Lists of all things Disney


This blog is an extension of my upcoming book "The Top 100 Top Ten of Disney" (available in the spring. Contact if you'd like to be notified when it is published) which is a collection of one hundred "top ten" lists of all things Disney, from the man to the mouse and beyond.

The problem is that I have more than one hundred lists, and others wanted to share theirs, so that's why I created this blog.

When I can, I will post relevant Top Ten lists here, based on the events of the day, special occasions, Disney history or just because an idea came to me or someone suggested it.

These lists are not rankings, as I do not presume to say which fims, stars or characters are better than others. They are just lists of the ten that stand out in their particular category.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and suggestions on the lists as well.


- Chris Lucas

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Ten Disney Icons

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Most companies are lucky if they have one identifiable icon that the general public can immediately recognize and associate with that particular brand.  Disney has been blessed to have so many of them that each generation for the last eighty or so years can almost claim one as their own. Here are ten that have been the face of the company at different periods in its history. 
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Walt Disney Himself 
Lots of corporate founding fathers and CEO’s choose to remain behind the scenes while keeping a steady hand on the rudder of company affairs. Some (like Henry Ford and F.W. Woolworth) made the company their namesake but often stepped aside and let trusted employees speak for the firm.

Not so with Walt Disney.

Almost from the beginning, this wiry Midwestern kid’s ambitions and vision exceeded his bank account and company’s stature in the film industry. He had aspirations of being a great cartoonist or director, but his career led him to so much more. Walt Disney’s very name became shorthand for quality entertainment the whole family could enjoy.

Most people got to know “Uncle Walt” through his role as avuncular host of the Disneyland TV program starting in the mid 1950’s, but by that time he had already appeared on the cover of national magazines and was even asked by the US government to travel on goodwill tours as an ambassador for American values. By the time of his unexpected death in 1966 Walt Disney was just as much a part of the Disney image as any of the characters his studio created. He often said that “Walt Disney” had evolved into a sort of caricature that he found hard to live up to. One writer even opined that Walt Disney‘s greatest creation was “Walt Disney.“ In a tribute reserved for few film producers, Walt was posthumously honored with a US postage stamp bearing his likeness.

Sadly, today’s generation seems to only know the name Walt Disney, not the man. Walt’s iconic image has faded and he is now seen mostly in portraits or statues around his empire. The Disney Channel used to show nightly reruns of his TV show, which are now only available on DVD. Luckily Walt’s daughter Diane and his grandchildren have opened the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. This museum, privately funded and years in the making, has as its mission the goal to remind 21st century audiences that there was indeed a man behind the mouse.

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Mickey Mouse and the “Fab Five”
OK, I’m cheating a bit here by listing five as one, but there’s really no way to separate these five characters. They are the core group of Disney icons.

When Mickey Mouse made his debut in 1928, nobody (not even Walt himself) could have imagined that three concentric circles would become instantly identifiable as the symbol of all things Disney.

Mickey‘s portrait has evolved over the years, and his onscreen appearances were scarce for a time, but he remains the heart and soul of the Disney company. Many people refer to the Disney corporation as “The Mouse” (i.e., “I used to work for “The Mouse.”)

Mickey saved the Disney studio from ruin in the 1920’s and is their biggest star, but he couldn’t carry the load himself. An effort was made early on to introduce supporting players who would be spun off into their own film series and rival “The Mouse” in popularity.

Some characters (Horace HorseCollar, Clara Cluck, Clarabell Cow) never caught on with the public, despite their alliterative monikers. Four other characters (Minnie Mouse, Pluto, Goofy and Donald Duck) did strike a nerve, however, and have become - along with Mickey - the primary characters in the Disney canon, known affectionately by fans as “The Fab Five.” They are ubiquitous in the parks and merchandise divisions. When the Disney company decided to modernize Mickey to make him relevant for today’s kids, they created a show (“Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.”) around these five characters (technically the show has six characters, but poor Daisy Duck falls just short of iconic status.)

