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  1. #1

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    The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney; Book Review by disneytim


    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.

    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.
    And we’re just on page 7. Barrier maintains a similar tone for the next 300+ pages.

    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.

    --disneytim--


    Last edited by disneytim; 04-23-2007 at 07:57 AM.

  2. #2

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    Re: The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney; Book Review by disneytim

    Nice review. Probably won't be picking up this book, as I still havent found the time to plow through Gabler's biography.

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  3. #3

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    Re: The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney; Book Review by disneytim

    To be honest, I find it interesting that many people can write Biographies on Walt Disney and somehow make it different from all the others.

  4. #4

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    Re: The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney; Book Review by disneytim

    Thanks for the review disneytim. I am almost finished with the Gabler's book and not sure I want to read another bio on Walt. I feel like I am an expert already.

  5. #5

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    Re: The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney; Book Review by disneytim

    Good to know. I appreciate your review.

  6. #6

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    Re: The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney; Book Review by disneytim

    Great review. Biographies are difficult when the main character is as loved as Walt Disney. Today there is an urge by biographers to "reveal the dirt" on someone. We want to make our heros "more human" by digging up anything negative. I don't know why we have to know about affairs that John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt had. Why do we have to know that Lincoln may have been manic depressive? Heros used to me people we could look up to. We would try to model ourselves after. I know that Walt Disney had many flaws. Most biographies speak of his temper, lack of showing appreciation, and his being a "control freak." But the remarkable thing about Walt Disney is nearly everyone love him-- his employees, his competitors, and the public. Nothing Walt every created, his animated films, Disneyland, or anything else compares to the achievement of becoming so loved. In fact, since his death one would be hard pressed to name anyone who has earned the same admiration. Understanding the mystery of how someone can be so revered, is the true essence of a Walt Disney biography. From your review, I assume that this biography does not even attempt to understand that. Too bad.
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    Re: The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney; Book Review by disneytim

    Thanks for sharing your review with us!



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  8. #8

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    Re: The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney; Book Review by disneytim

    Thanks..I will likely read it as Gabler book blew me away. The whole Snow White period alone is important, as it was one of the few times that Walt was happy. Gabler chchanged my opnion of Walt forever and so I'm loooking for perspective. I heard Walt called the animators "thoughtless little pigs" too :-)
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  9. #9

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    Re: The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney; Book Review by disneytim

    gabler's biography was the first one I have read in a long time that was truly balanced. It showed the good and the bad and how complex a man walt disney really was. I am not sure I want to read this one only because it seems the author was slanted from the beginning. too many bio's of walt paint him as either a maniacle control freak, or a saint. and this one sounds to be another along those lines. thank you so much for the review I truly enjoyed it.

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