12.16.2009

Roy E. Disney Sails Away


At face value, Roy E. Disney was such a strong connection to his uncle Walt, due to his striking resemblance to the man who created the magic. And he was a Disney, one of the few left that was a presence in the company. So even for those of us born long after Walt's death, we had this connection to the past in Roy. For a company that has grown to a massive behemoth, it was important to have something that felt more close to the heart. But beneath the charming and familiar exterior was a powerful man who helped shape the Disney company as it is today (and save it from potential ruin) and took a page from his uncle's book by helping to revitalize the company's animation department in the mid 1980s.

Unfortunately, today we lost our friend Roy E. Disney to cancer. It won't be the lead news story nor will it rank high among the tabloid-friendly deaths that have plagued the entertainment industry this year. But the impact of his death will be felt by a lot of people, because the impact of his LIFE was felt by so many people, most of whom never realized who he was or why he was so important.

Roy E. Disney was born in January 1930 to Walt's brother Roy O. and his wife Edna. After college, he joined the company as an assistant director and producer on Disney's True-Life Adventure series, an Academy Award-winning series of nature documentaries. Roy would notably depart the company in the late '70s due to issues with the corporate climate but maintained a seat at the board of directors which he would eventually leverage in his battle to Save Disney in the early '80s. This led to the ousting of CEO, and Walt's son-in-law, Ron Miller and the hiring of Michael Eisner and Frank Wells. Even though Walt Disney World, including its new second park EPCOT Center, had joined Disneyland in increasing the company's foothold in theme parks, there were still threats of hostile takeover and dwindling relevance in the very thing that launched the company--animation.

Roy Disney's efforts helped push the company in the right direction, which was no more evident than with the animation department, which he would head up. With the release of The Little Mermaid in 1989, the Disney Studios would enter a ten-year artistic renaissance which included hit films The Lion King, Aladdin and Oscar-nominated Beauty and the Beast. Accompanied by leaps and bounds made in the company's business dealings, as well as continued theme park growth, the renaissance in animation helped re-establish Disney's identity.

Ironically, Roy would wield another war against a CEO and one that he himself helped install! But in those 20 years since the company's renaissance, Disney had grown a little too corporate to Roy's liking. He took issue with what he saw was becoming a "soul-less" conglomerate while allowing the animation wing to once again fall in popularity and failure in theme park business. Perhaps the biggest issue though was Eisner's well-publicized dealings with Pixar, whose partnership with Disney had run out and was now looking for a bigger piece of what was an incredibly successful pie. Eisner scoffed and could never recover. Roy's efforts once again helped reshape Disney's executive structure

I never met the man but by all accounts he seems like the ultimate paradox: a beacon of whimsical, artistic family entertainment...who would put up as big a fight as needed to make sure Disney got back on track. If he had lived another 5 years, we may have eventually seen him get punchy again given Disney corporate's recent string of tradition-espousing, cutthroat maneuvers (i.e. supplanting a veteran of Disney AND Hollywood with the guy who brought us Hannah Montana). But he seems to have left the animation department, both 3D and 2D, in great hands with John Lasseter and Ed Catmull.

Roy was also an avid competitive sailor, something he was very successful at. It seems perhaps a little corny to make a reference to a great man sailing away into the sunset and over the horizon, into the great beyond. Almost like the type of imagery you might see in a classic Disney animated film. So maybe it's poignant. Either way, the Walt Disney Company is significantly less Disney now that Roy E. Disney has passed away.