Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Who invented cartoons, I'd like to shake his hand

I've spent the past few weeks working my way through Neal Gabler's massive Walt Disney biography. It took this long not because it was boring or too dense, but because it deserved close reading. The book tells the story of Walt from his ancestors up to his death from lung cancer.

Although I considered myself familiar with the story of the studio, I really wasn't. I thought it was an upward trend of success from day one. In reality the studio teetered on the edge of disaster for much of its earlier years. The creative drive of Walt and the business acumen and diplomacy of Roy Disney kept the studio alive.

Gabler portrays Walt as the sort of person that most technology executives that I have met think they are. They bear the burden of his negative attributes without the countervailing positive attributes. Disney was monomanical, tough on employees, paranoid and given to ignoring any viewpoint other than his own. On the other hand, he was truly a creative genius completely dedicated to creating new popular art. I've tended to see him only as an overseer and while he was a visionary he also developed new technologies, stories and key scenes for the movies. Some companies would have turned out the same with different leaders. Not Disney.

The book has me digging up all sorts of Disney movies I haven't seen. There is for example, Make Mine Music, a sequel of sorts to Fantasia. This one came out just after World War 2, when the company was trying to rebuild itself after years as a government film factory. Rather than the cohesive work that is Fantasia, this one was cobbled together from bits and pieces. It would take a number of years before the company found its footing again.

As much as I liked the book, I can only recommend it to those with a strong interest in movies, pop culture or Disney himself. It is a long read for those with a tepid interest.

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