In the introduction to his magnificent biography of Walt Disney, author Neal Gabler writes, “More than any other American artist (Walt Disney) defined the terms of wish fulfillment and demonstrated on a grand scale to his fellow Americans, and ultimately to the entire world, how one could be empowered by fantasy — how one could learn, in effect, to live within one’s own illusions and even to transform the world into those illusions.”
There has been much written about Disney, but Gabler’s “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination” (Knopf) is the first to have the full cooperation of the Disney organization and family members. It shows.
Gabler told me that one of Disney’s daughters, Diane, did not want the book to ignore or paper over her father’s faults. Though Diane loved her father, Gabler says she asked him to present the authentic Walt Disney. That he has done in an exhaustively researched and beautifully written work that is among the finest biographies I have ever read.
Disney’s many disappointments, failures and betrayals did not derail him from pursuing his dreams. In fact, he created an alternative universe to which he not only invited the world, but into which he placed himself for protection. He controlled this fantasy world, and it was the only place in which he felt secure from people and ideas hostile to himself and his beliefs. “For all his outward sociability,” writes Gabler, “associates found him deeply private, complex, often moody and finally opaque. No one seemed to know him.”
Probably no American has escaped, indeed could escape, the Disney influence. For my generation, Disney’s presence and Disney’s influence were everywhere. From Mickey Mouse watches, to cartoons at the movie theater, to feature films such as “Snow White,” “Bambi,” “Pinocchio” and the futuristic “Fantasia,” Walt Disney has defined family entertainment for decades. Forty years after his death in December 1966, the name Disney exemplifies safety and security for children and parents looking for wholesome entertainment. He may not have invented the term “family values,” but he perfected an art form through which he was able to transmit stories that American hearts enthusiastically received.
Like so many people with great creative gifts, Walt Disney had a dark side. Rarely having enough money to live on and constantly scrounging for funds in the 1920s and during the Depression to underwrite his animated imagination, Disney became used to giving orders and not taking them He even came to regard the most innocent suggestions from his employees about how to improve something as insubordination. Not a few of them were demoted or fired outright for having the temerity to challenge the vision of the real “king of all media.”