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Home --> News Archive: November, 2006
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November 15, 2006  

From the New York Times - by MICHIKO KAKUTANI

The reputation of Walt Disney — the father of Mickey Mouse, the architect of Disneyland and the man once dubbed the 20th-century Aesop — has gone through more violent swings than that of nearly any other popular artist. Skip to next paragraph

Sergei Eisenstein proclaimed his work “the greatest contribution of the American people to art.” The critic Mark Van Doren called him a “first-rate artist” who “knows innumerable truths that cannot be taught.” And Gilbert Seldes described him as a revolutionary who had slyly undermined the rationalist viewpoint of the modern world.

But as early masterpieces like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Fantasia” gave way to increasingly banal and formulaic movies — as Mickey evolved from an antic, devil-may-care fellow into a kinder, gentler, more domesticated creature — critics began to turn on Disney. He came to be seen as an avatar of middle-brow Middle America and Hollywood’s relentlessly commercial ethos: a purveyor of the synthetic, the sanitized, the puerile and the cloyingly cute.

The scholar Vincent Scully dismissed him as an entrepreneur who substitutes facsimiles of experience for the real thing and “so vulgarizes everything he touches that facts lose all force.” And in the now classic 1968 book “The Disney Version,” Richard Schickel denounced Disney as “a kind of rallying point for the subliterates of our society”: “as capitalism,” he wrote, “it is a work of genius; as culture, it is mostly a horror.”

In recent years the tide has begun to turn sharply in Disney’s favor. Following Steven Watts’s 1998 book, “The Magic Kingdom” — which described Disney as “a major architect of modern American culture” and “perhaps the pre-eminent interpreter” of the nation’s fantasy life — there comes Neal Gabler’s new biography, “Walt Disney,” which asserts that this animator not only created a new art form, but also “changed the world.”

As Mr. Gabler sees it, Mickey Mouse’s creator and alter ego “refined traditional values,” “reinforced American iconoclasm, communitarianism and tolerance and helped mold a countercultural generation.” He also credits Disney with helping establish “American popular culture as the dominant culture in the world,” and encouraging and popularizing “conservation, space exploration, atomic energy, urban planning and a deeper historical awareness.”

Thankfully, such breathless hyperbole is largely confined to the opening and closing sections of this book; the remainder is devoted to giving the reader a thoughtful, incisive and largely straightforward account of Disney’s life and career, from his Midwestern childhood to his apotheosis as the nation’s “Uncle Walt” and the proprietor of the world’s most famous amusement park.

Disneyland combined nostalgia for a halcyon, nonexistent past with utopian fantasies of Tomorrowland. As Mr. Gabler sees it, the park embodied both its creator’s candified memories of his own youth — a boyhood idyll in the small town of Marceline, Mo., would be memorialized in the park’s Main Street — and his need to turn what he saw as a threatening world into a safe, controllable habitat.

“As Disneyland was designed to block out the world,” Mr. Gabler writes, “it was also designed to offer a particular kind of psychological experience that one didn’t ordinarily find at an amusement park or carnival, much less in reality. Most amusement parks, in fact, were like the Warner Brothers cartoons of the late 1940s — noisy, chaotic, bombastic, subversive. One was made to feel that the social rules didn’t apply there, that one was entirely free. Walt Disney, the purveyor of comfort, intended his park to provide just the opposite — not freedom but control and order.”

The power of fantasy and wish-fulfillment, of course, informed most of Disney’s work, and the drive to live within his “own illusions and even to transform the world into those illusions,” Mr. Gabler argues, stemmed from the animator’s own youth.

“During a peripatetic childhood of material and emotional deprivation, at least as he remembered it, he began drawing and retreating into his own imaginative worlds,” the author writes. “That set a pattern. His life would become an ongoing effort to devise what psychologists call a ‘parcosm,’ an invented universe, that he could control as he could not control reality. From Mickey Mouse through ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ through Disneyland through Epcot, he kept attempting to remake the world in the image of his own imagination, to certify his place as a force in that world and keep reality from encroaching upon it, to recapture a sense of childhood power that he either had never felt or had lost long ago.”

