Walt Disney, the maverick: A guest essay by Jon Favreau

Dec. 09, 2011 | 3:06 p.m.
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Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse pal around at Disneyland. (Renie Bardeau/Los Angeles Times Archives)

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In 1920, eight years before introducing Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney was an artist at the Kansas City Film Ad Company. (Walt Disney Company Archives)

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Walt Disney behind the camera at age 21. (Disney / Los Angeles Times Archives)

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Walt Disney and his most famous character, Mickey Mouse, whom he introduced in 1928. (Walt Disney Productions / Los Angeles Times Archives)

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Walt Disney receives a scroll naming him the "Prince of Laughter for Laugh Week" from George Winslow, 6, of the Junior Comedians of America in 1953. (Los Angeles Times Archives)

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Walt Disney tries his hand at drawing Mickey Mouse in his studio office in Burbank on March 11, 1955. (Associated Press/Los Angeles Times Archives)

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Walt Disney adds four new Oscars to the 18 already in his Hollywood office in 1954. (Los Angeles Times Archives)

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Walt Disney examines an artist's drawing of the monorail train in 1959. (Los Angeles Times Archives)

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Walt Disney and his grandchildren lead the Disneyland Christmas Parade in the 1960s. (Los Angeles Times Archives)

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Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse ride as the Rose Parade grand marshals on Jan. 1, 1966. Disney died on Dec. 15 that year at the age of 65. (UPI / Los Angeles Times Archives)

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The first ticket to Disneyland was bought by Roy O. Disney, who for decades kept it in the top desk drawer of his office. It's shown here as a preserved artifact in the Disney Archive. (Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

Walt Disney was born 110 years ago this week and, if someone decided to build a Mount Rushmore for Hollywood next to Griffith Observatory, we all take it for granted that he would be in granite. Disney the brand is among the strongest in the world but Disney the man has a more elusive legacy.  We invited filmmaker Jon Favreau (the “Iron Man” movies, “Elf,” “Cowboys & Aliens”) to share his thoughts on that legacy. Favreau has been in a Disney state of mind recently — he’s doing research for a project called “Magic Kingdom,” a fantasy set within the confines of the Anaheim theme park  — but, as he writes, Disney has been in his dreams since he was a child.

disneyland opening day Walt Disney, the maverick: A guest essay by Jon Favreau

Disneyland, opening day, 1955. (Los Angeles Times archive)

I was born in 1966, the year Walt Disney passed away. He would’ve been 110 this week. I’m too young to have had a first-hand memory of him. In fact, I didn’t even know Disney was a man until late in my childhood. Disney was a place (Disneyland) and it made cartoons (Mickey Mouse) and it made movies (Snow White). I later learned that Disney was a person and not a swirling entity defined by Disneyland, Mickey Mouse and Snow White. Or so I thought.

As childhood slipped away, I clung to it through the discovery of Walt’s entire catalog of animated content. Even the earliest nightmare I can remember having was my family’s Toyota driving past me on a New York city street with Mowgli from “The Jungle Book” sitting where I belonged behind my parents. As I got older I became enamored with Fantasia and all of its psychadelia in the revival houses of Greenwich Village. Even as an adult, I am caught in the guts whenever I see Dumbo cradled in the trunk of his caged mother, no doubt accessing repressed pain through emotional back channels to when I lost my own mother as a kid.

And I’m not alone. In some families this emotional connection spans four and five generations. We have incorporated these myths into our own psychological makeup, like a tree growing through a chain link fence. In our secular and pluralistic society, the Wonderful World of Disney has emerged as a de facto least common denominator of shared cultural archetypes.

How did this happen? Was it some conspiracy of corporate America? An overachieving marketing exercise? I don’t think so. I’ve been on both sides of the curtain, having climbed from outsider to insider over several decades, and I believe the answer lies in a man who dreamed for an entire generation.

"Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (Disney)

"Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (Disney)

The avuncular television personality we all have grown to know and embrace (and occasionally pastiche, cf. John Slattery in “Iron Man 2”) was a cultivated persona that echoed the most accessible version of himself. In the autumn of his years, Walt had become an international cultural ambassador and the frontman for a giant media company. At his heart, however, Walt Disney was a maverick.

walt disney wartime Walt Disney, the maverick: A guest essay by Jon Favreau

BONUS PHOTO GALLERY: Walt Disney, a life

Walt started off, as the legend goes, as a small town hayseed from Marceline, Mo., who had an extra helping of gumption and sought to bring small town sensibilities to a growing and impersonal world. Like a modern day Paul Bunyan, he would single-handedly fight off the final clutches of the Industrial Revolution with elbow grease and good old-fashioned American values. I suppose this is all true (at least as true as a sound-bite snapshot couldbe), but it leaves out the part I most connect with and respect him for. Walt the maverick.

Walt flirted with bankruptcy his whole life. He took every success and let it ride. Both financially and creatively. And the secret sauce was always technology. We think of “Steamboat Willie” as an old timey black-and-white cartoon but, at the time, it was bleeding-edge tech. It was the first cartoon to marry music to picture, creating perfectly choreographed movement. It was far more expensive than they could’ve ever imagined going into the endeavor (a recurring Walt refrain), but they innovated something completely new and it was devoured by the public. And Mickey Mouse, that monetizable confection of I.P., surfed in on that wave and has been with us ever since. He bet the farm, almost lost it all, and then hit the longshot. He paid his debts and cleared a little more than he spent.

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"Steamboat Willie" (Walt Disney Co.)

It was this business model that Walt rode his entire career, like a lumberjack dancing on a spinning log down the river. And when most people say Walt, they really mean Walt and Roy. His big brother was the yin to Walt’s yang. Walt was “Show,” Roy was “Business.” Walt dreamed it and his pragmatic older brother and business partner made it come true. It was the loving tension between these two brothers that so succinctly embodies Hollywood’s dichotomy of art and commerce. Not Cain and Abel, but Jacob and Esau jockeying for preeminence and their father’s blessing and legacy.

Walt hit the longshot again with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” another first. It was the world’s first full-length animated feature. This project was ridiculed as an investment. Who would accept the tone? Why spend so many man-hours on quality? But, after suffering the slings and arrows of the status quo and running through the coffers several times over, the movie was a huge success. It was a financial and critical victory. Sadly, Walt would never top this experience as a filmmaker. Although we all think of his entire library of animated films a pantheon of excellence, at the time the experience was not so rosy.

Each project delivered diminishing returns both critically and financially. Despite passion and innovation, the films were each more heavily scrutinized and the financial realpolitik of the movie business had to be considered more and more as overhead grew and profits dwindled. Then there was the shadow of the World War, which also diverted the river of fate.

The advent of Fantasound for Fantasia, the use of color in cartoons and television, the pioneering of the medium of television itself as a marketing tool, as a platform for content and as a driver of the creation of content were all bold and prescient moves on the part of the growing media giant. Few of them paid off in the short term and only in retrospect is their importance truly appreciated.

Walt found himself drawn into the current of something larger. He was the face of Walt Disney Inc.  The tide had turned and he abandoned the young man’s game of swimming against it. He sat by Roy’s side as his older brother helped mold the company into the giant that it is today. Then something woke up inside of him.

This, to me, is my favorite chapter of Walt’s life. The truly inspiring one.  The anointed king and namesake of Walt Disney Studios quietly slipped out the back door. He cashed in and took a handful of talented artists and, with Roy’s blessing, started over. He dreamed of a place. A place where families could come together and experience something unique yet familiar. A place to share an experience that offered comfort in a changing and scary world that seemed dead set on thumbing its nose at tradition and shredding families apart. A place where cutting edge technology and animatronics could create an immersive virtual reality of an idealized past and future, relying on each family to provide the present

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The first ticket to Disneyland was bought by Roy O. Disney, who for decades kept it in the top desk drawer of his office. It's shown here as a preserved artifact in the Disney Archive. (Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

Disneyland was Walt’s third act. It was a success on every level and continues to be. Some of my earliest memories are of the park, my eyes pinched closed as my father described everything we passed in the Haunted Mansion doom buggy. My 1988 cross-country trip on motorcycle culminated with my Sportster padlocked in front of the happiest place on Earth. It was this month-long adventure that ultimately inspired me to leave New York and try to make it in show biz. My first screenplay, “Swingers,” was rife with Disneyland references. Even now, with my own three children, I make the pilgrimage several times a year.

