By John H. Foote
Whatever type of human being he might have been, hard taskmaster, Nazi sympathizer, ani-Jew, Walt Disney lived to entertain, to create.
His creation, Mickey Mouse is as synonymous with the movies as Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe.
The animated shorts he made prior to 1937 were groundbreaking for the art form, as important to cinema as the advent of sound, as the creation of computer-generated animation. Disney believed audiences would watch feature-length animation, and he was right.
His features made millions, delighted generations of moviegoers, and before the creation of home video, DVD and Blu Ray were ripe for re-release every few years. I first saw the exquisite Bambi (1942) in the early sixties and was enthralled by the film, but realized for the first time in my young life my parents could, and would, one day die. That was the beauty, the extraordinary art in his animated features, while they were magical, there was also a darkness to them, something that made them appeal to adults as well as children.
Yet Disney was troubled that his animated features were not taken seriously by Hollywood. They were considered children’s films, which frustrated him because of the immense artistry and time that went into their creation.
He created an arm of his film company that would make live action films as well as documentaries, and it became very successful. His foray into television was phenomenally financial rewarding to him and made him one of the most famous men on the planet. The live action films would include movie classics such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955), Old Yeller (1957), Pollyanna (1960) and Swiss Family Robinson (1960), proved huge hits with audiences and critics.
Yet still, he felt like an outsider in Hollywood, and only one thing would make that right, an Academy Award for Best Picture. In 1964, after tough negotiations with the writer, his studio brought the enchanting Mary Poppins (1964) to the screen. The film, deservedly so, was an absolute sensation, brilliantly merging animation with live action, and blessed with a star-making performance from Julie Andrews. Fresh from success on stage in My Fair Lady (1964), she was cruelly passed over for the film in favour of a star, Audrey Hepburn. Seeing this as a chance for that long-coveted Oscar, Disney directed his marketing staff to aggressively screen the film for Academy members.
There was no need, as Mary Poppins (1964) racked up an extraordinary thirteen Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, and the new star, Andrews for Best Actress. Ironically, Audrey Hepburn was NOT nominated for Best Actress, an unnecessary, and oddly downright cruel snub.
Suddenly, Disney was everywhere, granting interviews, celebrating the film, discussing the film, doing everything to get the film in voters heads. Yet as much as he talked My Fair Lady (1964) was the prohibitive favourite heading into Oscar night.
Andrews would win Best Actress, launching a career that should have seen her win consecutive Oscars, as she deserved it again the following year in The Sound Of Music (1965). Disney was crushed and died a few years later never realizing the dream of his beloved studio winning Best Picture.
In the years since the Best Picture nomination for Mary Poppins (1964), Walt Disney Studios have seen only War Horse (2011) directed by Steven Spielberg nominated for Best Picture. Beauty and the Beast (1991) became the first ever animated feature nominated for Best Picture and should have been followed by Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), and Toy Story (1995), though none were nominated. The Academy introduced in 2001 a new category, Best Animated Picture, which Disney/Pixar has won a number of times. Both Up! (2009), one of their finest achievements and the magnificent Toy Story 3 (2010) managed nominations in both the Best Animated Feature and Best Picture Categories.
This critic selected Up! (2009) as the year’s finest film in 2009.
Can you imagine the potential winners through film history, had the Academy granted an animation winner each year beginning in 1938? Virtually every great Disney animated film made!
This year Disney could have both two Best Picture nominees, as well as one, perhaps two nominees for Best Animated Film.
Black Panther (2018) could become the first comic book, superhero adaptation to be nominated for Best Picture, maddening because The Dark Knight (2008) and Wonder Woman (2016) remain greater Films. Black Panther was a huge hit with audiences and critics, and with a cast, and director of colour, also brings diversity to the nominees.
How ironic it could be the highly anticipated Mary Poppins Returns (2018) that could, along with Black Panther (2018), Return Disney’s live-action to the Best Picture category! Rob Marshall directs the film with Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins, with appearances from Dick Van Dyke, from the original film and Meryl Streep. Though I try not to judge films by their trailers, this one looks terrific.
Incredibles 2 (2018) and Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018) could both be among the nominees for Best Animated Feature, and frankly, Incredibles 2, is the likely winner.
The return to the Best Picture category would please old Walt immensely. I am sure his spirit will soar if Black Panther makes the cut. I am not sure anyone so coveted that little golden man as did Walt Disney.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.