Master of our universe

Next month, the world will be marking the centenary of the birth of Walt Disney, creator of Mickey Mouse, ruthless businessman and, arguably, the single most dominant cultural force of the 20th century. But is there actually anything to celebrate?
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Say "2001", and we think of Stanley Kubrick's panorama of the future. But Kubrick's cold, serene enigma now feels further away than it did in 1968. So if you look to 2001 for some clue to how we live now, recall that 100 years ago, come December 5, a baby was born in Chicago with the plain name Walter. But he would later become the cute and amiable Walt. Now it's easy, straight away, to suppose that Walt Disney has been a good and happy thing for this world and its amusement. But on the other hand, there are those who deplore his works and his influence. Does it all come down to what we expect of children?

Walter Elias Disney was born poor, the son of a drifter and a failure. There are lives of Walt that say he drew to escape unhappiness. Others say the fiercely ambitious kid was exploiting his skill as a quick-sketch artist.

He never finished high school. He joined the Ambulance Corps as a teenager (just like Hemingway), but arrived in France too late to see combat. He returned and went to Kansas City, where he met another kid named Ub Iwerks, a Dutchman and a better draftsman. Together, they tried to make animated movies – a sequence of gradually advanced drawings to imitate life – but they went bust. With Walt's older brother, Roy, the two then went to Los Angeles with $40 (£30) and a lot of hope.

It was in 1995, nearly 30 years after Walt's death, that the Disney Corporation paid $19bn (£13bn) to buy Capitol Cities/ABC, forming one of the most powerful blocs in the entertainment world (they also own Miramax, among many other concerns). As such, Disney has had ultimate responsibility for films as diverse as Pretty Woman and The English Patient, as well as the steady stream of animated features. It also presides over the empire of toys and merchandising derived from its shows, over Disneyland in southern California, Disney World in Florida and Euro Disney outside Paris. The modern notion of synergy in entertainment – of movies that are the hub to a wheel of subsidiary businesses – began with Disney.

More recently, reports on the business pages have suggested that the wheel may have turned full circle. Disney's latest quarterly profits are down 82 per cent year on year. A succession of putative blockbusters have proved disappointing. Michael Eisner, the flamboyant chief executive, has been savagely criticised. Visitor numbers to Disneyland and World have fallen off sharply since 11 September. And Merrill Lynch recently lowered its estimates for Disney's 2002 operating income from $4.1bn (£3bn) to $2.9bn (£2bn). But look again at those numbers – $2.9bn. That's still some operating income: testimony to the giant, pervasive conglomerate Disney has become. Even in a bad year, Disney remains the cultural equivalent of a superpower. There are adults, and not only in America, who have been raised from childhood almost exclusively on the empire's plastic teat.

It's easy to tell the heroic story. Not many found Walt a likeable man, but no one doubted his determination, and his rousing calls for team effort – which meant unpaid overtime for the gang of brilliant animators to get everything right, or better than rivals could manage. In the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, there was a crowd of animation houses in movies. That Disney now seems synonymous with animation is a testament to Walt's pursuit of excellence (by his definition), to the unyielding aggression of his marketing, and to popular taste.

In those early days Disney dreamed of fluent, life-like animation. That meant more drawings, or cels, per foot of film; it entailed elaborate inventions – like his multiplane camera; and it relied on the midnight labour of exceptional artists. But Walt triumphed, thanks to the creation of adorable characters like Mickey Mouse (he actually came after Oswald the Rabbit), to meticulous animation, and to a true genius for seeing how sound and music helped bring these strange animals to life (just consider how his anthropomorphism has compromised real animals).

In the process, Disney established a mainstream, inoffensive line of animation. This would be vital to the future, and it serves as a model of the gap between the language and sexiness of pre-Hays Code movies and the restrictions that followed after the code's implementation in 1934. Early Disney shorts were often vulgar and raunchy – and they were meant for adults. But as Mickey became a household figure, and as children warmed to him, so Disney saw the business wisdom in not alarming parents. Hence the early stress on technical achievement and bowdlerised or sweetened material, and the gradual focusing on a child audience encouraged to believe that everything would end happily. (That's why it's worth recollecting a European tradition – especially in the Eastern European countries – that saw no reason why animation should not deal with dark, adult material.)

By 1937, Disney's technical advances were so great that he dared to make the first feature-length animated movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (in Technicolor). That success changed the medium. It was also a great show, winning a special Oscar for innovation (with seven miniature statuettes), with the smoothest, loveliest animation yet achieved.

However, it is nowhere near the original story as told by the Brothers Grimm. There are still children who read that story, in hauntingly illustrated versions. In 1997, there was actually a live-action movie, Snow White: A Tale of Terror (with Sigourney Weaver as the stepmother), the sort of picture some tender parents might deem unfit for impressionable children.

