With the announcement of Lightyear, a reimagining of Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story, It’d be interesting to take a look back at the history of everyone’s favorite media giant and see where they came from. It turns out a 98-year-old company known for innovation has a bit of an interesting history. Who would've guessed?
Disney as a company was founded in 1923 by Walt Disney. It started out with some Alice in Wonderland-themed animations but later transitioned into a full-time animation studio with their new character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. However, after contacting his distributor, Disney realized that he had accidentally signed away his rights to Oswald and that his distributor had signed almost all of the animators to make Oswald cartoons for a cheaper price (side note, after this dispute, Disney fazed out Oswald from most Disney-related media, with his most recent appearance being in the 2014 Video Game Disney Infinity 2.0 as a townsperson). This lesson came at Disney hard and fast, as suddenly, most of his animation studio and team, along with his first, and currently only, original character were gone.
The loss of Oswald, however, led to the creation of Disney’s now most prominent character, Mickey Mouse. His first public appearance came in the animated short Steamboat Willie in 1928, which attracted rave reviews Technically, he first officially appeared in the silent films Plane Crazy and Gallopin’ Gaucho, although those films weren’t picked up by distributors as they were silent, and sound was becoming a major part of the industry at the time.
The major success of Steamboat Willie was the leading cause of Disney’s domination over the animation industry for many years, leading to the creation of many animated films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Cinderella, and Alice in Wonderland. However, in the 1990s, Disney partnered with and later acquired Pixar to undertake a daunting task. In 1995, Toy Story, the world’s first fully 3D animated film was released to the public to critical and financial success. The success of Toy Story ushered in a wave of 3D animation, which Disney took full advantage of, releasing films such as Wall-E, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles.
As 3D animation became more and more popular, Disney decided to end the production of 2D animated films with the release of The Princess and The Frog, released in 2009. With this discontinuation, it switched gears to fully focus on 3D animation, taking on new project after new project, eventually even trying motion capture, or mocap technology to make movies.
Motion capture was becoming increasingly popular in the early 2000s with the release of TV shows such as Jimmy Neutron. This prompted Disney to try its hand at motion capture movies, prompting the release of Disney’s biggest financial and critical failure to date - Mars Needs Moms - released in 2011, which cost $150 million to make, but made only $39.2 million. However, Disney kept producing animated movies, such as Wreck-it-Ralph and Brave, both released a year later to financial and critical success.
Ever since, Disney has innovated with its animated films, releasing films such as Coco, Soul, and Toy Story 4, each pushing the limits of 3D animation and providing audiences with breathtaking imagery and scenery. These films continue to innovate and push the perceived limits of technology and what it can accomplish. Such innovation can be made incredibly apparent when comparing a scene from the 2009 film Up with a tech demo released on Pixar’s YouTube channel, titled Automaton, showcasing the capabilities of 3D animation.
Disney has, since the dawn of animation, been an innovator in the industry. It has shown what the capabilities of animation can be, and has pushed those boundaries. It has shown that it has the potential to inspire, awe, and intrigue viewers with its visuals, stories, and characters, and with its future plans, Disney will almost certainly continue to do so.
Joe Mullen, Writer