TV Review: American Experience Walt Disney Part 1 & 2 (2015)

Posted: September 12, 2016 in Documentary


When Walt Disney returned from WW I he had money in his pocket and a job in a jelly factory, but he bypassed all this, and went to work as a commercial artist.  He started animating films there, and started his own company, Laughograms Inc. His big idea at Laughograms was a short cartoon called Alice in Catoonland, but the company went bankrupt.  Undaunted he takes a train straight to California and aspired to be a movie director.  Margaret Winkler, an animation distributor, wants to revive Walt’s Alice in Catoonland shorts.  Walt and Roy Disney and animator Ub Iwerks rework the Alice films, and are successful.

Walt then moves onto another character, Oswald the Rabbit.  But Charles Mintz, Margaret Winkler’s husband stole Oswald from Disney, and left him with only one animator. Walt goes back to farming for 5 years, but the farm goes bankrupt, and Walt goes back to California.  Undaunted again, he und Ub and a few other loyalty, came up with another character Mickey Mouse, who was named by Walt’s wife.  Walt had another innovation, adding sound to an animated film, and after three months, in 1928, Steamboat Willie was born. Mickey Mouse was a huge success in movie theaters, and Roy Disney licensed Mickey with marketing specialist Kay Kamen.  Mickey made Walt Disney a worldwide name and a multimillionaire.

Disney kept trying to push the envelope with his animation, he created Silly Symphonies, which featured inanimate objects animals and objects from nature combined with music.  He brought in all kind of art experts into his studios to experiment in different forms of art.  In 1934, Walt still wanted to push the envelope on animation, he proposed animating the Brothers Grimm tale Snow White.  It took 3 years to finish, and went wildly over-budget, but was a critical and commercial success.  Never satisfied with his latest success he went on to make Pinocchio, and Fantasia. He lost money on both and the pressure to unionize cartoonists was mounting.  Would Disney Studios survive the ever evolving animation landscape?

This is a fantastic documentary.  I knew the broad strokes about Walt Disney, Steamboat Willie, Snow White, Bambi, Fantasia, but the details are even more fascinating.  I knew nothing of Laughograms, nothing of Alice in Cartoonland, which was a live girl combined with animation, nothing about Oswald the Rabbit, nothing about Ub Iwerks  and nothing about the Silly Symphonies, and to see all the innovation between Steamboat Willie, and Snow White is just incredible.  All these films were hand animated.  He had personal loss, a strained relationship with his dad, his wife’s miscarriage, financial troubles, but he wanted to push animation forward, and stay true to his vision.  Was he a hard taskmaster?  Yes he was, but what visionary isn’t?  Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are legendary for being tough taskmasters, but where would computing be without them?  Similarly, where would animation be without Disney, but this is a  warts and all documentary and actually seeing the end product of all his driven work will show a more complex side to the jovial host of the Disney tv shows of the 1960’s and 70’s.

Walt Disney Part 2:

In 1941, the cartoon animators went on strike, and the strike went on for so long and got so bitter, that Walt actually went on vacation, while Roy settled the strike.  After the strike, Disney released Bambi, which again didn’t make its money back.  In 1947, he testified to the House Un-American Committee, against some of the animators at Disney, who he named Communists.  He seemed to realize that feature length animation was losing money, so in 1948 he made Seal Island, a live action documentary about seals and that movie won Disney an Oscar. In 1950, Disney made Cinderella but was oddly absent from the production.  He was busy with his new obsession, model trains, he went to a train collectors convention and built a large model train in his backyard

By 1952, Walt Disney had moved on to his next big idea, he wanted to build an amusement  park for families , divided into 4 sections, Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland.  He funded it with a television contract with ABC, that gave ABC the right to film from Disneyland, and 1/3rd ownership n Disneyland.  He was a natural host on the fledgling television medium, and he promoted Disneyland so well, that by the time Disneyland opened  in July of 1955, it was a mob scene, but once again Walt Disney had realized his vision.

His live action films other than Mary Poppins, were not all that successful or well made, The Absent Minded Professor, Son of Flubber, The Parent Trap and Swiss Family Robinson are examples of Disney’s formulaic moviemaking.  Disney’s movies were out of step with the changing mores and tectonic racial upheaval of the 1960’s. Despite his bland family films, Disney kept trying to innovate, a short film narrated by Disney was released, called EPCOT, Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow.  Disney wanted to build an enclosed city where corporations could innovate one next to the other.  He never saw the end of Epcot or Disneyworld being built.  He died from lung cancer on December 15, 1966.

This was a comprehensive documentary.  It did not shy away from Disney’s dark side, his strained relationship  with his father his slave driving of employees, his anti-union feelings, his red baiting, Disney was a complex man with many facets.  Even with all that, the viewer cannot help but realize the man revolutionized animation, there is nothing as beautifully animated as Disney’s first five movies.  Even as his thinking and animation became more conventional, he never stopped having big ideas.

It is seeing the totality of his work that pushes this documentary over the top.  Knowing that he made Alice in Catoonland at such an early age informs the viewer about techniques he used later in Song of The South and Mary Poppins.  Actually seeing tear-jerking scenes from Snow White and Bambi illustrate how much he moved animation forward from the early days.  His vision revolutionized the theme park industry, there was no such thing as a theme park until Walt Disney dreamed up Disneyworld.  This documentary also gives Roy Disney a lot of credit for financing all of Walt’s artsy ideas.



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