The Art and Ideology of Walt Disney

This article was written in response to the Dreams Come True: The Art of Disney’s Classic Fairy Tales exhibition, which was on display at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image from Thursday 18 November 2010 to Tuesday 26 April 2011.


In 1937 Walt Disney produced Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (William Cottrell et al), the first ever full-length animated feature film. It was also full colour and the first ever film to use Disney’s new cel-animation technique to such an extraordinary extent. It was an enormous ambitious project that Disney had begun three years earlier and during its development Hollywood insiders referred it to as ‘Disney’s Folly’. However, despite the doubters Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs made cinematic history and is still regarded as not only one of the greatest animated films ever made but also one of the all time great American films.

In 2010, 37 years later, Walt Disney Studios released its 50th feature length animated film, Tangled (Nathan Greno and Byron Howard). Based on the story of Rapunzel, Tangled is similar to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in that it is also an adaptation of a classic European fairytale; in fact both are based on Brothers Grimm fairytales. Tangled also had a three year production but this time the challenges faced by the artists were how to best utilise computer-generated and 3D animation techniques to create the characters and world of the film.

Timed to coincide with the 6 January 2011 release of Tangled in Australia cinemas, the Australian Centre of the Moving Image (ACMI) is currently displaying the Dreams Come True: The Art of Disney’s Classic Fairy Tales exhibition. Originally created for the New Orleans Museum of Art, Melbourne is the exhibition’s second location and on display are over 600 items from the last 80 years of Disney animation. Some of the rarely displayed treasures from the Walt Disney Animation Research Library include concept art, storyboards, maquettes (character models used by the animators to draw from) and original animation cels.

While the focus of Dreams Come True are the items from the Disney ARL, the exhibition also attempts to examine the fairytale origins of key Walt Disney Studio films in order to explore the rationale behind why the original European morality tales were changed so significantly for the animated films. As well as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Tangled the exhibition looks at some of the early short films that originated from fairytales plus other much-loved feature films Cinderella (Clyde Geronimi et al, 1950), Sleeping Beauty (Clyde Geronimi, 1959), The Little Mermaid (Ron Clements and John Musker 1989), Beauty and The Beast (Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, 1991) and The Princess and the Frog (Ron Clements and John Musker, 2009).

Unlike the Il Etait une Fois, Walt Disney (Once Upon A Time, Walt Disney) exhibition that was on display in Paris, France and then Montréal, Canada during 2006 and 2007, Dreams Come True is focused on presenting the evolution of artistic ideas from within Walt Disney Studios rather than looking too closely at external sources. While Il Etait une Fois looked at the inspiration that Disney and his artists found in painting and early cinema (with a fascinating examination of the German Expressionist influence on the Disney films), Dreams Come True predominantly looks at the stages in which the various characters and settings for the Disney films would change throughout production. This does provide for some fascinating insight into things like character development. For example, the early sketches of Snow White reveal that at one point she resembled an adolescent Betty Boop, which would have given the finished film a very different focus given the sexual nature of the Betty Boop character.

Another key difference between the two exhibitions is the design and layout. The French exhibition was a mixture of the objects with large wall props, atmospheric lighting and audio/visual content to create a range of moods and environments for the visitor as they passed through. On the other hand, Dreams Come True adopts a more traditional approach of simply containing artworks hung on coloured walls, objects in display cases and selected clips from the films played on screens dotted around the exhibition – some requiring headphones for small numbers of visitors to privately experience at a time and some playing publicly, which provides an effective soundtrack for the exhibition. A markedly different use of the ACMI screen gallery space to the recent Tim Burton exhibition, Dreams Come True is sparser but this does allow for larger groups of people to pass through the exhibition more comfortably.

