Let's cut to the chase, shall we? The Walt Disney biography that all of us dweebs have been waiting for (Some of us, for decades now) ... is finally here.
While there may have been other fine books written about the founder of the Walt Disney Company (Bob Thomas' "Walt Disney: An American Original" and Katherine & Richard Greene's "Inside the Dream: The Personal Story of Walt Disney" immediately come to mind), Neal Gabler's "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination" (Knopf, October 2006) surpasses them all. Putting it simply, this 858-page opus sets the gold standard for all Disney biographies to follow.
This is a great, great book, folks. Meticulously researched, painstakingly documented (Which explains that 170+ pages of footnotes you'll find toward the back of the book, listing all of Gabler's source material), "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination" does what no other Disney biography has been able to do to date. It actually allows you to get inside Walt's head. Get a real sense of what drove this man.
Mind you, the way that Neal was able to accomplish this was by reading through all of Walt's personal papers. Literally spending thousands of hours in the Disney corporate archives, digging through box after box of documents. Not because Gabler was looking for a smoking gun. But -- rather -- because the author wanted to understand why Walt did what he did. Drove himself so hard to accomplish so much during his 65 years on the planet.
Oh, sure. I know. All of us hardcore Disney dweebs think that we already know Walt's life story. Which is what's so astounding about "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination." Here is a story that we could all probably recite in our sleep. Only this time around -- thanks to Gabler's skillful storytelling and thorough scholarship -- it's deeper, richer, more insightful and ultimately more meaningful.
Of course, Neal still has to follow the same well-worn path that all of the previous Disney biographers have followed. So once again, we get the idyllic childhood in Marceline, Walt's stint with the Red Cross in France, his befriending of Ubbe Iwerks ...
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... Followed by all of the tough lessons that were associated with the "Laugh-o-Gram" films. Not to mention the "Alice in Cartoonland" & "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit" series.
But then along comes Mickey Mouse. And -- from then on -- it's this amazing decade of accomplishment for Disney and the organization that he's building. Zooming from the Mickey synchronized sound shorts to the color "Silly Symphonies" to the creation of those two landmark animated features, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and "Pinocchio" ...
From there ... Well, you know the story. Walt plows the "Snow White" profits into building a state-of-the-art animation studio in Burbank ...
Only to have World War II come along and cut off crucial revenue from overseas ticket sales. Then came the infamous strike of 1941 ...
And ... I know, I know. You think that you already know this story. But you haven't heard Neal Gabler's version of Walt's life story. Which -- thanks to Gabler's unprecedented access to Disney's personal papers -- has an intimacy and immediacy that no other biography of Walt Disney has had to date. As you read through the passages about the creation of Disneyland ...
... you finally can get a sense of what really drove Disney to risk it all on this absurd-sounding project that he had built out in an Anaheim orange grove.
Mind you, "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination" doesn't just celebrate Disney's genius. This book also does gives us lots of insight into Walt the man. How he drove himself hard, but drove his staffers even harder.
It's this part of Gabler's book that (I think) many Disney dweebs may have a problem with. The casual cruelty that Walt would sometimes display. Both toward his staff as well as toward his own family.
All this ... Plus the stories about how Disney was losing interest in both Disneyland and feature animation in the early 1960s, as Walt's dream of constructing a futuristic city out there in the swamps of Central Florida totally consumed the man ... is almost certain to ruffle the feathers of the Disney faithful.
But in the end, "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination" does what I once thought was impossible. It strips away all of those decades of positive press, that carefully manufactured "Uncle Walt" persona, the myth and the rumors to reveal the real Walt Disney. Not the corporate figurehead, but the man who -- through dedication and sacrifice and sometimes just sheer pigheadedness -- made the magic happen.
If you call yourself a Disney fan, you really owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of Neal Gabler's book. Mind you, it's probably going to take you a while to get through all 858 pages. But Gabler has a way of making this oft-told tale sound entertaining again. So the effort of burrowing through all of those pages is ultimately worth it.
In the end, you're going to come away from "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination" with an understanding of Walt Disney -- who this man was and what drove him to do what he did -- that you've never had before.
Trust me, folks. You really want to buy this book. Here-- finally -- is the definitive Walt Disney biography.
Thank you fo this review. It gave a good outline of the book, without giving too much away.