For five generations, the Disney myth has held sway over childhoods. The panoply of Disney's characters has offered an appeal so primal that kids across the world would beg to take long-haul flights to meet them for real. Sustaining its brand with unique custodial care, Disney has given families days out they'll never forget, and made the Mouse House an almighty mainstay of the entertainment industry.
What a difference a year makes. Disney has just issued a directive that the Magic Kingdom is pulling up the drawbridge. The company's whole business model has been forced inside by the pandemic, and the result is a major cultural shift.
Per an announcement last week, a corporate restructuring is afoot, the aim to focus on straight-to-streaming initiatives at the expense of all else.
"I would not characterise it as a response to Covid," company chief executive Bob Chapek said of the news, arguing that the pandemic had merely "accelerated the rate" of an expected transition. But Disney's woes make you wonder. Except for home streaming, every customer-facing branch of its empire — from theme parks to Broadway shows, and theatrical releases in cinemas — has failed to restart to anything like pre-Covid levels.
Disneyland in California has been crippled after months of disputes with governor Gavin Newsom about permission to reopen. Amusement parks were consigned to phase four of his pandemic roadmap, which Disney warned left 80,000 jobs on the line. When parks finally got the okay to reopen two weeks ago, albeit at 25 per cent of usual capacity, it was too late for the 28,000 employees confirmed to be laid off after a shuttered summer. It's hard to imagine the parks returning to their former glory.
The first Broadway musical to be felled by the virus was Disney's Frozen, which won't come back to the stage, after only two years of disappointing sales.
In cinemas, the company has had a rough ride too. The live-action remake of Mulan, which cost well over US$200 million ($302.9m) to produce, has grossed only US$67m worldwide, flopping in China, and skipping US cinemas. Pixar's Onward, confined to a March release which put it in the path of Covid's first wave, managed US$145m, but it is easily the lowest-grossing Pixar film. Future releases are delayed until next year and as for Pixar's Soul, originally scheduled for June this year, it has just made the most telling and drastic move of them all — away from a theatrical release entirely, to premiere exclusively on the Disney+ TV platform on Christmas Day.
In a year of staggeringly bad news, the only bright spot for Disney has been Disney+. Its long-planned home-streaming service launched in March, a few weeks earlier than scheduled in some territories, to capitalise on the predicted demand for lockdown viewing. Take-up was eager, topping 60 million subscribers by August, although it's still far off Netflix's 182 million.
Evidently, a great deal of number-crunching has gone into the planned restructuring. "Given the incredible success of Disney+" are, tellingly enough, the first words of Chapek's official statement, which talks about "making the content consumers want most, delivered in the way they prefer to consume it" and "monetising that content in the most optimal way across all platforms".
In the brutal economic environment of 2020, the gist of this might scan as simply sound business sense, a view reflected on Wall Street, which saw Disney shares jump 6 per cent on the day of the announcement.
But on another level, it's a huge retrenchment in the entertainment mission Disney has always represented. In three years, the company will celebrate its centenary. It was on October 16, 1923, that Walt and Roy Disney pooled their resources into the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio in Hollywood.
They had a long road to travel before producing their first feature animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The highest-grossing film of 1938, it assured the company's future. Adjusted for inflation, it's still the most successful animated feature ever.
The top 10 animated films of the modern era, topped by The Incredibles 2 and with Finding Nemo 10th, were all released by Disney.
What gets left out in the new delivery system — in all these living-room deals Disney is striking — is cinema. It's the cinemas which took Snow White, and then Dumbo, and The Lion King twice, and four Toy Stories, and made all those characters world-famous. Without Woody and Buzz and Simba and Aladdin, there would be no theme parks, no toys, no Broadway musical spin-offs. Without cinemas, Disney wouldn't exist.
But the shift to streaming will have repercussions long after Covid dwindles. Without the biggest new releases to show, cinemas will perish in their droves, and if Disney does put its films back out into the world, it will be in a decimated marketplace.
This all spells curtains for the Disney we grew up with. The Disney of all-enveloping sound and light at the cinema, and the Disney of the stunning theme parks.
With the demise of this version of Disney, a dream within it dies — one coaxing our imaginations to roam in the real world. The idea that the larger-than-life-ness of cartoon characters is nearly as tangible as the everyday.
Gone now is the fantasy appeal that Disneyland taps into — as a cherished place to go.
It's not meant to be a TV dinner on your sofa or an automated babysitting service.
If Mickey's no longer telling kids to follow their dreams, but just to stay at home, he's cramping their horizons, and giving up.
- Telegraph Group Ltd