Minnie Mouse made her debut in 1928, alongside Mickey, in “Steamboat Willie.” Early on she was portrayed as a damsel in distress, always having to be rescued by Mickey. She eventually developed an independent personality and became a popular figure with her own theme song (“Minnie’s Yoo Hoo”)
Curiously, Minnie never got her own film series, she always shared billing with other characters. When asked about the nature of Mickey and Minnie’s relationship (were they married? boyfriend/girlfriend? etc..) Walt always replied that Minnie was Mickey’s ’leading lady’ and would fill whatever role each particular picture called for, like any other on screen couple

Pluto was created simply because the writers at the Disney studio wanted to make Mickey more relatable (and human) to the public and thought that giving him a pet dog would be the easiest way. Pluto first appeared on screen in 1930 as an unnamed bloodhound following Mickey’s scent. Then he showed up as Minnie’s puppy (named Rover) for one short.

After finally becoming Mickey’s pet, the dog was subsequently spun off into his own series of 48 shorts (and was named after the then recently discovered planet. Pluto.) Unlike other anthropomorphic Disney characters, Pluto has always retained his animal qualities and has acted and behaved just as a real life dog would throughout his career.

The other famous Disney dog has not.

Goofy began as an unnamed background character in a Mickey cartoon. Moviegoers took notice of his strange personality and laugh and he was elevated to a starring role as “Dippy the Goofy Dawg.” Eventually the writers dropped the Dippy part and just began referring to him as Goofy. (In his famous “how to’ shorts of the 1950’s, Goofy was variously referred to as George Geef or George G. Goof.)

He is genetically a dog, but has been written and drawn as an almost human/dog hybrid with the ever present vest, turtleneck and hat. Goofy’s world is inhabited with characters who look and act just like him, so there is no noticeable dog /human comparison. In many of the cartoons, he has a house in the suburbs and a wife. In the 1990’s, a son named Max was introduced, who was a younger version of Goofy (albeit one with less clumsiness and cluelessness.)

In polls taken over the years, Goofy has consistently been rated the most loved character by Disney fans. Perhaps something about his stumbling and bumbling to get though life’s little moments has given him this mass appeal. One person who was definitely not a Goofy fan was Walt Disney, who went on the record many times about his dislike for Goofy and tried to have the series cancelled. (Goofy actually starred in 48 of his own films.)

Nobody could figure out why Walt so detested Goofy, but it was very clear where his animosity came from concerning the fowl character who made more appearances on screen (over 150) than any other, including Walt’s beloved alter-ego, Mickey.

Donald Duck was the anti-Mickey. When the mouse evolved into a milquetoast character, sort of a small innocent boy scout, the story men and animators were stuck in a corner. They couldn’t have Mickey show a temper, blow up, or do anything remotely arrogant for fear of alienating the public. This is what led, in part, to Mickey’s virtual disappearance from film in the 1950’s and beyond.

Donald Duck has no such limitations. Walt viewed Mickey as his de facto son, so to have this irascible foul tempered Duck upstage Mickey frustrated Walt to no end.

From his first appearance as a supporting player in 1934‘s “The Wise Little Hen“, Donald captured the public’s fancy. In that film, he was roughly drawn, but had many of the same characteristics that we see today, including the sailor suit and hat. (He wore no pants though, leading to a long running urban legend about Donald Duck cartoons being banned in certain parts of Europe due to his immodest lack of trousers.) By the time World War II came along, Donald was the biggest star at Disney, getting hundreds of fan letters a week.

When the US Government contracted Disney to make films aiding the war effort and educating the US public, they wanted him to create all new characters exclusive to those films. Realizing that the Duck was now his biggest draw, Walt offered Donald. When some Senators and high ranking Roosevelt administration officials balked at that, Walt chastised them, saying that loaning Donald Duck to them was the equivalent of MGM giving them Clark Gable for free.

