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Walt Disney Bio Earns a Rave


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Here's the review:

Speaking of classics, this book is one. It should capture every worthwhile award. Meticulously researched over seven years, with material never before published, "Walt Disney" is the story of a man who overcame many obstacles, including those of his own making. It is the quintessential Horatio Alger myth writ large.

I have some vague idea that I'd heard about this book long ago, and that it wasn't well received. Maybe that was some other biography of Disney, or another of Gabler's books.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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FWIW, this bio (which, BTW, is named Walt Disney and the Triumph of the American Imagination), is one of two Disney bios coming out soon. The other is by Michael Barrier (of Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age fame), and it's titled The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney. They both look fascinating and I plan to read them when they come out and some library in the area picks them up.

Edited by David Smedberg

That's just how eye roll.

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  • 1 year later...

I picked up on this bio in the Ratatouille thread. It's outstanding. I listened to it in an audio version, which I came to discover, at the end of the recording, is an abridgement. I don't know what got left on the cutting-room floor.

One thing I felt like the biography left out -- maybe the print edition has it -- is the extraordinary after-life of so many Disney films. Many of the classic animated Disney films were middling performers, if not outright disappointments, at the box office upon initial release, and the studio was struggling to stay in the black from the time of Pinocchio on. (Basically everything after Snow White and Seven Dwarfs.) IIRC, Pinnochio was next, then Dumbo, but the former proved a disappointment and the latter, while doing a bit better, wasn't nearly a hit on the scale of Snow White. Fantasia was seen as a pet project of Walt's, and I don't believe it did all that well upon its initial release.

While listening to the book, I kept waiting for the signs of a turnaround -- probably the re-releases of the films, which, I surmised, brought in huge revenues as the reputation of the films, and of the studio itself, began to grow. The bio tells of the development of TV, and how Disney's program was a godsend of sorts in terms of generating revenue for the studio as its animated shorts began to dry up in terms of commercial viability. The studio had long since moved on to live-action films.

So when, exactly, did the animated classics become, well, classics in the mind of the public? I remember how well the films did in re-release in the 1980s, and how they thrived theatrically even during the VHS age, although the theatrical re-release platform made less fiscal sense as time wore on. Still, the biography pretty much stops with Walt's death in 1965. Disney has re-released Snow White to great acclaim and huge revenues, following another studio's lead. But we don't hear about a re-release of Pinocchio, or Dumbo, or Fantasia.

Funny, then, to come across this list today of all-time box-office champs, based on adjusted gross, and see Snow White (#10), 101 Dalmations (#11, and one of the later Disney animations that Gabler informs us Walt didn't really care about!), Fantasia (!!) (#20!), Mary Poppins (#23), The Jungle Book (!) (#27, and another one from the era in which Walt was more hands-off), Sleeping Beauty -- an outright financial and critical disappointment upon initial release (#28), Pinocchio (#36 -- HOW??), Bambi (#45 -- forgot about this one; it went into production after Snow White, I think, but wasn't released until after Dumbo ... I think, and was, again, a disappointment financially), Lady and the Tramp (#66), and Swiss Family Robinson (#78).

(I skipped the Buena Vista releases, including The Lion King and the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, as well as the Pixar movies.)

I'm assuming that these adjusted receipts include box-office re-releases. That's a truly extraordinary amount of gigantic box-office hits, but the biography leaves one thinking that several of these movies were financial disappointments. That's my only gripe with the book, which surely reflects the anxieties and fiscal concerns of the studio for many decades, but which doesn't inform readers of when, exactly, the tables turned and the financial picture began to not only brighten, but shine like a diamond.

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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It's been about a year since I "read" the book (audible's version, which I believe was unabridged). And I, too, was mesmerized.

I think the turnaround came with television and the theme park. After that, and the constant repetition of classic Disney characters on television, did the Disney trademark really take off and turn a profit.

BTW... you should most definitely "read" Steve Martin's bio next... it's a perfect follow-up, for reasons made more evident when you read it.

Nick Alexander

Keynote, Worship Leader, Comedian, Parodyist

Host of the Prayer Meeting Podcast - your virtual worship oasis. (Subscribe)

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  • 2 weeks later...
BTW... you should most definitely "read" Steve Martin's bio next... it's a perfect follow-up, for reasons made more evident when you read it.

Nick: A giant THANK YOU to you for this recommendation. I just finished the audiobook of "Born Standing Up" during my morning commute. It's been a pure delight. Listening to Martin do some of his earlier routines brings back vague memories from the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I was a wee lad (I was born in 1970, but remember listening to Martin's records with an older friend, and trying to appreciate the material).

I wanted more about Martin's movie career, but the book's focus is his stand-up career. As such, I found it illuminating and highly enjoyable. I even got a little weepy toward the end.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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