Friday, December 18, 2009


A few brief words in celebration of Roy Edward Disney, who died Wednesday at the age of 79.

His name, of course, was legend. He was Walt Disney's nephew, the son of Walt's brother and business manager, and in his life, he combined his father's practical business sense with his uncle's love for the medium of animation. For much of his life he abandoned the studio that was his birthright, and earned a fortune as a financier, but his knowledge of how to mount a hostile takeover came in handy in the early eighties, when he almost single-handedly forced out the management team that had run Walt Disney Productions for two decades, turning out stagnant crap like The Boatniks and Condorman, and worse, misusing the company's legendary animation department to crank out the deeply uninteresting likes of Robin Hood.

When Michael Eisner, Frank Wells and Jeffrey Katzenberg took over the studio in 1984, one of the conditions was that Roy Disney be allowed to revive the animation department. Animated features were a creative dead end in the eighties. Disney's recent efforts had been tired, and though Ralph Bakshi had tried to show the way back in the seventies with more personal, adult efforts like Heavy Traffic and Coonskin, no one would follow his lead. There was only Don Bluth, a former Disney animator, cranking out the insipid likes of An American Tail and The Land Before Time.

So the team Roy Disney assembled--principally directors John Musker and Ron Clements, but also a squad of brilliant young animators eager to prove their worth, lyricist and structural genius Howard Ashman and a company named Pixar, on hand to provide technical support--in the creation of 1989's The Little Mermaid would literally change the face of animation forever. It was a wonderful movie and a critical favorite, but more importantly, it was a box-office smash, a favorite not just of children and families but adults as well. It led to even bigger successes at Disney, Aladdin and The Lion King, and when Beauty And The Beast was nominated for an Oscar in 1992, it offered all the proof anyone needed that the industry was willing to take animation seriously.

It's no exaggeration to say that Roy Disney's gamble with The Little Mermaid has had an impact on every animated feature made since. Without its success, we would never have had The Nightmare Before Christmas or Toy Story or The Incredibles or Coraline or The Fantastic Mr. Fox. But more than that, it created an explosion of interest in animation among the general public, and helped make people more receptive to images that were drawn, allowed them to realize that animation could express emotions more directly than live action. So no, I don't necessarily think that, for instance, Nina Paley's indie feature Sita Sings The Blues was inspired or influenced by Disney, but the fact that it played to such large and appreciative audiences--well, yeah, I imagine more than one person in those audiences came to appreciate animation through a childhood viewing of The Little Mermaid or Beauty And The Beast.

And for that alone, Roy Disney lived a most worthwhile life.