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Books: Uncle Walt

5 minute read

THE DISNEY VERSION by Richard Schickel. 384 pages. Simon & Schuster. $6.50.

Walt Disney died on Dec. 15, 1966, at the age of 65; yet it is difficult to think of him as being dead. Much of this has to do with the ubiquitous enterprises that, under Brother Roy Disney, continue to spread the name.* On a more disturbing level, however, it is difficult to accept the fact of Disney’s death because it was difficult to accept the facts of his life. Even his surname, said to have been traced to a Burgundian soldier named De Disney who followed William the Conqueror to England in 1066, seems a fanciful invention. To his family, Disney was a genius to be pampered; to his business associates, he was the boss to be yessed. His meticulously cultivated public image remains that of the sort of magician often hired to entertain at children’s birthday parties—a milk-and-cookies Mandrake complete with slick hair and slim mustache.

This fluent analysis of Disney’s life, times, art and commerce by Cinema Critic Richard Schickel ruffles the image without disrupting the performance. Parents out of sympathy with Disney’s too sweet view of life will continue to take their children to his movies anyway, if only to recapture a sense of innocence in their own responses. Nostalgia is a bug not easily shooed.

Love-Hate. For Disney, nostalgia was an article of faith in the moral superiority of the good old days. Throughout his career, he projected “images of longing”—from the barnyard and smalltown settings for many of Mickey Mouse’s antics to the entrance of Disneyland, which compels visitors to pass through a turn-of-the-century Midwestern Main Street, “an idealized vision of Disney’s boyhood environment.”

Yet Disney was far more than a Br’er Babbitt who made it big cracker-barreling the virtues of hard work and good clean fun. He was, as Schickel generously illustrates, a masterful organizer, bold technological innovator and a zealous, often ruthless go-getter in the idealized American tradition. He had a compulsion to order, cleanse and control in ever-expanding circles. Disneyland, once described as “the world’s biggest toy lor the world’s biggest boy,” consumed most of his interest in the last years of his life. When it came to technical matters, he was a perfectionist; he had the huge shade tree at the Tahitian Terrace pruned to better his view, and then had new branches stuck on to restore the tree’s symmetry. Yet the mermaid who drifts by during the otherwise believable submarine ride is bare-breasted but lacks nipples.

Schickel admits that he was interested in Disney not only as an individual but also as “a type that I have known and conducted a sort of love-hate relationship with since I was a child.” The author’s ambivalence cost him the cooperation of Disney and, after his death, of his associates. But this has not kept Schickel from presenting his subject in a firm social, cultural and artistic context. Schickel has high regard for the primitive, graphic quality of the early Mickey Mouse cartoons and for full-length, animated features such as Pinocchio, which, he thinks, is one of Disney’s best—elaborate and smoothly executed without the slick, sugary glaze seen on many of the Disney animations of the late ’50s and ’60s.

Secrets. It is the puzzling, impure nature of popular mechanized culture that underlies the author’s concern. His harshest criticism of Disney is that the entertainment machine he set in motion “was designed to shatter the two most valuable things about childhood—its secrets and its silences—thus forcing everyone to share the same formative dreams.” That is probably an exaggeration, suggesting that, like Disney himself, Schickel romanticizes the. good old days, and sentimentalizes the nature of childhood as well. Schickel argues that Disney could not have been an artist because his simplified view of reality narrowed rather than expanded consciousness. Yet time and again he somehow feels the need to hold Disney up as an artist—only to wind up proving that he wasn’t. It is usually done in a tone of deep disappointment.

None of this, however, spoils the book’s validity. Schickel himself puts it best: “Our environment, our sensibilities, the very quality of both our waking and sleeping hours, are all formed largely by people with no more artistic conscience or intelligence than a cumquat. If the happy few do not study them at least as seriously as they study Andy Warhol, then they will lose their grip on the American reality.”

* Last year, according to Walt Disney Productions, 240 million people throughout the world saw a Disney movie, 100 million watched a Disney TV show every week, 800 million read a Disney book or magazine, 50 million heard Disney music, 150 million read a Disney comic strip, and 7,900,000 visited Disneyland.

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