Walt was right. Donald’s appearances in those wartime shorts were very effective and convinced Americans to buy more war bonds and pay their taxes. When Disney was casting for an icon to appear in his goodwill films made directly for South American audiences in the mid 1940’s, it was Donald, not Mickey, who was tapped for the job.

By the 1950’s the studio pretty much acknowledged the rivalry between Donald and Mickey, poking fun at it in the opening credits of TV’s “Mickey Mouse Club.” Today they are depicted as loyal friends with different personalities. Mickey and Donald are Disney’s odd couple, good cop bad cop, id and ego, laid back vs. high stress. They compliment each other, are the two most prominent and important members of the Fab Five and will forevermore remain fixtures on the pop culture scene.
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Jiminy Cricket
When Walt Disney was working on his version of the Italian author Carlo Collodi‘s book “Pinocchio” he had a major problem with the main character.

As written, Pinocchio was more of a mean spirited juvenile delinquent, one who would not gain much audience sympathy. Walt had his animators soften Pinocchio a bit, but still that wasn’t enough to save the film. Work stopped completely on the project until a solution could be found.

Walt finally hit on the solution after re-reading the book. He happened upon a small unnamed cricket who makes a fleeting appearance in the literary version. (in fact, the cricket is crushed to death by Pinocchio after spouting off some pearls of wisdom.)

Walt assigned animator Ward Kimball to shape this new cricket character into the conscience of Pinocchio and, as such, the narrator of the film and the audience’s confidant. Kimball departed from typical insect characteristics and gave the cricket human features, down to wearing a top hat, spats, and carrying an umbrella. We know it’s a cricket only because we’re told he’s a cricket.

When it came time to give the cricket a name, “Jiminy” was chosen. This was an inside joke.

In the 1930‘s “Jiminy Cricket!” was a popular exclamation, used mostly as a substitute for shouting “Jesus Christ!” which would be considered offensive to many people.. The phrase had been in use since the mid 1800’s and could be heard in Disney’s own “Snow White” a few years before, as well as in MGM’s “The Wizard of Oz.”

Jiminy was the heart of “Pinocchio” and its breakout star. Walt knew that he had to use him beyond that one film. (Walt was not a fan of sequels.) In 1947, Jiminy was cast as the host of the Disney musical feature “Fun And Fancy Free.” When mass audiences for television came along in the 1950’s, Jiminy took on a different role and his popularity skyrocketed once again.

Beginning in 1955, Jiminy hosted segments of the Mickey Mouse Club. He is almost solely responsible for teaching baby boomers how to spell the word encyclopedia thanks to a catchy musical mnemonic device.

In the 1950‘s Disney also made educational cartoons starring Jiminy - to be distributed free of charge to schools - called “I‘m No Fool.” These films touched on such varied topics as fire safety and bicycle safety. Almost every American child who went to grammar school in the 1960’s or 70’s (myself included) can recall Jiminy singing “I’m no fool, no siree, I’m gonna live to be 103! (or, variously, 93) I play safe for you and me ‘cause I‘m no fool”

Jiminy is one of the select few Disney characters to have begun in a feature film, not shorts, that had a life outside of his original role.

In recent years, Jiminy has become the face of the environmental/recycling effort in Disney parks. Jiminy gently reminds guests that Disney has “gone green.” He remains to this day the conscience and moral spokesperson for the whole corporation.
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Tinker Bell
 J.M. Barrie’s original 1911 novel “Peter and Wendy” and 1904 play “Peter Pan: The Boy Who Wouldn‘t Grow Up” featured Peter’s friend Tinker Bell as a small fairy who was, by trade, a tinker working on pots and pans. Her traditional onstage depiction was as a pin light with tinkling bells.

Disney broke that tradition with his 1953 animated version of Peter Pan, showing Tinker Bell for the first time as a full character He also changed her from a fairy to a pixie, trailed by pixie dust.

Rumor has it that Tinker Bell’s shapely figure was modeled after Marilyn Monroe. That is completely untrue. Ms. Monroe didn’t come into prominence until a few years after Disney’s version of Peter Pan was released. The actual model for the character was actress Margaret Kerry.

