Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Animated Man

Biographies of Walt Disney tend to fall into two camps. There are the hagiographies that tend to deal with Disney's life in mythological terms. They cover the adverse conditions that Disney triumphed over: the cruel father, the harsh childhood, the early bankruptcy, the disloyal staff, the film industry predators, and the skeptics. With Disney's creation of Steamboat Willie, Flowers and Trees, The Three Little Pigs, Snow White, the various TV series and Disneyland, we have a figure whose determination and faith in his abilities triumph over the naysayers to allow him to delight audiences everywhere. These books imply that the projects unfinished at Disney's death, such as EPCOT, would have continued Disney's string of triumphs. Had Disney lived longer, who knows what wonders he would have brought forth?

The other camp attacks Disney for his taste (Richard Schickel's The Disney Version) or his character (Marc Elliot's Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince; the recent play Disney in Deutschland by John J. Powers). These authors are intent on showing Disney's feet of clay; we wouldn't admire him if we only knew the truth.

Michael Barrier's The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney falls into neither camp and is all the better for it. While we know Barrier for his work as an animation historian, he earned a living for many years writing about business and entrepreneurs. The is the lens that he views Disney through. While the facts of Disney's life are generally well-known (though details are still being filled in), it's the interpretation of that life where Barrier makes his major contribution.

Disney's father Elias is often portrayed as a Dickensian villain, but Barrier points out the similarities between Elias's entrepreneurial bent and Disney's own. Neither was content to stick to just one thing and both continuously chased success.

Barrier notes how even into the early 1930s, Disney's drive to dominate the animation business was based more on competitiveness than any artistic vision. Disney only gradually awakened to the acting possibilities of the animation medium and unfortunately they only held his attention for a relatively short time. For Barrier, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is Disney's high point, but it's clear in Barrier's view that Disney didn't fully realize what he had accomplished or how to proceed beyond Snow White. While Disney poured money into the other pre-war features to make them more visually elaborate, with few exceptions the acting didn't match the emotional impact of his first feature.

Disney's entrepreneurial qualities may have worked against his artistic sensibilities in the long term. Entrepreneurs identify completely with their companies and immerse themselves in the minute details of running their businesses. Often, this means that their companies can't grow beyond a certain size as they become too big to be managed by a single person. Disney defied gravity in this regard, but he spread himself thinner and thinner over time and the quality of his company's product suffered as a result. His loss of interest in animation in the '50s meant that the films remained slick but were full of mis-steps and inconsistencies. His expansion into live action films and TV rarely resulted in anything, nostalgia aside, that's stood the test of time.

In the 1930s, the artists were pushing against the limitations of animation and that stimulated Disney into thinking in new ways. By the 1950s, Disney was no longer willing to have anyone push against him. This is why he hired impersonal directors and lacklustre performers, none of whom had clout to challenge Disney's decisions. As a result, nothing was better than an overstretched Disney was capable of creating himself. Furthermore, Barrier makes it clear that TV dominated Disney rather than the reverse.

Barrier rightly identifies the passiveness of Pinocchio's character and documents how Disney accidentally found a star presence in Fess Parker and then did little to build him up. This made me realize that I couldn't name a strong male lead in any Disney feature, live or animated. For whatever reason, Disney was uncomfortable with Hollywood's idea of heroism and didn't feature it. For all of Disney's own accomplishments, he saw the world in non-heroic terms. People are always on the defensive and triumph more through perseverance than by dominating their environments. Fess Parker might have developed into another John Wayne, but Disney had no use for Wayne's kind of character or story.

Michael Barrier has stripped away the mythology and examined Disney in very down to earth terms. His Disney is always an entrepreneur and only occasionally an artist. Where others only see Disney successes, Barrier sees mediocre live films and TV, tying them to the same personal qualities that fueled Disney's better films. While Barrier is critical, he never resorts to character assassination.

You may not agree with all of this book's judgments, but this Disney biography cuts away much of the fluff and the misconceptions that have attached themselves to Disney and presents you with a believable human being, one whose work is a logical outgrowth of his life and personality. That alone makes this book worth reading.


Jenny said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jenny said...

Great review.

Of course everyone's got to disagree with something, and I'd take issue with the statement "His expansion into live action films and TV rarely resulted in anything, nostalgia aside, that's stood the test of time". I think that given the ravening maw of what is 20th century(and beyond)culture Disney was a better than average success in both TV and live action. But that's quibbling.

I really would have liked to see your review on the pages of the NY TImes' weekly section, but in any case the book is certainly going to be the new standard for any other scholarship on its subject.

Thad K said...

Actually, I think Barrier was on the mark with his comments on the live-action and TV work of the Disney Studio.

Pete Emslie said...

I'd agree with Jenny regarding Disney's live-action films and TV projects of that era. Whether any of these were important films, in the way a "Casablanca" or "Citizen Kane" was, is debatable I suppose. But Disney's live-action output was always a feast for the senses, what with lavish sets and costumes, gorgeous colour and music scores, and just handsome production values in every way. Personally, I feel that no other mainstream Hollywood studio was as readily identified with its live-action films than was Walt Disney Productions. Their "look" was unmistakeable. (Only smaller British studios such as Rank and Hammer seem to have as identifiable a brand on their film library as did Disney, in my opinion.)

In regards to Disney films not featuring a "strong male lead" of heroic proportions like a John Wayne, I'd agree with that in general, as only Kirk Douglas in "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" comes close that I can think of offhand. However, what of it? I think it's fair to say that Walt prefered the type of underplayed hero that Frank Capra also brought to the screen: the outsider who has to rise above adversity with perseverence, honesty and a quiet dignity. Fred MacMurray certainly was a Capra-esque hero in "The Absent-Minded Professor", sort of playing the part as Jimmy Stewart might have. Likewise, that1960's regular, Dean Jones, was sort of an Americanized, poor man's Cary Grant if you will, with a genuine affability and charm that made you root for him in his struggles.

I think Walt just naturally gravitated towards this type of "little guy", overcoming all of the obstacles thrown his way. You can see how even Mickey Mouse is really just Walt's version of Chaplin, the ultimate "little guy", and how most of his adversaries were usually bigger and stronger than he was, therefore he had to outwit them in order to win the day. I'm sure that Walt even saw himself as the "little guy" among Hollywood's studio moguls - the outsider and upstart who was going to succeed by marching to his own drum. And I reckon he did just that.

Anonymous said...

The comedies made by the British Ealing Studio bear the closest "brand" resemblance to the live action house style of late 1950's and later Disney films. Peter Ellenshaw worked painting mattes at Ealing before he came to Disney.