Once upon a time, in a land of sun far away, there lived a company that was famous for making sweet, fluffy, lovable things that always ended happily. But, strange to tell, the boss of that cotton-candy kingdom called Disney was not like his products. For sitting at its centre, according to his closest ex-associates (of which there are more, seemingly, by the day) is Michael Eisner - a rapacious, soulless, obsessive micromanager, interested only in making a quick buck.
Such have been the epithets hurled at Mr Eisner as he has moved, with a ruthless brilliance, to consolidate his iron grip on Disney's board of directors and purge every last doubter and naysayer from his midst. Roy Disney, nephew of the legendary Walt, is the most prominent of his latest victims, and also the loudest to complain, thanks to the invective-spewing, three-page resignation letter he chose to leak to the press at the beginning of the week. In it he wrote that Mr Eisner was the one who should be resigning, instead of him. But he is far from the only one feeling out on a limb.
Two other long-standing board members, Raymond Watson and Thomas Murphy, were also shunted aside, while a third, Mr Disney's personal financial adviser, Stanley Gold, resigned in a fit of pique. He took his drastic action rather than put up with the humiliations Mr Eisner has heaped upon him ever since he raised his voice in opposition, more than a year ago.
The sheer venom on display is remarkable in a company that likes to project an image of childish innocence and squeaky-clean wholesomeness. Disneyland, after all, is supposed to be the Happiest Place on Earth. Mr Disney's thesis, set out in his resignation letter and again in an email to several hundred senior executives - or "cast members" - is that Mr Eisner has betrayed the company's core values, alienated its best and brightest executives and compromised its future.
One can quibble with the detail of Mr Disney's argument: after several years in the doldrums, Disney is actually starting to do modestly better, and this year its films grossed more than $3bn (£1.7bn) - an industry record. But on the subject of Mr Eisner's personality and management style he finds himself in plentiful company, starting with the scores of senior executives who have quit the company over the 19 years of Mr Eisner's tenure, almost invariably out of exasperation with the top man.
Kim Masters, author of the 2000 biography Keys To the Kingdom: How Michael Eisner Lost His Grip, calls him "Nixonian in his paranoia and isolation" - an observation substantiated by Roy Disney's complaints of being spied on. Jeffrey Katzenberg, who quit as Disney's studio chief in 1994, has been known to call him a "psycho". Even at the start of his relationship with Mr Eisner, back in 1980 when they were both executives at Paramount, Mr Katzenberg wrote in a diary entry: "His world is the whole universe... There is no room for other opinions, no consideration for other points of view... He's out of control."
What is remarkable in the wake of the Roy Disney earthquake is that not a single voice has been raised in Mr Eisner's defence. True, two board members took Mr Disney to task for airing his views so publicly, but they did not say they actually disagreed with him. "I don't know if Michael is the right or wrong guy for the company," said John Chen, the newest board appointee, "but for them to indict him in the press, it's uncalled for." Hardly a ringing endorsement. Harvey Weinstein, the outspoken head of Miramax who has made little secret of his frustrations at living under the Disney umbrella, was equally unsupportive. He told the New York Times: "I think there is no camaraderie any more, no great esprit de corps that I found earlier. I think there was more risk-taking. A more fun company. I don't know why, and it's sad that it is."
The question arises: if Mr Eisner is really that bad, how come he has lasted this long? Mr Eisner himself, of course, would argue that he is far from the ogre he is made out to be. (That is in fiction as well as in life: his face was used for the foul-smelling green giant Shrek in the eponymous DreamWorks animation hit. ) "I am not that dark person that people write about," Mr Eisner said a few years ago, and one can only assume he still feels that way.
Born into wealth in New York and educated at the finest private schools, Mr Eisner had a promising early career in entertainment, first as a television executive at ABC where he was responsible for Happy Days and the mini-series Roots, and then at Paramount Studios, where he threw his weight behind Raiders of the Lost Ark. Already in those early days, however, he was accused of soullessness, as he ditched Paramount's loyalty to the great American directors of the 1970s in favour of a blockbuster mentality and the "high concept" ethos of big explosions and two-dimensional characters espoused by his production chief, Don Simpson.
In an infamous 1981 memo, Mr Eisner wrote: "We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective." At least in those days, his talent for making money was undisputed, which is what first brought him to the attention of Roy Disney, then embroiled in a bitter family feud over Uncle Walt's legacy. Roy engineered a company takeover, installing Mr Eisner as chief executive and Frank Wells, a Warner Brothers high-flyer, as number two.
Disney in 1984 was a mess, with a turnover of barely $1bn. Over the next 10 years, Messrs Eisner and Wells boosted its output 20-fold, revived the moribund animation division with a string of hits (Aladdin, The Lion King), branched out of family entertainment (Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Pulp Fiction), opened Disney retail stores and started building new theme parks around the world.
Then, in 1994, Mr Wells died in a helicopter accident and Mr Eisner's luck started to turn. Mr Katzenberg quit, and the new No 2, former super-agent Michael Ovitz, proved a short-lived disaster. A 1995 merger with ABC television was more of a struggle than anticipated, and the advent of the internet left Disney floundering. The theme parks started generating more headaches than profits.
Finally, even the trusty animation division let Mr Eisner down. Last year's big-budget production, Treasure Planet, flopped on impact and its successor, A Few Good Ghosts, was looking so unpromising that production was closed down earlier this year.
Does all this suggest that Mr Eisner is not the executive he is cracked up to be? Or that he has sunk into a megalomaniac funk, incapable of listening to anyone's counsel but his own? His critics would argue a bit of both, pointing to Disney's uncommonly pliant board of directors as a telling symptom of the wider malaise. Mr Eisner's supporters - those still out there - argue he is still right as often as he is wrong, that Disney continues to be a growing company and that the setbacks are merely temporary.
Roy Disney, the founding family's most visible spokesman, is on the warpath, determined to see Mr Eisner removed once and for all. Whether he succeeds or fails, the evidence of the past suggests two things: that the struggle will be bloody, and that, in the end, winning is much more important to Michael Eisner than being liked, or even respected.Reuse content