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.

Disney had been a high roller, yet the tremendous prosperity of his last 15 years or so was solidly built on earlier successes. He turned out superior work for more than 30 years, and a generation had grown from children into adults associating his name with outstanding, accessible entertainment. Thus he was perfectly positioned to turn Disney into a trusted trademark for family fun in new media. Combining a commitment to quality with a willingness to adapt, he was able to broaden his commercial vision while making few missteps.

So what does Watts make of all this? He separates the "golden age" from the later work of the 1950s. So far, so good. But when he gets to particulars, the commentary tends to be facile in the extreme. For example, Watts thinks the early cartoons, with the persistent Mickey Mouse and the feisty Donald Duck, expressed Walt's "sentimental populism"–the average citizen overcoming adversity–a theme that went over well during the Great Depression. Could be. But the theme of the little guy taking on the bully hardly needs to be shaped by a Midwestern childhood. Nor does it require a 1930s audience. One of Disney's favorites, for instance, was Charlie Chaplin, whose quasi-Victorian "little fellow" was popular 15 years before the Depression.

Watts analyzes the feature-length movies along similar lines: "With marked populist overtones, [Pinocchio] chronicled a quest for stability, self-definition, and humanity within a threatening social environment." He's referring to Pinocchio, but would it matter if he meant Snow White or Cinderella or Jungle Book or Hercules? This sort of analysis could apply to any number of coming-of-age stories. It doesn't distinguish Disney from the competition. The audience was responding to something more.

That something was Disney's command of the medium. Walt was a masterful storyteller–probably his greatest talent. He hired the best available people–and since there was a depression, he was able to get them cheap (that's how the times affected his work). He eagerly took advantage of the latest technology. With such attributes, he would likely have been a success in any era.

Animation is a unique form, and Walt, a hands-on boss, was able to get something none of the other great artist/perfectionists of Hollywood (Chaplin, Von Stroheim, Astaire) could ever achieve–complete artistic control. Not a square inch appeared on the screen unless Walt wanted it that way. And unlike live-action auteurs, almost no effect was beyond his reach. Disney was an innovator in animation, doing new things with sound, color, and even duration. And whether you think of him as a farm boy made good or a heartless captain of industry, there's no denying the greatness of the work during the golden age, or that he was the man most responsible for the final product. His primary concern was always quality, not profits (his money people often needed to bring him back down to earth).

Walt expressly disavowed political intent in the 1930s, but historian Watts can't accept this. Maybe there is a point of view in his cartoons, but they're a pretty varied bunch. The Disney studio turned out 15 to 18 shorts a year, and the main commonalities were fine draftsmanship, clever gags, and enjoyable scores. You can read what you want into wild physical comedy, well-synchronized music, and characters beating the odds, but Disney could have borrowed much of this from other movies of the time.

The "vision" of a Midwestern Protestant turns out to be not all that different from the "vision" of a handful of Eastern European Jews. When messages do come across (especially in the features), it's because the tales Disney adapted were meant to be cautionary and instructive to children, and when Walt told a story he knew he had to tell it like he meant it. But even when Walt wanted to teach, entertainment came first.

Watts sees the Disney of the '50s shifting toward "libertarian populism." Don't get too excited. It's hard to pin down exactly what Watts means by this term. He mostly seems to use libertarianism in a negative sense. This new populism still has the same old positive belief in individual autonomy and the power of small producers, perhaps now with a new faith in technological innovation. But on the down side, Watts says, "it encouraged a suspicion of big bureaucratic institutions, be they governmental or financial, public or private." This, Watts contends, was Disney's reaction to the Cold War. During the Eisenhower years, Disney offered a "narrower, more defensive rendition" of the "older, optimistic, inclusive populism of the Depression era."

In fact, I think this is Watts's reaction to the Cold War, something he can sink his teeth into. Here, Watts starts to really go off the rails. To be sure, Disney changed in the '50s. And yes, his newer work was often corny (Disney proudly admitted this) and sometimes bland. It didn't reach the heights of his earlier work, but it was still children's entertainment of a higher quality than most.

In some ways, this new world of Disney was Walt's greatest creation–a multibillion-dollar organization built around beloved children's characters, with enormously valuable copyrights, hit movies, and parks that are bigger tourist destinations than most countries. This creation was by no means an historical inevitability: Once again, it was mostly due to one man's dreams.

Watts, however, sees a chance to tie it all to the McCarthy era and the Cold War and simply goes overboard, too often ignoring the financial and artistic achievement to concentrate on overheated, even absurd analyses: Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmations become symbolic of "the disruption of modern domestic life," while the light comedy The Parent Trap (1961) "explore[s] explicitly and seriously the threat to the Cold War American Family." The Disney nature films are "an unspoken rejection of the hovering Communist specter of artificial government direction and centralized planning." Watts gives us pages and pages of this stuff. Disney films are worth investigating from a sociocultural perspective, but that doesn't mean every investigation is worthwhile.

Reading The Magic Kingdom, one is ultimately struck by the imagination and energy of Disney as both filmmaker and businessman. His productive life is one of the most intriguing of this century. Watts's scholarly research (there are 57 pages of notes) has turned up enough information for several books. Unfortunately, he tells his story in a way Walt wouldn't have let get past a first draft.

Steve Kurtz once won $700 in the Disney category on Jeopardy!