Produced and Directed by Sarah Colt Story by Sarah Colt and Tom Jennings Narrated by Oliver Platt 2018. Color/Black and White. 240 Minutes Disney.
He’s an American business and cinematic icon. The modern day internet loves to display him as a nightmarish power-tycoon. Director Sarah Colt’s PBS AMERICAN EXPERIENCE documentary WALT DISNEY has to be the nearest we can get into this sometimes dark, frightening, lovable, living-the-dream whirlwind of energy and genius invention.
During the ever-changing 1920’s, young Walt Disney, wanting to break into the film industry, repeatedly struggled at numerous animated cartoon adventures, creating cartoon characters that seldom paid off. Many times Disney was financially drained, but he wouldn't give up. A lesser person would have yelled “To hell with these animated cartoons like Oswald the Rabbit! I'm getting a real estate license!” Disney persisted. Of course we all know that his 1928 early talkie cartoon short STEAMBOAT WILLIE, featuring a new star - Mickey Mouse - was a mega-sensation. Sarah Colt’s film shows how Mickey, at first, was not the familiar beacon of goodness and wholesome living we all know. He was a scrappy, trouble-seeking risk-taker who would get into your face. This was the cartoon character depression era America needed.
We see how his second cartoon series- SILLY SYMPHONIES were visually alarming, as well being rather avant-garde. Just look at his death-image-and-slapstick combination of his 1929 short, THE SKELETON DANCE, set in a very musical cemetery.
This documentary makes the evolution of Disney’s greatest risk - SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS exciting and suspenseful. Again, we know the outcome - that this then unlikely venture - a full length animated film, when the world only knew animated shorts, became one of the biggest hits of late 1930’s Hollywood.
We still cheer Disney on when he made his following animated features - PINOCCHIO, FANTASIA, BAMBI and others. Each of these films had their own visual look, tempo, and feel. Alarming period footage shows how Disney animators were over-worked, under-paid, and denied proper screen credit. Finally, in 1941, the animators cracked, and went on strike. Disney's revenge, a decade later, leaves a sour taste in your mouth.
This documentary also takes us through Disney’s most complex film - the “notorious” 1946 feature THE SONG OF THE SOUTH, which combines live action with animation. Is it a racist rant caught on film, deserving it’s current ban? Is it a valuable lesson to children and adults that interacting with other races can be fun and enlightening? That film does have that terrific advice given by Uncle Remus - “You can’t run away from trouble. There is no place far enough.”
This is a four hour documentary that moves very quickly - the same way Disney had boundless energy into his sixties, when he was expanding California’s Disneyland to Florida’s Disney World.
Think of him as a racist monster, or a complex visionary who changed world culture, or both. What side are you on? This is a rock solid, pulsating documentary.