Every Disney fan knows that there’s always more to see, more to read, and more to learn about Disney and the fascinating person behind the name, myth, and maker of the magic: Walt Disney! So sharpen your Number Two pencil and get out your college-ruled paper because class is about to begin at Walt Disney’s College of Knowledge!
“Here is the world of imagination, hopes, and dreams. In this timeless land of enchantment, the age of chivalry, magic, and make-believe are reborn—and fairy tales come true. Fantasyland is dedicated to the young and the young-in-heart—to those who believe that when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.” When Walt Disney dedicated Fantasyland at Disneyland with these words on July 17, 1955, it was apparent that this last “land” to be christened was especially dear to him, and he delivered his words from the status of a unique public perception of him as the monarch of this, “the happiest kingdom of them all.”
Walt’s earliest movies were modern fairy tales.
Walt’s earliest films in Kansas City, Missouri, were the 1922 series called Laugh-O-grams, consisting of updated and modernized adaptations of fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk—but audiences in Walt’s lifetime were unaware of his early career.
Walt’s ascent to the apex of nursery culture began in Hollywood, and before he ever brought that innocent princess and her seven little friends to the big screen. His Silly Symphonies series of musical shorts (1929–1939) mined ancient myths (Goddess of Spring, King Neptune, The Golden Touch), Aesop (The Tortoise and the Hare, Grasshopper and the Ants, The Country Cousin), the Brothers Grimm (Babes in the Woods, The Pied Piper), Hans Christian Andersen (The Ugly Duckling), European Folk tales (The China Plate, The Wise Little Hen), and Nursery Rhymes and Mother Goose (Mother Goose Melodies, Old King Cole, Three Little Pigs, Who Killed Cock Robin) for their screen stories.
As the Mickey Mouse short film series progressed, Walt and his story teams occasionally referenced or adapted classic children’s stories or fables in such films as Giantland, Gulliver Mickey, and Thru the Mirror.
Animation historian and author Charles Solomon explains, “Because the tales already existed in numerous well-known versions, the animators were free to adapt and embellish them; as long as they retained the basic plot, the artists could change details and add comic business at will.”
Fairy tales as “kid stuff?” Not for Walt.
Ever thereafter, and although (with a few exceptions) what we strictly classify as “Fairy Tales” are not really a part of Walt’s canon of work, this impressive collection of adaptations of the stories of childhood made Walt a hero of the nursery for generations of moviegoers. Print adaptations of his short films appeared in magazines and licensed book editions, further solidifying Walt’s reputation as “a modern Aesop.”
Perhaps this is because, much like Aesop, Walt did not really consider these tales, or his films, “children’s stories.”
“We’ve never actually been trying to appeal to children,” Walt said. “All of our situations and things like that were things that adults could enjoy without feeling that it was something that was built to appeal to the small tots. The best way to express it, is that we’ve always pleased ourselves, you know?
“Adults are interested if you don’t play down to the little two- or three-year-olds, or talk down. I don’t believe in talking down to children. I don’t talk down to children. I don’t believe in talking to any certain segment. I like to just talk in a general way to the audience.”
Walt only made a few feature fairy tales.
It is interesting to note that Walt produced exactly three fairy tale films of note, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Cinderella (1950), and his final big-screen fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty (which would not be released until four years after the opening of its namesake castle in Disneyland!).
After the blockbuster success of Snow White, many stories were considered for feature adaptation, but ultimately only the two further fairy tales made it to animated feature status.
Part of this had to do with the similarity of these stories, at least in the mind of the public then. “You’ve got a lot of elements to consider,” Walt said of the challenges faced with Sleeping Beauty.
“For one thing, you fight to do something that breaks away from what we’ve done before. Sleeping Beauty was tough, because it had a lot of the elements that we had in Snow White and Cinderella. You’ve got to give the animators new things to work on to keep their enthusiasm up. All of sudden in a meeting one of them will say, ‘Haven’t we don’t this before?’—and we have, so we have to change it all over again. . . . With the story men, I think it’s easier to give ’em plenty of rope. Let ‘em alone and let ’em go. When they get in a hole, they’ll yell for help!”
In the end, Walt said, “I think our films have brought new adult respect for the fairy tale. We have proved that the age-old kind of entertainment based on the classic fairy tale recognizes no young, no old.”
Walt knew why we loved fairy tales.
When Disneyland opened, it seemed natural that a fantasy castle would become a central symbol of Walt’s new enterprise, and within its embracing fortifications the stories, legends, lore—and fairy tales—would have a real home, in addition to that ethereal and eternal place in heart and mind.
“Everybody in the world was once a child,” Walt said. “We don’t think of grown-ups, we don’t think of children but part of that fine clean unspoiled spot down deep in every one of us that maybe the world has made us forget.”
“I go to the people that retain that ‘something,’ you know?” Walt said. “No matter how old they are, that little spirit of adventure, that appreciation of fantasy, I go for them, I play to them. There’s a lot of them, you know?”
By Jeff Kurtti
JEFF KURTTI is a leading authority on The Walt Disney Company, its founder, and its history. He is the author of more than twenty books, a writer-director of award-winning documentary content, and a respected public speaker. A Seattle, Washington, native, Kurtti worked as a production coordinator on the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival, followed by two years as the assistant to the president of the California Institute of the Arts. For several years, he worked for Walt Disney Imagineering, the theme park design division of The Walt Disney Company, and then for the Corporate Special Projects department of Disney. Since 1995, Kurtti has enjoyed a career as an author, writer, and consultant in the motion picture, theatre, and theme park entertainment industries. He was creative director, content consultant, and media producer for The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco and a producer of The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story, a critically acclaimed documentary about the famed songwriters.
JEFF’S RECOMMENDED READING
Searching for more tales? Check out Charles Solomon’s impressive Disney Editions book Once Upon a Dream: From Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty to Disney’s Maleficent.