The Guillotine: Twentieth-Century Classics That Won't Last No 33: Walt Disney

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During the 1940s and 1950s, when each of his full-length cartoons was an event anticipated for months even years ahead, and not the annual, so-it's-that-time-of-year-again occurrence they have since become, it was Walt Disney's vocation to prepare children for grown-up movies just as banks routinely offer them junior-scale accounts in the hope that they will grow up into good little capitalists. As an artist, which he was (animated cel by cel, a cartoon like Pinocchio or Bambi would take several years to complete), Disney was universally admired, and absolutely no stigma attached to his name. In those days no one had heard of cultural imperialism. No one took sides for Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio against Disney's or for Disney's Bambi against Felix Salten's.

By the 1950s, Disney, who turned out to be a genial middle-aged fellow with the complacently affluent demeanour of a small-town banker, a pillar of the local Rotary Club, had himself become increasingly visible. He would personally introduce promotional shorts for his latest cartoons or, joshed by an animated Mickey Mouse, host a weekly show that my generation used to watch on nine-inch, black-and-white, single-channelled TV screens which took a good minute to warm up. If the very first Disneyland theme park - in Anaheim, an otherwise obscure suburb of Los Angeles - was, in our collective imagination, the closest thing to an earthly paradise, then Disney himself was God.

Now, for many, he's the Devil. The theme-park culture is ubiquitous, the infantilism rotting the core of the American cinema can be directly traced to his influence and, in any event (except that a Disney movie is, precisely, no longer an event), the company's output is currently indistinguishable from that of most other Hollywood studios.

Disney's name will, of course, live on into the new century. It will survive, however, not as the name of an artist, of a once-living individual, but as that of a multinational corporation (curiously, the handwriting of the "Walt Disney" trademark would seem to have been designed by the same person as that of "Coca-Cola"). Walt Disney is, in fact, a fascinating case of a man who has been transformed, like one of his own fairy-tale creatures, into a logo.