Disney's World

The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life, by Steven Watts, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 453 pages, $30.00

Early on in my junior high years, during lunch period, a friend brought up how much he'd enjoyed the latest Disney movie--I think it was The World's Greatest Athlete. The rest of us paused and looked at each other. We weren't sure if it was cool to like Disney any more--or to admit to it, anyway. Yeah, we'd loved the animated films, watched Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color on Sundays, and begged our parents to go to Disneyland when we were kids. But weren't we too old for this?

No one thought of Paramount or Universal productions this way, but Disney had carved out a niche. The name meant something: loved by kids, trusted by parents, and embarrassing to teenagers. How exactly did Disney go from an unknown name to a studio to a conglomerate to something approaching a way of life, both celebrated and derided?

Steven Watts's The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life tries to explain this transformation. Walt Disney's life was a fascinating journey--would that the book were equally fascinating. Unfortunately, Watts, a professor of history at the University of Missouri, has chosen a poor format. He'll sum up in a few pages the progress Disney made over, say, a decade and then spend the next few chapters going over and over the ramifications. In discussing Disney's numerous projects, he'll dutifully, ploddingly report what the critics said, both for and against, only occasionally enlivening the proceedings with his own point of view.

Nonetheless, an extraordinary story can be pieced together from Watts's stop-and-go narrative. Walt Disney was born in Chicago on December 5, 1901. From 1905 to 1910, he was raised on a farm in Marceline, Missouri. While Walt spent his adult life in big cities, he would still rhapsodize over his "little home town, Marceline." His father, Elias, was a strict, religious, sometimes violent man with socialist leanings. (He believed in tough love--he wouldn't even fertilize the crops, feelings his vegetables would weaken if they had it too easy.) Walt's success was an odd combination, both affirming the traditional values of his childhood and rebelling against the discipline and austerity of his Midwestern upbringing.

Young Walt had a talent for drawing, earning money doing illustrations for newspapers and advertisements. Leaving home in 1919, he found work at a commercial art studio in Kansas City. After being laid off, he started his own shop in 1920 with a new friend and lifelong colleague, Ub Iwerks. It went under in a month. Always hustling, Walt soon found a job at the Kansas City Film Ad Co., his first direct employment in animation. Fascinated by the process, he created humorous cartoons in his spare time and, in May 1922, struck out on his own again, starting Laugh-O-Gram Films. This time the venture lasted more than a year before going bankrupt. In July 1923, Walt left Kansas City for Hollywood.

Disney was a talented animator but an even better salesman, great at smooth-talking people into investing in his future. With implacable resolve, he built up his Los Angeles studio. Not once, but twice, when his animation shop was on the verge of great success, his staff was raided and Walt himself offered a cushy job if he'd merely cede artistic control. Both times he preferred to start over. In fact, Mickey Mouse was born out of desperation after Disney had lost the rights to his then-popular Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. (That no one today wears Oswald Ears is testament to how much the sharpers underestimated Walt.)

With Steamboat Willie (1928), the first sound cartoon, Mickey Mouse became a star and Disney famous. Throughout the late '20s and '30s, his studio regularly turned out Mickey Mouse cartoons, introducing a formidable stable of players--Minnie Mouse, Goofy, Pluto, and, almost outstripping Mickey himself in popularity, Donald Duck. Alongside these shorts Disney produced the Silly Symphony series, which were less character-based and featured more free-ranging storylines and artistic styles.

Experimenting as always, Walt attempted something that at the time seemed pure folly: feature-length animation. It was tremendously expensive and years in the making, but Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) became a huge hit. (Walt's enthralling three-hour performance acting out the story for his staff is still a legend at the studio.) Emboldened, Disney followed it with four other classics of the genre, Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942).

This was Disney's golden age--a time of financial success, true, but one of even greater artistic success. The critics called him a genius, and his peers showered him with Academy Awards. (He won all eight Oscars given for short cartoons in the 1930s.) The work has held up. The Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony series have been rivaled in wit only by the famed Warner Bros. output; for pure aesthetic quality, they remain without peer. The
five features are still beloved--perhaps matched by some later work, but never surpassed. And they continue to pack a punch: A bizarre sequence like "Pink Elephants on Parade" from Dumbo is stranger and stronger than almost anything the actual surrealists ever did; probably more kids have been scared witless by Lampwick's metamorphosis into a jackass in Pinocchio than by Dracula and Frankenstein combined.

In the 1940s, Disney went downhill. There was a four-month animators' strike in 1941, quite acrimonious, though featuring some of the most creative picket signs ever. The walkout was over nonstandardized salaries and bonus structures, lengthy trainee probation periods, and a perceived lack of recognition. Walt resisted the strikers' demands, feeling he'd always played fair with his people. What he didn't realize is that a boss can get away with somewhat arbitrary management in a small shop, but as a company grows the tensions can become unbearable. Most employees actually sided with Walt, yet the bitter strike forever changed the close relationship he'd had with his animators.

Then came the war years, when the Disney studio practically enlisted, churning out training, education, and propaganda films, often mixing live action with animation. Not only were they lesser works artistically, they weren't particularly remunerative. After World War II, Disney seemed to have lost his way. Short films, his bread and butter, were no longer in great demand. Perhaps uncertain of what to expect in a postwar audience, and fearful of the great emotional and financial commitment required to develop full-length stories, he produced a series of animated features, including Make Mine Music (1946), Fun and Fancy Free (1947), and Melody Time (1948), in revue form. They provided some great moments but offered nothing to match his earlier classics.

Starting in the 1950s, however, Disney had something Americans aren't supposed to have: a second act. Perhaps it was a consequence of restlessness--he had conquered animation and may have been eager for new challenges--but during this period he turned his creative attention from Disney as cartoon maker to Disney as corporation, expanding with great success in several directions. In fact, not until this era were the Disney operations on truly solid financial footing.

Disney returned to full-length stories in animation, creating such charming works as Cinderella (1950), Peter Pan (1953), Lady and the Tramp (1955), and 101 Dalmations (1961). More important, he started making popular live-action movies: nature films, such as The Living Desert (1953) and The Vanishing Prairie (1954); adventure, including Treasure Island (1950), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1954), and Swiss Family Robinson (1960); and a steady diet of dramas (1957's Old Yeller), comedies (1961's The Absent-Minded Professor), and musicals (1964's Mary Poppins). Equally significant was Disney's move into a new form, television. Not only was the weekly prime-time show a hit, making Uncle Walt a celebrity, but the daily Mickey Mouse Club became a phenomenon, and a Davy Crockett series started a national craze.

Biggest of all, of course, was Disneyland, a leap into the unknown which advisers thought foolhardy. The gleaming 160 acres in Anaheim revolutionized the concept of the amusement park, and the operation was successful beyond all projections. Walt was planning Disneyworld--a chance to do Disneyland right, with all the room he needed--when he died suddenly on December 15, 1966.

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