In the afterlife afforded by American commerce, Walt Disney towers over other film pioneers. Chaplin was revered at his peak as a god, Griffith as a genius—but these men, having only their own talents to sustain them, endured the ups and downs of mortal life and now live on through their creations, in the hearts of those who love movies. Disney, whose primary talent was the farmer's ability to harness and husband the strengths of others, created a corporate entity so personal that it still produces works in his name, fundamentally true to his character and world-view. Indeed, now that DISNEY—in steel letters, 101 stories tall—owns ABC News, his sensibility holds more sway than ever over what we see of the world and how we react to it.
Raised in rural Missouri until he was 9, Walt (as he insisted people call him) was introduced to hardship after his family lost its beloved farm. His nostalgia for the place was so intense that he built an empire based on the inhabitants of its lost barnyard, and could draw detailed maps of the spread until he died, 10 days after his 65th birthday, in 1966.
For the next three weeks, a series at the LA County Museum of Art will demonstrate the power of this longing, and the worlds of fantasy to which it gave rise. Relying on the hard-headed business sense of his older brother Roy, Disney pursued excellence less like an artist than like a ballplayer, repeatedly delivering joy—euphoria, even—to masses of people on a reliable basis. The artistry he left to others, such as Ub Iwerks, co-creator of Mickey Mouse, and the "Nine Old Men," his core staff of animators and "imagineers" (a Disney company coinage), among them the remarkable Joe Grant, who at 93 is still active at the studio, advising the Next Old Men over at Pixar.
Disney drove them all hard. Everybody worked around the clock to create an illusion of movement, a depth of detail that would take an audience farther emotionally than it had ever been taken by a filmed cartoon. While other animators were familiar to the public eye before Disney emerged in the 1920s—and of these, Max and Dave Fleischer, the instinctual surrealists of Ko-Ko the Clown, Betty Boop and Popeye fame, were the only cartoonists Walt looked up to—one need only compare the ink-stained, energetic crudity of the river ride in the first Mickey Mouse short, Steamboat Willie (1928), to the airborne, Technicolor suavity and complexity of The Band Concert(1935) to see the dizzying grace (and speed) with which he and his team surpassed not only the Fleischers, but every other competitor in sight. When the tornado descends in The Band Concert, sweeping the little orchestra of animals Mickey is conducting high into the air, the creatures keep playing their instruments with stubborn determination, even as they pivot and revolve around one another, amid spinning music stands and countless other bric-a-brac—a feat that must have been hell to animate, but is heaven to watch. One can see that what Disney was selling was not innocence (as is often claimed), but indestructability. As Richard Schickel notes in his caustic but extremely insightful 1968 book, The Disney Version, Walt found a way to profitably use animals without slaughtering them.
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In Snow White (1938), he and his crew not only created a wondrous depth of field using the multiplane camera they invented—in which layers of glass conjure the illusion that we are dissolving at length through the many horizons of one misty landscape—they animated the characters at 24 drawings per second to give them a fluidity identical to that of live actors, and, most revolutionary of all, told their story at feature length. This was such an enormous gamble that, as they were building their new studio in Burbank at the same time, Roy insisted to Walt that they build across the street from a hospital, and design the architecture to double as a medical complex so they could readily sell the building if Snow White failed. When Roy complained that they owed the bank over $3 million, legend has it Walt laughed: "Imagine a pair of rubes like us owing a bank that much money!"
It is this playful yet indestructible optimism that most explains how Walt Disney personally came to define and even embody animation, to the frustration of talents who had perhaps greater creative genius but less business sense. After Snow White, Walt and his team embarked on a course of trial and error that yielded disobedient grandeur (Fantasia, 1940), unforgettable pathos, even trauma (as with the death of Bambi's mom, in Bambi, 1942), exquisite pictorial display (Sleeping Beauty, 1957), and bedtime-story warmth (101 Dalmatians, 1961, and the last film Disney personally supervised, The Jungle Book, 1967). His output was uneven artistically and commercially—a few pictures, like Alice in Wonderland (1950), were outright flops—while his public identification with all things animated (fed by the creation of Disneyland in 1955) was absolute. So much so that for a quarter-century after his death, very little that was new or innovative in the field could grow in the shadow of his monuments.
That has changed. Animation is now a wild frontier again, perhaps enabling us to appreciate more clearly than ever the collective genius of Walt and those Nine Old Men. Whatever their defects, Disney films have retained the astonishing ripeness and energy with which they were willed into existence. They remain captivating because in their very passion to be, they seem to rival nature itself.
Disney at 100: The Animated Classics at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 857-6010; www.lacma.org. Call for times. Through Feb. 16. $5-$7.