×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

TV Review: ‘Walt Disney’

With:
With: Susan Douglas, Neal Gabler, Don Hahn, Carmenita Higginbotham, Richard Schickel, Ron Suskind, Steven Watts. Narrator: Oliver Platt

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.

TV Review: 'Walt Disney'

(Documentary; PBS, Mon.-Tues. Sept. 14-15, 9 p.m.)

Production: Produced by Sarah Colt Prods. with Arte for American Experience.

Crew: Executive producer, Mark Samels; senior producer, Sharon Grimberg; producer-director, Sarah Colt; writer, Mark Zwonitzer; story, Colt, Tom Jennings; camera, John Baynard; editors, Jon Neuburger, Mark Dugas; music, Joel Goodman. 4 HOURS

Cast: With: Susan Douglas, Neal Gabler, Don Hahn, Carmenita Higginbotham, Richard Schickel, Ron Suskind, Steven Watts. Narrator: Oliver Platt

More TV

  • How the 'Rich Eisen Show' Mixes

    How the 'Rich Eisen Show' Mixes Sports and Showbiz in an Entertaining Mix

    Walking through the El Segundo studio where veteran sportscaster Rich Eisen tapes his daily “Rich Eisen Show,” the sheer density of sports memorabilia is overwhelming — everything from game balls to jerseys, gear, autographs and uncountable photos are crammed onto every inch of wall and desk space. But step into Eisen’s dressing room, and the [...]

  • Whiskey Tango Cavalier

    TV Review: 'Whiskey Cavalier'

    The crux of “Whiskey Cavalier” can be found right in its protagonist’s name. “Will Chase” is a purposefully ridiculous wink of a name that tries to be both debonair and very silly all at once, just like the FBI agent (played by Scott Foley) to which it belongs. This isn’t a regular spy drama, “Whiskey [...]

  • Brody Stevens Dead

    Comedian Brody Stevens Dies at 48

    Prominent Los Angeles comedian Brody Stevens died Friday in Los Angeles, Variety has confirmed. He was 48. “Brody was an inspiring voice who was a friend to many in the comedy community,” Stevens’ reps said in a statement. “He pushed creative boundaries and his passion for his work and his love of baseball were contagious. [...]

  • Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by

    Malik Yoba to Reprise Role in 'New York Undercover' Reboot at ABC

    Malik Yoba, who starred as Detective J.C. Williams in the 90s show “New York Undercover,” is set to reprise the role in the ABC reboot, sources tell Variety. Picking up 20 years after the end of the original series, “New York Undercover” will follow detectives Nat Gilmore and Melissa Ortiz as they investigate the city’s [...]

  • Chris Burrous dead KTLA anchor

    KTLA Anchor Chris Burrous' Cause of Death Released

    An investigative report on KTLA anchor Chris Burrous has determined that his cause of death was attributed to methamphetamine toxicity, according to the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office. Burrous, 43, was found unconscious at a motel in Glendale, Calif on December 27, and later died at the hospital. The death has been ruled as accidental. [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    'Crazy Rich Asians,' 'Late Show With Stephen Colbert' Win Publicity Campaign Awards

    Hollywood publicists have selected “Crazy Rich Asians” as the top movie publicity campaign for 2018 and “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” as the best television campaign. Warner Bros.’ “Crazy Rich Asians” topped the campaigns for Disney’s “Black Panther,” Fox’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Paramount’s “A Quiet Place,” Sony’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” and Universal’s “Halloween” for [...]

  • THE MASKED SINGER: Rabbit in the

    Live+3 Ratings for Week of Feb. 11: 'Masked Singer' Easily Tops Competition

    Fox’s “The Masked Singer” was the highest-rated broadcast show of the week in both Live+Same Day and Live+3. For the week of Feb. 11, the unscripted singing competition series went from a 2.4 rating in adults 18-49 to a 3.4, a rise of 42%. In total viewers, the show went from 7.8 million viewers to [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content