Editor’s Choice December 2006

Walt's World

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As did Schickel and Watts, Gabler stresses Disney’s early commitment to innovation—he consistently eschewed his successful formulas in favor of what he called “another street to work on—and to perfection. A merciless but inspiring boss, Disney demanded that his animators lavish extravagant and hugely expensive care on their work. With every cel and every gag subject to endless, systematized analysis (Disney is indisputably one of the premier story editors in motion-picture history), the Disney studio of the 1930s resembled both a rationalized factory and a medieval guild.

It was a formula for superb anima­tion (the incremental, perfectionist approach probably reached its apogee with 1937’s Snow White, a movie four years in the making that the great film critic Otis Ferguson hailed at the time as “among the genuine artistic achievements of this country”)—and for bankruptcy: despite his immense popular success, Disney never could find a way to make this glacial and inherently risky approach seem like a sound investment to the bankers on whom he was ultimately dependent. (In this way, Disney’s experience epitomized the inevitably crazy-making aspect of putting out movies, a colossally complex endeavor that perforce unhappily marries art and commerce.) The golden age was over very soon after it was consolidated: producing propaganda films for the government kept the studio afloat during World War II, and by war’s end, given the stringent demands of his creditors, Disney had realized that his movies, as Gabler nicely puts it, “would never be as good as the films he had made before the war—never as beautifully animated, never as deliberately plotted, never as pains­takingly fussed over, never as fully the product of a near-religious commitment to greatness.”

Of course, the end of the golden age of Disney animation marked the start of both the studio’s precipitous artistic decline and its astonishing economic success—a success that ultimately freed it from the constraints imposed by the outside money boys. But if Disney shunned his gifts, he nevertheless pursued his vision. The string of efficiently made, schmaltzy, gimmicky, or quaintly earnest nature films, live-action movies, dumbed-down and hokey “classics,” and TV shows that Disney produced in the 1950s and ’60s genuinely and profoundly embodied his interests and sensibilities—as did the occasionally great achievement, such as Mary Poppins. Like the preternaturally cheerful Disneyland, with its nostalgic “Main Street, USA,” they represented to him, and to his huge and devoted audience, the safe, the bland, and—to a large extent—the mindlessly comforting (in a mock condemnation of Mary Poppins, an editorial in The Kansas City Star denounced the movie for spurning sardonic satire and the other emblems of “cinema that is Really Worthwhile”).

For decades the sophisticated and the well educated somewhat understandably sneered at this passionless and anodyne withdrawal. But that Walt Disney—a man who never learned to catch a ball because as a boy he never had time to play, and a man who adored the soda-fountain confections he hadn’t been able to afford as a child—beat such a retreat wasn’t really surprising, and was far more sad than contemptible. That his later audience also preferred what they saw as wholesome comforts over daring and clever cinema—or even authentic experience—should perhaps also arouse more sympathy, or at least scrutiny, than disdain.

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Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantic's literary editor and national editor. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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