When Walt created his TV show and park in the mid 1950’s he was gambling that both would be successful, but wasn’t completely sure that they would work. He was reluctant to use Mickey Mouse as a symbol for those projects in case they failed and tarnished his beloved Mouse, so he chose Tinker Bell. She opened and closed his TV shows and was used (starting in 1961) to begin the nightly fireworks in Disneyland (and later Walt Disney World) by flying over the castle. Like Jiminy Cricket, this elevated her to iconic status beyond her one screen appearance.

To this day Tinker Bell (or Miss Bell, as she is sometimes called) is used as a flying, pixie dust spreading corporate mascot. Her wand touches down on most Disney products (although she never actually used a wand in any of her film or stage appearances.)

Until recently, Tinker Bell was a silent character (she never uttered a word on screen, but her feelings could be understood by listening to her chiming bells or by observing her sometimes petulant mood swings.) Her popularity is so great, however, that Disney has produced some direct to DVD films giving Tink (yet another nickname) an origin story, a land of her own (Pixie Hollow) and spoken lines for the very first time. The official Tinker Bell costume is still one of the best selling ones in the Disney catalog, proving that her popularity endures more than half a century after her Disney debut.
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Davy Crockett
When Walt Disney was planning on adding a series of stories about American folk heroes to the Frontierland portion of his weekly Disneyland anthology show, he was stumped as to which one to choose first. After much deliberation he asked his staff to draw a name from a hat.

The name they chose changed television and American pop culture history forever.

Davy Crockett was a 19th Century folk hero, frontiersman and former US Congressman from Tennessee who went by the name David Crockett (in real life, Crockett hated the sobriquet Davy.) Many of his exploits had been embellished over the years, but that made him a natural fit for TV audiences eager for stories of heroic frontier exploits.

Crockett died valiantly while defending the Alamo in 1836, which limited the arc of his storyline. Three episodes were made, and Disney was planning on featuring a succession of new western heroes after the Crockett episodes were finished airing in February 1955. Nobody, including Walt, expected Davy to take the country by storm.

Audiences were starved for good quality family entertainment on television in those days, and that’s what Disney specialized in. Walt spent more than he should have on a simple TV program, and the results showed onscreen. More than half the country tuned in to watch the first three episodes of “Davy Crockett: King Of the Wild Frontier“ (this was before reruns and videotapes, so if you weren’t watching the original airing, you missed out on the conversation the next morning.)

Within weeks, the US was caught up in the “Crockett Craze.” Fess Parker became an overnight star, the theme song hit the top of the charts and demand for coonskin caps was more than Disney merchandisers could handle.

In an era where the threat of conflict with the USSR was very real and post-war optimism was tempered by cold war fears of nuclear annihilation, Davy became a blue blooded American symbol of the times, and of the Disney company. Davy Crockett (at least the Disney version) was the small screen embodiment of the patriotic “can-do” values Walt deeply believed in and hoped to convey to his audiences.

Like all fads, enthusiasm for Davy Crockett dimmed, but not before he made a permanent mark on the consciousness of the nation. To this day, grown men and women can sing the Ballad of Davy Crockett at a moments notice. Their children and grandchildren are still enjoying the programs on DVD. Davy’s coonskin cap remains as recognizable a piece of Disney imagery as the mouse ears.

As westerns began to disappear from American television sets in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, the counter-culture generation grew jaded and turned away from Disney’s brand of wholesome entertainment. Davy Crockett was a casualty of that split. He just wasn’t “hip” or relevant anymore. Cowboys and frontier men were seen as too square and relics of the past. Most of Disney’s classic characters were viewed in the same light. It would be a while before another Disney icon came along, one wearing a red t-shirt and obsessed with “hunny“.

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Winnie The Pooh 
After Walt’s untimely death in 1966, his studio drifted. Some (like Walt’s son-in-law Ron Miller) thought that they should stay the course and keep doing things the way Walt had always done them.

