Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Doc Watch: PBS's American Experience - Walt Disney, Part 1

True story.  The first birthday wish I remember making, and I'm not sure that I thought the mechanics of how this would work out or the sheer body horror of it all, but I distinctly remember wishing I'd become Mickey Mouse.  This went on for a few years until I read an article, probably in Dynamite! or something, about the fact there had been an honest-to-god guy named Walt Disney and it wasn't just a brand name like "Buster Brown" or "Cracker Jack".

Then, for a few years, I wished to become Walt Disney.  Then I wanted mutant powers or some such and all that went away.

I had a pretty good idea of what Walt Disney had done for entertainment.  Despite the fact the guy was dead (I was semi-obsessed with the fact that both Walt and Elvis were dead, but very present in our lives) I watched his cartoons, his TV network, his live-action adventure films, went to his amusement parks, watched his nature documentaries and I had a stuffed Mickey Mouse that was a pal.  My interest in animation and the entertainment industry continued, and at some point in high school I bought a Walt Disney biography and read one or two animation histories.  And not all of it was rosy.

In a lot of ways, reading up on Walt Disney was how I learned to reconcile the good with the bad when it comes to the folks we revere.

In college I did three summers at The Disney Store, and like all growing experiences I both learned a tremendous amount - lessons I use at work every day - and sometimes had a wretched time keeping up with Disney's extraordinary levels of customer service.*  Knowing anything about Walt and seeing how The Disney Store functioned in 1993-1995, it wasn't hard to see how a lot of that came from how Walt set up his company decades prior.

All of this was supposed to be gearing me up (I got a film degree, too), to pack my bags and head to work at Disney as soon as I graduated.  I didn't know exactly what I'd do in animation, but that was where I was headed.  And then computers happened to animation, Disney Animation went into a free fall that culminated in the atrocious Home on the Range, and the animation studio which had just been doing great was suddenly laying people off.  So, I did not head westward.  Short sighted thinking on my part, but it's all worked out fine if it doesn't bother you that I'm not a movie mogul.

Right now, PBS is airing a two-part American Experience documentary that's a bio of American entertainment mastermind Walt Disney.  If you're unfamiliar with The American Experience, it's an astoundingly powerful documentary series covering anything under the sun, and the only common theme I've detected has been a top-notch quality to the docs I've seen under their banner.

For even a moderate Disney-phile like myself, there isn't a ton of new information in the first half of the doc.  I'm aware of Walt's less than idyllic childhood and his middle-American upbringing.  I know about Oswald and the Alice shorts.

But to see the Oswald animation and Alice shorts as they're contextualized and to see them in place, in order, and see the stunning growth between the first shorts and into Snow White and then some of the jaw-dropping sequences of Fantasia in what's, really, less than two decades is absolutely astounding.  Disney and crew were innovating as much as car manufacturers and Howard Hughes in their medium.  But, to make the most apt comparison - there are absolutely parallels between Disney's explosive growth creatively and financially and Silicon Valley success stories up to and including Apple.

Some context is missing from the doc, such as business thinking of pre-WWII America and what it would mean to modernize, and the doc sells it in Part 1 as Disney's brain child and lays all consequence and blame at his feet, and if 2015 were happening around him rather than 1920 - 1940. And while the doc is already so packed they skip over whole movements in Disney animation to get to the good stuff, it can sometimes feel like too narrow a picture of the man in his times.

Walt Disney pushes at trying to become first financially viable, then successful, then popular and the money starts pouring in.  With the features, Walt pushes against the gatekeepers of culture, and as late as 2015, it's hard to say that this is a battle that's been won.  His attempts at respectability come up hard against the sensibilities of people who can't see an animated film as something to be taken as seriously as a live-action film.  Reaching beyond novelty or kiddie-faire is seen as over-reaching one's status,  and I'm not sure that, even today, folks are able to watch a Disney film (or any all-ages, animated film) and not categorize the film a particular way that compartmentalizes the work as something lesser than a film shot with half the thought and effort required to make an animated feature.

As comic fans are well aware, attempts at seeking recognition for achieving the same or greater working of themes, of the craft that goes into such an effort is often met with scorn or seen as pornography, so hideous is the idea that someone perform an act beyond their station.

Part 1 ends with Walt in crisis.  We're heading into the famed Disney strike just prior to America's entry into WWII.

I'm absolutely looking forward to Part 2.  And ready to fire up some old Disney films I haven't seen in decades.

*Let me tell you, getting a two hour shift greeting people in a crowded mall while wearing a turquoise Mickey sweater in Houston summer while you work through a punishing hangover is a hell of a way to learn a lesson in partying-management.



picky said...

Thanks for this review. I need to check this out. I taught a lesson on documentaries at the end of my American Lit class and watched a couple American Experience docs. Fantastic stuff.

Have you seen the one on Ripley?

The League said...

Believe it or not, I don't believe I have.

Yeah, it airs so sporadically, the last couple years I let it fall off my DVR, but I need to just start recording all new episodes again. But for a few years, Jamie and I watched a LOT of American Experience, and I still do from time to time.

Right now there's a fake-documentary series by Fred Armisen and Bill Hader called "Documentary Now" that is required viewing.