By Neal GablerKnopf
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.