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Unveiling the Magic: Exploring the History and Legacy of the Disney 100 Exhibit

By Priscilla Hobbs

 

The Disney Corporation was built on the principle of storytelling.


As an independent animation studio in the Hollywood sea of the Studio System, Walt Disney gave preference to the story as the driver of the cartoon and - by extension - the innovations the studio produced. He recognized the importance of music, dialog, color, depth of field, and had the grit (or audacity, depending on one’s perspective) to make it happen.



Over the course of the last 100 years, the Disney Studio became a global corporation, and part of that growth is fueled by the legends it built around Walt Disney. It was by design that the studio became the Walt Disney Studio rather than remain the Disney Brothers. It was intentionally concentrated around one man’s name, which he listened to the studio to raise funds for W.E.D (now Walt Disney Imagineering). And it was planned to have Walt broadcast into the homes of American families who learned - through the magic of television - to equate this mythic figure with the studio name. It wouldn’t be possible for the Walt Disney brand to gain the strength and momentum to weather 100 years of stormy weather and calm seas if Walt hadn’t been the paterfamilias he was in the studio. Over 100 years, America became Disney’s Land and, eventually, Disney’s World.



 

The Exhibit



It makes sense that Disney would mark the studio’s centennial by telling its story. Rather than leverage the familiar outlets of documentary, park attraction, books, or the like, the Walt Disney Archives partnered with Semmelweis Exhibitions to create a museum experience that became the Disney100: The Exhibition, which, like other major exhibits of its kind, will eventually tour to reach broader audiences.


A quick note: this exhibit is touted as an immersive experience, but it should not be confused with other immersive experiences that are truly immersive. The exhibit is beautifully engaging and interactive, but guests are never fully dropped into a scene to become brief actors or to have all senses loaded by the experience. For a Disney immersive experience, that is still the realm of the Parks (see also Rebecca Rowe's "DisNet Animation Immersion").


The exhibit begins with a small introduction by Sorcerer Mickey and Walt Disney, using holographic and computer technologies to bring Walt back to life with a welcoming introduction and plenary. This artificial Walt set the stage for what lies ahead with the sparkles of Disney magic. Because, who better to introduce Walt’s story, than Walt himself?


Fig. 3: Welcome to the Exhibit

The first few rooms are dedicated to the early Disney years (childhood to the Alice comedies) and early studio years (Alice through Steamboat Willie and the Skeleton Dance). As with all Disney stories, this one starts at the very beginning, plotting the trajectory of Walt from Marcelina to Mouse.


As Walt would fondly say, “it all started with a mouse,” but as Disney says, “it all started with Walt.”

From here, Disney intentionally tells a different story than one might expect. When the Exhibition was announced during the 2022 D23 Expo, archivist Becky Cline shared the multi-faceted crystalline approach to the story: rather than a familiar decade-by-decade tribute, Disney selected chapters of their storytelling process and showed how these evolved over 100 years. Each chapter shared artifacts from the Archives to illustrate the process of Disney storytelling, mixing classic-era films with more recent products (inclusion space for Star Wars and Marvel). For Disney, this approach was like putting Disney through a crystal prism that refracts the different elements outward individually.


The rest of this analysis follows the exhibit, looking at each of the themes of storytelling in the same gallery order that Disney curated.



 

Where Do Stories Come From?


By taking the crystal approach, Disney is turning a mirror on itself as a studio to reflect on how it got here. A logical first step is asking the question, “Where do stories come from?” The artifacts in this room focus on the intellectual property that helped inspire classic DIsney films. By acknowledging the influence of this IP, it helps Disney reflect on its trajectory from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and other fairy tale inspired films to increasingly original content that is clearly inspired by the storytelling elements of fairy tales, from powerfully archetypal characters to the seamless integration of magic and transformation in the characters’ (and, by extension, the audience’s) experiences.


Walt was heavily inspired by fairy tales and other fantasy, often bringing books home from his travels to share with studio staff (27). Because Walt was a storyteller (53), he placed emphasis on the story as a central feature of the film. While the studio artists could animate beautiful cartoons, it was the stories that tied the characters together and brought the moving pictures truly to life:


“What makes Disney so unique is that the stories we tell mean something to people. They inspire, give hope, bring us together, illuminate the world around us, and create memories. That is the Disney magic” (27, emphasis original).

To bolster that meaningfulness, Disney emphasized authenticity. Animators used life-models of people and animals. The styling of the costumes and scenery evoked the culture of the source text, albeit with some modernization. These changes—Disneyfications—are notorious among critics but helped foster connections with the audiences in spite of their flaws. Many of those connections are now generational, moving from parent to child.


The personalities of the characters are a cultural element of Disney storytelling. It is through the characters that the audience connects into the story. By focusing on fairy tales, especially in the early years of the studio, Walt helped establish his characters as archetypal “everymen” and “everywomen,” inviting us to see some aspect of ourselves in the characters.


Walt once said, “The trick of creating a cartoon character with real personality requires something more than proper movement. In order to really come to life, the character’s actions must appear to come from his own thoughts and feelings” (qtd. 55).



It’s perhaps noteworthy that some of Disney’s most popular and potent characters are animals or otherwise non-human.


