From Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) through Big Hero 6 (2014), Jim Korkis takes you behind the scenes of 54 Disney animated films. Nearly eight decades of Disney, in a book not just packed with trivia, but with life lessons served up by Disney characters, loved and loathed alike.
Beginning with the names not chosen for the Seven Dwarfs in Snow White and why Walt wouldn't let Pinocchio kill Jiminy Cricket, through the cameo appearance of Rapunzel in Frozen and the importance of a full diaper in Big Hero 6, Korkis shares hundreds of stories about Disney animated films, and then the Disney characters themselves offer their wise, witty, sometimes wonky advice.
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Want to live happily ever after? Here's your fun chicken soup for the soul.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Saludos Amigos (1943)
The Three Caballeros (1945)
Make Mine Music (1946)
Fun and Fancy Free (1947)
Melody Time (1948)
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
Alice in Wonderland (1951)
Peter Pan (1953)
Lady and the Tramp (1955)
Sleeping Beauty (1959)
101 Dalmatians (1961)
The Sword in the Stone (1963)
The Jungle Book (1967)
The Aristocats (1970)
Robin Hood (1973)
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
The Rescuers (1977)
The Fox and the Hound (1981)
The Black Cauldron (1985)
The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
Oliver & Company (1988)
The Little Mermaid (1989)
The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
The Lion King (1994)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)
Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
Lilo and Stitch (2002)
Treasure Planet (2002)
Brother Bear (2003)
Home on the Range (2004)
Chicken Little (2005)
Meet the Robinsons (2007)
The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Winnie the Pooh (2011)
Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
Big Hero 6 (2014)
Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) was the first U.S. animated feature film. It was also the first animated feature to be produced using cel animation and made in color.
As early as 1932, Walt Disney considered making a feature-length animated film. In May 1933, it was announced that Walt was developing Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Popular silent screen actress Mary Pickford would appear as a live-action Alice in an animated wonderland. When Paramount Pictures released their fully live-action version of the Carroll story in December 1933, however, it killed the Disney project.
Walt then initiated talks with his friend and folk comedian Will Rogers to star in a feature-length film entitled Rip Van Winkle. Rogers would have appeared as the title character in live action, but the world with the little bearded men playing at nine pins would have been animated. Rogers’ untimely death in a plane crash brought an end to that film.
Around the same time, Walt was also in discussions with King Kong film producer Merian C. Cooper about a co-production to make an animated feature of Victor Herbert’s operetta Babes in Toyland. Cooper worked at RKO, which owned the rights.
No one had ever made a traditional feature-length cartoon because it was assumed audiences wouldn’t sit still long enough and would quickly become bored with joke after joke. Others proclaimed that the bright cartoon colors would irritate eyes watching for that amount of time. Adults, it was felt, wouldn’t pay to see a fairy tale.
“You should have heard the howls of warning when we started making a full-length cartoon,” said Walt. “It was prophesied that nobody would sit through such a thing. But there was only one way we could do it successfully and that was to plunge ahead and go for broke—shoot the works. There could be no compromising on money, talent, or time.”
In 1933, Willard G. Triest, working in Sweden for the vice president of United Artists film distribution, put together a fifty-five minute compilation of Disney short cartoons to promote those cartoons in Scandinavia. It was an immediate sell-out in theaters in Sweden, prompting additional prints to be made for theaters in Norway and Denmark, and followed by similar long running releases of this program in twenty other countries, including France.
The continued success of the cartoon compilation, drawing big audiences waiting in lines outside the theaters to see the show, convinced Walt that American audiences would accept a feature length animated film.
By October 1934, Walt had made his decision that his first animated feature film would be based on the story of Snow White. The story was not so much inspired by the original Brothers Grimm fairy tale as by the 1916 silent film adaptation that Walt had seen as a teenager.
“I once saw Marguerite Clark performing in it in Kansas City when I was a newsboy. It was one of the first big feature pictures I’d ever seen. I thought it was the perfect story. It had the sympathetic dwarfs, you see? It had the heavy. It had the prince and the girl. The romance. I just thought it was a perfect story,” recalled Walt.
While in production, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was ridiculed by Hollywood as “Disney’s Folly”.
When the film premiered at the Carthay Circle Theater in Hollywood in December 1937, it sent shockwaves through the film industry because it was just as good if not better than the best of Hollywood’s live-action films. In fact, it became the highest grossing film of all time, and was only dethroned from that position by the release of Gone with the Wind in 1939.
The success of Snow White prompted other film studios to put into production such fantasy films as MGM’s The Wizard of Oz and Max Fleischer’s Gulliver’s Travels.
Walt, in anticipation of the success of his film, had already acquired a multitude of other properties and had them in various stages of development.
This was the beginning of Walt Disney Feature Animation that became for decades the pre-eminent animation studio. Its development of technology and production processes, along with its quality approach to content and personality animation, influenced other animation studios worldwide.
