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Here’s One Thing You Didn’t Know About Disney’s Origin Story

Have you wondered why the most famous Disney characters are animals?

Walt Disney will have been dead for 50 years next December, but given that his eponymous company continues to ubiquitously engage the popular imagination, retrospectives on his life certainly aren't few and far between.

Just last week, the movie "Walt Before Mickey," which tells the story of Disney's early life, debuted on the cartoonist's birthday, Dec. 5th. In the very first shots, the movie tackles a question children and adults alike who have voraciously consumed Disney's main cast of animal characters have likely often wondered. Why did the original Disney universe largely feature creatures?

Although what follows is far from the whole story behind iconic characters such as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy, part of the answer is certainly that Walt spent his early years living on a 40-acre family farm in Marceline, Missouri, from April 1906 to December 1910. It was there that he originally developed a fondness for drawing -- and his earliest subjects were the animals around his home.

According to Disney historian Jim Hill, Walt would often tell press that his first ever paid illustration gig was from a neighboring farmer named Doc Sherwood, who commissioned the boy to draw his prized stallion, Rupert.

Another Disney expert, Lou Mongello, also told The Huffington Post that this leap -- that the original Disney characters were rooted in Walt's initial love of drawing farm animals -- checks out. "Yes, while Walt was growing up on the farm in Marceline, he often passed time by drawing -- usually of nature and the animals he had seen and tended to," said Mongello, continuing, "This would continue to influence his later years and career, as you can see his love of animals and nature animation and film ('Bambi,' 'Jungle Book,' 'True-Life Adventures,' etc.)."

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All of this said, Hill did point out to HuffPost that this narrative has been heavily pushed by Walt and his company since the business' inception. "Farm animals have always played a significant role in the 'How-Walt-became-Walt-Disney' narrative," Hill explained. "That said, when talking about Walt Disney's early history, you always have to keep in mind that Walt was a storyteller."

"As they say, history is written by the victors," Hill noted.

Hill warned that, over the years, the branding of Disney has, naturally, compromised the narrative we generally link to Walt's biography. Walt would "sometimes 'bend the truth' to make an already good story better," Hill claimed, and noted the example for the true inspiration for Mickey Mouse:

There's this story that Walt would sometimes tell about how the inspiration for Mickey Mouse came from this tame mouse who he used to feed crumbs to while working alone late at night in the offices of Laugh-O-Gram Studios in Kansas City, Missouri. But the hard reality is that Mickey was invented on the fly in 1928, when Walt found out that Charles Mintz had basically weaseled Oswald the Lucky Rabbit out from under him, and [then] Disney needed a new character to start animating ASAP. 

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

Walt and fellow cartoonist Ub Iwerks co-created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, but lost the rights to Universal. The early version of Mickey Mouse looks nearly identical to this character, save for shorter ears, a shorter nose and no bunny tail.

"Why Mintz and/or Universal Pictures didn't turn around and sue Walt & Co. for ripping off Oswald as they launched Mickey in 1928, I'll never know," Hill joked.

But despite all these caveats, the seeds of Walt Disney's love of drawing animals indisputably began in Marceline, where you can still visit the Walt Disney Hometown Museum. As it's operated outside of the Disney corporation, if you don't trust all the details, but still believe in magic, consider making a pilgrimage to the only true Disney Town. 

 

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