Disney was Built by the Public Domain

Written By: Chase Bridges

Robin Hood (1973)

In the year 2020, Disney is one of the largest media companies on the planet. Their acquisition of FOX in 2019 was the latest in a shopping spree of many companies and film rights. Such as their purchase of Lucas Film which gained them the entire Star Wars franchise, and Marvel which led to their biggest money maker in the film industry, The MCU.

The idea of Disney becoming so large because of properties that they have purchased, and not having to create something original is nothing new. In fact their entire history is flooded with the monetization of stories they did not create.

Snow White (1937)

Disney’s first animated feature, and what really shot them to fame, was Snow White. (1938) Snow White is of course a classic fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm, published in their first book in 1812. By the time Walt Disney came around with his dreams of animation, the story was not under any copy-right law. This allowed him to take the classic story, alter it, and create an animated version.

Disney proceeded to follow this pattern of taking stories from the public domain (The public domain is the state of belonging or being available to the public as a whole, and therefore not subject to copyright.) Disney would follow Snow White up with the following animated movies.

Pinnochio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Bambi, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Sword and The Stone, The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Robin Hood, and so many more.

Can you guess what each of these films are based on already published works? That’s right, all of them. It keeps going on as well, even classic films such as The Lion King, and Aladdin are based on public domain works. The former being based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and the latter an actual novel.

Even their latest big animated hits Frozen and Frozen 2 are based on the novel “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Andersen. But don’t worry, Disney has of course had some original films in their almost fifty years since founding.

Exactly ten of their fifty-eight animated feature films are original works. If you look at Disney live action movies, the number jumps up a good bit to about twenty total original stories. This is super interesting as the majority of their films such as Beauty and the Beast, are considered “Disney movies” by the general public.

Is this a smart business model? Should we condemn Disney for this process? I don’t think so, in fact it was very intellegent move for Walt himself to incorporate. He was an animator, he wasn’t a storyteller. So he took from the Public Domain, which is available for anyone to use, and created beautiful pieces of art out of them.

Walt Disney, and his company after him, have taken unknown or forgotten stories, fairy tales, and historical legends (Pocahontas) and created amazing films, both animated and live action, for the world to enjoy. To blame them for their lack of creativity is not the point, when they never claim to be coming up with these ideas.

In fact the only films that they call “Originals” are the films made for their television network Disney Channel. Those films, such as High School Musical and Halloween Town, were actually original stories created specifically for television release.

What do you think about Disney utilizing already written stories for their films? Do you think it’s cheating? Do you love the films regardless of where they came? Be sure to let us know what you think!

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