‘American Experience: Walt Disney’ review: Drawing in most of the details

12 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘American Experience: Walt Disney’ examines the complicated man behind the House of Mouse.

Gabler said he read “every single piece of paper” in the Walt Disney archives, “and, other than casual anti-Semitism that virtually every Gentile of that time would have had, I found no evidence that Walt Disney was an anti-Semite.” Yet the rumors persist half a century after Disney’s death. That 20-foot berm separating Disneyland visitors from the messy realities of the outside world might as well be the wall that divides the true believers in Disney’s innovative magic and those who find his creative output — the movies, the theme parks, the merchandizing, that damn mouse — to be mainstream, cornball and sanitized. “You talk to teenagers and they think Walt Disney’s a brand, like Apple,” says Neal Gabler, author of the 2007 biography “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.” “As time passes, the company has become more and more disassociated from the human being who created this empire.” That may be one reason that PBS’ long-running documentary series “American Experience” finally realized its ambition to make a movie about one of the 20th century’s most significant figures. “American Experience: Walt Disney,” a two-part, four-hour documentary airing Monday and Tuesday, offers a comprehensive look at Disney’s life and the ways his work continues to influence worldwide culture. The movies, TV shows, fairy tales, princesses, DVDs, theme parks, and mountains of licensed merchandise seem as much a part of the national DNA as the Constitution, coffee drinking, and arguing about politics.

That’s not nearly enough time, and some of it is taken up with obligatory jabs at Disney as a union-bashing commie hater and a name-namer during congressional investigations of supposed subversives. It’s a balanced portrait, lauding Disney’s achievements while also acknowledging his missteps — clashes with labour unions and his animators as well as a profound lack of social awareness. Mouseketeer caveat: For someone who brought the world so much joy – and still does, as his vision lives on a half-century after his 1966 death – Disney’s PBS documentary profile delivers a lot of dark moments. But few here seem wed to the idea, as one person sums up the stock criticism, that Disney “ruined American culture and brought fakeness into our lives.” For the most part, this elusive yet enchanting film explores a man in the light of his enduring gifts to us.

And the achievement of “Walt Disney,” an excellent “American Experience” two-part, four-hour biography of Disney, is how it peels back the layers of marketing and myth to explain how the foundation of the Disney empire is inextricably linked with the dreams, ambitions and drive of Disney himself. And with a total running time of four hours, it makes you feel the limitations of the familiar “American Experience” format: no-nonsense narration; archival footage and photographs; talking heads delivering sound-bite-length flourishes.

A chain-smoking Midwesterner in Babylon making moving images a frame at a time with ink and brushes instead of captured light and contract starlets, he was an “other” in Hollywood and never felt otherwise. When the movie ended, even adults like Clark Gable were weeping. “They didn’t know what hit them,” the writer Ron Suskind explains. “What hit them is that they crossed the barrier from the life they lived to the internal world where myth lives in all of us. If you can’t use archives, you can’t make a documentary.” Samels negotiated with Disney representatives for nearly a year, telling them that Disney possessed the same historical importance as the numerous presidents and innovators like Henry Ford that “American Experience” had profiled. And Disney provides the passage.” The documentary is partly about Disney’s up-from-poverty life, seen in many old clips from both private and public films.

So I would say that I think that drive in Disney really never went away. “His childhood was critical to shaping and forming him, and I think that his childhood was tough, as were many children’s lives at that period. Samels believes that his unyielding stance ultimately led to the project’s approval, as it absolved everyone up and down the Disney corporate chain of responsibility over the content. His first business went bankrupt, he lost his animators and he lost his pre-Mickey Mouse animated character, Oswald the Rabbit, when he was still in his early 20s.

Before his death, and in the decades since, a critical backlash has sometimes painted him and Disney studio productions as sentimental, delivering a candy-coated vision of America that’s outdated, and lacking in diversity. He was expected to work, and he worked really hard, and he had a very tough father who was very tough on him.” Mickey Mouse’s father was equally tough on his work family. Night two unearths an enormous amount of footage from the Disney archives of the opening of Disneyland, including elements of ABC’s gaffe-filled live broadcast from the theme park on opening day. “Disneyland is the idealization of the past and the hopeful regard for the future,” notes Carmenita Higginbotham, a professor who teaches about Disney’s impact on American popular culture at The University of Virginia. “It is not about now. He’s a person who says, ‘You do what I want you to do.’ He tells you what he wants, and you do it. “Let me give a kind of opposite side to the warm-and-cuddly Walt, which I think the film also does.

