I've just finished Neal Gabler's stupendous biography, "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination." I have a funny relationship to Disney — the man and the company — I am a gigantic fan of the themeparks, but I'm entirely indifferent to the characters, the animation, the live films, and I have nothing but antipathy for the political meddling in the copyright system. But if you're a fan of the Disney parks, it's inevitable that you end up spending some time thinking about Disney the man.
Gabler was the first biographer ever to gain full access to the Disney archives, and his research really makes the book hum. Working from logs and diaries, Gabler carefully paints a picture of the daily life of Walt Disney throughout his career, from the times he went broke to his many successes, his mental breakdowns and his obsessions.
Gabler's Disney is a complicated man. In some respects, he's a savant, possibly a genius, possessed of the visionary talent of identifying opportunities that no one had ever seen before (incredibly, Walt's biggest contribution to animation per Gabler is deciding that cartoons would be better with characterization and storylines — pretty obvious in hindsight!). On the other hand, Gabler paints a picture of Disney as a naif, someone who accidentally throws his lot in with a pack of paleoconservative anti-Semites without realizing it; someone who botches labor disputes so badly that the resulting rifts never heal, someone who is stupendously clueless about business and money.
Gabler isn't exactly flattering to Disney, but he does honor the man. In Gabler's history, Disney's personality changes from moment to moment. When he is engaged and passionate about his work, Disney is a delight, someone who inspires his people to do more than they ever thought possible, who sweeps those around him along on his dream.
But when Disney loses interest — something that happens at the drop of a hat — look out. He becomes cantankerous, abusive, meanspirited and even vicious. The Walt Disney Story is a story of passions found and abandoned, deep infatuations that come and go without rhyme or reason.
Gabler pulls no punches — for example, he is unflinching in exposing Disney's naive, reactionary politics, his phobia of communism, his collusion with Joe McCarthy and his testimony against his own employees to the House Un-American Activities Committee. At the same time, Gabler takes great pains to find a sympathetic backstory for this, to contextualize it in the frame of Disney's life as a man who pays little attention to the things that don't interest him, and brings a laser focus to those things that do.
Though I don't care much for animation, particularly Disney animation, the chapters on the early history of the medium are fascinating, especially for anyone who's lived through the rapid maturation of the Internet's many art-forms. I wish that Gabler had taken the same care and detail in describing the evolution of Disneyland. After all, many have outdone Disney in the cartoon department, but no one has come close to matching the theme-parks.
The final chapter of the book is perhaps the most interesting. That's where we find Walt on the verge of his terminal lung-cancer diagnosis, planning his magnum opus, EPCOT, the Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow, a planned town built on the same grandiose scale as the rest of Disney's projects. This was Walt at his weirdest and most American, full of ambition, eager to remake the world to suit his tastes and values. Alas, it is all too short — as with all the theme-park material.
Having read Gabler, I don't think I'll ever be able to visit Disneyland in the same way again. Like all great books, "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination" changed the way I see the world.
Update: A reader writes, "Michael Barrier, the elder statesman of animation history and commentary, and arguably one with much more access than Gabler ever was given, is keeping a list of problems with Gabler's Disney tome, including page numbers and notes from his own personal interviews and visits to the archives over the past years."