Walt and Roy Disney founded the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio in 1923. Three years later, that business evolved into the global juggernaut that we know as The Walt Disney Company. And whenever a company is in business for that long, mistakes are made. To its credit, Disney does a great job of protecting its brand, but some of their worst mistakes linger. Here are some of the most shameful incidents in Disney history.

Aladdin alienates Robin Williams

Image: DisneyAs Disney filters through its cycle of live-action remakes of animated classics, the timing of this story matters. During 2019, Disney released an updated version of Aladdin, the number one worldwide blockbuster of 1992 and the seventh-biggest movie ever at that time.

While history remembers Aladdin as a massive success, it was once a mess of a project seemingly doomed to fail. Then, Robin Williams returned a favor for a friend. The comedian felt he owed Jeffrey Katzenberg, a then-Disney employee, for taking a chance on him with Good Morning, Vietnam and Dead Poet’s Society.

Katzenberg understood that Aladdin was in trouble and asked his friend, Williams, to come by Disney's studio and spitball ideas. Everyone involved with those meetings would agree that Williams saved the project with his thoughts and manic energy.

Image: DisneySince the actor had little expectation for the box office of Aladdin, he agreed to take less than his standard fee of $8 million. In fact, he earned much less. Robin Williams was paid only $75,000 for one of the most memorable roles of his career.

In exchange for his generosity, all he asked from Katzenberg was a promise that Disney would not promote Williams or The Genie. You can guess how well that went. Angered over the broken promise, Williams swore never to work with Disney again, a vow he largely maintained for the rest of his life.

Don Rosa

Image: DisneyYou may not be familiar with his name, but Don Rosa is an Eisner Award-winning author and illustrator. His work on licensed Disney comics like Scrooge McDuck and Donald Duck is seminal. Most of the stories that you love about these characters from 1987 through 2006 came from Rosa. Then, he suddenly stopped creating.

Rosa explained the why of his retirement. "[T]hey broke my spirit." Sadly, the "they" in question is Disney. Even though he was one of the most successful Disney artists of the late-20th century, Rosa received mediocre pay from the studio.

Image: DisneyDisney’s contract structure doesn’t allow for royalties. Instead, artists receive pay based on pages of output. All of the success that Scrooge McDuck and Donald Duck claimed thanks to Rosa never benefitted the artist himself.

Instead, Rosa wrote a detailed epilogue that explained the how and why of Disney's business practices. It's an enlightening introduction into how Disney creates contracts with freelance illustrators. And it doesn't speak well of a respected company. 

Girls can't be cartoonists

Image: DisneyA few years ago, Vox reminded people of how far the world has come in a few generations. They posted an absolutely ridiculous rejection letter that a Disney employee had sent in 1938.

The recipient of the letter, Mary V. Ford, learned that: “Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that work is performed entirely by young men.”

The rejection goes on to detail the ways that women can apply at Disney and what their assigned work would be. It then adds that since so many “girls” apply, this person shouldn’t pack up her stuff and head to Hollywood. Her chances of success are too low.

As far as rejection letters go, it’s as condescending and soul-crushing as they come. Vox even tracked down a second version of the same letter for confirmation. And my favorite part of this story is that the person who signs this letter is a woman.

I should add something in Disney’s defense, though. They hired Mary Blair in 1940, less than two years after they sent this letter. So, it wasn’t that all girls can’t be cartoonists, just the ones who are less talented than Mary Blair…which is everyone on the planet.


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