It is a complete release from all those burdens.” In many ways there’s a lot for Disneyphiles to sink their teeth into in “Walt Disney,” from Mr. We learn that in the mid-1950s a quarter of the population watched Disney’s “Davy Crockett” on TV, rooting for the frontiersman someone here calls the quintessential anti-authoritarian and beacon of self-reliance. For instance, making the contrast between the fun-loving young Disney and his withholding, imperious father, Elias, come alive is a home movie of Walt interviewing his parents on their wedding anniversary. As Sarah Colt, the producer and director of the documentary, told journalists at this summer’s Television Critics Association summer press tour, “Walt Disney” wasn’t intended as any kind of expose. So there can be no argument about giving him the multipart treatment, something “American Experience” has generally reserved for presidents and topics like “The Abolitionists.” And this effort, directed by Sarah Colt and written by Mark Zwonitzer, starts off interestingly enough, taking its time detailing Disney’s early forays into animation and conveying their seat-of-the-pants nature.

The 1920s were no doubt a time much like our own, full of people who could see ways to advance and exploit new technologies, and Disney was one of those. Toad’s Wild Ride had “succumbed to an electrical overload.” Yet for viewers not sophisticated enough to scoff, the most memorable moment may come in the final minutes, when Disney has just died, and a former employee recalls people at the studio weeping then, like it was the “end of the world.”

So when Disney is quoted saying about his father, “I’m going to be everything he isn’t,” there’s a vivid frame of reference for the stern figure who motivated the adult Disney to yearn for all the whimsical things he didn’t receive as a child. Disney: Charges of anti-Semitism and rumors that he had his body (or maybe just his head) cryogenically frozen for preservation until such time as he could be regenerated. Like most “American Experience” docs, the Disney project was originally conceived as a two-hour film that would have followed Disney starting with his Missouri childhood and continuing through his move west with his brother Roy and their success in forming the studio. The former is an ugly accusation; the latter is easily dismissed as foolishness, and yet if that’s what people are most likely to chatter about, shouldn’t both at least be addressed in the film, even if it’s just to debunk them? But it quickly became clear that such a streamlined approach wouldn’t work as there wouldn’t be time to do justice to the celebrated run of animated movies from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” through “Pinocchio,” “Fantasia,” “Dumbo” and “Bambi,” much less the creation of Disneyland.

And, even then, he was convinced it didn’t stand a chance of winning. (“My Fair Lady” won.) Disney sent a congratulatory note to “Poppins” star Julie Andrews, who won the best-actress Oscar; she wrote back saying the picture should have won. An early interest in illustration led Disney to animation, and true to his entrepreneurial spirit, he started his own animation studio in the early 1920s. And it’s a perfect metaphor, him being this small mouse, this seemingly insignificant figure or individual within this big industry that he wants to break into.” The parallel to the Internet age is also evident in the speed of his ascension. Again, Colt came across a key archival find — a recording of Disney addressing his employees, oblivious to their complaints about unfair pay and crippling workloads — telling them they didn’t need a union because he already gave them everything they needed.

You’re going to get to see the show when the American public does,'” Samels said. “And I fully expected that it would be over at that point.” According to Colt, the Disney family was very cooperative. His “Steamboat Willie” cartoon featuring Mickey Mouse in effect went viral after its premiere at the Colony Theater in New York in 1928, propelled by its innovative merging of image and sound. The audio exists because Disney, so sure he was in the right, didn’t want to be misquoted. “It really plays out, that family image of Disney thinking he’s the dad and he’s going to say, ‘Kids, you’re misbehaving. After more ups and downs, Disney hit upon essential building blocks to success: getting his more bottom line-minded brother, Roy, involved as a partner; and, realizing his own drawing skills weren’t exceptional, finding talented animation artists to raise the quality of the work. And the museum supported us and gave us access to their collection, which complements the collection at the company.” Sherman said he and his brother, Robert, were like Disney’s “Jewish sons,” adding that charges that Walt was anti-Semitic are “absolutely preposterous.” “To which I will only add, in 1955, the B’nai B’rith chapter of Beverly Hills named him the man of the year,” Gabler said. “Now, what is the likelihood of B’nai B’rith naming an anti-Semite its man of the year?

