We all know him as the man behind the mouse.
Walt Disney was a filmmaking icon and entrepreneur who pioneered animation with his Mickey Mouse cartoons and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and started a family theme-park empire in 1955 with Disneyland. But behind the genius was someone more complex, whose shrewd business sense and small-town boy-made-good persona masked a flawed, sometimes unlikable figure, explored in PBS’ four-hour American Experience documentary Walt Disney (Monday and Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET/PT).
“The challenge, and hopefully the success, of the film is making Disney a real person and not just a legend,” says director/producer Sarah Colt. “There were different levels of who he was — he wasn’t just this kind and affable old Uncle Walt. It doesn’t take away from the positive things that he did, but it’s not all perfectly happy.”
After charting his humble Missouri beginnings and rise from burgeoning cartoonist to movie mogul, the film devotes significant time to the oft-forgotten 1941 animators’ strike, when hundreds of Disney studio artists picketed over jarring pay discrepancies, which ranged from $12 to $300 a week depending on skill level. Walt Disney defended the disparity as a reward for employees who contributed more to the company, but ultimately left his brother, Roy, to settle the dispute as he vacationed in South America.
“It wound up dividing the studio and ended up destroying that sense of camaraderie he initially tried to infiltrate. It was kind of a Catch-22,” says Neal Gabler, author of the 900-page biography Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. Up until his death of lung cancer in 1966, at age 65, “Walt was a very tough taskmaster. It wasn’t because he wanted to assert his authority, it was because he wanted to make great films. He set the bar very high and expected everybody to jump that bar.”
Richard M. Sherman, who co-wrote music for the studio’s classic Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book and “It’s a Small World” theme-park ride with his brother, Robert, remembers Disney’s brusque demeanor.
“Walt had to be the leader, and he didn’t want anyone to get too cocky or too sure of themselves. To your face, he never said anything but, ‘That’ll work,’ ” Sherman says.
“He just expected everybody to give it everything they had. If you were the kind of person that had talent and got on the team and wanted to please the boss, you were there forever.”
The documentary does not address charges by his colleagues and relatives that Disney was sexist, anti-Semitic and racist, aside from the backlash against the now-banned Song of the South.
Colt defends her choice to omit these less-flattering qualities because, from her research, “There isn’t a smoking gun that shows Disney was anti-Semitic” (a view Gabler echoes). As for alleged racism and misogyny, “Disney was very much of his time and place,” Colt says. Hiring the studio’s first African-American animator, Floyd Norman, in the late 1950s and promoting female animators as time went on, “it wasn’t like he was so ahead of his time or behind the times that it felt like it was a remarkable thing.”
A second documentary that paints a less-contentious portrait of a cherished icon is PBS’ In Their Own Words special on Jim Henson. The one-hour film (Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET/PT) breezes through the life and career of the trailblazing puppeteer, whose Muppets (now owned by Disney) became children’s TV staples and pervaded pop culture with the sketch-comedy series The Muppet Show and subsequent movies.
That’s not to say the film overlooks darker chapters of Henson’s life, such as the box office disappointments of his ambitious fantasy films Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal in the 1980s. It also touches on his separation from his wife of nearly three decades, Jane, just four years before his death in 1990 at age 53 from a bacterial infection.
“PBS had a few mandates with us. One of them was very simple: Tell a complete story with respect, but don’t mince words,” says executive producer Chuck Dalaklis. And while some may argue that the legacy of Kermit the Frog and crew has been hit-and-miss over the decades (they return to TV on ABC’s The Muppets Sept. 22), “not every creation has a perfect sailing record. No matter what you create, there are always going to be choppy seas, and Jim knew that.”
Sid Philips is a father of two and a loving husband. He currently resides in Pennsylvania and has been a fan of Disney since his parents took him there in 1980! Sid has visited multiple Disney parks around the world and loves each one!
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