Others (like Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney and actor Kurt Russell) argued that Walt’s philosophy was to keep moving forward, not to repeat past endeavors, and to continue exploring new ideas. They felt that the studio should follow Walt’s lead. Unfortunately the status quo folks won.

Because of this battle within the company, the animation department almost ceased to exist. 1973’s “Robin Hood” was the last original animated film with new characters produced before re-issues of past films became the breadwinners for Disney Studios. As an afterthought, the studio strung together three shorts about a little yellow British bear, which had been made from 1966 to 1974.

“The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” was a box office smash in 1978. The bear had become a savior for Disney.

Walt Disney had licensed the rights to the beloved storybook character (who debuted in books by A.A. Milne in 1923) in 1961. The first short premiered in 1966 (It was possibly the last Disney short to be seen and directly supervised by Walt .) Subsequent shorts were released in 1968 and 1974. They were supposed to be just pleasant additions to the Disney roster. Pooh and his friends in the Hundred Acre Woods became so much more.

If you visited the parks in the 1970’s or early 80’s, Winnie the Pooh was front and center. His popularity lifted the merchandising and marketing arms of a company that was sagging and relying on characters like Mickey and Donald who hadn’t been relevant in a while.

Even today, at the beginning of the second decade of the second millennium, “Pooh Bear” remains iconic and attempts have been made to keep him significant to modern audiences. From newly added rides at the parks, a new feature film on the horizon, and digitally animated programs on the Disney Channel, Winnie the Pooh shows no signs of fading away, and will remain a cornerstone of Disney for the foreseeable future.
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After a string of live action flops in the 1970’s and the sluggish pace of animated features (an average of 5 years between films) Disney was on life support and in danger of being taken over by corporate raiders or by another studio. They were only shaken out of their long creative slump after the massive failure of 1985’s “the Black Cauldron.”

New management, led by Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, was brought in to Disney by their board. After successfully fighting off outside interests, they began the process of getting back to basics, releasing the type of films that made Disney popular in the first place. The new bosses especially wanted to find a princess that would take her place among the Disney greats like Snow White and Cinderella.

They found their princess all right, and then some.

The musical adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Little Mermaid:” released in 1989, featured a headstrong flame haired princess named Ariel who was, by all definitions. a feminist. She became the first such heroine in Disney history.

The “Little Mermaid” was a box office sensation, and it put Disney right back on top. It also began a second “golden age” at the studio.

Ariel (and her friends under the sea) became the new faces of Disney for the 1990’s and began appearing at the parks, freshening up a cast of characters that had grown old and tired. Twenty years later (has it really been that long?) Ariel is still one of Disney’s biggest stars.

The only shortcoming for Ariel is that she mostly appealed to girls. Disney was missing similar characters that would bring boys into the fold. Six years later, they got them.
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Buzz and Woody

On the heels of a hot streak after Ariel helped turn things around for them, Disney began a collaboration with Pixar Studios by releasing, in 1995, a completely computer generated film about the secret life of toys. It would go on to become one of the biggest animated films in modern history and turn into a franchise worth billions for Disney.

“Toy Story” had as its protagonists a duo of archetypal figures designed to tap into (and capture) every little boy’s fantasies.

Buzz Lightyear is a space ranger, a “type A” personality who is always seeking adventure. He is a natural descendant of the real life astronauts of the 1960’s and 70’s. (His name is even an homage to Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon.) He also carries the DNA of certain swashbuckling on-screen space heroes like Captain Kirk, Han Solo and Buck Rogers. Buzz Lightyear is portrayed as delusional, he refuses to accept that he is merely a toy, just one in a line of thousands produced.

Sherrif Woody (or “Woody” for short) is a stuffed cowboy doll, but is in constant danger of being tossed aside by his owner for newer, flashier toys like Buzz. This is a subtle acknowledgement of the fading fortunes of cowboys as American heroes by that time. He is the nominal leader of the room full of toys, but Buzz suddenly comes along to threaten that position.