Disney’s early breakthrough was Mickey Mouse, the plucky animated hero (Disney provided Mickey’s voice until the 1940s.) Mickey’s popularity provided the foundation for Disney’s early studio, where a staff of gifted animators created cartoons that were revolutionary in technique and artistry. There followed a typical Hollywood story of cost overruns and jeopardized deadlines — the animation technique used required more than 200,000 separate drawings.

His company became big business, which also meant a big work force, which in 1941 meant a strike that seemed to turn Disney from driven but likable innovator into suspicious autocrat. But then he felt like his family had betrayed him.’ He was deeply hurt, I know that.” The documentary repeatedly asserts that Disney remains a potent Rorschach test in popular culture.

The strike receives a fair amount of attention in the program, but mostly in terms of its impact on Disney personally; its significant effects on the field of animation and the relationship between Hollywood labor and management in general are underexplored. As “Walt Disney” tells it, the success of “Snow White” both fueled Disney’s future expansion of the studio and its release schedule, and set a bar of quality that he felt obliged to live up to. Streep used the occasion to attack Disney, calling him a “gender bigot,” alleging he had “racist proclivities” and that he “formed and supported an anti-Semitic industry lobby.” “I asked that question to everyone I interviewed,” Colt says, referring, specifically, to anti-Semitism charges. “But we didn’t bring it up because it was not supported by the record. The strike was settled, but Disney – who blamed the uprising on Communist influence among the workforce – remained bitter about it for the rest of his life.

Maybe you could blame him for not being a progressive, but nobody was a progressive then.” Gabler, whose 851-page book remains the definitive Disney biography, participated in the “American Experience” documentary and lauds it as a “visual education.” Still, he wonders if it will change the opinions of anyone familiar with the man. “I don’t think people will watch with an open mind,” Gabler says. “If you worship Walt Disney, you’ll probably feel that the film is not worshipful enough. The company bought Pixar, the animation company behind such hits as “Toy Story,” and Lucasfilm, which means Disney is releasing the new “Star Wars” movies.

For 2015-16, Pittsburgh drops from 1.17 million TV homes to 1.15 million TV homes, while Charlotte grew from 1.15 million TV homes to 1.16 million TV homes. (Portland dropped from 1.15 million TV homes to 1.13 million TV homes for 2015-16.) Does any of this mean anything? Cord cutting is less likely in Pittsburgh where new technology adaptation consistently lags, so it’s entirely plausible that cord cutting in other cities could push Pittsburgh back up the Nielsen market ranking ladder in the future. Celebrities including Kristen Bell, Stephen Colbert and Matthew McConaughey will be part of a “roadblock” telecast airing on ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC stations at 8 tonight that encourages viewers to support education initiatives. … Starz renewed “Survivor’s Remorse” for a third season. …Amazon ordered the Bryan Cranston-produced pilot “Sneaky Pete,” originally developed at CBS, to series. …Netflix renewed new drug kingpin drama “Narcos” for a second season. … TV One renewed scripted comedy “Born Again Virgin” for a 12-episode second season to air in early 2016. … In addition to its 9 p.m. CBS’s “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” opened big, as expected, drawing 6.5 million viewers Tuesday night before settling back to Earth Wednesday with 3.6 million viewers, falling behind NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” which had 4 million viewers Wednesday, per DeadlineHollywood. This week’s podcast includes conversation about “The Great British Baking Show,” “Arthur & George,” “Falling Skies” and “Defiance.” Subscribe or listen to Pittsburgh Post-Gazette podcasts at iTunes or at https://soundcloud.com/pittsburghpg.

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