Less than six months after the release of Neal Gabler’s extensively detailed biography, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, another Disney tome hit bookstores last week. University of California Press has released The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney by animation historian Michael Barrier. Unlike Gabler, who relied heavily on seven year’s worth of research at the Disney Archives for his book, Barrier had minimal access to the Archives (a “minor inconvenience” Barrier calls it, although he did consult numerous times with archivists Dave Smith and Robert Tieman). One of Barrier’s primary sources of information was interviews, some dating back to 1969, with over 150 co-workers and contemporaries of Walt Disney. The result is a more critical—and somewhat incomplete—telling of Walt’s life that pulls no punches in depicting the flaws and complexities of the man who founded an entertainment empire.
The Walt Disney of Barrier’s book is a difficult man to like, “a stunted but fascinating artist, and a generally admirable but less interesting entrepreneur.” We’re introduced to Walt in 1941 with the studio in dire financial straits following the box office failure of Fantasia and with disgruntled unionizing employees on the brink of a crippling strike. Rather than rallying the troops, trying to allay their fears and address their grievances, Walt is blunt and quick to point the finger. Barrier quotes him in a speech to his employees.
And we’re just on page 7. Barrier maintains a similar tone for the next 300+ pages.The stumbling and fumbling around of green, inexperienced people has cost this studio millions of dollars . . . My first recommendation to a lot of you is this: put your own house in order; put your own mind in order . . . . You can't accomplish a damn thing by sitting around and waiting to be told everything . . . . Too many fellows are willing to blame their own stupidity on other people.
Not that Walt is above criticism by any means. He was well known for his temper, his impulsiveness and his detachment from projects that didn’t engage him. He lived the paradox of seemingly having his finger on the pulse of the world and at the same time struggling with how to deal with individuals on a personal level. He put his name on timeless classics like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella, but also on a long string of forgettable live-action films. And while Walt’s shortcomings ultimately make him less iconic and more human, Barrier is so quick to point out his flaws, you almost lose sight of the many amazing things Walt Disney did accomplish in his life. Michael Barrier may be fascinated with Walt, but he doesn’t seem to like him very much.
Or many of his works. Of the character Pinocchio, Barrier says, “Disney had made him bland and passive, robbing him of anything that made him interesting.” Regarding Fantasia, “Disney had so muddled and compromised his original vision of an equal partnership between music and images that the film defied admiration except as an exercise in a limited kind of virtuosity.” Even Mary Poppins isn’t spared. “Everywhere that Disney’s hand is most evident, as in some of the casting and incidental ‘business,’ Mary Poppins suffers from debilitating weaknesses.”
Barrier does heap praise on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, however, and his description of the creative process that made it is one of the best parts of his book (not because he’s being complimentary, mind you, but because of his sharp insight into the art of animation). Drawing upon the recollections of many of the original animators, Barrier creates a “you are there” feeling as Snow White moves through story development and storyboarding, pencil sketches, “sweatbox” sessions where the progress of the animators was reviewed, the evolution of the dwarfs and the introduction of the multiplane camera.
Of course, Walt’s presence and influence on Snow White was palpable as Barrier illustrates here:
Wilfred Jackson, who moved over from short subjects to direct part of Snow White in 1937, said: “There is more of Walt Disney himself in that particular picture than in any other picture he made after the very first Mickeys. There wasn’t anything about that picture—any character, any background, any scene, anything in it—that Walt wasn’t right in, right up to the hilt. . . . I mean literally that he had his finger in every detail of that picture, including each line of dialogue, the appearance of each character, the animation that was in each scene . . . nothing was okayed except eventually through his having seen it.”
Although Barrier excels in describing the animation processes that Walt oversaw, he falls short in other areas, and it’s here that his lack of access to the Disney Archives is most apparent. He does cite a considerable amount of documentation from other sources, but there is still a feeling that something’s missing. Consequently, the creation of Mickey Mouse becomes less than the watershed moment it was for the Disney Studio—it’s just the next step after Walt loses Oswald to Charles Mintz—and Barrier never really explores how Mickey became such a cultural phenomenon.
Disneyland also gets short shrift. Barrier provides scant detail about its early development and construction, although he does point out Walt’s chagrin at not being able to order around construction workers like he did his animators. There’s never a true sense of the enormity of the project and the financial struggles Walt went through to make Disneyland a reality.
Also notably absent, is the influence of Roy Disney, Walt’s brother, on Walt and the company. He pops up periodically in The Animated Man to help finance his brother’s projects, but he doesn’t seem to carry much weight. Compare this to Neal Gabler’s assessment that “if Walt Disney hadn’t had Roy Disney, There would be no Walt Disney Studio.” Again, access to the Archives could’ve provided the filler to bring these important moments to light.
In the end, The Animated Man feels incomplete and just a bit jaded towards Walt Disney. There’s value in the anecdotes and the different perspectives from outside the Disney Studio, but the book is more of a supplement to existing material on Walt than the stand-alone biography it aspires to be.