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WALT DISNEY: The Triumph of the American Imagination

WALT DISNEY: The Triumph of the American Imagination

By Neal Gabler, Knopf, 851 pages, $35

Neal Gabler’s biography of Walt Disney is not the first and probably will not be the last. But it is difficult to imagine a more thorough examination of the dream-maker’s life than the one between covers of this massive book.
Before his death in 1966, Disney had become a household name—and not just because of the theme parks, Disneyland in California and Disney World in Florida.

During his Missouri childhood in Marceline and Kansas City, Disney had become fascinated with the nascent art of animation. Gabler’s biography explains the roots of the fascination and how Disney, overcoming daunting cultural, artistic and financial obstacles, captured the attention of hundreds of millions of viewers the world over with his movies featuring animated characters (Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Bambi, Snow White, to name a few) and, later, real humans (Julie Andrews as the fictional nanny Mary Poppins, for example).

Dozens of insightful books already have been published about Disney, including a superb 1997 biography by Steven Watts, a University of Missouri history professor. What distinguishes Gabler’s biography is its detail, or, phrased differently, its length. It seems as if Gabler has read everything extant, looked at every primary document generated by the Disney empire. Nobody can complain that what Gabler has written is insufficiently documented; the endnotes and bibliography consume 185 pages.

Gabler understands that Disney was more craftsman than intellectual. Yet that craftsmanship has captivated huge audiences over a nearly 100-year span (and counting). For many audience members, children and adults, Disney created an alternative reality usually removed from the degradation of the real world outside the movie theater walls and theme park gates.

In the book, Gabler psychoanalyzes Disney’s motives perhaps more than a biography should attempt to. Readers will never know whether Gabler’s analyses are correct, but they’re free to deduce from the massive factual evidence presented whether Disney was mostly a selfish introvert who happened to make millions smile or whether he really cared about the consumers of his imaginative products.

Conclusions about how much and how deeply Disney changed American culture are bound to breed discussion, too. Here is one of the many passages Gabler writes about the Disney influence: “By the end of his life, it was the saccharine values of nostalgic films and the sturdy patriotism of the historical ones as much as the cartoons that one associated with Disney and that made him, along with Norman Rockwell, the leading avatar of small-town, flag-waving America. At the same time, however, his forward-looking television programs depicting the future helped shape attitudes about technological change, and NASA acknowledged that Disney’s early drumbeating for its program was instrumental in generating public support for space exploration.”

Now, that is quite a legacy. Gabler explains Disney’s professional and personal lives about as thoroughly as a biographer can hope to when writing about the deceased. But nobody, not even a dogged biographer, can completely explain the suspension of disbelief Disney movies and theme parks seem to create. For that reason, the Disney magic will always remain partly mysterious. v

Steve Weinberg is a biographer, freelance writer and journalism instructor in Columbia.

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