Michael Eisner was CEO of the Walt Disney Company from 1984 to 2005. In that time, he was able to put his fingerprint on dozens of projects, and single-handedly changed the company’s destiny. Eisner’s tenure saw a massive expansion of the Disney theme parks, a revival of the animation studio, and a transformation into a media powerhouse.
But something occurred to me the other day. Did Eisner’s influence alter the very goals of Disney Animation Studios?
I’m going to list all Disney films, starting from 1950, to exclude non-story films like Fantasia and Make Mine Music, going on to 1981, the last film before Eisner’s ascent, and generally, possibly inaccurately, describe their cultural sources.
Cinderella – French
Alice in Wonderland – British
Peter Pan – British
Lady and the Tramp – American
Sleeping Beauty – French
101 Dalmatians – British with American influence
The Sword in the Stone – British
The Jungle Book – British novel, Indian subject
The Aristocats – British with American influence
Robin Hood – British
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh – Canadian
The Rescuers – British with American influence
The Fox and the Hound – American
Now look back at that list. Aside from The Jungle Book, every film is completely based in what’s generally referred to as “Western culture.” Specifically they’re almost completely limited to American, British and French sources. And even the exception, The Jungle Book, is based on a Kipling novel, not any indigenous work. It’s pretty clear where I’m going to go with this, but let’s compare going forward:
The Black Cauldron – American with British influence
The Great Mouse Detective – American with British influlence
Oliver and Company – British with American influence and Billy Joel
The Little Mermaid – Danish
The Rescuers Down Under – British with Australian influence
Beauty and the Beast – French
Aladdin – Arabian
The Lion King – British with African influence
Pocahontas – American Indian
Hunchback of Notre Dame – French
Hercules – Greek
Mulan – Chinese
Tarzan – American writing, African setting
Fantasia 2000 – N/A
Dinosaur – N/A
The Emperor’s New Groove – Incan
Atlantis: The Lost Empire – American
Lilo and Stitch – Hawaiian
Treasure Planet – Scottish (In Space!)
Brother Bear – Aleutian Native
Home on the Range – American
First of all, I don’t think I quite realized how much the pace had increased in the production of these films until compiling this list: the first one represents 13 films over 30 years, while the second represents 21 films over 20 years.
But more importantly, look at the variety of sources. It doesn’t really kick in until Aladdin, the first 100% non-Western story that Disney ever put to film, but you get hints with The Rescuers Down Under and The Little Mermaid, both European but starting to push at the “French, British, American” dynamic. Often where they did use American or British sources, they drew in other cultural influences, most notably in Hamlet with Lions.
But here’s my biggest take-away: within a ten-year period, Disney Animation Studios produced three films (Pocahontas, Emperor’s New Groove, Brother Bear) that focused on Native American cultures. Three completely different cultures, at that. Four if you want to stretch definitions and include Lilo and Stitch. I think it’s easy to take that for granted, but it’s actually a pretty big deal that a studio as big as Disney would choose to tell those stories when they could easily rely on more generic or traditionally European fare.
For example, and I don’t mean this disparagingly as Tangled and Wreck-it-Ralph have become two of my favorite films in the Disney catalog, check out what happened after Eisner left:
Chicken Little – Undetermined/American
Meet the Robinsons – American
Bolt – American
The Princess and the Frog – German with American influence
Tangled – German
Winnie the Pooh – Canadian
Wreck-it-Ralph – American
Frozen – Danish
And to be fair, upcoming films look to include Japanese and Polynesian influences, but here we have 10 years without a single non-Western movie. And you know what? Despite the fact that he invented the direct-to-video sequel, and despite the fact that he antagonized Pixar, and despite the fact that towards the end he was kind of running the studio into the ground, I think Eisner deserves a lot of praise for expanding the creative pool from which Disney drew, and for bringing us stories from cultures we’re not necessarily used to seeing.