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.”