We’re celebrating the debut of the new documentary ‘American Experience: Walt Disney’, which will air September 14-15 on PBS. Be sure to come back Monday for an interview with the film’s director, Sarah Colt.
“He’s either the man who ruined American culture and brought all this fakeness into our lives, or he’s the man who inspired us and gave us hours and hours of entertainment.” -Neal Gabler, Biographer
This dichotomy, this constant state of wrestle, permeates the icon that is Walt Disney. On one hand is the warm, kind-spirited figure who greeted viewers on his weekly television show and lives on today in his theme parks as a mythic presence who inspires guests to follow their grandest dreams. On the other hand is a forceful, no-nonsense juggernaut who wasted no time with ideas or people who did not meet his standards of excellence. Which Walt is the real one? Who are we to believe? What was going on inside the mind of this creative genius about whose works we know so much, but about whose psyche we know so little? These are the questions that PBS’s newest American Experience installment explores as it presents a two-night documentary event airing September 14-15. The program does so with professionalism in a way that shares a complete perspective of Walt Disney’s career.
In an unbiased way not afraid of tainting Walt’s Midas-like appearance, this documentary whisks us through 65 years of Walt’s life chronologically using new interviews, clips from Disney films, and archival press footage. Much of Walt’s boyhood is skipped as we dive directly into his career aspirations, though we still get a firm grasp of who he is and where he comes from. With a total run time of nearly four hours spread across its two parts, the viewer receives an unprecedented journey through Hollywood history in a way that has plenty of breathing room to go at its own pace. This allows space to discuss nearly all aspects of anything related to Walt Disney. Typically, a limit on a program of this nature is that it might zoom in on one particular area rather than having the luxury of covering them all. The cinematography is professional; the tone enlightening.
The documentary swivels on the concept of Walt as a character within his own empire and presents him as just as fictional a personality as Mickey Mouse or Snow White. It even infuses direct quotes from Walt himself about the notion of the public image of Walt Disney being a completely different person than the real Walt Disney. And the real Walt Disney is what this documentary unearths. It depicts Walt as an authoritarian figure and explicitly emphasizes the failures of both his personal life and his studio. It will be difficult to view the reverential depiction of him inside the theme parks with the same lens after viewing the film. It assumes the viewer is entering the picture with the sugar-coated portrait of Walt in mind and bursts that bubble continuously. It is easy to look at the fruits of Walt’s labor today—still thriving decades after his death—and celebrate an accomplished life of dreams come true. And while Walt Disney’s inmost passions fueled many, many of his dreams to become realities, American Experience sheds light on the fact that Walt’s career was an ongoing struggle of fighting his inner demons and outward opposition. The inclusions of the artists’ strike and Song of the South are particularly raw and jarring to those accustomed to “Uncle Walt.” Because the documentary concludes we already know the warm, TV-fied Walt and have an emotional connection with his work and characters, it shies away from delving into that side of the Disneysphere (as a person and as a company). This documentary, perhaps for the first time, presents a production about Walt Disney with not enough spotlight on his charm. It strives to be unbiased, but in doing so perhaps falls a bit too much toward the starkly candid side.
This could very well be attributed to the limited availability of ideal interview subjects. Since the program makes the decision to only include newly recorded interviews filmed exclusively for this documentary, it lacks input from many deceased connections who worked closer with Walt than those represented here, most of whom are historians who never met him (although do have a firm grasp of his life). As far as friends’ perspectives, if Walt would have considered them as such, the closest we get are his son-in-law and former Disney CEO Ron Miller, as well as songwriter Richard Sherman.
For the most part, each major Disney production is touched on, beginning in the 1920s with the Laugh-O-Gram films. As the timeline progresses, the audience is treated to a mini making-of for each Disney animated film through 1950, after which animation is ignored and the attention is turned toward parks and television (save for, appropriately, Mary Poppins). It presents the exquisite opportunity to dive behind the scenes with a focus, not on the legacy of each individual film (as their Blu-ray bonuses depict), but on the level of Walt’s personal involvement with it. This still leaves out quite a few important key players, namely The Three Little Pigs (practically the Frozen of the 1930s) and Peter Pan (which Walt was reportedly personally invested in in a significant capacity). The package films of the 1940s are not even mentioned. If one didn’t know any better, one would assume the studio paused animation completely during the lull after the war until Cinderella (when in reality it just took a break only from feature animation).
American Experience brings forth, maybe for the first time ever, a full, 360-degree visual analysis of Walt Disney’s personal legacy. It does so in a way that bends any preconceived image the viewer may have of the entertainer while allowing for a deeper appreciation of his vision, even if that means shattering some of the goody-goody reputation his own company has placed on him for years. If at all possible, don’t watch this documentary by yourself. With access to Disney’s entire library of films, the documentary takes fantastic advantage of surprisingly long snippets from movies and television events, and each one prompts a verbal and visual response from every person in the room. From the sorrow of reliving the death of Bambi’s mother to the thrill of seeing a glimpse of the legendary Steamboat Willie (possibly for the first time… it’s easy to forget how uncommon something like it is), it is a joy to ride through Disney history with a room full of people positively influenced by this man’s drive. Whether they’re a Disney fanatic or they couldn’t even tell you the name of Walt’s brother, they’ll learn something. But, more than tangible information, they’ll feel something: an amplified recognition of who Walt Disney was and why, at tremendous personal cost, his magic kingdom excelled to one of America’s most ambitious success stories anchored by failure.
American Experience: Walt Disney airs September 14-15 at 9:00pm EST on PBS.
Are you excited for this documentary? Be sure to come back Monday to hear behind-the-scenes stories from director Sarah Colt!
Blake is a scriptwriter at Elevation Church, where he develops documentary shorts and creative elements as part of the film team. He graduated Appalachian State University studying Electronic Media Production and is an alumni of the Disney College Program. Blake’s favorite films are Mary Poppins, The Lion King, and Toy Story 3. You can find him on Twitter (@blake_242) and visit his blog at blakeonline.com.