An Animated Life: Roy Disney

Amid the clutter of today’s glittering computer-generated animation features, only Roy E. Disney stood by traditional 2D animated features.

It was Roy who guided Walt Disney Studios through its recent revival of animation, starting with 1995’s Aladdin, and going through to The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. In 2003, his association with the Disney Company came to a peak when he stepped down as vice chairman of Disney’s board and chairman of the Disney Studio’s Animation Department. Nevertheless, he continued to be part of projects, acting as a consultant on stories, simply because it was difficult to step away from a company that shared your family name and your very ideals.

Roy’s journey with the Disney Corporation began when the company itself came to life. He was only seven years old when his father, Roy Oliver, and uncle, Walter, set up Disney. Young Roy learned both from his father who was comfortable in the shadow of Walt, and at the same time he also learned from Walt himself, who used the spotlight to his own great advantage. It was only natural that Roy too take the mantle that his father and uncle had set up.

In 1952, after attending university and college, Roy landed a job as an assistant editor on the popular TV show Dragnet. Pretty soon, the family business came calling and Roy answered; he joined the Walt Disney Studios the year after and a 56-year journey with the company began.

During this time, he dedicated the first 20 years to nature films, including the Academy Award-winning True-Life Adventure features The Living Desert and The Vanishing Prairie. One of his short subject films, Mysteries of the Deep received an Oscar nomination. It would be the first of his second Oscar nods.

After the death of the founders of the company, his father and his uncle, Roy desperately tried to make his own place in the company. However, it would seem that the Disney company and Roy would have two different paths to take. Roy left the company in 1977, but remained on its board as a director, a position more to do with photo opportunities rather than actual say in the company. It was also around this time that the company dwindled down from its glory years. But Roy had different plans.

Disillusioned with the Disney management, Roy then diverted his attention and became a successful financer. Along with his partner, Stanley Gold, he invested in various businesses and not only gathered enough cash to bring in radical changes at Disney, but also the inspiration to do so. Roy allied himself with the billionaire Bass family of Texas, returned to Disney’s board and forced out the studio management, paving the way for the hiring of a new team led by Michael Eisner, Frank Wells and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Katzenberg would later on be forced out by Eisner, and would form his own studio along with David Geffen and Steven Spielberg under the name DreamWorks.

As the chief executive, Roy set out to revive the company as an animation giant. One of the first steps included a $10 million investment in a in a digital ink and paint system developed by Pixar. Thought it seemed like the right thing to do, and a minor decision, the investment in Pixar would not only pay off, but also come to compete with Disney on equal terms as an animation goliath.

There would be more upheavals for Roy as tensions between him and Michael Eisner also rose. Eisner, already experienced once with the disillusionment of Disney in the past, had enough of it. He resigned from Disney in 2003 (with Eisner following in 2005) and stayed on as director emeritus and a consultant, titles he held until his death.

Roy E. Disney died on December 16, after a long battle with stomach cancer.

Originally published here.

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