because much more personal of a work than had I collaborated with hundreds of other people on something that would have been watered down anyway. I never would have been able to have done “Jill Chill” the way I wanted to a part of a big studio and “Folked Up America!” would have been out of the question. The only person on earth who may have touched it, if he did animation, is Glenn Beck. I like being an individual artist and storyteller and not one of the masses. I value my individuality and celebrate it. In that way I probably am like Walt Disney. When I was younger people would often compare me to Walt but I didn’t want to be Walt Disney, I wanted to be Ed McCray and that’s the career path God set me out on and who knows. Perhaps one day people will write about me and my legacy as I’ve just written about Walt’s. Walt Disney began as an animator and ended his career as a city planner. Who knows what the future has in store for me and if we all had that attitude who knows what kinds of Walt Disney scale things we’d see created today and that is something that should be very exciting.


All content, unless otherwise noted, copyright Ed McCray, All Rights Reserved.