There were three shining moments in Walt’s creative career when everything went right: “Steamboat Willie,” “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and Disneyland. Maybe I understood more about Walt Disney when I was a little kid than I did when I grew up. I understood him not as the man, but what he was able to achieve. What touched me. And that is the genius of Walt Disney.  Happy birthday, Walt.

— Jon Favreau

[FOR THE RECORD Dec. 9, 2011, 4:47 p.m.: Due to a typo, a caption in an earlier version of this post misstated the year that Disneyland opened. To read more about the Disneyland opening, read our previous post with that same vintage photo.]


47 Responses to Walt Disney, the maverick: A guest essay by Jon Favreau

  1. David Martin says:

    The size of Disney World is still staggering. There's still space for more resorts and other new construction, even if might mean closing a golf course. One of the World's remarkable successes is in getting visitors to use the Disney bus system in huge numbers.

  2. Marty Martin says:

    Disneyland was opened in 1955 , not 1965 as your story states at least twice.

    • Geoff Boucher says:

      Yes, a typo thanks…but it only appeared in the story once, actually. Don't worry though, we all make mistakes..

      • Borntothebreed7 says:

        The question is: How can such a glaringly obvious mistake make it to "print" in a paper like the LAT? Are fact-checkers and copy editors deemed unnecessary for today's Internet readers? Or is the intelligence of the so-called "journalists" just dropping? This kind of idiotic error would NEVER have been acceptable in the past.

      • Jack Mingo says:

        Nor is it accepted now. Look! A correction was made. Now go back and check your theory with stories from the past. Mistakes happen, and have always happened. What’s amazing is that a newspaper like the LAT can put out a novel’s worth of words every single day and that it’s mostly correct on the facts.

  3. OnTheLot says:

    The caption below the photo of Disneyland Opening Day should be 1955 not 1965.

  4. Sam says:

    Disneyland's opening day was in 1955, not 1965.

    • Geoff Boucher says:

      Thanks, yes a typo.

      • Steve Morgan says:

        It's a MISTAKE. Not a typo. MISTAKE. Stop blaming Mr. Typo.

      • Thor Swenson says:

        I agree, it’s a sloppy mistake, not a typographical error.

        A typo would be printing the date once as “19g5”, but getting the date wrong and claimingin that Disneyland opened in “1965” is simply a mistake in both the repourting and copy editing.

      • Dan says:

        You cannot claim to know whether it was a typo or a mistake. If the author thought DL opened in 1965, then it was a mistake. If he knew DL opened in 1955, but accidently typed 1965, then it's a typo. He claims it's a typo and there's no reason not to believe him.

  5. Thor Swenson says:


    It is so refreshing to see Walt Disney acknowledged in the LA Times of all places as the great American success story that he is (with plenty of bumps on that road), bringing untold wealth and happiness to untold masses of people over the decades. Compared to the usual leftist drivel we read in the LA Times from the regular columnists about the evil Disney Corporation and their evil ways of running their parks and hotels at a modest profit down in Orange County, this article was like throwing the windows open to a breath of very fresh air and sparkling honesty.

    Walt was the emodiment of all that is right with the great American Free Enterprise system, and it's refreshing to see that fact acknowledged in this newspaper. Thank you!

    • Gary Rohwer says:

      chuckles…some folks never take a break from grinding their insignificant axes. Give it a break, friend. Enjoy your life.

    • Richard Murphy says:

      The L.A. Times has never been an enemy of the Walt Disney Company. Sheeesh.

