The Man Who Saved Disney — Twice!

Posted by Michael Pinto on Dec 17, 2009 in Animation |

Roy E. Disney

When people think of Disney they always think of a solo founder — Walt Disney. And while Walt was a genius he had a partner that made the business work: Roy O. Disney. He was the younger brother to Walt, and business brains of the operation. To be blunt, without him Disney might have been a director and a producer but never a studio head. It’s because of Roy that Disney as a company existed.

Roy E. Disney

Above: Roy O. Disney in his later years — the man who inspired his son to save the family business.

And Roy O. Disney was the father of Roy E. Disney, which is why I suspect he had such a passion for saving that company. Roy’s father ran Disney until his death in 1971 — and by the late 70s the company had started to take a turn for the worse. As an executive with the company by 1977 Roy E. Disney left the company, and in a later quote he would say “I just felt creatively the company was not going anywhere interesting. It was very stifling.”

The Fox and the Hound

Above: The Fox and the Hound, not the worst — but not the best film either…

The Disney films from that era were a sad echo from an earlier era: These were lackluster films like The Rescuers and The Fox and the Hound. The creative talent at the studio was disillusioned, in fact it was during this era that Don Bluth left Disney to start his own studio. In facts things were so bad that it looked like Disney would be brought into a larger company or taken apart.

In 1984 Roy had had enough, he resigned from the board in the middle of a corporate take over battle. And the battle was ugly and personal: The CEO of the company was married to Walt’s daughter Diane Marie Disney! In his place Roy helped to bring in hot shot Michael Eisner to turn the company around. Eisner’s track record started with hits at ABC television and then he moved to Paramount where films like Saturday Night Fever, Grease, and Beverly Hills Cop did very well.

The Great Mouse Detective

Above: The Great Mouse Detective — in retrospect mice are a good luck charm for Disney!

Of course everyone assumed the company was dead — but they turned out to be dead wrong. Slowly Disney started to come back to life. The first hint of this for animation fans was The Great Mouse Detective which came out in 1986. It wasn’t a brilliant film, but it showed a great deal of promise scoring two thumbs up from Siskel and Ebert.

But the best was yet to come: By 1989 the company would produce The Little Mermaid. And for the first time in a long time Disney was cool with kids again — the film was a blockbuster hit. Not only was the film good news for Disney, but in retrospect it helped he entire field of American animation. It showed that a well done animated film could make money which hadn’t been the case in years.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Above: Who Framed Roger Rabbit was the film that made Disney become cool again.

During this same period there were other signs that Disney was on a come back which was due to getting back in touch with their creative roots. The year before The Little Mermaid Disney had worked with Amblin Entertainment to bring out the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit. While Mermaid would hook a new generation Roger Rabbit would show an older generation of baby boomers and young gen Xers that Disney in fact could be cool again while still creating family entertainment.

But sadly entertainment is a fickle business, and sometimes success can make you not only loose touch but slight arrogant. And by the early part of this decade after a good run Disney started to turn out duds like Treasure Planet and Brother Bear. However Disney was doing well as they had a relationship with Pixar which had been a roll since Toy Story in 1995 — and every year they would keep producing films that just seemed to get better.

Treasure Planet

Above: Treasure Planet didn’t hit pay dirt at the box office — but worse than that it was just a sad excuse for a Disney film.

However that relationship was about to come to and end: Eisner hated Steve Jobs with a passion. It was so bad towards the end that the two were not speaking to each other. About the same time Roy started to hate where the company was going, so between 2003 and 2005 he launched a “Save Disney” to oust Eisner. He accused Eisner of ignoring the animation division — as usual for Roy this was quite personal.

Roy got his way in the end — not only did Disney get a new CEO with Bob Iger, but they went on to patch things up with Steve Jobs. The result was that by 2006 Disney would go on to acquire Pixar which resulted in Steve Jobs owning 7% of Disney. And from the looks of it the company is heading in the right direction once again.

Sadly on December 16, 2009 Roy passed away — so if you’ve ever enjoyed a Disney film these last 25 years or so you owe Roy a bit of thanks. However I think Roy did it because he loved animation, in fact I’d say that he was very much a fanboy at heart. I also think that his father Roy O. would be very happy with how Roy E. stepped up to the plate twice to save the company when he could have been enjoying the easy life on a golf course or working on a tan. I wish there were more folks like him who gave a damn about animation…


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