The Seven Dwarfs going off to work in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney Studio’s first full-length animated feature which premièred in 1937, the five year process to complete the picture involved 600 employees.

Still from Czech animator Jan Svanjmajer’s Sílení (Alice), 2005, an eerie interpretation of Alice in Wonderland, mixing live action and animation.

Where the Wild Things Are Tamed: The Walt Disney Family Museum

Director Wes Anderson and actor Bill Murray discussing Anderson's animated feature Fantastic Mr. Fox at a press conference during the 2009 London Film Festival.

Scene from Disney's The Jungle Book, 1967, the last animated feature supervised by Disney before his death in 1966.

Still from Jay Ward's The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, from the Hanna-Barbera Studios, marked the rise of fast-handed television animation.

Still from Czech animator Jan Svanjmajer’s Sílení (Alice), 2005, an eerie interpretation of Alice in Wonderland, mixing live action and animaqation.

Scene from Gertie the Dinosaur, 1914, a short animated by Winsor McKay, though not the first animated film, as is sometimes thought, it was the first cartoon to feature a character with an appealing personality.

Promotional image for Ralph Bakshi's Fritz the Cat, 1972, an animated feature that received an X-rating for its street wise mise en scene and sexually explicit situations.

Still from Steamboat Willie, 1928, from Walt Disney Studios and acknowledged as the precursor of Mickey Mouse.

Walt Disney Studios background animation team, 1966.

 

The Walt Disney
Family Museum
104 Montgomery Street
The Presidio
of San Francisco
415-345-6800
San Francisco

By STEVE SHAPIRO

In the kind of irony that Cruella de Vil would find divine, the new Walt Disney Family Museum is set on the grounds of San Francisco’s Presidio, a former military compound. If a children’s animation center seems antipodean to a long history of troop training and deployment, well, Mickey and Donald did not draw themselves. For Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Walt Disney Studio’s first full-length animated feature which premièred in 1937, the five year process to complete the picture involved 600 employees; 150 girls auditioned for the voice of Snow White; a new multiplane camera was invented (to get the depth of illusion most animated cartoons still lack); some quarter-million drawings were made — and Walt still cut six months of finished footage. His troops may have drawn straight lines rather than marched in them, but Walt Disney was in charge in ways that would parallel Churchill.

Animation did not originate with Walt Disney; success — commercial and critical, national and international, technical and emotional — was achieved through this delicate art form by the studio for forty years (until his death in 1966, with the last supervised film, The Jungle Book, released the year after) in ways that have yet to be bettered. The museum, as its name infers, is very much about Disney’s family life, which turns out to be, if not a G-rated life, a slightly more complicated PG-13: Disney smoked, overworked, could be short with employees, vague about decisions, fidgety with his wife, grandiose in his schemes like Disneyland, prejudicial in his social views and recessive in his political beliefs (when his animators struck in 1941 for three and a half months to unionize over lack of credit and pay, which the museum to its credit touches upon, one protester’s replicated sign reads “Snow White and 700 Dwarfs”; animators who left included Walt Kelly of future Pogo comic strip fame). If Disney can appear all too much like one of his magnificent villains, it is equally too much to paint him entirely like Stromboli, Pinocchio’s cold-hearted puppet master. Perhaps, he was half-Pinocchio, half-Stromboli; after all, even the Disney studio’s villains have some kind of heart.

The museum’s greatest success comes not in fashioning a Disneyesque Walt Disney — too many biographies and other perspectives prove he was only mortal — but in displaying the Disney genius, as artist, imagineer and entrepreneur. Ten phases of his life, from “Beginnings” through “Hollywood” and “ ‘The Toughest Period in My Whole Life’ ” (the acrimonious animators’ strike) onto “The 1950s + 1960s: The Big Screen and Beyond” and “December 15, 1966” (his death and accolades from Op-Ed cartoonists and others), are threaded through three floors. Cels, animation drawings, macquettes, concept art (including the original sketches for Mickey Mouse) and storyboards are displayed. Some two hundred animated monitors cue a visitor to the ever-changing technology of the Disney Studio’s animators; and there is one unforgettable exhibit: one entire wall is given over to 384 individual frame enlargements of a one-minute scene of Mickey from Steamboat Willie.

The family’s interest is no doubt different from the general public’s and animators and animation fans, in particular: the parallel narrative of Disney’s life, especially once he is married, while revealed in rare family photographs and correspondence, lacks the intensity of Disney’s career. His family was more Mickey and Dumbo than his wife Liliane, daughter Diane and adopted second daughter, Sharon, or so it appears, from biographies like Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination and the Walt Disney Family Museum itself, which bespeaks of a man whose adult life was given over to remaking the childhood he never had.

