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American Experience: Walt Disney (DVD Review)

11 Sep, 2015 By: John Latchem

Street 9/15/15
$24.99 DVD
Not rated.
Narrated by Oliver Platt.

The primary advantage of a PBS examination of the life of Walt Disney is that the viewer can be reasonably assured that it lacks the hagiography to be expected from one of Disney Studios’ own documentaries dealing with the history of its founder.

Where else, for example, would one hear a story of Walt almost coming to blows with an animator during a labor strike?

Fortunately, this four-hour “American Experience” installment, presented in two parts, doesn’t go too far in the iconoclast direction, either, presenting Disney as a complicated man — a creative genius whose quest for a personal utopia left him either oblivious to or dismissive of the changes to America’s cultural landscape in the first seven decades of the 20th century. As a result, Disney’s body of work is presented as either a cheery escape from the hardships of reality or, alternatively, an attempt to shape the audience’s perceptions of reality.

“Disney’s a Rorschach in America,” writer Ron Suskind says in one of several talking head reflections. “The love and hate, it’s off the charts. But god, you have got to respect the energy of this guy.”

And Walt’s biographer credits him for discovering things that were “better than real.”

A primary motif of this documentary is the contrast between Walt the legend and Walt the man, demonstrating a deft balance of playing up the well-known iconography without shying away from the darker elements. The end result is a picture of a man who wanted to be thought of as warm and fatherly, but whom was ruthless toward those he considered his enemies.

This is an outstanding program for film fans and history buffs alike, and a must-see for Disney-philes. The show’s tremendous length, as well as the wide-ranging history of its subject, virtually ensure that if any segments are found to be particularly lacking to viewers, there’s bound to be a shift of focus to something more agreeable. The making of Disneyland is practically a show unto itself, and while this wouldn’t be the first documentary to deal with that subject, it does a good job putting the park’s creation into the larger context of Walt’s career and mindset.

Having taking just a few art classes, Walt wasn’t a particularly gifted artist, but he had a passion for animation and mostly taught himself the basics before starting his own animation studio in Kansas City at age 20. Walt’s ideas sometimes outpaced his ability to express them, which eventually meant leaving the actual animation to others while he served as producer driven by a sense of perfectionism.

When his first company failed, Walt headed to Hollywood hoping to be a director. But the only interest came from a cartoon distributor who admired his “Alice” shorts featuring a live-action girl in an animated Wonderland.

Walt’s new studio would rely on his brother, Roy, to keep track of the business aspects. That freed Walt to focus on the creative, aided considerably by animator Ub Iwerks, who reworked several of Disney’s designs and made them more saleable.

Yet the attention Walt earned from his early successes fueled his ego, and he began to take his employees for granted.

In the mid-1920s, Disney and Iwerks created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit to compete with Felix the Cat, but lost the rights to the character to Universal Studios, who raided his company of talent (the Disney company would reclaim Oswald nearly 80 years later by trading sportscaster Al Michaels to NBC).

Forced to start pretty much from scratch, Disney created Mickey Mouse, whose introduction in “Steamboat Willie” at the dawn of the talkie era was a huge success and sparked a merchandizing blitz that made the character iconic.

To Roy’s chagrin, Walt risked the studio’s financial well-being to make Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first mainstream full-length animated feature, in 1937. While the gamble paid off, subsequent efforts such as Pinocchio and Fantasia proved too costly despite the appreciation of critics. The early years of World War II in Europe blocked Disney films from reaching a substantial potential audience, while Disney’s efforts at home were plagued by internal strife at the studio.

Walt had hoped to build a creative mecca in Burbank, but it proved an expensive endeavor that reeked of pre-planned sterility. On top of that, his employees, annoyed by perceptions of class divisions at the studio, tried to unionize and went on strike. Walt did little to help the situation when, in an attempt to nip the problem in the bud, told his gathered employees that their problems were their own and they shouldn’t expect to be handed a status they didn’t earn.

Roy eventually settled with the strikers, but the whole ordeal diluted Walt’s taste for the business. His resentment of the union takeover of his studio fueled an anti-communist fervor within him, and his belief that a communist conspiracy was responsible for his misfortunes during the 1940s led to his willingness to denounce Hollywood communists to the House Un-American Activities Committee (a public display the documentary credits for giving other studio bosses the latitude to create the Blacklist).

Disney’s troubles in the 1940s give the documentary a natural dividing line for Walt’s career, letting the first part focus mostly on Walt’s creative ambitions, early struggles and eventual rise to become the animation industry’s first true celebrity, while the second part would focus on Walt as the master of his empire (there’s that Walt the Man vs. Walt the Icon structure again).

The Disney Studios survived the 1940s by making propaganda films for the U.S. government, and diversifying its production slate to include documentaries, live-action family films and even television, all of which were cheaper to make than animated features.

Walt, however, demanded the studio continue to fund animated features, though he himself began to distance himself from the studio’s productions. Walt’s ordeal with the labor movement may have fueled a frustration about the level of control he would be allowed to have over his own destiny. Since Walt couldn’t control real life the way he thought he was entitled to, he’d create a bubble of his own reality for the rest of the world to enjoy.

Stemming from a newfound obsession with model trains, Disney had a new dream to reinvent the amusement park as a clean, safe place for all members of the family to appreciate equally, and the creation of Disneyland would occupy most of his time in the early 1950s. It’s during this time, hosting his own ABC show to pay for the park, that Walt took on the grandfatherly public persona that probably comes to mind for most people when they think about him.

Disneyland and the efforts to promote it (particularly the “Davy Crockett” segments) meshed perfectly with the desires of growing Baby Boomers. With Disneyland thriving despite the naysayers (a frequent motif for Walt’s endeavors throughout his career), park profits drove the studio’s funding into the 1960s, and the company had finally achieved financial independence.

With his company bigger than ever, Walt began to think in terms of his legacy and the branding of his empire, and he sought to address his resentment toward the Hollywood establishment for failing to acknowledge his films with anything but token recognition. Mary Poppins would be the only film produced by Walt to earn a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Within a few years, Walt would be dead from lung cancer following years of chain smoking.

The film offers a pleasant mix of clips, interviews and archive photos, many of which were no doubt cultivated from the Disney Family Museum.

“American Experience” takes particular delight in psychoanalyzing Walt through his creative output, extrapolating his animated characters as facets of Walt’s own personality and history (cutting to an image of the fire from Bambi during a description of the studio’s troubles in the 1940s is a nice touch).

Walt spent much of his life trying to escape his father’s shadow, while at the same time seeking refuge in pleasant memories of childhood. Disney’s creative output had a way of distilling American culture into its idealized form, to the point where he would eventually hold himself up as the example of the small-town middle-American boy who rose to prominence through his own hard work.

The clips are well chosen representations of Walt’s personal timeline, and most appear to be sourced from high-quality masters. On the other hand, there’s a lengthy segment about The Song of the South, and the controversies therein, and the film footage looks fairly soft, as if lifted from a foreign VHS (not surprising considering the Disney Studio hasn’t shown much interest in an official U.S. home video release of it).

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