It can be argued. I think the Weaver version is remarkable, utterly Gothic, and exactly what the old story deserves. But Disney was working the safe side of the street, aware of all those children who had difficulty reading, and operating in a country that had far less of a literary tradition. You could retort that Disney, as a whole, has done too little to help it catch up. Moreover, the strength of Disney commercially has eliminated a lot of the more inventive strains of animation – the abstract, painterly style of John Hubley and the UPA studio in the 1950s, and even the exuberant, anarchic violence of Tom and Jerry.

Still, there's no doubting the potency of Disney in the late Thirties and early Forties. Snow White was followed by Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi, extraordinary works, too easily given over to sentiment and song (Pinocchio), very ambitious – even pretentious (Fantasia), and sometimes sombre (as in the death of Bambi's mother). Indeed, Bambi is probably Disney's greatest achievement, just as – some feel – it has the most beautiful, heartfelt drawing. The forest foliage, the fire, the spring awakening are monuments in the history of the form.

By then, the Disney grin had cracked. In 1941, there was a strike by Disney animators, increasingly aware of the gap between Walt's success and their exhaustion. The mood at the studio was never the same again. As unionism spread, Walt became more reactionary, more driven by talk of disloyalty and more resolved to break any strike. And by the end of the war, he had lost faith in the cartoon itself. He pursued live-action films (such asTreasure Island, with Robert Newton as Long John Silver) and documentaries (The Living Desert). He put more time and energy into developing his television show and cultivating the idea of Disneyland (which opened in 1955).

After his own death, in 1966, the movie side of the business was in tatters, despite the success of Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book. The latter was typical of late Disney: it is a travesty of Kipling's great story, a movie that was sustained by star-actor voices (Phil Harris as Baloo, George Sanders as Sher Khan) and a succession of songs. And the forest now was a hurried and garish version of what it had been in Bambi. The love of animation for its own sake was gone. By the Seventies, many good animators had left the studio in protest at its declining standards.

It was only in 1984 that things changed. Walt's son-in-law, Ron Miller, was replaced as chairman by Michael Eisner from Paramount. In turn, Eisner hired another Paramount man, Jeffrey Katzenberg, to reinvigorate the animation programme. Eisner has been the modern business genius at Disney. He has survived the departure of Katzenberg (to join DreamWorks), the misguided and short-lived hiring of former super agent, Mike Ovitz, his own heart attack, the reports of his prodigious bonuses and even the sly modelling of Shrek (titular hero of the DreamWorks picture) on himself.

But Disney is now an entertainment megalith, likely to make any kind of movie, as well as the animated features that have changed so little since the 1950s. It's a matter of taste, I daresay, but it seems to me that their recent hits – The Lion King, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast – are vulgarised versions of stories that might move children to the depth of their being. Try this experiment yourself: show your children the Disney Beauty and the Beast, and then run the Jean Cocteau live-action film, made in black-and-white in 1946. They are entirely different definitions of what the cinema can be, and no one can dispute that there should be room for both. But is there really that room? We have a generation of children now deeply hostile to black-and-white, to subtitles, let alone the sense of fantasy and magic that inspired Cocteau. These developments, I suggest, have a great deal to do with the decades of brain-washing from Disney.

"Brain-washing" is an unkind word – but is it inaccurate? Cocteau made his film in the spirit of an artist. Disney is a corporate empire that would cheerfully do away with the irritant of dissidence or alternatives. This plight may feel greater in America, where Disney has become as central to childhood experience as television, junk food and disposable nappies. You can still hire Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête – or you can if you live in a big enough city with an adventurous video store. But if you offer your kids that, or the Sigourney Weaver Snow White, you risk threatening the orthodoxy that troops to every Disney show and buys the plastic toys.

And this is a culture – we know – in which most children spend less time reading or playing games of their own invention. Of course, you can argue that film and television are more to blame for that than Walt Disney. And surely educational erosion and parental dismay are all part of the problem. But it is under-estimated, I think (except possibly by the enemies of American "cultural imperialism"), how far Disney has mastered and narrowed that territory called the child's imagination.

In the 1942 Preston Sturges movie, Sullivan's Travels, Sullivan is a top Hollywood director who begins to question his own life and work. He sets out to find the "real" America. But his high-mindedness ends badly, as Sullivan is imprisoned with a Southern chain gang. Now he sees how harsh reality can be for some of his fellows. He goes to a prison film show and finds himself laughing, with relief, along with the other brutalised guys. The film is a Mickey Mouse cartoon.

It's a good lesson for critics. We all need entertainment sometimes, and that is all Hollywood has ever offered. But is Sturges's parable sound? Or a recipe for the best way to treat prisoners? So give a thought, in this anniversary year, as to whether Walt is our genial uncle, or the 20th century's most effective cultural dictator – the man who trained our kids to be consumers.