In the history of Hollywood, there has never been another studio quite like Disney. It’s a studio with an identity, a brand name recognized around the world. Sure, Universal had their monsters and MGM had musicals but they never focused on them to the exclusion of everything else. Even when Disney branched into live-action production, it was a very specific kind of family-friendly live-action production. Even after his death, Walt Disney’s name was featured more prominently than even the studio’s biggest stars.
It’s this immediately recognizable identity that has allowed Disney to prosper in areas like theme parks, merchandising and now, streaming services. Since launching in November, Disney+ has signed up more than 28 million subscribers. More than half of those are in households with kids under 10. As social distancing takes hold, I would expect those numbers to go up in the weeks to come.
Like everyone else under the sun with access to pop culture, I grew up with Disney. But my Disney in the 70s and 80s was a slightly tarnished studio still trying to find its way after the death of its founder. Walt died in December of 1966, three years before I was born. So even though I could enter The Wonderful World Of Disney every Sunday night on NBC, Walt himself wasn’t around to serve as my host. The studio was still releasing plenty of movies but none of them really captivated me or any of my friends. The Apple Dumpling Gang just couldn’t compete with Luke, Han and Leia.
But despite the fact that Disney was on the struggle bus for my entire childhood, it still commanded respect. Disneyland and Walt Disney World remained the dream vacation destinations for just about every kid I knew. The regular re-releases of their animated classics were treated like events and served as a vivid reminder of the studio’s potential for greatness. And my family and I dutifully went to see each new animated feature as it came out with a feeling of anticipation. Maybe this’ll be the one that puts them back on top. It’s like we were cheering them on, rooting for them to succeed.
Disney is a long way away from being the underdog anymore. Today, they’re the most powerful and successful studio in Hollywood. So I thought it might be fun to take a look back and try to figure out how they got here. That’s the purpose of this new column which I’m calling (what else?) Disney Plus-Or-Minus (or Disney± if you prefer the stylized look…and thanks to my old pal Bill Hunt for his help with the snazzy graphic).
Every week, I’ll be prying open the Disney Vault and examining both its treasures and its trash. We’ll begin at the beginning with 1937’s Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs and proceed chronologically from there. I’ll only be looking at theatrical features released under the main Disney umbrella, nothing made-for-TV or direct-to-video, no Marvel or Lucasfilm or any other labels or subsidiaries. I will be including Pixar, since their history is inextricably combined with Disney at this point. Right now, I’m not planning on including anything from Touchstone or Hollywood Pictures, although I might revisit that choice when the time comes. There are certainly Touchstone films that Disney would like to reclaim for itself, so we’ll see.
I’m going to do my best to make this as comprehensive as possible but I’m resigned to the fact that I may not be able to track down every last movie on the list. Disney’s track record is actually better than most studios when it comes to releasing deep catalog titles on home video. But if they don’t want you to see something, they really don’t want you to see it. Despite their initial boasts, Disney+ was never going to provide access to every single item in their library. So I’ll do my best but if the only way I can find something is by paying hundreds of dollars for an out-of-print DVD, I’m gonna have to skip it.
Also, since Walt Disney was no stranger to the Academy Awards, some of these columns will also count toward my other on-going project, An Honor To Be Nominated. I hope you’ll join me on this journey through the Magic Kingdom as we rediscover classic favorites, uncover forgotten obscurities and try to make sense of this thing called Disney. It promises to be a fun, if bumpy, ride.