Mickey Mouse and produced the first full-length animated movie. He invented the
theme park and originated the modern multimedia corporation. For better or worse,
his innovations have shaped our world and the way we experience it. But the most
significant thing Walt Disney made was a good name for himself.
he was born to a poverty even more dire emotionally than it was economically.
His father Elias was one of those feckless figures who wandered the heartland
at the turn of the century seeking success in many occupations but always finding
sour failure. He spared his children affection, but never the rod. They all fled
him at the earliest possible moment.
Before leaving home at 16 to join the Red Cross Ambulance Corps during World War I, Walt, the youngest son, had discovered he could escape dad's--and life's--meanness in art classes. In the service he kept drawing, and when he was mustered out, he set up shop as a commercial artist in Kansas City, Mo. There he discovered animation, a new field, wide open to an ambitious young man determined to escape his father's sorry fate.
was as well a form that placed a premium on technical problem solving, which was
absorbing but not emotionally demanding. Best of all, an animated cartoon constituted
a little world all its own--something that, unlike life, a man could utterly control.
"If he didn't like an actor, he could just tear him up," an envious
Alfred Hitchcock would later remark.
to living in his studio and eating cold beans out of a can, Disney endured the
hard times any worthwhile success story demands. It was not until he moved to
Los Angeles and partnered with his shrewd and kindly older brother Roy, who took
care of business for him, that he began to prosper modestly. Even so, his first
commercially viable creation, Oswald the Rabbit, was stolen from him. That, naturally,
reinforced his impulse to control. It also opened the way for the mouse that soared.
Cocky, and in his earliest incarnations sometimes cruelly mischievous but always
an inventive problem solver, Mickey would become a symbol of the unconquerably
chipper American spirit in the depths of the Depression.
owed a lot of his initial success, however, to Disney's technological acuity.
For Disney was the first to add a music and effects track to a cartoon, and that,
coupled with anarchically inventive animation, wowed audiences, especially in
the early days of sound, when live-action films were hobbled to immobile microphones.
the 1930s were Disney's best years. He embraced Technicolor as readily as he had
sound, and, though he was a poor animator, he proved to be a first-class gag man
and story editor, a sometimes collegial, sometimes bullying, but always hands-on
boss, driving his growing team of youthfully enthusiastic artists to ever greater
sophistication of technique and expression. When Disney risked everything on his
first feature, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," it turned out to be
no risk at all, so breathlessly was his work embraced. Even the intellectual and
artistic communities saw in it a kind of populist authenticity--naive and sentimental,
courageous and life affirming.
they misread Disney. In his dark and brilliant "Pinocchio" and the hugely
ambitious "Fantasia," he would stretch technique to the limits. But
the latter film, rich as it was in unforgettable animation, is also full of banalities.
It exposed the fact that, as film historian David Thomson says, "his prettiness
had no core or heart."
he strove for realism; intellectually, for a bland celebration of tradition. There
had been an Edenic moment in his childhood when the Disneys settled on a farm
outside little Marceline, Mo., and he used his work to celebrate the uncomplicated
sweetness of the small-town life and values he had only briefly tasted.
insistence on the upbeat also possibly served as an anodyne for the bitterness
he felt when an ugly 1941 labor dispute ended his dream of managing his studio
on a communitarian basis with himself as its benign patriarch. Commercially, this
worked out beautifully for him. Most people prefer their entertainments to embrace
the comfortably cute rather than the disturbingly acute--especially when they're
bringing the kids. Movie critics started ignoring him, and social critics began
hectoring him, because his work ground off the rough, emotionally instructive
edges of the folk- and fairy-tale tradition on which it largely drew, robbing
it of "the pulse of life under the skin of events," as one critic put
didn't give a mouse's tail about all that. As far as he was concerned, the whole
vexing issue of content was solved, and though he enjoyed being a hero to the
culturally conservative, he was free to focus on what had always mattered most
to him, which was not old pieties but new technologies. Predictably, he became
the first Hollywood mogul to embrace television. The show with him as host for
over a decade became not just a profit center for his company but also a promotional
engine for all its works. These included chuckleheaded live-action comedies, nature
documentaries that relentlessly anthropomorphized their subjects, and, of course,
Disneyland, which attracted his compulsive attention in the '50s and '60s.
was another bet-the-farm risk, and Disney threw himself obsessively into the park's
design, which anticipated many of the best features of modern urban planning,
and into the "imagineering" by which the simulacrums of exotic, even
dangerous creatures, places, fantasies could be unthreateningly reproduced.
attractions were better than any movie in his eyes--three dimensional and without
narrative problems. They were, indeed, better than life, for they offered false
but momentarily thrilling experiences in a sterile, totally controlled environment
from which dirt, rudeness, mischance (and anything approaching authentic emotion)
had been totally eliminated. All his other enterprises had to be delivered into
the possibly uncomprehending world. When Disneyland opened in 1955, that changed:
he now had his own small world, which people had to experience on his terms.
Before he was felled by cancer at 65, it is possible to imagine that he was happy. He had at last devised a machine with which he could endlessly tinker. The little boy, envious of the placid small-town life from which he was shut out, had become mayor--no, absolute dictator--of a land where he could impose his ideals on everyone. The restless, hungry young entrepreneur had achieved undreamed-of wealth, power and honor. Asked late in life what he was proudest of, he did not mention smiling children or the promulgation of family values. "The whole damn thing," he snapped, "the fact that I was able to build an organization and hold it." These were not the sentiments of anyone's uncle--except perhaps Scrooge McDuck. And their consequences--many of them unintended and often enough unexplored--persist, subtly but surely affecting the ways we all live, think and dream.