My Review of the Walt Disney Documentary

Meetings at the Walt Disney Studio back in the sixties were seldom lengthy. The Old Maestro had a way of getting to the point. Unlike todays meetings where senior executives speak in corporate babble filled with ambiguity, Disney always got directly to the point. His directives were clear and concise and you always knew what was expected of you. That clarity I so associate with Walt Disney was sadly missing from the four hour documentary that invited us to view his life and career on the public television program, American Experience.

Perhaps the producers of the American Experience should be cut some slack because they were clearly faced with a daunting challenge. In many ways there was almost too much information on the subject. I remember when Diane Disney Miller invited me to join her team developing the Walt Disney Family Museum many years ago. We were overwhelmed with the enormous amount of information and resources available. When building a compelling narrative, you continually decide what to cut out and what to leave in. It is editing on a massive scale. Such was the challenge of creating the four hours broadcast recently on PBS. Just how does one tell the story of a man as fascinating as Walt Disney? How do you capture his amazing life and career in a four hour time span? No doubt, the filmmakers had their work cut out for them.

I’m not comfortable doing television reviews and I take no delight throwing cold water on a program where many people invested time and money. Having said that, I must confess I left the program completely uninspired. “How could the filmmakers have missed their mark,” I wondered? Why did they get so many things wrong when information was readily available? And, who decided that the plain and simple farm boy from Marceline was a dark and tormented individual? What made them think that Midwestern, Walt Disney craved adulation from the crowd and acceptance from the intellectuals and critics? They thought these things because they didn’t know Walt Disney, and therein lies the problem.

For far longer than needed, we were subjected to “talking heads” pontificating about a man they never worked for and more likely never even met. On occasion, we would gain a glimmer of authenticity from Disney old timers. They were artists who had worked at the Hyperion studio back in the nineteen thirties. Their comments, along with impressive archival film footage allowed us to “time travel” to Disney’s magic factory in the Los Angeles Silverlake district. Their comments rang true. They worked for Walt Disney. They knew Walt Disney. On the other hand, the celebrated authors, Neal Gabler and Richard Schickel decided they would “educate” us. How very nice of them to take the time. The producers sought to add credibility to their opus by engaging a number of historians and film critics to provide gravitas to the “low brow cartoon maker.” It struck me as condescending and failed to reflect the man I observed and worked for over a ten year period. These missteps were not due to a lack of information. It was all there, and more. It would appear the producers decided to cherry pick the information that would perpetuate their own bias. Of course, this journalistic approach to documentary filmmaking is celebrated because the filmmakers would never want to be accused of doing a “whitewash.” They wanted a film document that would give us the whole man, warts and all. While this approach to a film biography is admirable, there is a danger of taking it too far. This, I feel is the fatal flaw in the Walt Disney documentary. Fearful of creating a Disneyfied Pollyanna narrative, the producers have made a film full of cynicism. Something that Walt Disney was definitely not.

Lacking in the films four hours was the need for true balance. Such as, if half of Walt’s animation staff walked out back in the forties - why did the other half decide to stay? If Uncle Walt was such a ruthless bastard, how did he garner such incredible loyalty? If Disneyland is such a shallow, idealistic sham, why do millions flock to the park each year?  Walt had no political or social agenda while building Disneyland. He simply wanted a happy place where families could spend time together. Finally, the idea that Walt lost interest in animation while making Cinderella is pure bunk. Walt was totally engaged in every film including his last, The Jungle Book even though his health was poor. You can bet I’ve got a long list of questions to ask the filmmakers and the “talking heads” that had us screaming at the television screen on Tuesday night. I could go on, but I’ve decided this is all I’ll say for now. But, I’ll leave you with this description of my old boss. It’s something I penned some time ago, but it remains even more appropriate today. 

“Walt Disney was a simple farm boy whose scrappy determination helped him realize the American dream. He held no college degrees yet took every opportunity to educate himself. He was an entertainer, visionary, and an idealist. He loved people and was free of pretension. Walt Disney was authentic. He was everything good about the common man.”


Disney's Hyperion Studio

While we’re viewing the two-part Walt Disney documentary on PBS I thought it might be fun to look back on a book project we were developing at Disney Publishing back in the early nineties. Clearly, our team of artists and writers were Disney geeks eager to explore the hot bed of creativity known as Walt Disney’s Hyperion studio located in the Silverlake district of Los Angeles. If you know anything about Disney history you’ll know that Walt’s studio was literally bursting with activity during the middle to late thirties. The “Young Maestro” had finally gotten traction, and his studio was on the rise. Talented people headed for Hollywood with hopes of meeting and maybe even working for Walt Disney. Mickey Mouse was a hit and the Silly symphonies were breaking new ground in animated entertainment. However, Disney was eager for a new challenge. A project that would test the limits of his own creativity and the versatility of his remarkable staff. A feature length retelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs would test the expertise, artistic enterprise and physical endurance of the young studio.

