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The Disney magic

The life and work of animation's restless king are well sketched in new biography

Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination
By Neal Gabler
Knopf, 851pp., illustrated, $35

Speak the name Walt Disney and someone is bound to reply, in all seriousness, "Isn't he the guy who had himself frozen?" It's an ironic outcome that a man who towered over the world's popular entertainment during his lifetime, with a growing cultural legacy down to the present, has to share his posthumous reputation with an urban legend apparently concocted by a supermarket tabloid. His latest biographer, Neal Gabler, debunks the story right at the start. No, Disney's body was not cryogenically preserved. At his death in 1966 it was cremated and the ashes interred.

The disputed disposition of Disney's remains is more than matched by the controversies surrounding his life and work. Was he an anti-Semite, as an earlier biography alleged? Was he an exploiter of other peoples' talent who failed to give them proper credit -- "a genius at using someone else's genius," as an ex-employee put it? Most significantly, has the global ubiquity of Disney parks, products, and artifacts -- the toys and dolls, animated and live-action movies, that we absorb into our consciousness almost before we learn to speak -- had a positive or a deleterious impact on American and world culture?

This last question will always produce more argument than answers, giving added importance to the rich detail and exhaustive combing of sources that Gabler offers in his massive new biography. Both an accomplished cultural critic and a skilled popular writer, with an acclaimed study of Hollywood's Jewish moguls, "An Empire of Their Own," and a biography of gossip columnist Walter Winchell among his credits, Gabler gained unprecedented access to Disney's personal and company archives, and narrates both the good and the bad of Disney in comprehensive chronological form. In a literary environment in which tearing down heroes is the biographical norm, and with plenty of ammunition from Disney's many enemies and detractors at his disposal, Gabler nevertheless has crafted a poised and admiring portrait, if at times admonitory and, at others, poignant and sad.

How could one not stand in awe of Disney's lifetime achievements? A bare -bones list indicates his profound influence on worldwide popular culture and entertainment: The first fully synchronized sound animation, " Steamboat Willie " (1928), introducing Mickey Mouse, who soon became a global icon to rival Charlie Chaplin. Technicolor animation. Feature animation. Pioneering movie studio participation in television broadcasting. Fostering color television. The Disneyland theme park in California -- with plans for Disney World and EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) in Florida underway at his death.

Gabler's aim is not merely to recount this career -- which he does through extensive treatment of its creative, technological, and financial aspects -- but to explain it, to find its meaning and motivation in Disney's personal story. Born in Chicago in 1901 into an economically struggling and peripatetic family, Disney spent his early years in a small Midwestern town, Marceline, Mo., before moving to Kansas City and back to Chicago. Performing and drawing shaped a world of make-believe that shielded him from a cold and withholding father and dreary odd jobs that helped make ends meet. In his early 20s, seeking work as a cartoonist, he began making animated films as ads and promotions for Kansas City firms. He branched into making short films combining animation and live action, and made the jump to Hollywood.

Gabler draws out two motifs from this early history. In one strand, the driving emotions behind Disney's animation narratives stem from his youthful struggles. His world-renowned first feature animation, the 1937 "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," Gabler writes, "had nearly all the narrative features -- the tyrannical parent, the sentence of drudgery, the promise of a childhood utopia -- and incorporated nearly all the major themes of [Disney's] young life." Notions of an alternative world and a utopian community are regularly invoked as Disney's artistic compensation for the perceived inadequacies of his childhood and his nostalgic re imagining of a simple, wholesome Midwestern small-town way of life.

The second strand, accompanying but also contradicting the first, is control. Through inexperience, Disney lost his 1920s silent cartoon character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, to a distributor with whom he was feuding. Thereafter control became a fetish -- over business, over product, over the Magic Kingdoms that he sought to create in his fictions and, not least, his studio. His benevolent paternalism over a small band of dedicated co-workers may have actually worked in the heady first years of success in the early 1930s. "This whole place runs on a kind of Jesus Christ communism," he told a studio employee.

But discontented animators went out on strike in 1941, and Disney believed that they were inspired by Moscow-style communism. Later accusations of anti-Semitism grew out of this bitter encounter. He became a rabid anti-communist and joined a right-wing film industry group that included many vocal anti-Semites. Gabler contends that the charge against Disney arises from his association with these figures, but not from any personal animus or behavior.

Four decades after its founder's death, the ever-expanding Disney empire is one reason why, as Gabler concedes, "arguments over Walt Disney and his legacy continue to rage." Gabler's subtitle may indicate where he stands, but it won't placate dissenters who contend that Disney's penchant for control has fostered an entertainment culture that corrals and channels response, rather than opening up possibilities for creativity and free imaginative play. Or perhaps "The Triumph of the American Imagination" is one more irony in the Disney story, a subject for pathos rather than celebration.

Robert Sklar is the author of "A World History of Film."

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