Walt Disney, The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler

The first half of Neal Gabler’s meaty tome on 20th-century America’s favorite uncle has the unexpected effect of making a reader want to watch cartoons. And if the reader is a baby boomer who can still recall the lyrics to a particular song in the Disney animated film Alice in Wonderland, then this book might lead to a weekend of renting such childhood memories as Bambi and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

But the breadth of Disney’s creative genius, overweening drive for perfection through total control and restless imagination soared way beyond the animations and famous mouse that captivated my generation, as well as my parents’ as teens. Gabler’s book aptly bisects Disney’s life, using World War II as the dividing line. The second half of this meticulously researched, straightforward bio should appeal to boomers’ children, so familiar with Disneyland and Disneyworld. Even fans of the most successful recent Disney franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean, can thank Disney, who approved the concept before his death in 1966 at age 65.

Gabler, the first writer to have access to the Disney archives, draws a complex portrait of the genial host of NBC’s The Wonderful World of Color. Disney was a visionary workaholic, a master of control, the sort of boss who could inspire animators — and browbeat them. He was a good father and loyal husband who once said that he “loved Mickey Mouse more than my own wife.” Disney’s mania for perfection, combined with his open-ended imagination, produced the enduring quality in much that he created.

The behemoth that is corporate Disney today began with a scrawny, 9-year-old kid put to work delivering newspapers before dawn by a stern task master father, Elias Disney, in Kansas City in 1911. Elias and Flora Disney and their five children moved to Kansas City after Elias failed at farming in Marceline, Mo. Walt would forever treasure Marceline as the idyllic small-town U.S.A., and it is widely agreed that he patterned his theme parks’ Main Streets after it.

Young Walt had a dreamy, cheerful personality and enthusiasm for everything but school. He spent his free time drawing and dabbled in acting. He fell in love with animation and opened an animation studio with his brother Roy in the 1920s. Walt handled the artistic side, Roy the business, an arrangement that lasted their lifetimes and perennially pitted Walt’s dedication to perfection against Roy’s tending to the bottom line. Walt’s breakthrough was a less-benign, more rascally rodent than the harmless, loveable Mickey Mouse of today.

Gabler details the struggle that Disney and his animators had to refine cartoons, seeking depth and detail. He became such a charismatic inspiration as a boss that “by the 1930s the Disney studio operated like a cult, with a messianic figure inspiring a group of devoted, sometimes frenzied acolytes.” Disney produced the first cartoon with sound and the first with color in the 1930s. He was feted as an innovator by film critics. When, in 1937, the cult produced the first full-length animated color feature — Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs — Disney was hailed as a genuine artist.

And, Gabler writes, Disney, who had an outsized ego, made sure that it was he alone who got the accolades. Disney told his artists that “their job” was to make him look good.

Part of Disney’s genius was in his restlessness. Whenever a unique project was completed, he sought a new challenge. Still, after the war, Disney was at loose ends and less interested in animation, which had earned him few steady profits. Also, by the 1950s, costs forced Disney to forgo perfection. His later animated films, Sleeping Beauty in particular, drew criticism because the artistry couldn’t stand up to his early work. He pushed the studio instead to produce nature movies and such live-action films as Old Yeller.

But by then, Disney had moved on in his imagination. A late-blooming love affair with model trains was the germination of what became Disneyland. He built a complete train set around his home large enough to carry people. From this came the idea of building a village through which a train would run. Disneyland was born.

At the theme park, Disney’s pet project was EPCOT. He loved blending commerce and technology, and Disneyworld came to represent his vision of a utopian America that educated and entertained. Fretting that he wouldn’t live long enough to see EPCOT built, considering it a big part of his legacy, he told a confidante: “Fancy being remembered around the world for creating a mouse!” He didn’t live to see it completed.

But as Gabler sees it, the man of unlimited imagination “had been not so much a master of fun or irreverence or innocence or even wholesomeness. He had been a master of order.” And out of that creative order came an incomparable legacy.