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Wednesday, 5 December, 2001, 13:21 GMT
Spotlight on Disney's cultural legacy
The innovative Disneyland theme park opened in 1955
Walt Disney, who would have been 100 years old on Wednesday, was one of the great cultural forces of the 20th Century.

BBC arts reporter Jo Episcopo looks at whether Walt Disney was simply a purveyor of fantasy to a troubled world - or something less innocent.

In 1923 a young cartoonist called Walt Disney from the American Mid-West created a character called Mortimer Mouse.

Disney will become even more successful because they represent a Utopian vision of the US

Karen Moline
On his wife's advice he changed the name to Mickey, added a voice, and created the first fully-synchronised sound cartoon.

Mickey Mouse was the first figure in a fantasy world Disney created during the dark years of the American Depression, a world where the baddies always lost and the goodies always won.

Mickey, Pluto, Donald and Goofy were part of a business whose success grew out of Disney's inventive animation.


He broke new barriers by adding music and effects and embracing glorious Technicolour.

Walt Disney
Disney received 26 Oscars in his lifetime
And he took classic fairytales and made them into films, starting in 1937 with the first-ever feature-length cartoon, Snow White.

It was the ultimate American success story, says Richard Hollis, official biographer and author of The Disney Studio Story.

"Walt Disney was a Midwesterner, he came up through very harsh times, a kind of rags to riches story, very much the American dream," he said.

"For him that was all very important, and he was very interested in the background of America, and he was quite keen to push that message across the world."

Theme park

By the 1950s Walt Disney was being fêted as one of the country's great heroes, and was once introduced on the TV show Tonight as "probably better-known than the statesman that alters our lives - even Churchill is overshadowed by Mickey Mouse".

By this time Disney had made classics like Pinnochio, Fantasia and Bambi - but he had another goal, the Disney theme park.

Monsters, Inc
Monsters, Inc is the latest Disney film hit
Disney described the theme park as "dedicated to the dreams, ideals and the hard facts that have created America" and personally opened the first one in Anaheim, California in 1955.

In his opening speech, Disney said: "To all who come to this happy place, welcome, Disneyland is your land, here age relives fond memories of the past, and here youth can savour the promise and challenge of the future."

Elsewhere other Disneylands were built, most recently near Paris in France.

But the seemingly unstoppable rise of the Walt Disney idea has not gone without criticism.

'Bizarre rules'

The Arab world was upset by what was said to be a one-dimensional portrayal in the Disney film Aladdin, Disneyland Paris was seen by French intellectuals as an affront to French culture, and back home former Disney employees complained bitterly about poor working conditions.

US cultural commentator Karen Moline has said it was alleged that behind Disney's smiling appearance was a much darker man.

"He was allegedly not a pleasant person, and he had a lot of decided opinions about race, he was anti-gay, he had bizarre rules about Disneyland - he would not allow facial hair, even though he had a moustache.

Disney merchandise
Disney merchandise is a global business
"You had to be white-bred, very clean cut, so it was a magic kingdom on the surface and a fascist kingdom on the underground."

The Disney empire frequently stands accused of cultural imperialism, and of being a ruthless global business.

Homespun values

But its defenders point out there are worse crimes than to tell the world to be nice to animals - and to each other.

Moline predicts there may even be a return to Disney's homespun values.

"The ironic thing about 11 September is that people want comfort, and if anything Disney will become even more successful because what they represent is a Utopian vision of the US, as a place where you don't have to bother about locking your door or worry about having your office blown up by a terrorist.

"People are going to embrace that even more now, because they need the fantasy to block out the reality."

Since Walt Disney died in 1966 the Disney brand has gone from strength to strength.

One of the most recent hits was this The Lion King which has even transferred successfully to the stage.

And on his centenary Walt Disney has been credited with defining and inspiring the American genius for animation.

For some, Disney sentimentality and bad labour relations may have tarnished the company's image.

But for better or worse Walt Disney has helped shape our world.

The BBC's Jo Episcopo
examines the cultural legacy of Walt Disney
See also:

05 Dec 01 | Film
Hollywood honours Walt Disney
16 Aug 01 | Business
Disney sued over Pooh royalties
17 Dec 97 | Americas
Walt Disney's widow dead
28 Mar 01 | Business
Disney to axe 4,000 jobs
25 Dec 99 | Entertainment
Fantasia's millennium makeover
24 Sep 99 | Middle East
Arab Disney boycott looms
08 Nov 01 | Business
Disney's profits slump
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