January 16, 2023 | Jamie Hayes

Disney's Folly, Or: Walt's Wacky Oscar

The release of 1928's Steamboat Willie put a young animator Walt Disney on the map. Soon he was winning Academy Awards left and right—but he wasn't satisfied with a few measly trophies. At the time, animation was an incredibly labor-intensive process, and everyone in Hollywood believed anything longer than a five to 10-minute short was a fool's errand. Except for Walt Disney.

A New Frontier

Disney didn't care how much work it took, he staunchly believed that a feature-length cartoon would be a goldmine. In 1934, he pushed Walt Disney Studios into production on an adaptation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Not only did he want a film nearly 90 minutes long, but he also wanted full color and sound. No one had ever tried anything like it before.

Though he tried to keep it under wraps at first, word leaked out eventually—we're talking about Hollywood, after all. The reactions ranged from disbelief to ridicule. Soon, people started calling Snow White "Disney's Folly," and most other studios believed the mammoth undertaking would bankrupt Disney's fledgling studio.

The years began to pass, and Snow White still wasn't finished. It looked like the naysayers had been right.


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A Folly For The Ages

Production dragged on and costs skyrocketed, partly because Disney demanded perfection. Eventually, Snow White's budget had ballooned to $1.5 million—three times what Disney had planned. By 1937, everyone who'd called Snow White "Disney's Folly" must have been patting themselves on the back. Nearly four years into production, Disney's ambitious project still hadn't seen the light of day.

That was probably the last time that anyone ever doubted Walt Disney.

Disney's Triumph

In December 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves finally hit theatres and almost immediately proved Disney right. The film became the biggest motion picture of 1938, grossing $6.5 million domestic—easily justifying the $1.5 million budget that critics had ridiculed. Snow White didn't just outgross the other films that year, it became the most successful sound film ever released.

Walt Disney EditorialGetty Images

As usual, Walt Disney got the last laugh in the end. The cherry on top came at the 11th Academy Awards. Disney had received several Oscars before, but that night, in the same room as his critics, he accepted an Oscar unlike any other in history. To commemorate the unparalleled success of Snow White, the Academy presented him with an Honorary Award featuring the regular Oscar statuette...and seven miniature statuettes.

Walt Disney pushed through all the naysayers to invent the feature-length animated film, and he got a one-of-a-kind Oscar to show for it. Oh, and Walt Disney animated features have gone on to gross over $15 billion worldwide. That's nice too.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

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