The two start oust as rivals (at one point Woody is screaming at Buzz to make him aware that he’s just a toy, and Buzz calls Woody a “sad little man.”) Eventually they team up in a crisis and become best friends.Little boys everywhere latched on to Buzz and Woody, snapped up everything in their product line, and began using catchphrases like “To Infinity and Beyond!” and “You’re my Favorite Deputy!.”

Buzz and Woody are now integral parts of Disney’s marketing plans and have been featured in new attractions, merchandise and sequels. They remain the faces for a new generation of Disney fans.
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Hannah Montana                            
Disney has had plenty of experience minting young female superstars. From the early days with Virginia “Alice” Davis to Annette Funicello, Hayley Mills and Julie Andrews in the 1950‘s and 60‘s, they have used their vast resources to help forge successful careers.

In the 1990’s, Disney’s machine was in full force again, utilizing Disney Channel shows and films to churn out female teen idols like Kelly Carlson Romano, Lindsay Lohan and Hillary Duff. These were just warm up acts for the biggest star of them all,

When 13 year old Destiny Hope Cyrus (sometimes known as “Smiley” or “Miley”) daugther of country superstar Billy Ray Cyrus auditioned for a new Disney Channel show, she had no idea that her life, and the American musical landscape would be altered forever.

The show (and its title character) in its pre-production stages, was variously called “Alexis Texas”, “Anna Cabana”, “Samantha York” and “Zoey Stuart.” The name Disney eventually settled on would be on every pre-teen girl’s lips forevermore, “Hannah Montana.”

Hannah Montana became a sensation from the moment of her debut on the Disney Channel in the Spring of 2006. This simple sitcom about a girl who leads a secret life as a pop star struck a nerve in little girls transitioning from the princess years to the adolescent years. Like no other female Disney television character before her, Hannah Montana became an international sensation.

At last count, Hannah’s show attracts 200 million viewers in the US alone per year and is syndicated worldwide. Subsequent concert tours have broken box office records and merchandise sales are in the billions.

While Hannah Montana ended its run in 2010 the show is not gone for good. Miley Cyrus may move on to other projects, but Hannah Montana will surely continue, through reruns, to appeal to Disney’s female fan base and become an iconic revenue producer forever. 
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Captain Jack Sparrow
When Disney announced plans to convert their popular ride “Pirates of the Caribbean” into a feature film, many people (myself included) scoffed at the notion. Why tamper with a classic? How could you possibly translate an almost perfect ride to film?

The screenwriters did a great job, but it was the lead actor who made “Pirates” a hit with his incredibly unique and innovative performance.

As written, Captain Jack Sparrow is your typical roguish scalawag of a pirate, in the tradition of Robert Newton’s Long John Silver. In the hands of any other performer, it might have been a halfway decent character.

Johnny Depp made it so much more.

When he was cast as Jack Sparrow in 2002, Depp decided to deliver a fresh take on the pirate mythos. He gave a foppish, Devil may care tint to Jack Sparrow, taking as inspiration the idea of the pirate as a rock star. (In fact, Depp cited The Rolling Stones Keith Richards as a role model. Richards would return the favor by showing up as a pirate in the third film in the series.)

You’re never quite sure whether Captain Jack Sparrow is a good guy or a bad guy. He is a jokester, prankster, quick on his feet and with a quip. He is morally ambiguous, though he does cite a code of ethics and sense of values that he lives by. Captain Jack also never takes himself too seriously.

The “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, led by Depp, has gone on to be one of the most successful in Disney history. Little boys, teens (and even adults) everywhere have been captivated by Captain Jack Sparrow. A recent magazine poll place him second only to Indiana Jones in the list of most admired film heroes.

Not bad for a character who started as a spin off from a ride at Disneyland. In fact, the “Pirates” ride in the parks have been updated to add audio-animatronic figures of Johnny Depp and other actors from the film series. Life imitating art imitating life.