His father, Elias, was never a success; he moved the family from California (where he prospected for gold, which sounds like a poignant plotline from a Disney movie) to Chicago, where Walt was born in 1901, then to a small farm in Marceline, Missouri, that Disney always held in his memory to be Paradise, especially after the family’s move to Kansas City, in 1911. Elias arrived as the Kansas City Star was expanding, and though he took on a delivery job it was Walt who did the actual door-to-door work. Gabler writes that it sucked all the air out of Walt’s imagination: he would briefly play with other children’s toys that he found on front porches and then return them exactly as they had been.

The process by which Disney learned his animation craft and then groomed the studio’s animators, shepherding not only the craftsmen but the musicians and actors, puts him in a league of his own. A recent New Yorker Profile on Wes Anderson’s making the stop-motion animation feature Fantastic Mr. Fox emphasized his attention to detail (he designed the characters’ costumes himself, reserving the same fabric for Mr. Fox that he uses). Disney pioneered all of that — he was every bit the auteur that Godard and Truffaut believed Hitchcock and Jacques Tati to be. The Walt Disney Family Museum is very good at framing the issue as both personal and organizational; there are handy audio-phones that yield prerecorded jovial anecdotes by studio employees (even if Disney’s sometimes erratic managerial style, half-badgering, half-coaxing, is an open secret).

The issue for many of his critics has been either that as his studio grew Disney lost his personal connection or that his personal aspiration became crippling to the art, creating an anodyne commercialized product. As for the first indictment, it is probably true: by the time of the TV show and the Mousketeers not to mention Disney’s holy grail to create Disneyland (which opened in 1955), Disney had given up micromanaging every aspect. For anyone with a vested nostalgic interest in the animated features, after 1959’s Sleeping Beauty the museum walk becomes faster as the live action movies and the lesser animated features (like One Hundred and One Dalmations and The Jungle Book) are crowded together. The evidence is onscreen, too: the flatter, color-ridden animated films of the Sixties heralded the rise of fast-handed animation TV (i.e., Jay Ward’s The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show) that Disney’s only true competitor, Warner Bros., was also losing out to. One can wonder if it was the business model that did in both Disney and Warner Bros. Children’s goods boomed in the 1960s, and however much certain animators remained artists the pressure to make money first doubtlessly produced the bastardized Saturday morning cartoons that have become, ironically, the cultural art of a generation.

As for the criticism of Disney as an imperialist masquerading as an artist, a capitalist cartoonist whose greatest creations were drawn by someone else, well, one must return to his sometime blighted childhood. His joy at learning to draw in Marceline, his art classes at the Kansas City Art Institute, his first business Laugh-O-Gram were all of a piece: an artist blooming. If as Neal Gabler reports in his biography, many years later Disney proposed turning his Marceline farm into a kind of shrine, I don’t believe it was because he had forgotten his past, but rather because the past was still present — it was just harder to find with Tomorrowland and Davy Crockett and songs for Mary Poppins to oversee. A master animator like Winsor McCay, whose Gertie the Dinosaur from 1914 was one of the first cartoons — a clip of which can be seen at the Walt Disney Family Museum — always remained distinctly personal; it is simply the difference between, say, Picasso and Matisse: a matter of style. The Czech animator, Jan Švankmajer, has put his puppet-theatre background to use in Surrealist stop-motion films; the same can be said for Osuma Tezuka the master manga and anime innovator, whose childhood interest in art and theatre were reinterpreted by him as an adult. Walt Disney’s blessing was Disney’s curse.

Animation is falsely reserved for children. Surely, anyone who has ever screened Švanjmajer’s eerie Alice or Ralph Bakshi’s X-rated Fritz the Cat knows better. Indeed, the most personal animator today, Hayao Miyazaki, a true auteur whose Japanese Studio Ghibli still turns out hand-drawn cels, has had had many of his films such as Princess Mononoke,Spirited Away, and Ponyo distributed by the Disney Studio. Miyazaki’s vivid colors, expressive compositions, and complex stories remind one that Walt Disney, a Depression-era success, once had that magic in his power. If he tamed the wild things inside him, in contrast to others who let them loose, he managed a few surprises along the way with a mouse, a duck, and seven dwarfs.

 

Still from Ponyo, 2008, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, was distributed in the U.S. by Disney.

Still from Spirited Away, 2001, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, was distributed in the U.S. by Disney.