'American Experience: Walt Disney': TV Review

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A pragmatic portrait of the storyteller. 

Visionary genius or union-busting ego-maniac? Rare footage on PBS shows both sides of Disney.

Perhaps for her next PBS American Experience effort, director Sarah Colt might want to chronicle Samuel Gompers or Eugene V. Debs or even Jimmy Hoffa — because after completing a two-hour installment on Henry Ford in 2013 and following it with this week's four-hour premiere of American Experience: Walt Disney, she's dedicated an impressive amount of time to chronicling the 20th century's most brilliant, most creative, most egotistical and most anti-union industrialists.

Airing in two parts on September 14 and September 15, Walt Disney isn't notable for its assemblage of on-screen talent discussing the central populist storyteller of the 20th century. Songwriter Richard Sherman is one of only a few collaborators and family members who interacted directly with Disney, while an assortment of academics and biographers seem to fill in most of the other narrative gaps. 

Those limitations are entirely smoothed over, though, by the unprecedented cooperation that PBS and American Experience received from the Walt Disney Company, which opened up its vaults and permitted the filmmakers access to archival footage of both Disney in action, but also of the behind-the-scenes developments on some of Disney's most beloved films. The new footage is a healthy mixture of corporate promotion and unguarded glimpses at Disney that create the sort of pragmatic portrait American Experience is known for. It's as likely to frustrate Disney acolytes who want a pure hagiography as it is skeptics who enjoy seeing icons torn down. 

Put me in the "Tough, but perhaps not tough enough" camp.

Walt Disney almost defiantly resists sensationalism, even resisting a hasty debunking of some of the most prevalent urban legends surrounding Uncle Walt. Don't expect laughed-off references to cryogenics or extinguishing of the long-held, largely substance-free Nazi rumors. Even Disney's alleged anti-Semitism, which could be examined with evidence from his early animation as well as with personal correspondences, is ignored entirely. Perhaps that absence is predictable given the centrality here of Disney biographer Neal Gabler, who has always taken the perspective that while Disney may have associated with anti-Semites and occasionally exhibited hostility towards left-wing organizations with Jewish ties, his sentiments were tied to the historical moment and not actual animus. Even that  generous assessment is absent here.

That does not, of course, mean that Colt ignores unsavory aspects of Disney's personality and his professional background. 

The documentary's first part begins with the simplest of childhood overviews, followed by Disney's proto-Mickey progression from the Laugh-O-Gram studio in Kansas City to the birth of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit to Mortimer. The opening installment is at its strongest when following the production on Disney's Folly, the much-maligned attempt to make a full-length animated take on Snow White, then the pressure to follow Snow White with Pinocchio and the ambitious and challenging Fantasia. At the same time, the documentary charts Disney's attempts to create a corporate utopia, a dream that was shattered in 1941 when, led by Art Babbit, the studio's animators joined the Screen Cartoonists Guild and went on strike.

Tuesday's installment is built around Disney's more successful attempt to create a utopia, this time building an amusement park in Anaheim, California, and, years later, charting out plans for a second park and an Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow (you may know it as EPCOT) in Orlando. Even though the first part ends with union-busting Walt, the Walt Disney of the second segment is perhaps a darker and sadder figure. He testified in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, he ignored activist advice that "Song of the South" might be racially retrograde, he grumbled about his lack of Oscar recognition and he sought to recreate the small town of his childhood first in his own backyard before doing the same for America. He also made Bambi and Dumbo and launched America's obsession with Davy Crockett. And those theme parks turned out OK as well.

Few viewers will leave American Experience: Walt Disney astounded that Disney was, in fact, a man of contrasts and the story being told by the historians and other talking heads may not have been enough to sustain four hours on their own. It's the access that Colt and her team got that makes those four hours fly by. It's the test footage from Snow White, the home movies from the original Disney campus, the step-by-step drama of the opening of Disneyland, seen as never before, that amply reward this outlay of time.

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