Film Studies: From Thumper to a thumping headache. Where did Disney go so wrong?

The Walt Disney Company was in the news last week, and as usual these days it wasn't very happy news. The chief executive of the company, Michael Eisner, still only 62, announced that he would not be pursuing his contract when it comes up for renewal in two years' time. And Frank Thomas died at the age of 92. It would be neat to say that there was no one left at Disney who knew the name Frank Thomas. But that's not true. Disney is a venture that remembers and cherishes its own history. And for exactly that reason, there must have been many who sighed to realise the cultural gap that separated Eisner and Thomas.

Born in 1912 and educated at Stanford, Frank Thomas was a brilliant young draughtsman who joined Walt Disney in the mid-1930s, when that meant being hired by Walt personally, because he thought you were good and would work the immense hours that he demanded. For at that time Walt Disney was planning the unthinkable: a feature-length animated movie, to be called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Thomas was one of a very select band (they were later called the Nine Wise Men) - Woolie Reitherman, Les Clark, Ward Kimball, John Lounsbery, Milt Kahl, Marc Davis, Eric Larson, Ollie Johnston and Thomas.

Of course, Walt was number 10 and higher than his own supreme court, but these nine were not just the pioneers in the immense labour of a full-length animation, they were the originators of the Disney system whereby certain characters and scenes were entrusted to individual animators who then contrived to work as if one hand had drawn the entire film. Time and again, Disney would reject drawings. The nine worked deep into the night, and Frank Thomas became famous for his sense of character. On Bambi, he even went so far as to suggest that maybe the film needed a dash of comedy early on. "Like what?" asked Walt. And Thomas said, "Well, like this brash rabbit - we could call him Thumper." Happy days, even if later on some wondered if Disney had not achieved his huge success on the backs of slave labour. Snow White ended up costing a small fortune; it could have broken Disney if the audience had simply decided that an hour and a half of animation was too much of a good thing.

Instead, the movie was the start of the Disney monopoly, the feeling that all animated films came from the Disney factory. The line is clear: Snow White; Pinocchio; Fantasia; Dumbo; Bambi; Cinderella; Lady and the Tramp; The Jungle Book.

In fact, the gaps between those last few films were growing longer, and many thought that the animation was repeating itself. But by the 1960s, the Disney empire had reached out to Disneyland and television. The motion picture side of the corporation was in neglect, or slump, depending on your point of view. Michael Eisner arrived (from Paramount) in 1984, to put that position to rights, and he succeeded to such an extent that he altered everyone's idea of what Disney meant.

Under Eisner, Disney enlarged its theme park interests and took on the perilous novelty of Euro Disney. Through Eisner's loyal aide (also from Paramount), Jeffrey Katzenberg, it revitalised the animated film and eventually ran off a string of new hits that included Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Above all, Disney became another studio among many, one that might make any type of film, not just the family entertainment that had always been associated with the name. So, under Eisner, the Disney name was attached to such racy material as Pretty Woman (a very big hit).

For a time, Eisner seemed above error. Disney merged with ABC/Cap Cities; it had a very good distribution deal whereby it handled the films from Pixar, the new animation company in northern California; and it made a terrific coup by buying out Miramax, the independent distribution company started by Harvey and Bob Weinstein.

But Eisner became so big and powerful that he began to be a problem. He made it clear that he did not see Katzenberg as his proper successor and that spurred Katzenberg to break away and become one of the founders of DreamWorks in 1995. Moreover, it was Katzenberg's dream to lift the title of animation champion from Disney, and to that end he hired away a good many Disney animators, promising them better terms and more freedom. In turn, this suddenly opened the eyes of the whole business to the obvious: that anyone could do animated films if you had story ideas and the people to do the drawing - by hand or on the computer. Pixar came along. Fox made a major attempt to compete. And DreamWorks became a player - with the result that Disney itself has struggled.

That problem was underlined last year when Pixar (led by Steve Jobs) announced that it was considering not renewing its distribution deal with Disney. Not long after that, Harvey Weinstein voiced his own distress with Eisner (Eisner had vetoed the Miramax attempt to make The Lord of the Rings - and so that immense success was handed over to New Line), and made noises about buying Miramax back or moving on to start a new Miramax that would be free from Disney interference. To make matters worse, the remains of the old Disney family led a campaign arguing that Eisner had mishandled company affairs and had presided recently over a decline in the value of the stock. It has never been forgotten that Eisner hired Mike Ovitz, realised it was a mistake and then paid him off.

So Eisner is going - he will not last out the full two years left on his contract. Who takes over? It's a pointed question, and the possibility lingers that Katzenberg or Jobs might be candidates. At the very least, someone of immense power and vision is required to steady Disney and to send it forward again in a positive direction. Or is its doom not just inevitable but necessary? That question loomed in a week when the old Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (a shadow of its former self) was bought by Sony. Which means that M-G-M lasted 80 years. Once upon a time, it was regarded as classic and eternal. But the history of the movies suggests that the intensity of great pioneering work depends on modesty of scale. In cramped premises, burning the midnight oil, Walt Disney and nine guys changed the world of entertainment, more or less. And then they grew larger, more prosperous and bored.

Making movies never was or will be a steady, reliable business. It has always been a gamble and as such it relies on great nerve, courage and luck. Even now, I'd guess, in some shed in Burbank, or Glasgow, or Bangalore, some mad kids who survive on peanut butter and coffee are concocting a new dream. The way the business is now driven by the technology, they could be moguls in five years, plutocrats in 10 and has-beens 10 years after that. And all we have to do is hold on as the hurricane passes.