Book review: New biography gives Walt Disney his due as creative genius

The time is ripe for a fresh look at one of the world’s most ignored geniuses who, during five decades, changed the way Americans looked at movies and amusement parks and the way the rest of the world looked at America.

A new biography of Walter Elias Disney by Neal Gabler captures the enormous range of Disney’s contributions, and restores the flesh and blood to a man whose name for many has become synonymous with blandness and even corporate greed.

Gabler ably traces the arcs of Disney’s amazing life, from fiery iconoclast in the 1920s, daring to believe that crude cartoons could rise to an art form, to the corporate brand name of the 1950s, the harmless, chuckling “Uncle Walt” who churned out so much sentimental drivel.

The book also captures Disney’s ability to reinvent himself, to find new passions that would inspire his staff and uplift the nation. From “Snow White” in 1937 to “Fantasia” in 1940 to Disneyland in 1955, he was able to bounce back from bouts of mediocrity and near financial ruin to again enchant the world with his unique vision.

Disney’s life has been ably charted in previous biographies. But Gabler spent seven years poring through the Disney archives, gaining access to letters, contracts, photos and other documents not seen by previous writers.

The result is a book that helps us more completely understand what drove Disney and to place some of his less savory actions, including his paranoid anti-Communism, in context.

For the record, Gabler dismisses claims that Disney was anti-Semitic or racist, despite the storm of criticism Disney received after the 1946 film “Song of the South.” But Disney did appear as a friendly witness in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, did clear prospective hires with the FBI and did enforce a blacklist at the studio.

As a business journalist who covers today’s Walt Disney Co. an enormous media conglomerate that includes movies, theme parks and the ABC television network I was particularly interested in the portrayal of Disney as a corporate tyrant who, early on, strove to create a collaborative worker’s utopia even as he pushed his animators to their limits.

In his earliest days, Disney was torn between a desire to be loved by his workers and a need to exercise total control of each project.

“It would be a place for work, but also for fun, a place in which the sense of community would be almost as important as the animations, and a place in which the demands of adulthood could be kept at bay,” Gabler writes of the “Laugh-O-Gram” studio, Walt’s first animation company in Kansas City.

Disney tried to maintain that sense of fun after the move to his first major studio in Los Angeles, where Mickey Mouse was born in 1928 and “Snow White,” the first feature-length cartoon, was produced in 1937.

But financial and creative pressures, combined with Disney’s need for absolute control, created resentment among his animators that bubbled to the surface in an ugly strike in 1940.

Disney was also forced to cede some of his control over his studio in 1940, issuing stock to the public a move he long resisted and always resented. Disney rarely attended board meetings, even though he served as chairman, and told associates he would quit before he let the board run “his” business.

The war years hardened Disney, who became more politically conservative, convinced that Communists were behind the studio strike.

The studio survived by producing training and propaganda films, including a Donald Duck short first entitled “Donald Goes Nutzi,” then later renamed “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” after the popular song the cartoon introduced.

After the war, Disney’s interest in the studio waned and he took little interest in such animated fare as “Lady and the Tramp” and “Sleeping Beauty.”

But his passions were reignited by his reimagined version of an amusement park. Disneyland allowed Disney to regain control and to create his own version of reality.

“In the end, it was not the control of wonder that made Disneyland so overwhelming to its visitors; like so much else in Walt Disney’s career, it was the wonder of control,” Gabler writes.

Besides restoring Disney to the stature of creative genius he deserves, Gabler’s book also serves another purpose it washes out the bad taste left by last year’s “Disney War,” by James B. Stewart.

Stewart’s book detailed the double dealing and dysfunction at the company that marked the period from about 1994 to 2005, when chief executive Michael Eisner the longest running CEO since Disney himself was essentially forced out.

Eisner was succeeded by Robert Iger, who has, in little more than a year, brought two people into the Disney fold who each have been compared to Disney himself Apple Computer Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs and Pixar Animation Studio creative head John Lasseter.

Today, the company is on the verge of a new era, poised to expand its theme park empire into mainland China, something that would have thrilled Disney.

But the company’s animation efforts have been a critical and financial disaster over the past decade, a trend Disney hopes to reverse by putting Lasseter in charge of both Pixar and Disney animation.

Iger has said reviving Disney’s animation is a top priority for the company. As executives consider the wisdom of flooding the market with such direct-to-DVD titles as “Bambi II” and “Cinderella III,” they might want to consider a slogan Disney kept pasted inside his hat from the time he had been urged to make a sequel to his wildly popular 1933 cartoon short, “Three Little Pigs.”

“You can’t top pigs with pigs!” it said.