With Walt’s death in 1966, the Disney Company continued to make significant animated feature films. In 1989, with the release of The Little Mermaid, the studio once again “re-invented” the format and had a string of hugely popular feature films including ones produced at two annex studios: Mulan (1998) and Lilo and Stitch (2002) from Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida (1989–2004) and Tarzan (1999) from Walt Disney Feature Animation France (1994–2003). One of the most recent Walt Disney Feature Animation films, Frozen (2013), is the highest grossing animated feature film ever produced, winning Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature Film and Best Original Song.
Zootopia, Disney’s 55th animated feature film, is scheduled for release on March 4, 2016, and Moana, its 56th film, for November 23, 2016.
Jim Korkis is an internationally respected Disney historian who has written hundreds of articles about all things Disney for over three decades. He is also an award-winning teacher, a professional actor and magician, and the author of several books.
Korkis grew up in Glendale, California, right next to Burbank, the home of the Disney studios. As a teenager, Korkis got a chance to meet the Disney animators and Imagineers who lived nearby, and began writing about them for local newspapers.
In 1995, he relocated to Orlando, Florida, where he portrayed the character Prospector Pat in Frontierland at the Magic Kingdom, and Merlin the Magician for the Sword in the Stone ceremony in Fantasyland.
In 1996, Korkis became a full-time animation instructor at the Disney Institute teaching all of their animation classes, as well as those on animation history and improvisational acting techniques. As the Disney Institute re-organized, Jim joined Disney Adult Discoveries, the group that researched, wrote, and facilitated backstage tours and programs for Disney guests and Disneyana conventions.
Eventually, Korkis moved to Epcot as a Coordinator for the College and International Programs, and then as a Coordinator for the Epcot Disney Learning Center. He researched, wrote, and facilitated over two hundred different presentations on Disney history for Cast Members and for such Disney corporate clients as Feld Entertainment, Kodak, Blue Cross, Toys “R” Us, and Military Sales.
Korkis has also been the off-camera announcer for the syndicated television series Secrets of the Animal Kingdom; has written articles for several Disney publications, including Disney Adventures, Disney Files (DVC), Sketches, and Disney Insider; and has worked on many different special projects for the Disney Company.
In 2004, Disney awarded Jim Korkis its prestigious Partners in Excellence award.
If you have a question for Jim Korkis that you would like to see answered here, please get in touch and let us know what's on your mind.
I was about 15 when I interviewed Jack Hannah with my little tape recorder and school notebook with questions printed neatly in ink. I learned to develop a very good memory because often when the tape recorder was running, people would freeze up. So, I sometimes turned off the tape recorder and just took notes which I later verified with the person. I always gave them a chance to review what they had said and make any changes. I lost a lot of great stories, although I still have them in my files for future generations, but gained a lot of trust.
I was very, very lucky. I was a kid, and it never occurred to me that when I saw their names in the end credits of the weekly Disney television show that I couldn't just find their names in the local phone book and call them up. Ninety percent of them were gracious, but there were about ten percent who thought it was a joke and that maybe one of their friends had put me up to phoning them.
It was like dominoes. Once I did one interview and the person was pleased, he put me in touch with others. After some of those interviews were published in my school paper and local newspapers, it gave me some greater credibility. Later, when they started to appear in magazines, I got even more opportunities.
JIM: You know, one of the proudest things for me about my books is that not a single factual error has been found.
To do my research, I start with all the interviews I've done over the past three decades, some of which are some available in the Walt's People series of books edited by Didier Ghezz. When necessary, I contact other Disney historians and authorities to fill in the gaps. And I have amassed a huge library of books, magazines, and documents.
When I moved from California to Florida, I brought with me over 20,000 pounds of Disney research material. The moving company that had just charged me a flat fee was shocked they had so severely underestimated the weight, and lost thousands of dollars. That was over fifteen years ago and the collection has only grown since that time.
About The Vault of Walt Series
JIM: I was fortunate to grow up in the Los Angeles area at a time when I had access to some of Walt’s original animators and Imagineers. They shared with me some wonderful stories. I wrote articles about their for various magazines and “fanzines” of the time. All of those publications are long gone and often difficult to find today.
As more and more of Walt’s “original cast” pass away, I realized that their stories had not been properly documented, and that unless I did something, they would be lost. Everyone always told me I should write a book telling these tales and finally I decided to do it.
JIM: She actually contacted me. Her son, Walter, loved the Disney history columns and articles I was writing and would send them to her. I was overwhelmed that she enjoyed them. She was appreciative that I tried to treat her dad fairly and not try to psycho-analyze why he did what he did.
She also liked that I revealed things she never knew about her father. As we talked and I told her I was doing the book, I asked if she would write the foreword. She agreed immediately and I had it within a week. She even invited me to go to the Disney Family Museum in San Francisco and give a presentation. She is an incredible woman.
JIM: Obviously, the ones about her dad were a big hit. She especially liked the chapter about Walt and his feelings toward religion. She told me that it accurately reflected how she saw her dad act.