The final difference between Il Etait une Fois and Dreams Come True that is worth commenting on is that while the French exhibition explored the various criticisms of the powerful Disney hegemony on popular culture throughout the world (even displaying subversive anti-Disney works of art) Dreams Come True carefully avoids such content. This is not surprising or unreasonable considering it is an exhibition curated by Walt Disney Studios and the exhibition does to an extent acknowledge the cultural impact of the Disney films in terms of re-packaging the fairy tale stories. Various quotes by Disney that adorn the exhibition walls grapple with this issue, such as the one stating, ‘The fairy tale film – created with the magic of animation – is the modern day equivalent of the great parables of the Middle Ages.’ Indeed, this quote displays the extent in which Disney openly embraced the idea that his versions of the fairy tales were to become the dominant ones for 20th century audiences.

The Dreams Come True exhibition begins by showing the different types of stories that Walt Disney Studios appropriated for their short animated films, which date back as far as 1922. In what is perhaps the most interesting part of the exhibition, we see on display artwork and excerpts from early animations based not only on fairy tales but also on fables (cautionary tales such as Aesop’s The Tortoise and the Hare), folk tales (exaggerated stories of real or mythical human triumphs such as the American John Henry stories), myths (such as Ovid’s story about King Midas) and nursery rhymes (which frequently contained political and social commentary). However, Walt Disney was predominantly drawn to the European fairy tales, which combined many aspects of fables, folk tales, myths and nursery rhymes with magical and fantastical elements plus core moral lessons.

Disney certainly believed in the preserving the basic essence of the original fairy tales and the exhibition quotes him saying that, ‘The screen version must perceive and emphasise the basic moral intent and the values upon which every great persistent fairly tale is founded.’ On the other hand he also states, ‘Literary versions of old fairy tales are usually thin and briefly told. They must be expanded and embellished to meet the requirements of theatre playing time’. The various placards in the Dreams Come True exhibition that are used to introduce the artwork from the key films, discuss the extent in which the violence and horror of the original fairy tales were toned down by Disney. So how do we as modern audiences grapple with the idea that Disney changed so much of the stories to maintain his perception of their moral intent while making sure the resulting films would be as popular as possible?

In many cases the changes seem reasonable considering the brutal and sadistic content of the original stories that seemed more designed to make children neurotic rather than instil real values. For example, the cruel trials and tortures that Hans Christian Anderson subjected many of his protagonists to frequently evoke Old Testament-style morality where only through suffering and terrible sacrifice can one achieve spiritual superiority (Tatar 2002: 302). The modern Walt Disney Studios film The Little Mermaid is far more palatable than the 1837 Anderson version where the price the mermaid (named Ariel in the Disney film) has to pay for becoming human is to have her tongue cut out and endear unbearable pain while walking.

On the other hand, some changes seem naive such as changing the meaning of The Pied Piper story in the 1933 Silly Symphony short. The original versions of the Pied Piper story serve as a warning to children to not put their trust in strangers, especially strangers offering them temptations. In Disney’s Silly Symphony version the children are rewarded for following the Piper by escaping from labouring in the adult world to enter the magical Happyland. Removing the dark edge from the original variations of the story, where the children usually end up dying, Disney lost the important cautionary message behind this early stranger-danger story.

However, not all the changes that Walt Disney made to the original fairy tales were bad ones and in fact the act of adapting them to accommodate what he believed to be contemporary vales and attitudes was no different to what various other storytellers had done before him. The Brothers Grimm, for example, were so keen to preserve the sanctity of motherhood that in their versions of popular fairy tales, such as Snow White (Sneewittchen) and Cinderella, both published in 1812, they changed the original conflicts between biological mother and daughter to conflicts between a step-mothers and step-daughter (Tatar 2002: 80). So Disney was by no means the first to adapt fairy tales for audiences at the time as many of the versions of the fairy tales that may be mistaken as the originals or definitive, were accordingly adapted as well.

What is more of a concern is not that Walt Disney adapted the fairy tales by removing so much of the violence and horror, but how he used the stories to express his own values through the guise of family entertainment. His love for the magical fairy tale world also resulted in extremely questionable depictions of race, gender and class in a fantasy world where monarchical rule was frequently unquestioned and women, racial minorities and socially subservient classes knew their place. Walt Disney’s membership of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and his allegiance with the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPAPAI), strongly indicated his conservative and fiercely anti-Communist beliefs, which are reflected in the idealised plutocratic view of the world in many of his films.