Naturally, this was a story we thought was worth the investment. After all, this was the beginning of what would one day become a media powerhouse creating books, movies, television, and innovative digital activities. Walt Disney’s parks and recreation teams would also reinvent the theme park and other immersive entertainments. However, the seeds were planted at Hyperion. This was the beginning of an entertainment giant that could easily dwarf Monstro himself. Actually, Walt Disney compared his Imagineering unit to the Hyperion studio. “It was an incredible time,” said Walt. “There was something new happening every day and I loved every minute of it!” Hardly the words of a dark and tortured soul, it was clear that Walt Disney was having the time of his life. The sketches below show some of our ideas for the book. You’ll notice we even mocked up a cover with Walt Disney at the drawing table. The Walt photo is surrounded by sketches and scripts showing the projects in development at the time. I’ve spoken with artists who were actually employed at the Hyperion studio over in Silverlake and they said they were also having a ball. Often described as a dark, conflicted soul eager for acceptance, is hardly the image we have of young Walt. The studio was in the midst of a creative explosion when social and world events impacted the young studios’ creative momentum. Had there not been a world war and a terrible labor action, the Walt Disney Studio could have reached incredible heights and this was a story we wanted to tell.

Tonight, we’ll continue with part two of the PBS American Experience and the life and career of Walt Disney. We’ll move forward to another decade and the time I began my career in Walt’s magic factory. I’m optimistic and hoping for a better two hour program than last evenings offering.

Back in the nineties, we thought a book on Walt Disney's Hyperion studio was a brilliant idea. Our enthusiasm was not shared by the Disney Company. Perhaps, one day...

Back in the nineties, we thought a book on Walt Disney's Hyperion studio was a brilliant idea. Our enthusiasm was not shared by the Disney Company. Perhaps, one day...

Badges

Nobody wears these things anymore. Nobody, except theme park employees and Disney Store sales people. In fact, the only department where people still sport name badges seems to be Disney Imagineering. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s the theme park association. Then again, Walt Disney Imagineering was the creative unit where the Old Maestro spent most of his time. Especially during the sixties the last years of his life. Today, new employees are given name badges when beginning their employment at the company. During more innocent times, employees wore their name badges with pride. Today, it’s considered somewhat geeky and few people even bother putting the cute little badges on their apparel.

I’ve got a drawer full of these unique Disney items and I’ve been collecting them for more years then I care to remember. I think the basic badge featured a picture of Mickey Mouse but over the years there have been new badges commemorating special Disney events such as the rerelease of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. When the new Animation Building opened in the early nineties we received new badges with images of the iconic structure celebrating the filmmaker’s new workspace.

Whenever a show business big shot collaborated with the Walt Disney Company on a new project there would always be a photograph featuring the celebrity wearing his or her Disney name badge. At least the Hollywood hot shots thought wearing the Disney name tag was cool. I suppose one of these days we might even see big time producer, director, James Cameron sporting a Disney name badge if he hasn’t done so already. And when Star Wars director, J.J. Abrams heads out on his Disney Press Tour, he might be wearing one as well.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe it’s been sixty years since I walked through the Buena Vista gate and became a Disney employee. The “Old Man” was still hard at work and focused on tweaking his Anaheim theme park as well as overseeing dozens of other projects. I honestly felt a sense of pride working for Walt Disney Studios and would have eagerly worn my name badge had I had one. Yet, back in the fifties, years would pass before I observed studio staffers with a name tag. Today, the Disney badge indentifies you as a cast member and a member of the Disney team. As teams go - that’s not neccessarily a bad thing.

The Walt Disney name badge. Are you a cast member... or a geek?

The Walt Disney name badge. Are you a cast member... or a geek?

Two Innovative Leaders

Though I’ve always been a fan, I’ve never had the opportunity to visit Apples’ headquarters in Cupertino, California. Naturally, I was curious about the amazing Northern California company that gave us the Macintosh computer and the incredible technological gadgets that would change our lifestyles forever. So, when I stumbled across a series of color photographs that took me on a virtual tour inside the Apple facility it was a real joy. Now, I was able to wander the hallways, peek inside the computer labs and view the work spaces of the Apple employees. The photographic tour ended with a shot of an upstairs meeting room as CEO, Steve Jobs, along with his top staffers, sat around a large table planning the future of technology. Suddenly, the iconic photograph reminded me of another gathering decades earlier. In this instance, another visionary leader presided over a simular meeting with his top executives. Can you imagine what they were doing? If you had guessed, they were planning the future, you’d be correct.

Years have passed and those two images remain vivid in my memory. These were leaders at the top of their game. Innovators who had built a company and were enjoying enormous success. Rather than rest on their laurels, they were intent on moving ahead. In truth, the two of them were just getting started. You already know that the first gentleman was Apple CEO, Steve Jobs. However, decades earlier another innovative leader named Walt Disney had plans of his own. It may have only been the nineteen sixties but Walt was about to revolutionize city planning. Succesfully engineering a public amusement had already been a daunting challenge for Disney and his creative team. The dazzling theme park in Anaheim had only been a warm up act because the Disney Imagineers were ready to begin work on a whole new level. Their task, you ask? Design and create a city of tomorrow. Who else but Walt Disney would have the audacity to design the future, but that’s exactly what Walt intended to do.

Neither Walt Disney or Steve Jobs were allow to take that next step. Sadly, their mortality caught up with them at the height of their creative zenith and I doubt we’ll ever know what amazing ideas they had in store. It would appear that charismatic, creative leaders are only with us for a limited time. Like many others, I had the misguided notion that the Old Maestro would be with us forever. Decades later I wondered how Apple could continue without it’s creative CEO. At this juncture, things appear to be stable - but only time will tell. The two photographs capture Both Disney and Jobs in their prime. However, real life is full of unexpected events. Events that can change things forever.

Two innovative leaders hard at work. We lost them while they were only beginning to hit their stride.

Two innovative leaders hard at work. We lost them while they were only beginning to hit their stride.