Sunday, September 06, 2015

I recently wrote a review for the newspapers I edit on the new “American Experience: Walt Disney.”  What follows is an expanded version of what saw print.

            Every now and then a viewer of a documentary can be placed in a position of not just experiencing a film, but evaluating it from a place of knowledge.  This happened to me with my viewing of the new four-hour film on the life and career of Walt Disney.
            I have been involved in researching animation for years with a concentration on the Fleischer Studio – the artists who brought Betty Boop, Popeye and the Bouncing Ball, among many other subjects to the screen.  Incidentally, I’ve learned much about Disney and I was very curious to see how the filmmakers were going to present him and his legacy.
            Disney is a very polarizing figure. People who worked for him loved him or feared him. In the 1930s his films received serious attention from critics who otherwise dismissed animation, but by the time of his death in 1966 the films made by his studio were deemed by many as being out of step with what was happening in the nation.
            Before I go any farther, I will readily admit that I’ve have a great admiration for some Disney films – the first five animated features – and will admit they advanced the art of animation in very significant ways.
I’m not a cult member though and have rejected the kind of non-critical attitudes some animation fans and scholars have exhibited.
Considering the gaps in the narrative in this film, I suspect the filmmakers were a little overwhelmed by the subject. Four hours may not have been enough time.
            For example, there is surprisingly little discussion of his relationship with his wife, daughters and other family members other than the fights he had with his brother Roy who was the financial head of the studio. Although his son-in-law Ron Miller is interviewed there is little personal insight into this often-contradictory man.
            A problem that undoubtedly faced the filmmakers was the fact that many of the people who knew Disney or worked for Disney are dead. The interviews with those studio employees still alive take up far less time in the documentary than a parade of college professors and writers.
            An example of this is the Pulitzer Award-winning writer Ron Suskind whose many moments in the documentary were supposedly justified by a book he wrote about his autistic son connecting to the Disney animated cartoons. I’m sorry, but his prominent screen time doesn’t really explain anything about Disney but just offers his own observations.
            Unfortunately the writer and historian who undoubtedly knows more about Disney’s career than just about anyone, Michael Barrier, appears all too briefly.
            I was surprised how certain facts were presented or over-looked. In the late 1920s, Disney’s studio was producing a series of cartoons for producer Charles Mintz. Mintz owned the character of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, took it from Disney and hired away a number of his staff.  This event ultimately prompted the creation of Mickey Mouse, but it also spurred Disney to maintain ownership of his creations and films, a very important point.
            The filmmakers don’t emphasize this and don’t note that from 1928 through 1955 Disney went through four different distributors until he formed his own in 1955. He finally achieved complete ownership and control of his productions.
Where the documentary significantly fails is in its lack of explanation about what made Mickey Mouse work so well with audiences when the first sound cartoon debuted. Consider the following: Disney’s first commercial success was with the “Alice in Cartoonland” series, the basis for which was a flip of Max Fleischer’s already established  “Out of the Inkwell” shorts. I think it’s fair to say it wasn’t as popular as the Ko-Ko cartoons or the Felix shorts or Paul Terry’s Fable cartoons in the 1920s.
His second series, “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit,” was another rubber-hosed animal cartoon. The ones I’ve been able to see are not terribly well written. Where was the legendary Disney story touch that became so important just a few years later? Oswald lacks any real character. I think it’s also fair to say that Oswald didn’t go to the top of the animation world, either.
So with all of these “experts” blathering on in this documentary, why didn’t anyone explain why “Steamboat Willie” was a hit? Was it Mickey? Was it the soundtrack? Remember Disney had made several other Mickey cartoons and had failed to get distribution as silent shorts. What made this one so different? What captured the attention of critics and writers who saw something in Mickey Mouse that they hadn’t seen in an animated character before?
I contend the use of sound, which was very good for its time, and the timing of the release so early in the sound revolution. He was in the right place at the right time with a product audiences liked.
A thorny point with Disney is how the public was presented with the notion that Disney essentially did everything. It would have been an important part of this story to address that idea by looking at some key figures at the studio whose contributions made the films successful. Instead the documentary perpetuated this cult of personality that Disney did everything with that omission. Did Disney instinctively understand branding or was it just ego?
            A crucial part of Disney’s story is his collaboration and friendship with Ub Iwerks, the animator and designer whose work was essential to the success of Mickey Mouse. Iwerks became disillusioned and left Disney to form his own studio in 1930. The documentary speaks of the importance of loyalty for Disney but it doesn’t address the relationship between the two men, especially when Iwerks was rehired about ten years later.
            The documentary never really explains why Disney entered the live -action film field. It doesn’t tell the viewers the animated short cartoons that built the company continued until 1956 nor does it explain what, if any, involvement Disney had with them. Was he sad or nostalgic when the shorts stopped production?
            Several remarks made by Professor Sarah Nilsen of the University of Vermont irked me. In an early part of the film, he said that Disney, flush with money from a graphic arts job, would frequently go to the movies.  On screen accompanying her comments were scenes from the 1919 Fleischer short “The Tantalizing Fly. Nilsen intoned that Disney knew he could do much animation better than what he was watching.
            This segment infers the Fleischer short was a poor piece of work, which it is not. It artfully mixes live action and animation, and was the style that Disney used for a later series of cartoons.
            Later in the film, Nilsen speaks of Disney in the 1920s being a young man in a field dominated by “old men” who used crude gags in their cartoons. Disney was born in 1901. His contemporaries included Walter Lantz (1899), Paul Terry (1887) and Max Fleischer (1883). Please don’t let facts stand in the way of a good assumption.
            At the end of the film, despite a lengthy running time and the contributions from “experts,” Disney remains largely an enigma. While many of the major points of Disney’s life were presented, the documentary fails to dig a little deeper to show a more complete picture.