Even non-fairy tale Disney films reinforced the rightful rule by the privileged perspective, often demonising lower classes who dare to challenge the system. For example, the butler Edgar is the villain in The AristoCats (Wolfgang Reitherman, 1970) for simply acting against his mistress when she decides to leave her fortune to her cats instead of him, her loyal servant for several decades. Even Scar in The Lion King (Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, 1994) is motivated to commit his crimes due to his anger over his little nephew being first in line to the throne before him. Questioning, or even worse preventing, born-to-rule traditions is a major sin in the Disney universe.

Non-whites, or animals distinctively adopting stereotypical looks and behaviours associated with non-white races, are portrayed either as figures of ridicule or down-and-out characters who are happy in their poverty. The now rarely seen Song of the South, a 1946 feature film that mixes animation and live action, was criticised at the time of release by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for the ‘impression it gives of an idyllic master-slave relationship’ in the way it depicts the happy-go-lucky kindly old slave character Uncle Remus in the Deep South in the second half of the 19th century (Cohen 1997: 60–68). Although sympathetic characters, the jive-talking crows in Dumbo (Samuel Armstrong et al, 1941) are an example of anthropomorphic animal characters perpetuating African-American stereotypes. It would not be until The Princess and the Frog in 2009 when African American characters were given lead roles as the heroes.

While The Princess and the Frog signalled a progression in the depiction of race for Walt Disney Studios, it still reinforces the myth of lower classes being happy in their place in class-base communities and the idea that one can only really aspire to greatness by either marrying into aristocracy or royalty, or discovering that one was aristocracy or royalty all along, as in the case of Tangled. Furthermore, this is also tied into one of the most persistent problems with the Disney films, the fairy tales in particular, where the young female heroes are frequently depicted as either aspiring to become a princess or can only find true happiness through becoming a princess.

The core message of Walt Disney Studio films of pursuing your dreams to achieve what your heart truly desires is a sound one but all too often the goal or reward is the unobtainable one of becoming royalty. Rapunzel in Tangled is yet another Walt Disney Studios lead character who begins as an unfulfilled virgin whose coming-of-age is signified by her getting married and (in her case) discovering that she was a princess all along. It is a very conservative depiction of what young women should aspire to.

The older Walt Disney Studios films are a lot more problematic as the agency is taken away from the young female heroes. Certainly in the case of Snow White and Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella, the lead characters lose a significant amount of what agency they had during the majority of the film when the prince characters, who are mostly kept in the background of the narrative, finally turn up at the end and supposedly win the day by agreeing to marry the girls. At least from Sleeping Beauty onwards the princes started to become fully rounded characters who actively did something to earn their credentials, as opposed to simply showing up.

The goals of wealth and status may still remain but at least in modern Walt Disney Studio films like Tangled and The Princess and the Frog, the female protagonists are assertive and active characters, making far better role models than their more passive predecessors. The modern Walt Disney Studios films also give the females heroes far more empowerment than they did in the original tales. Female servitude was a big theme in many classic fairy tales and it is believed that some early versions of Beauty and the Beast were designed to prepare young girls for arranged marriages to older men (Tatar 2002: 58). The original Rapunzel stories reflected the practise of isolating or segregating women from the male population (Tatar 2002: 105).

Dreams Come True is a celebration of Walt Disney and Walt Disney Studio’s work producing short and feature-length animated films that have entered popular culture and the public consciousness so effectively. The exhibition fully succeeds in displaying the immense technological and artistic contributions that Disney made to animation and seeing so many items from the Walt Disney Animation Research Library is indeed a unique privilege. The exhibition also makes a convincing case for the versions of the fairy tales as told by the Disney films to be regarded as the versions most relevant to today. However, the degree in which the values of the Walt Disney Studio films reflect or shape social attitudes towards class, race and especially gender is a discussion that goes beyond Dreams Come True.


Cohen, Karl F, (1997), Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators in America, McFarland & Company, Jefferson

Tatar, Maira (ed), (2002), The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, WW Norton & Company, New York

Originally published in issue 61 (Autumn 2011) of Screen Education.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012