    • Sophie says:

      The business people in Hollywood (and the LA Times) are pretty right-centrist – I think they have to balance the more liberal pushing-the-boundaries creative types within their ranks, but then Hollywood runs on money, and they protect it like any Wall Street banker. They are on the forefront of intellectual property rights, and the commodification of nearly everything. Hollywood would never thrive in a "socialist" world. And neither would the LA Times.

  6. John Grant says:

    I grew up in Seal Beach and always cherished Disneyland. Then I moved to Texas, and earned my masters of architecture at Texas A&M where I was surprised to hear my professors using "Disneyfied," and "Disneyfication" as pejorative terms describing undesirable architectural trends. I still scratch my head over those jabs.

  7. james johnston says:

    boring. nothing that's said here hasn't been said before. as a long time fan and admirer of Disney since childhood (and i was born in 1961), a lot of this misses the mark. the author here talks of knowing the animated films lbrary but mentions nothing of his live action film legacy, something that is so typically overlooked by contemporary Disney wanna-be historians. Disney, while he was alive, produced very few live action products in film. probably only about two hundred or so. that is not a lot of films to familiarize yourself with so it astonishes me always that wanna-be historians neglect the live action films, many of which Walt took a personal interest in.
    there's a lot of beating around the bush with Disney fan wanna-be types and they choose to distort a lot for whatever reason. this article chose to neglect Walt's political beliefs which would probably scare a lot of people especially democrats.
    guys like this author are cheap. kind of like the guy who now heads Liberace's foundation and he even admits he never heard a Liberace recording untill 2006. oh come on folks how long will you keep insisting on phonies.

    • disgruntled viewer says:

      I agree James. Every article about successful people should also include their political beliefs. After all that is important to people like your self, so you can judge them on their beliefs not their accomplishments.

      Politics is everything, right?

      • Thomas J. Coleman says:

        The usual silly, rhetorical, "disgruntled "(not to mention anonymous–natch), grumpy old question. Of course politics isn't "everything" but politics is usually present in the real world, often in interesting ways. Whatever one thinks of Disney's art, business and politics, he and they clearly had a profound effect on our culture, with nary a dull moment. Of course, this is a fanboy site, so the omission is predictable, if not excusable.

  8. Channel70Productions says:

    Excellent piece. My favorite birthday present from my childhood was a Davey Crocket coonskin cap bought at Disneyland.

  9. Yvonne says:

    Beautifully expressed. Loved Mr. Favreau's highlighting Disney's risk-taking leanings especially.

    Walt Disney was a visionary of a proportion I respectfully posit had impact even beyond Steve Jobs.
    There were many discussions in the news after Mr. Jobs' death about whether Apple could survive without Jobs, because he was so much the essence of Apple. Several times I heard commentators say they couldn't think of a similar loss to a company in the past. So surprising, as I though Walt, and whether Disney could go on after he passed was so analogous.

    • Mike C. says:

      I thought the exact same thing, Yvonne! I was born in 1965 and too young to have a memory of Walt's passing, but it had to be something akin to Jobs death. After Walt died, the common question asked by the studio and Imagineering (then WED Enterprises) was "What would Walt do?" I'm wondering how many people at Apple are asking the same thing right now.

  10. Felice says:

    was walt disney an orphan? thank you.

    • Guest says:

      No, he had plenty of brothers and a sister (I believe).

      • Peter says:

        An orphan is a child permanently bereaved of or abandoned by his or her parents. In common usage, only a child (or the young of an animal) who has lost both parents is called an orphan.

        Typical dumb American answer. It has nothing to do with brothers and sisters it is to do with parents. It's scary to the rest of the world how uneducated and stupid many Americans are.

      • Guest says:

        Walt's father and mother stayed together (and didn't abandon any of their five children.) Walt's father, Elias Disney, died in 1941 and Walt's mother, Flora Call Disney, died in 1938.

  11. Erin says:

    The Walt Disney Museum in San Francisco is definitely a great place to visit if you would like to get the full story of Walt Disney's life. It will definitely peak your curiousity and bring a new appreciation to his life and works.

