Disney 100 years: London takes centre stage at international exhibition

From Peter Pan in 1953 to Cruella in 2021, London has been a recurring backdrop for Disney’s animated and live-action films for decades.

So much so, that it makes sense for it to be one of the first locations on Disney’s centenary exhibition, which is travelling around the world over the next five years.

Founded by two brothers exactly 100 years ago on 16 October 1923, the Walt Disney Company has grown from a small animation studio in California to a multi-billion-pound entertainment conglomerate that has captured the hearts and minds of many generations and embedded itself into popular culture.

To mark the company’s 100th anniversary, a huge collection of more than 250 rarely seen artefacts, props and artwork is on display, the biggest collection the company’s archives has ever put together.

A few steps away from the glass slippers from Cinderella (2015) is the leather wallet used to create the sound of the dwarfs’ squeaky shoes in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

Exhibit displays include models of Disney’s iconic castle

There are several interactive elements, and a piece unique to the exhibition at the ExCel London is a copy of PL Travers’ novel, Mary Poppins in the Park, which has a handwritten note to Walt Disney by the author.

Speaking to the BBC World Service Global News Podcast, Becky Cline, the director of the Walt Disney archives, explained that capturing Disney’s vast range of stories and the company’s technical advancements over the years was a huge challenge.

“What we did is, instead of telling a chronological story, we decided what we would do is go back to our very roots, to 1923 and Walt Disney and Roy Disney, our founders, and look at what they did that we are still doing today. And then, instead of going on chronologically, each gallery represents one of Walt Disney’s philosophies,” she said.

Eric Goldberg, an animator and director for Walt Disney Animation Studios, said: “What the exhibition captures well is the breadth of what the Disney company has done and what Walt has done.

“These pictures on a wall or monitors is a trigger for people to go, ‘oh, yeah, I remember that’. It kind of reminds people how much a part of their lives Disney is.”

The exhibition covers movies dating from Snow White to Frozen

Some of Disney’s past productions have been criticised for their portrayal of non-white characters and elements of sexism.

They are issues the company has attempted to address in remakes like the live-action films Aladdin (2019) and the Little Mermaid (2023) through more diverse casting and revised scripts – a move that keeps Disney in a wider cultural debate.

Dr Sabrina Mittermeier, who researches the Walt Disney Company at the University of Kassel in Germany, said they were “still very middle of the road with a lot of this”.

“I think they couldn’t just make films about princesses anymore now, and they shouldn’t be doing that either,” she said.

Dr Sabrina Mittermeier says Disney has moved on from making films just about princesses

“We’re now at a point where people have nostalgia for the films of the nineties.

“What I grew up with is already, you know, old and it’s already getting updated again for newer audiences because we’ve also realised there’s some stuff in there that’s maybe no longer going with the times in terms of like feminism, depiction of women, et cetera.”

There are two similar exhibitions that will travel internationally.

While one unit will remain in London until January 2024, the second unit will be shown in the US city of Chicago from November 2023 with more locations around the world announced soon.

By Iona Hampson/BBC World Service


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