It’s been a year since Knives Out released in theaters. One of the best films in recent history, it’s a strong indictment against the myth of the “self-made”
millionaire, as well as generational wealth, racism, and greed among white upper class families.
This is best exemplified by the Thromby family, who pride themselves on being “self-made,” despite financially depending on their patriarch, Harlan Thromby.
Harlan Thromby’s youngest son, Walt, stands out as the least “self-made” of his family… but in a particular way. In fact, Walt’s very name and behavior can remind the audience of another famous, “self-made” person and company.
- Several characters point out that Walt Thromby doesn’t write his own stories: he merely publishes his father’s. The historic Walt Disney and his ensuing Company are famous for mostly adapting existing novels and fairy tales, rather than create films based on original ideas.
- Before Harlan died, Walt tried to convince him to sign on to film adaptations of his books, since “that’s where the real money is.” Harlan demurring is framed as holding tight to artistic integrity, rather than “selling out.”
- Not only was Walt Disney’s wealth mostly made from film adaptations of novels and fairy tales, but now (thanks to the film Saving Mr Banks) he is infamous for browbeating P.L. Travers into letting him adapt her Mary Poppins books into a film, which he and his Company have shamelessly merchandised since.
- The Disney Company itself is now also infamous for making films just to make money, with little care for artistic integrity. The 1994 The Lion King animators lamented this regarding the “live-action remake.” According to animator David Stephan: “Disney’s now taken the cover off, and it’s now in your face: ‘Yeah, we just want to make money.’ That’s disappointing as an artist, from a studio that was founded on originality [relatively] and art.”
Speaking of film adaptations just to make money, the last major film Brian Johnson worked on before directing Knives Out was the Star Wars film The Last Jedi. Disney famously bought the rights to Star Wars in 2012, and each film has been widely accused of being carefully crafted for maximum audience appeal, and thus ticket sales.
This brings me to my next point:
- In Knives Out, Walt’s son Jacob is derided by the Thromby family as “a literal Nazi” and alt-right troll. He spends most of his screen time on his phone on the internet, presumably harassing women and minorities. Yet, Walt Thromby never acknowledges his son’s racism or online abuse, even when other characters tell him to his face. He never directly encourages it, but he refuses to address it or stop it either.
- In real life, Disney executives are becoming notorious for ignoring racist and sexist online abuse by their fans against their female and non-white actors:
- John Boyega, the actor who portrayed Finn in the latest Star Wars trilogy, has been very outspoken about the racist and sexist bullying he and his non-white co-stars received for their Star Wars roles, and the Disney executives’ refusal to protect their non-white actors or condemn their racist fans.
- Kelly Marie Tran has similarly talked about how she was bullied off social media.
- Isaac Oscar has also been very vocal about how disappointed he was with Disney’s refusal to pair Poe with Finn, creating much-needed LGBT representation, and how he’ll only come back if he “need[s] another house or something.”
Again, Brian Johnson directed Disney’s The Last Jedi right before directing Knives Out. He likely saw the toll of racist online bullying against Star Wars non-white cast members, long before the actors’ nondisclosure agreements with Disney expired.
- Finally, Walt Thromby puts on a very friendly, affable persona, but he’s revealed to be as ruthless and money-grubbing as the rest of his family. (This is best exemplified when Walt subtly threatens Marta’s mother with deportation unless Marta forfeits her inheritance in Harlan’s will.)
- In real life, Walt Disney carefully crafted the appearance of a very warm, affable uncle figure, but his public persona was very different from his actual personality. As Walt revealed in an outburst, published in Disney War:
“I’ve worked my whole life to create the image of what ‘Walt Disney’ is. It’s not me. I smoke, and I drink, and all the things that we don’t want the public to think about.”
And these are all reasons I suspect Walt Thromby to be a subtle dig against the brand of Walt Disney. Perhaps not Walt Disney specifically, but the wholesome image surrounding “Walt Disney” used by the person and company.
Walt Disney is widely seen as a symbol of Capitalist success. We’ve all heard it before: “He started from nothing, built his animation studio from the ground up, and founded a corporate empire.”
Yet, much like Walt Thromby in Knives Out, many of the films Walt Disney released were not his own ideas (Mickey & friends excluded): Most of his Silly Symphonies shorts and Disney Animated Canon were adaptations of existing stories. Walt Disney became rich and famously largely from adapting other people’s ideas.
And much like how Walt Thromby projects an image of a kindly old man, yet can be ruthless and greedy underneath, Walt Disney projected the image of a kindly uncle figure, one that the Disney executives continue to enforce with the Disney brand, yet both were and are very ruthless in their pursuit of money.
Since Knives Out is a thorough skewering of the Capitalist “self-made millionaire” myth, it stands to reason one of the most powerful companies built by one of the most iconic “self-made millionaires” in recent memory would be included.
Harlan Thromby’s family boast of being “self-made,” yet they all depend on his wealth in some way. Only his oldest daughter Linda comes close to living up to that ideal with her multi-million dollar company that she started from the ground up. Yet her son Ransom points out that she made her own business AFTER her father gave her a million dollar loan. (Likely a nod to Donald Trump’s infamous claim that he made his own fortune because his father “only” gave him a million dollar loan.)
Likewise, most Disney Co. executives owe the company’s wealth and brand that they coast on to the past hard work of its founder. And Walt Disney owed much of his success to the written stories he adapted into film, just as Walt Thromby would owe his success to his father’s written stories.
And both Walts owe more than they know to the employees they overlook until said employee gets more than they feel they deserve, like Disney’s animators, or the Thromby’s Marta.