Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Theme Parking: Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler

  • In the days leading up to PBS's American Experience, I found that I did not want to wait to learn more about Walt Disney. I did a quick Google search and eventually decided upon Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler. All of the reviews pointed to a thorough, modern examination of the man. With a handful of Audible credits available, I decided on the audiobook edition, read by Arthur Morey.

  • Gabler's biography is a mostly linear affair, from laying the groundwork for Disney's birth until his death. Some of the threads overlap, especially later in his life when Walt had multiple projects going at once. However, Gabler does a good job of reminding the reader of various milestones from other threads, so I never felt lost by the narrative. Gabler's prose is descriptive without being overly flowery. The book is more concerned with details than mood setting.

  • As one would expect, Disney's animation work takes up the majority of the narrative. From his initial shorts, through the creation of Mickey Mouse, to the feature films, Gabler devotes a lot of time describing the process of creation for each work. And, as expected, the triumph and setbacks of his business are a major component to the story.

  • Since I'm a huge Disneyland fan, I was very interested to see how the biography would describe its conception and construction. A couple times I fought the urge to skip ahead, especially during the Fantasia section. I came away slightly disappointed by how the subject was handled. That is likely my fault as that may be a better topic for a more Disneyland focused book than a biography could hope to provide.

  • My major issues with the biography are the facile conclusions Gabler draws to explain Walt Disney's personality. Each of Disney's actions either stem from a yearning for a childhood lost at the hands of his father or a personal drive to assert control over his life and environment. The way certain moments, right up until his death, were plucked to prove one of these assertions felt very Psych 101. By the end of the book, I found myself rolling my eyes whenever Gabler strayed from the narrative into analysis. The Walt Disney Family Museum has stated time and again that is supports fact based examinations of Walt Disney's life. While there is run for interpretation in biography, I think Gabler would have found himself in better standing had he followed that advice.

  • That aside, I found Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination to be a fascinating, well written examination of the man's life and work. I have no reservations recommending it to anyone interested in the subject, as long as they are forewarned about its one shortcoming.