Few lives can sustain a two-hour documentary, but with “Walt Disney,” four doesn’t seem nearly enough. Filmmaker Sarah Colt paints a portrait that’s far more complex than the avuncular presence people came to know — or feel like they did — hosting those Sunday-night TV introductions for “The Wonderful World of Disney.” Here, Uncle Walt is described as a man who was “restless and driven,” and whose genius and tenacity left a towering legacy despite his less admirable qualities. Even those who are familiar with Disney will likely come away with renewed appreciation of his contributions, in a film that, despite a few drawbacks, captures his inextricable link with Americana.
Inevitably, Colt and her key talking heads (more on that in a moment) can’t resist putting Disney on the couch to a degree, discussing how his idealized version of his youth in Missouri — the inspiration for what became Disneyland’s Main Street — stemmed in part from his emotionally withholding father. Biographer/cultural historian Neal Gabler speaks of Disney’s “dark soul,” and a former animator is quoted is saying of Walt, “If you crossed him, he was a mean SOB.”
Those personal elements and anecdotes, fortunately, are intricately woven into how Disney — with the help of his more business-minded brother Roy — birthed a new form of entertainment, developing and refining animation as an art form, as well as the merchandising that flowed from it. Narrated by Oliver Platt, the documentary includes parts that deftly transport the viewer to a darkened movie house in the 1930s, noting of “Snow White’s” premiere, “Audience members gasped at the opening shots of the Queen’s castle.”
Mostly, the project presents Disney as a visionary who often left it to Roy to sort out the financial details, and who thus kept pushing the company to the brink of bankruptcy to fulfill his demanding vision. The most indelible segment, however, closes night one and continues into the second part of the docu, charting how Disney dismissed complaints from his employees, who eventually went on strike in 1941. The episode not only forever changed Walt’s attitude toward his workers — he finally left it to Roy to settle the dispute — but prompted him to name names a few years later to the House Un-American Activities Committee, seeing communist influence underlying the labor movement.
Disney is also slightly pigheaded — soliciting input from experts about “Song of the South,” only to be dismayed when the movie received criticism for depicting happy, singing blacks on the plantation. Still, at times that personality trait served him well, including his determination to launch Disneyland, with jaw-dropping aerial views of the barren fields that he transformed into “the happiest place on Earth.”
All of this is meticulously chronicled by a vast assortment of experts and collaborators, although a handful of the former — among them Gabler and Ron Suskind — receive what feels like an inordinate amount of screen time. Granted, they’re all eminently quotable, but at times the mix feels slightly out of balance, tilted toward them and away from those closer to Walt, like son-in-law-turned-Disney chief Ron Miller and composer Richard Sherman.
Colt makes some tough choices, too, about what to emphasize, capturing the explosive popularity of “Davy Crockett” and Disney’s move into live-action movies, but covering less about the wheeling and dealing with ABC that helped finance Disneyland, or, for that matter, giving context in terms of the company’s trajectory after his death or the massive giant it has become (so big, in fact, that it’s worth disclosing my wife is among the 180,000 people who work there).
The exclusions are a quibble, admittedly, especially when there’s so much to recommend this “American Experience” offering. But if demanding excellence — to the point of occasionally being a bit of a jerk — is a fair appraisal of ol’ Walt, well, it’s certainly hard to argue with the results, or with demanding this portrait of him do the same.