  12. Steve says:

    A maverick? Absolutely–for the examples mentioned here and many more. But not without grievous other examples of what one post here calls "the great American Free Enterprise system." It's not about politics or "the usual leftist drivel." It's about what one man used and abused in the name of those accomplishments (including a troubling access to the American psyche via dollars and, yes, politicians). And much of the credit for the artistic innovation belongs to people like Ub Iwerks. I also think it's not realistic to expect a clear-eyed look back from someone who'll be making a movie with the blessings of the Magic Kingdom.

    • Andy says:

      It's unlikely Iwerks would've innovated anything if Walt wasn't there pushing him, as great leaders do. Disney had the vision, the passion, the charm and the tenacity that made it happen.

      • Mike C. says:

        Exactly right, Andy! Walt's strength has always been directing the talent he had assembled toward his vision of how something should be.

  13. Hamilton says:

    I was about nine years old in 1965 when I had a chance meeting with Walt in the "square" in front of Snow White's castle while waiting for my parents. Walt was apparently walking from Frontierland to Tomorrowland when I spotted him as he walked by and I shouted out, "Hey, you're Walt Disney!"

    He paused just long enough to pat me on the head and ask if I was having a good time. I was so stunned I don't remember what, if anything, I said.

    When I told the story to my parents after they showed up a few minutes later, their reaction was that they thought I was fabricating a story. It didn't matter to me because I knew it was true!

    Of the many dozens of fun times I've been to Disneyland over the years with friends and family, it remains my fondest memory. Happy Birthday, Walt!

    • Yvonne says:

      How cool! My grandfather met him a couple of times while he was delivering supplies to the studio and Walt's home. Disney always remembered his name and made a point to be friendly and ask how he was. doing.

      • Xanax says:

        Good way of explaining, and fastidious piece of writing

        to obtain facts concerning my presentation subject matter, which

        i am going to convey in academy.

  14. Goofy says:

    reads like he's only writing about walt to gain interest in his next project. By the way, Disneyland opened in 1955!

  15. John says:

    Yes, Walt Disney was great… except for the intense anti-Semitism!!!!!!

    • Andy says:

      Author Neal Gabler said he looked hard for it when he was researching his bio "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination" and he didn't find it.

      • Mike C says:

        John, please provide examples of the anti-semitism. You can't. They don't exist. This was made up along with Walt being frozen after he died.

        Give it up already.

    • Rob_Crawford says:

      Never happened. Part of the slander campaign against Disney.

  16. Joseph says:

    Happy Birthday Walt. People like John need to be ashamed. I'd love somebody who claims he was anti-Semitic actually posts from a creditable source.

  17. Dawn says:

    Great article! I especially like the image of Jon Favreau's motorcycle parked in front of Disneyland; now that's makin' memories!

  18. guest says:

    Ever see those commercials where it shows the Disney company locking its stuff away from the children in its "vault?" Seems wrong to me… What would Walt think of the way its young starlets are marketed, like Demi Lovato, miley cyrus, or Lindsay Lohan? Favreau's part of the corporation now, big time, this was extreme propaganda, him trying to stay in good favor with the fans of his smaller films. Ever wondered why the animators of the little mermaid put hidden penises in the end of that cartoon? Its because they are angry at how they are treated… Why cant Disney produce animation like Japan has for decades? I love that episode of south park with the Jonas bros, that is how I think of Disney. Bay-bay!

  19. Lisa says:

    Ray Kroc (the CEO of McDonald's) approached Disney about opening a McDonald's at Disneyland, but the deal fell through because Kroc rebuffed Disney's demand to increase the price of McDonald's French fries from 10 to 15 cents. That's all you need to know about "Uncle Walt"!

  20. Leo says:

    i love bed people .. :/ DISNEY was a big man a big big man … to bad we dont have more like him, i can thing life witout Disney ..:)
    Thanks for all you done…
    Love Disney

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