 

The Spirit of Adventure and Discovery


The next layer of storytelling speaks to and how stories of adventure inspire “us to take bold journeys into the unknown, where we learn more about the worlds around us—whether real or imagined—and in doing so, gain a greater understanding about ourselves” (73). This is a key element of myths and fairy tales, and of the stories that become parts of a cultural mythology: Through the connection to the story, we (the audience) can experience transformation, to become (even temporarily) a different version of ourselves learned from the heroism of the character. Engaging characters are a starting point, while the depth of the plot gives dimensionality to the experience.


The artifacts in this area of the exhibit take “adventure” literally and showcase adventure films such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Tomorrowland segment of the Disneyland television show, Star Wars, and Marvel. Essentially all Disney properties that invoke a spirit of adventure that serves as a familiar Hollywood shortcut for transformative journeys, but these examples don’t override the potency of one’s own connections to the stories, and not every audience member will resonate with plots in the same way. “Adventure,” especially the Spirit of Adventure, through Walt privileged global (and interstellar) pursuits, but each of us will transform with the plot that most closely resembles our own true-lie adventure.



 

The Worlds Around Us: Your Disney World


From here until the end of the exhibit, Disney’s storytelling leaves the core elements to become a mirror into the real world, recognizing the impact of the brand on audience experience. The Worlds Around Us celebrates the organic stories of nature and the environment. Walt believed int he importance of protecting the environment, and recognized how the medium of film could document nature’s stories, leading to the True-Life Adventures and the beginnings of the “edutainment” genre.


Nature is chaotic with its own stories. However, because nature itself doesn’t have a voice, the stories of nature become the field for poets and artists to interpret from countless of hours of footage, co-creating the story they believe nature is trying to tell. Though authentic, the stories can be flawed in pursuit of “edutainment,” simultaneously educational and entertaining. The True-Life Adventures started Disney’s commitment to conservation and sustainability, themes that can be found throughout films and shows including the DisneyNature series that launched in 2008 (119), and throughout the pathways of the Animal Kingdom park (127).



Disneyland, the first Disney theme park, was an evolution in storytelling that broke the barriers of screens and theaters to immerse the audience in a totality, changing storytelling and how modern audiences engage with story, evolving to a new plane where the storyteller is transcendental and the environment of place holds the narrative together. The audience are now characters in a visionary’s dollhouse, and the guest experience is carefully curated to guide the story while affording choice to how the narrative will unfold.


The theme parks bring all of the storytelling elements of Disney’s history to a culmination, and one could revisit the previous galleries of the exhibit through the lens of the theme park experience and the integrity of the exhibit will remain intact. One of the successful aspects of the Disney studio, from Walt’s earliest creations to the present, is how they have unlocked the principles of storytelling and formed an integral global brand on those principles.


 

The Wonder of Disney


The exhibit closes with a nostalgic tour of Disneyana through the decades. Storytelling in the modern era is not a passive experience. Rather, it is a consumer interchange where we the audience has the opportunity to own a piece of the experience—a souvenir, a memory of a fantastic, magical world brought home to become part of our experiences.

Consumer theorists are justly skeptical about Disney’s motivations, but the Wonder of Disney cannot be entirely explained by corporate bottom lines and synergy strategies. The power of story is essential to the human experience. It brings people together into a shared ritual experience. A successful stories can bridge the constraints of time, place, culture, and believe: “Disney storytelling is inspiring and magical. It makes people laugh and cry, hope and dream. It makes you think of a better world, of possibilities that you can’t even imagine” (163).


As the exhibit closes and guests exit through the gift shop, Disney leaves us with one last parting thought: We Are Just Getting Started. Though we no longer have Walt and many of the artists who helped grow the company that started with a Mouse, Disney will continue to give fans, aca-fans, and Disney scholars something to enjoy for the years (maybe 100 years?) to come.



 

But wait! There's MORE!


If you love all things Disney, if you had a presentation that you would love to see written down (and citable) come out into the world, email Bee! Do you have a book coming out and would love to have a launch with us? Email Bee! Did your book, or someone else's book, come out and you want to see us do a book review or an author interview...that's right, email Bee!


Check out our Want to Write for DisNet post.


(Bee's email is also disnetblog@gmail.com)


 

References:


Sigman-Lowery, Paula, Michael Balgavy, and Walter M. Weiss, eds. Disney100: The Exhibition. Walt Disney Archives & Semmel Exhibitions, 2023.


 

Images:


Fig. 1: "7 Things You May Not Know About Walt Disney." History.com. https://www.history.com/news/7-things-you-might-not-know-about-walt-disney. Accessed 03 Jan 2024.

Fig. 2: "Disney 100: The Exhibition at the Franklin Institute." CampusPhilly. https://campusphilly.org/event/disney-100-the-exhibition-at-the-franklin-institute/2023-08-27/. Accessed 03 Jan. 2024.


Fig. 3: Image posted with permissions from Priscilla Hobbs.


Fig. 4: Image posted with permissions from Priscilla Hobbs.


Fig. 5: Movie still of Carl Fredricksen in Up (2009). Docter, Pete, dir. 2009. Up, Burbank, CA: alt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.


Fig. 6: Image posted with permissions from Priscilla Hobbs.








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