Walt Disney: the most French of American cartoonists

Born on 5th December 1901 in Chicago, Illinois, Walter Elias Disney established a special bond with France. From his ancestors, his journey during the First World War to the animated films paying homage to France, let’s go back together on the convergences between the story of the founding father of the Disney kingdom and France.

From Isigny-sur-Mer to Disney

We need to go back to 1066 to find the first information on the ancestors of the future graphic designer. In Normandy, a certain Robert Suhard lived in the city of Isigny-sur-Mer, a small town located in the Calvados region between Caen and Cherbourg.  When William the Conqueror made his way to England, Suhard had joined the troops going into battle and thus expatriated to our neighbours. Once the battle was over, he remained there and started a family. Later on, the family from Isigny adopted a new name, Disigny, which eventually became Disney.



Many years later, some members of the family eventually emigrated to Ireland and then in 1834 to the United States. 

Walt Disney gardens inauguration, Isigny-sur-Mer, 2016
Jardins Walt Disney Isigny
Jardins Walt Disney Isigny
Walt Disney gardens, Isigny-sur-Mer

The First World War and Walt Disney

Young Walt wishes to help his compatriots and follow in the footsteps of his older brother who joined the army in 1917. The request is rejected because the illustrator is too young: he is only 16 years old. Some time later, one of his friends told him that the Red Cross accepts recruits from the age of 17. Without hesitating, Walt grabs his most beautiful pens and changes the year of birth on his passport from 1901 to 1900. The trick worked, and he was sent to Camp Scott to learn his new trade.

Once the integration was complete, the famous Yellow Cab Company trained the aspiring ambulance drivers in mechanics so that they would be able to deal with any situation once in the field.

After all his training, the young ambulance driver is planned to embark in order to reach the field and finally help the allies to defeat the enemy. Unfortunately, due to a bad flu, his regiment will leave without him and he will have to wait for another contingent to be sent.

On 11th November 1918, the armistice was signed, and the war ended. In any case, a group of 50 men had to be deployed in France to help the troops in place to rebuild the country. Walt will inherit the number 50!

Walt Disney as ambulance driver for the Red Cross

Freshly landed in Le Havre aboard the Vaubin on the eve of winter 1918, the military school of Saint Cyr will be the first to welcome him, then after a short passage through the hospital number 5 near Paris, he is assigned to the Red Cross canteen in Neufchâteau in the Vosges. His main tasks will be to drive a certain Alice Howell between the different hospitals so that she can deliver donuts and ice cream to the patients. In his spare time, Walt will keep busy customising the tarpaulin of his ambulance and the helmets of his colleagues. His work will also allow him to draw some military insignia during the Second World War.

ordre de mission
Mission order, 1919

After roughly a year of good and loyal service, Walt was demobilised on 22nd September 1919 and sent home. Because of his experience, he will always have great respect for uniforms throughout his life.

The Disney Company and France

France has very often found itself at the centre of the various plots in the stories told by Disney. The Aristocats, for example, is set in a Paris of the 1910s. The names of the protagonists also leave very little room for imagination: Marie, Berlioz, Toulouse, Roquefort, Napoleon, Frou-Frou or even Lafayette, all these names mark the French roots of this story.

This is not the only film making a nod to the City of Light. Thus, the characters of Beauty and the Beast are given very French names, even in the original version: Le Fou, Gaston, Maurice and especially Belle. But it is during the song “Be Our Guest” that the nod is the most obvious. Indeed, at this moment, during the dance of the kitchen accessories and the feasts, the plates form the Eiffel Tower in the background of Lumière.

Lumiere, Beauty and the Beast

A few years later it will be around the Hunchback of Notre Dame to take possession of a Paris of 1482 and make it his playground.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Another animated film paying tribute to France and its gastronomy: Ratatouille! Released in 2007, the story takes place in a contemporary and sublime Paris that marvels the finesse of France’s cuisine.


Finally, in 2015, Georges Clooney and Britt Robertson succeed in joining Tomorrowland aboard a rocket initially hidden in the heart of the Eiffel Tower.

It should also be noted that a small French animation studio was also part of the powerful company. At the end of the 80’s, the Brizzi Brothers studio, located in Montreuil, joined the Walt Disney Animation Studios teams and worked for more than 10 years on episodes of series or movies such as DuckTales The Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tarzan or Hercules. Unfortunately, at the end of the 90’s, the firm resold the small studio which closed its doors in 2003.

This is how we can fully grasp the attachment between the formidable illustrator, businessman and dreamer that was Walt Disney, the company he founded and grew, and France.


Translated from French to English by DisneyMum

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