Walt Disney: Ruler Of The Magic Kingdom

The first multimedia empire was built on animation, but its happy toons masked the founder's darker soul

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Before leaving home at 16 to join the Red Cross Ambulance Corps during World War I, Walt, the youngest son, had discovered he could escape dad's--and life's--meanness in art classes. In the service he kept drawing, and when he was mustered out, he set up shop as a commercial artist in Kansas City, Mo. There he discovered animation, a new field, wide open to an ambitious young man determined to escape his father's sorry fate.

Animation was as well a form that placed a premium on technical problem solving, which was absorbing but not emotionally demanding. Best of all, an animated cartoon constituted a little world all its own--something that, unlike life, a man could utterly control. "If he didn't like an actor, he could just tear him up," an envious Alfred Hitchcock would later remark.

Reduced to living in his studio and eating cold beans out of a can, Disney endured the hard times any worthwhile success story demands. It was not until he moved to Los Angeles and partnered with his shrewd and kindly older brother Roy, who took care of business for him, that he began to prosper modestly. Even so, his first commercially viable creation, Oswald the Rabbit, was stolen from him. That, naturally, reinforced his impulse to control. It also opened the way for the mouse that soared. Cocky, and in his earliest incarnations sometimes cruelly mischievous but always an inventive problem solver, Mickey would become a symbol of the unconquerably chipper American spirit in the depths of the Depression.

Mickey owed a lot of his initial success, however, to Disney's technological acuity. For Disney was the first to add a music and effects track to a cartoon, and that, coupled with anarchically inventive animation, wowed audiences, especially in the early days of sound, when live-action films were hobbled to immobile microphones.

Artistically, the 1930s were Disney's best years. He embraced Technicolor as readily as he had sound, and, though he was a poor animator, he proved to be a first-class gag man and story editor, a sometimes collegial, sometimes bullying, but always hands-on boss, driving his growing team of youthfully enthusiastic artists to ever greater sophistication of technique and expression. When Disney risked everything on his first feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it turned out to be no risk at all, so breathlessly was his work embraced. Even the intellectual and artistic communities saw in it a kind of populist authenticity--naive and sentimental, courageous and life affirming.

But they misread Disney. In his dark and brilliant Pinocchio and the hugely ambitious Fantasia, he would stretch technique to the limits. But the latter film, rich as it was in unforgettable animation, is also full of banalities. It exposed the fact that, as film historian David Thomson says, "his prettiness had no core or heart."

Artistically he strove for realism; intellectually, for a bland celebration of tradition. There had been an Edenic moment in his childhood when the Disneys settled on a farm outside little Marceline, Mo., and he used his work to celebrate the uncomplicated sweetness of the small-town life and values he had only briefly tasted.

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