JIM: That’s like asking a parent to pick their favorite child. I tried to put in all the stories I loved because I figured this might be the only book about Disney I would ever write.
One chapter that I have grown to love even more since it was first published is the one about Walt’s love of miniatures. I recently found more information about that subject, and then on the trip to Disney Family Museum, I was able to spend hours examining some of Walt’s collection up close.
About Who's Afraid of the Song of the South?
JIM: I wanted to read a “Making of the Song of the South” book, but nobody else was ever going to write it. I wanted to know the history behind the production, why Walt made certain choices, and as many behind-the-scenes tidbits that could be told. I didn’t want to read a sociological thesis on racism.
Fortunately, over the years I had interviewed some of the people involved in the production, had seen the film multiple times, and had gathered material from pressbooks to newspaper articles to radio shows of the era.
There are a lot of misconceptions about Song of the South. I wanted to get the facts in print and let people make up their own minds.
JIM: I thought I knew a lot after being actively involved in Disney history for over three decades, but writing this book showed me how little I really know.
For example, I learned that it was Clarence Nash, the voice of Donald Duck for decades, who did the whistling for Mr. Bluebird on Uncle Remus’ shoulder. I learned that Ward Kimball used to host meetings of UFO enthusiasts at his home. I learned that the Disney Company tried for years to make a John Carter of Mars feature. I learned that Walt himself tried to make a sequel to The Wizard of Oz. I learned that Disney operated a secret studio to make animated television commercials in the mid-1950s to raise money to build Disneyland. And so much more.
Even the most knowledgeable Disney fans will find new treasures of information on every page of this book.
JIM: Walt Disney was not racist. That is one of those urban myths which popped up long after Walt died, and so he was unable to defend himself.
In my book, I make it clear that Walt had no racist intent at all in making Song of the South. He merely wanted to share the famous Uncle Remus stories that he enjoyed as a child, and he treated the black cast with respect and generosity.
Many people don't realize that the events in the film take place after the Civil War, during the Reconstruction. So many offensive Hollywood films made at the same time as Song of the South, even one with little Shirley Temple, depicted the Old South during the Civil War in an unrealistic manner. Walt's film got lumped in with them, and he was a visible target for a much larger crusade.
With John Cawley:
Fun facts and life lessons from Alice in Wonderland (1951).
The film contains elements from both Lewis Carroll’s famous novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking Glass.
On a golden summer afternoon in an English countryside, a bored young girl named Alice follows a frantic clothed white rabbit down a rabbit hole and finds herself in the madcap world of Wonderland.
In her efforts to find the rabbit as well as return home, she constantly changes sizes and encounters a wide variety of odd and frustrating characters, including the brothers Tweedledee and Tweedledum; a singing garden of pompous flowers; a haughty questioning caterpillar; the mysterious Cheshire Cat who is always smiling and disappearing; the wacky Mad Hatter, March Hare, and Dormouse at an Unbirthday Tea Party; and talking playing cards.
Unfortunately, she also encounters the tyrannical Queen of Hearts, and after an unfortunate incident during a croquet match with her majesty, Alice finds herself put on trial. The Queen orders Alice decapitated, but the clever girl escapes and just as she is about to be overcome by all the forces of Wonderland, she finds that it was all just a dream and rejoins her older sister by the riverbank.
It would be so nice if something would make sense for a change!
But that’s just the trouble with me. I give myself very good advice, but I very seldom follow it.
I have an excellent idea, LET’S CHANGE THE SUBJECT.
— March Hare
Continued in "Everything I Know I Learned from Disney Animated Feature Films"!
Fun facts and life lessons from Frozen (2013).
Elsa can manipulate ice and accidentally injures her younger sister, Anna. The trolls are able to heal the girl, but a guilty Elsa locks herself away in her room, cutting off contact with Anna.
The parents die in a storm at sea and Elsa must now ascend the throne. Anna foolishly agrees to marry a young royal she has just met and an upset Elsa unleashes her powers, bringing an eternal winter to the kingdom. Panicking, Elsa flees the castle for the mountains where she creates her own ice palace sanctuary.
Anna follows to mend their relationship, leaving her fiancé in charge. She meets an ice vendor named Kristoff who she convinces to lead her up the mountain where they meet a living snowman named Olaf.
When the sisters do reunite, Elsa once again wounds Anna with her icy powers. Her frozen heart can only be thawed by an act of true love, so Kristoff takes Anna back to her fiancé who has tracked down and captured Elsa and imprisoned her.
His true plan was to seize control of Arendale. Elsa escapes in the blizzard, followed by Anna and Olaf searching for Kristoff. When Anna’s fiancé attempts to kill Elsa, Anna sacrifices herself to save her, ending the winter and mending Anna’s frozen heart.
The sky’s awake. So I’m awake. So we have to play.
Some people are worth melting for. Just… maybe not right this second.
The cold never bothered me anyway.
The heart is not so easily changed, but the head can be persuaded.
— Grand Pabbie
Continued in "Everything I Know I Learned from Disney Animated Feature Films"!