Thursday, March 24, 2011

Villains - What's In A Name?

A good, compelling story requires an antagonist, to make the hero's journey all the more rewarding. In Disney*Pixar's UP, that role belongs to dapper yet eccentric explorer Charles H. Muntz. He serves as a foil to the protagonist Carl Fredricksen and his journey to Paradise Falls.

Disney historians' ears may perk up a bit at the mention of Charles Muntz. Why? Because it bears a striking resemblance to an earlier Disney antagonist. Walt Disney himself, in the infancy of his career, had created a wonderfully charming animated character named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Lacking the deep pockets of a mature Studio, he was reliant upon business partners to distribute the Oswald animated cartoon shorts. Universal was the heavy in the business, and served in that capacity. The success of Oswald wasn't lost upon Universal and its designated producer. He sought to take control of Oswald directly, and schemed to hire away Disney's animators. That unscrupulous person? Charles H. Mintz.

In 1928, Walt traveled to New York to meet directly with Mintz. Walt and his animators had high production standards, and he wanted to change the original terms of the contract, essentially requesting a raise. Mintz refused and instead told Disney that he was going to cut the budget, and if Walt did not agree, Mintz would take over Oswald for himself. Disney refused, and most of Disney's employees left for Mintz. Only Disney legend Ub Iwerks remained, staying loyal to Walt. Lost in the deal was Oswald himself. It was on the train ride back to Los Angeles that a certain, plucky new character was born, giving rise to the familiar refrain "it was all started by a mouse."

All good things come to those who wait, and Oswald made his triumphant return to the Walt Disney Company in 2006. That story alone is intriguing. The Walt Disney Company also owns ABC and ESPN, and when the television broadcast rights for Sunday Night Football went from ESPN to NBC (ESPN opted not to enter into the SNF broadcast rights competition, instead opting to keep Monday Night Football "in house" by switching it from ABC to ESPN). SNF broadcaster Al Michaels, then under contract with ABC, wanted to continue working with SNF and its new partner NBC and its parent corporation Universal. With Universal and Disney each having properties the other sought, an Al Michaels for Oswald the Lucky Rabbit trade was arranged, returning one of Walt's original characters back into the fold.

It's not entirely clear if Pixar was inspired by this true-life Disney villain Charles Mintz when they created the character of Charles Muntz, but it's certainly a tantalizing idea.

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