Just Left of Main Street: Disney and Dahl

Many of you will be familiar with the name Roald Dahl. Dahl was a British novelist, short story writer, poet and screenwriter. His works include James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, My Uncle Oswald, The Witches, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Twits, Tales of the Unexpected, George’s Marvelous Medicine, and The BFG.


You may also know that Disney made one of those books, James and the Giant Peach, into a movie in 1996 and you may also have heard that in 2016 Disney will release a film directed by Steven Spielberg based on The BFG. However, you may not be aware the Dahl’s relationship with Disney started long before either of these films were ever made. In fact, Disney published Dahl’s first children’s book.

Shortly after the start of World War II, Dahl enlisted in the British Royal Air Force. He became a fighter pilot and flew many missions until a crash in 1940. He then became a military attaché at the British Embassy. In that role, one of his duties was to produce propaganda pieces that would help promote the British war efforts. Some of the pieces he wrote revolved around gremlins and the legends of how those creatures would wreak havoc on British airplanes.

One of the officers who reviewed Dahl’s writings during this time made Walt Disney aware of the gremlin stories. Walt enjoyed the stories and thought there was potential to turn the story into a film. The initial plan was that the film would be live action and animation. Disney and Dahl began working on story ideas, designing how the gremlins should look and generally beginning development of the film. In 1942, Dahl was given leave to visit the Disney studios in Burbank for ten days to further develop the film and move it towards production.

Disney and Dahl

However, the development of the film hit many snags along the way. One problem Disney faced was     having difficulty securing the rights to the gremlin characters. Apparently, the concept of “gremlins” and their effects on planes and other military equipment was something joked about throughout the British Royal Air Force. This made it difficult for Dahl, Disney or anyone else to claim credit for their creation.

In addition, the Disney staff was having a hard time coming up with a design and story for the gremlins they thought would work. Their main challenge was that in the original Dahl stories, the gremlins with mischievous, trouble makers and making characters with those personality traits likeable.

However, despite these difficulties, Disney pressed on with the project. In 1942, Cosmopolitan magazine published, what was billed as, a preview of the movie called Introducing the Gremlins. The preview was well received and the story was expanded to book length and in April of 1943, Disney in partnership with Random House, published The Gremlins: A Royal Air Force Story. Flight Lieutenant Roald Dahl was credited as the author. The book featured illustrations by Bill Justice and Al Dempster and the cover was designed by Mary Blair, all Disney Legends.

The book was a fairly strong success and would have been reprinted if not for a paper shortage due to  the war. However, the book was the only project to come to fruition as part of Dahl’s relationship with Disney. The film was first reduced from live action and animation to animation only but despite a final script being produced no film of any sort was ever created.


The ultimate cancelling of the project was due to several factors with the inability to secure exclusive rights to the gremlin character concept remaining a major sticking point throughout. The book went pretty much forgotten over the years outside of Dahl collectors who wanted to add the, hard-to-find, book to their collection. In 2006, Dark Horse Books reprinted the book with an introduction by Leonard Maltin and beautifully digital restorations of the Justice and Dempster illustrations. I have a copy of the book in my Disney library and enjoy flipping through it and enjoying those illustrations.

Obviously, following his time working with Disney, Dahl went on to a very successful career as an author and often spoke and wrote fondly of his time working with Disney. In many ways, The Gremlins project gave Dahl his start and paved the way for the years of success that followed. However, it still hard not to lament the missed opportunity to see what two great story tellers like Walt Disney and Roald Dahl could have come up with, sadly we’ll never know.

Chris Nolin
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Posted on May 28, 2015, in Articles and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Reblogged this on Mztressofallevil's Disney Doings and commented:
    Loved Roald Dahl as a child (and for my own children!) so I think this is an article well worth reading!- Mztress

  2. Fascinating. I love Roald Dahl and Disney and never knew they worked so closely together. Thank you for writing this

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