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The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney

by Michael Barrier
University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2007
411 pp. Trade, $ 29.95
ISBN: 0-520-24117-6.

Reviewed by Wilfred Niels Arnold
University of Kansas Medical Center


Walt Disney (1901-1966) is an entertainment industry icon, whose contributions include creation of films (both animated and live), production of television shows, and construction of theme parks. His success and visibility were so great in his lifetime that a generic term, ‘Disney Cartoon’, crept into the vernacular for all manner of animated screen items, which must have upset his predecessors in the medium and his subsequent competitors. But he was the first to develop a full-length feature film in animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. And Disney’s Fantasia, 1940, was the first successful realization of music as images: I remember being deeply impressed by this a year or so later in Australia; the more so as a pleasant distraction during WW II worries about Europe and the Pacific.

While The Animated Man succeeds in capturing day-to-day activities of the developing Disney industry, a large proportion of the book is devoted to labored detail. The narrative is sometimes difficult to follow at first reading because of a paucity of chronological hallmarks and unconvincing chapter headings. Readers of Leonardo Reviews will probably expect a more analytical view of the man who became a household name, and anticipate a more philosophical discussion on the strengths and weaknesses of animation techniques as developed by one of its prime movers. They will be disappointed on both scores. On the other hand, the attention to Walt’s older brother Roy Disney (1893-1971) is welcome, and he certainly comes across as a steadying influence in their overlapping careers.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs opened in December 1937, and just six months later Disney received honorary degrees from Harvard and Yale Universities. At the former ceremony, the recipient had the good grace to acknowledge that he wished he had a college education. Michael Barrier was surprised that each honor was only a Master of Arts. On the other hand, some of us think that the honorary doctorate has become a bit of a give-away in recent years.

During the early corporate years Disney was always self-confident but bordered on being a benign despot according to Barrier. Things reached a head in the spring of 1941. Under economic pressure from their bank and shareholders, Walt Disney Productions felt a necessity to scale back costs. Each laid-off employee was assured by Walt himself that "this release is not based on unsatisfactory performance on your part." Not unreasonably, one of them had the temerity to ask what he should do instead, and Disney replied "Start a hot-dog stand." A picket line of dissident workers went up at the end of May. Thereafter, Disney remained generally disturbed about organized labor, and in 1947 he actually testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee that some former workers who had instigated the 1941 strike were Communist sympathizers.

Some of the black and white illustrations are curious choices and suggest deficiencies in research, fact-checking, and editing. For example, below one of the ganged photographic reproductions starting after page 236 the caption refers to a Disneyland "monorail" when obviously it is a regular pair of rails, albeit of small gauge. A photograph of Walt Disney and actor Richard Todd could easily have been cropped rather than include an "unidentified third man." Again, an "unidentified lawn-bowler" at the clubhouse of Smoke Tree Ranch, Palm Springs, is given equal weight to Walt within a half-page photograph — surely a more informative action shot of Disney on his own could have been discovered.

Walt Disney died of lung cancer in Los Angeles, December 15, 1966. Two years later his image appeared on a U.S. postage stamp (6 cents); just one of many recognition items befitting his substantial contributions. The old studios are now part of a multi-billion dollar media corporation that carries his name. Michael Barrier resides in California and is the founding editor of the magazine Funny-World. He is also the author of Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, published in 1999.



Updated 1st November 2007

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