The portrait of Disney that Mr. Gabler draws in this book is one of a lonely, eccentric, immensely gifted man: an ambitious workaholic, driven more by perfectionism than by dreams of entrepreneurial power; a dreamer, obsessive about whatever project captured his imagination, be it a cartoon mouse, animatronic robots, miniature trains (he installed a small railroad that ran around his property in Holmby Hills), or the elaborate, kitschy dreamscape of Disneyland.

Though Mr. Gabler notes that Disney was a doting father to his two daughters, it’s clear that work occupied the center of his life: his wife, Lillian, complained in the early years that she had become a “mouse widow” and later observed that her husband, who spent most of his time at the park, knew where every nail in Disneyland was located.

Mr. Gabler — the author of such earlier works on popular culture as “Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality” and “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood” — gives us a wonderfully tactile understanding of Disney’s early achievements in the art of animation, showing us the technical innovations he pioneered, while tracing the lineaments of his evolving aesthetic.

He also shows how a painful 1941 strike destroyed the collegial atmosphere of Disney’s studio, embittered Disney and galvanized his fierce anti-Communist politics. Mr. Gabler documents the fallout that World War II had on the studio: in the ensuing years, rival animators like Joseph Barbera and William Hanna, and Tex Avery, Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones at Warner Brothers, would feel increasingly emboldened to challenge the Disney style. And he chronicles how Disney began, in the late 1940s, to feel he had lost his way — a sense of drift that would be exorcised only with the passion he conceived for constructing Disneyland.

In the end Mr. Gabler’s approach is more psychological than sociological, and while he fails to grapple with the consequences of the giant commercial snowball that Disney unleashed upon the world, his decidedly nonjudgmental approach succeeds in leaving the reader with a visceral appreciation of the emotional drives that underlay Disney’s original achievement.

“But in the final analysis,” Mr. Gabler writes, “the deepest appeal of Disneyland may have been less the perfection itself than the construction of it, as it had been in the Disney animations where the theme of responsibility meshed with the act of creation. Whatever else Disneyland did, it gave its visitors not just the vicarious thrills of the characters whose personas they assumed on the rides or their sense of triumph; it gave them the vicarious power of the man who had created it all: Walt Disney.”

November 9, 2006  

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The Walt Disney Co. (NYSE:DIS - News) on Thursday posted a higher quarterly profit, boosted by strong results from its movie division, media networks and theme parks. Revenue rose 14 percent to $8.8 billion from $7.7 billion in the year-ago quarter.

Analysts, on average, expected net earnings of 33 cents per share and revenue of $8.7 billion for the fourth quarter, according to Reuters Estimates.

Disney shares rose 28 percent during fiscal 2006 as a bumper crop of strong movies and shows, including ABC's "Lost" and "Grey's Anatomy," "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," and "Cars," fueled growth in all its business units.

The stock rose about 8 percent in the quarter, and traded on Thursday at 19.6 times Disney's estimated fiscal 2007 profit, while shares of Time Warner Inc. (NYSE:TWX - News) traded at a multiple of 19.4 times forward earnings and Viacom Inc. (NYSE:VIA - News) at 17.5.

November 9, 2006  

BURBANK, Calif.--(BUSINESS WIRE)-- The Walt Disney Company (NYSE:DIS - News) today reported earnings for the fourth quarter and fiscal year ended September 30, 2006. Diluted earnings per share (EPS) for the fourth quarter increased 89% to $0.36, compared to $0.19 in the prior-year period, reflecting growth at Studio Entertainment, Parks and Resorts, and Media Networks. For the year, EPS increased 34% to $1.64, compared to $1.22 in the prior year, reflecting growth at each operating segment.

"Disney had a spectacular year, posting record revenues, record net income, and record cash flow," said Bob Iger, president and chief executive officer of the Walt Disney Company. "It is a result of the incredible creativity at our company."

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