Culture Faithful Departed

Faithful Departed — Roy E. Disney

Did any among us not grow up with Disney? Children of the 40s marked their years with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi. For boomers, it was Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, One Hundred and One Dalmatians and Jungle Book. By the time I came along, Disney’s animated features had lost their spark. But my family gathered around the family TV set every Sunday night at 7:30 to watch The Wonderful World of Disney — a collection of animation, feature movies, TV dramas and nature documentaries. This brew, rich on American stories like Davey Crockett, helped shape my worldview. For children of the 80s and 90s, Disney animated feature films returned to the forefront and for this we have one person to thank: Disney’s keeper of the faith, Roy E. Disney.

Twice when Disney the corporation drifted away from its basic mission, Roy E. Disney, son of Walt’s brother, Roy O., has stepped in like a prophet to remind them of what matters.

Though his father was CEO and president of Disney until his death, Roy E. was never given control, and held only one percent of the company stock. He did have an executive title and a seat on the board of directors, though, and after Walt’s death in the mid-60s, then through the 70s and early 80s, he watched as Disney Corp. drifted away from its roots. The board’s focus on high-yield activities and careful protection of capital had turned Disney into what Roy E. once called a real estate holding company that happened to make movies.

Fed up, in 1977 Roy resigned his executive position, and then in 1984, he dramatically quit the board, signaling to investors and analysts his lack of confidence in the company’s leadership under Walt Disney’s son-in-law. Roy and other major shareholders brought in Michael Eisner, head of Paramount Pictures, to replace him, and Roy returned as vice-chairman and head of the animation division.

Disney’s animation renaissance

While Eisner knew little about animation and doubted its value, he respected Roy and owed him a favor, so he gave him free reign. What followed was a string of new animation classics that restored the Disney name to the top of the animation, and entertainment, world: The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994).

Around this time, Roy E. noticed an impressive new animation company with breakthrough technology, and began a relationship with Pixar. As the amazing run of traditional animated films started to lose steam, Roy E. was caught up in his pet project, the completion of his uncle Walt’s never-realized sequel to Fantasia. Begun in 1990, Fantasia/2000 was released in 1999 to critical acclaim but lukewarm sales, just like the original.

But Roy’s initial connection to Pixar grew, and in 1995, Disney released Pixar’s Toy Story. Thus began a new era of digital animation at the company. As the decade came to a close, after years of bickering with Eisner, Disney was being sidelined again. Eisner was also threatening to sever the relationship with Pixar, in what many saw as a power struggle and personality clash between Eisner and Pixar CEO Steve Jobs. After Toy Story, Pixar had continued to generate high quality, immensely popular animated features under the Disney brand. Pixar’s first five films for Disney, Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo, grossed over $2.5 billion.

Roy E. quit the company a second time in 2003, again making public his views, again complaining that management — this time Eisner — was neglecting animation and had become timid, focused on incremental profits, not great work. Roy E. went so far as to create a campaign with a website,, to rally support for Eisner’s ouster.

While the board refused to remove Eisner, the lack of confidence with him among shareholders and the public, instigated by Disney, led him to resign in 2005. Roy E. returned as Director Emeritus on the board and relations with Pixar were quickly repaired, leading ultimately to Pixar being acquired by Disney in 2006 and Pixar’s creative head and cofounder becoming Disney’s Chief Creative Officer. Pixar and Disney have returned to the top with WALL-E (2008) and Up (2009).

Who will be their prophet?

At its core, its heart, Disney is an animation company. The live action shows like Hannah Montana, the TV stations like the Disney Channel, ABC and the Family Channel, the careers launched through the Mickey Mouse Club — like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Keri Russell, Ryan Gosling and Justin Timberlake — the theme parks and cruise ships: all of it grows from winning the hearts and minds of generation after generation through animated features — films that remain in a special place in people’s hearts throughout their lives.

Both times that Roy E. brought the company back to its animation roots, this led also to an overall revitalization of the company and increased success. Now that Roy E. Disney is gone and no member of the Disney family remains at the company, who will be their prophet to tell them they’ve strayed from the path? Will the next generation of children mark their growth with Disney films?