Commentary Magazine


The Magic Kingdom by Steven Watts

The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life
by Steven Watts
Houghton Mifflin. 526 pp. $30.00

Walt Disney may have been immodest, but he was not exaggerating when in the early 1960′s he offered an assessment of his place in American culture. “I’m not Disney anymore,” he told a young employee.

I used to be Disney, but now Disney is something we’ve built up in the public mind. . . . It stands for something, and you don’t have to explain what it is.

What Disney and his enterprise stood for was, in a much-mocked phrase, “wholesome family entertainment.” The man behind that phrase is the subject of this well-researched and thoughtful biography by the historian Steven Watts, which also provides a starting point for thinking about the Disney legacy today.

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Walt Disney was born in Chicago in 1901. His father was an itinerant building contractor who incessantly moved his family around the country in a search for work. Adept since childhood at drawing, Disney left home permanently in 1919 to pursue a career as a newspaper cartoonist, and got his first experience with the simple cutout type of animation used for advertising when he joined a commercial art studio in Kansas City. Together with some fellow graphic designers, he then started a small cartoon studio. When the money ran out he left for Los Angeles, where he went into business with his brother Roy. The new Disney Brothers Studio opened in 1923.

After a series of false starts—a lovably antic character named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit caught the attention of a distributor, but then Disney lost the legal rights and key animators defected—the new team struck paydirt when, from a few linked circles on a sheet of paper, Mickey Mouse was born. Introduced at the end of the 20′s, Mickey did not take long to achieve enormous popularity with movie audiences. By the late 30′s, he had become an international icon.

Mickey Mouse exemplified the Disney secret for success: cartoon features based on identifiable personalities rather than, as was the standard of the day, mere collections of gags. Exhibitors clamored for more, and were soon rewarded in the form of Donald Duck and Goofy the feckless hound. But the restlessly ambitious Disney, dissatisfied with churning out short features, soon turned toward the risky business of full-length animated films. In the end, and despite the cautionary protests of his business-manager brother, his decision proved correct. Walt Disney’s lasting reputation was built not by Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck but by such movies as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942).

The reputation was deserved, and, as Watts shows, hard-earned. Active in every stage of production, Disney drove himself as strenuously as he did others. A gifted storyteller, brilliantly adept at acting out his characters, and a consummate salesman, he convinced everyone from writers and animators to inkers and colorists that they could produce the greatest cartoons ever made.

If these were Disney’s golden years, however, they also proved to be harbingers of struggle. In 1941, Disney Bros. suffered its first and only strike, leaving Walt embittered at those who took part and alarmed by the influence of Communists in Hollywood’s trade unions. As World War II drew to a close, he aligned himself with anti-Communist groups and became the first vice president of the newly formed Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. This organization, whose ranks included Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, and Barbara Stanwyck, undertook to engage in “sharp revolt” against the Communist penetration of Hollywood and against all who sought “by subversive means to undermine and change” the “American Way of Life.”

The 50′s saw a terrific recovery for the Disney business enterprise, which had suffered under government restrictions during the war. Returning to animated features, the studio boasted a string of hits, including Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), and Peter Pan (1953). It also ventured into live-action films: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1954), The Swiss Family Robinson (1960), and The Absent-Minded Professor (1960), to name a few. With his usual entrepreneurial genius, Disney shrewdly foresaw the commercial potential of television and signed deals with ABC. And acting again on his own initiative and against his brother’s advice, he pushed to create Disneyland, a giant California theme park featuring Disney characters.

During the last decade of his life—he died in 1966—Disney not only developed grander ambitions for his enterprise but became something of a social visionary. As an emissary of American capitalism, he consciously sought in his works to demonstrate the superiority of the American way of life, which for him meant the creativity of the imagination, unfettered by political control. He also began to conceive of ways to foster a sound, healthy environment for the nurturing of families. His final project—which he would not live to see realized—was the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or EPCOT, a planned community to accompany his second amusement park, Walt Disney World, in Orlando, Florida.

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More than 30 years after his death, Walt Disney’s name lives on. What does it stand for?

The Disney empire today probably exceeds what even its founder’s capacious imagination could have grasped. Its movie studios encompass not one but five different production houses, and the corporation owns entire television networks: ABC, ESPN, and the Disney Channel. Disneylands have sprouted in Paris and Tokyo. Disney cruise ships ply the seas. Earning $20 billion in revenue in 1997, Disney is the most influential entertainment conglomerate in the world.

In qualitative terms—if by “qualitative” we refer only to the level of sheer expertise—today’s Disney has also not lagged behind. Its amusement-park rides are more thrilling than ever; its animated feature films still enchant children and adults with the most amazing images technowizardry can yield.

Yet one ingredient—and a rather essential one—has been lost. Watts writes of something he dubs the “Disney Doctrine”: the notion, reflected in almost everything Disney produced, “that the nuclear family, with its attendant rituals of marriage, parenthood, emotional and spiritual instruction, and consumption, was the centerpiece of the American way of life.” Under Michael Eisner, the corporation’s current CEO, the company has turned this doctrine on its head.

The Disney name today is associated with “message” movies about homosexuals, transvestites, drug addicts, and others pursuing “alternative life-styles.” On its ABC network, Disney provides similarly “progressive” fare for a mass television audience, from the dramatic series Nothing Sacred, about a priest who questions the existence of God and can “relate” to various apostates, to Ellen, a sitcom about the self-discovery of a lesbian, whose eponymous heroine, week after week, faces such questions as whether to bed another woman on a first date.

All this is a far cry from Mary Poppins and from the man who built an empire in order to give innocent pleasure to the ordinary Americans with whom he thoroughly identified. If the old Disney tells us something inspiriting about who we were not so very long ago, the new and even more hugely lucrative Disney is just another signpost marking our long, steep cultural descent.

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