The urge to create: we all feel it, but how many of us push past failure to realize our creative dreams? All children act on this urge, but many shut it down as they grow older and deal with the demands of the Quoditian World. Some of us return to the urge and express creativity in many ways as an outlet from those demands. Some not only return to the urge, they defy the world to prevent them from returning to it. The price they pay may be high, and failure when it inevitably comes more painful. But the rewards can be great.
These thoughts came to me after watching PBS’s recent two-part series on the life of Walt Disney. For those growing up before the Sixties, Disney was the Oz to our young Dorothys, the man most responsible for the amazing evolution of stories presented to children—and adult—in animated film. Snow White, his first feature-length film, took the country by storm. His movies became must-see events, his Disneyland a mecha for kids. He was also perfect for the new medium of television during the 50s, so he had great timing…for a while.
The culture of the Sixties brought about a change in attitude about Disney and his empire. The term “Mickey Mouse” became a pejorative term, used to describe something seen as unimaginative, cheap, or status quo. Disney, once the daring rebel who took on the Hollywood Establishment, was now himself that Establishment. Nevertheless, the entertainment empire he built survived and flourished. People nowadays may have differing opinions about the quality of Disney’s work, but no one can deny that the man followed his urge to create in a massive way, beat the odds, and profoundly influenced not just American culture but World culture.
It’s no accident that his ubiquitous cartoon symbol, Mickey Mouse, was a feisty individual (nowadays certain quarters would label him a “maverick”) who kept his chin up in the face of adversity, never gave up, and triumphed in the end. This is how Disney saw himself. Even after achieving both fame and commercial success, he pushed projects that nearly bankrupted his company and destroyed his career. His urge to create took an ominous turn when he pushed his employees hard as well, and when they went on strike he simply couldn’t understand that now the Mickey Mouses were the inkers and in-betweeners, the production-line workers who were overworked and underpaid.
It’s a story some have compared to that of Steve Jobs, another creative genius who helped spawn a revolution. Both started as rebels, both drove themselves to become the establishment they’d formerly rejected, and both died too young to see the fruition of all their dreams.
But only Disney plied his trade in Story. The company he founded still pumps out Story, though its animated features rely more and more on a girl audience in love with the Princess Meme. Writers of children’s stories today ignore Disney at their peril, even if they dislike the man and what he stood for. What we can all take away from the man’s life is an appreciation for what it takes—hard work, thick skin, and passion—to achieve our creative dreams.
Post Script: A wonderful autobiography by illustrator Bill Peet gives a heartfelt, sometimes whimsical view of Disney. Peet worked for Disney Studios for a while, contributing to such classic animated films as Snow White and Fantasia, before he branched out into writing and illustrating children’s books. Peet also illustrated his autobiography with his distinctive cartoon style that really makes this a fun read.