I’ve just read Neal Gabler’s definitive biography of Walt Disney, only a few weeks after seeing Danny Boyle’s movie STEVE JOBS, itself loosely based on the magnificent bio by Walter Isaacson. The confluence is striking: before the Gabler, I knew more about Jobs than about Disney, but there are so many similarities between these two pioneers that it’s actually amazing.
It has taken me nine years to get to WALT DISNEY. I bought it at pub in 2006 and knew I would eventually read it, but the hefty spine width kept dissuading me. I’ll bet you have books like that on your own shelf. Then a nice one on Bob Hope came out, and after that I was hungry to learn about another American institution. That’s the beauty of definitive biographies: they remain relevant no matter how much time has passed. I’m now going to dive into one about Charles Schulz, because I’m kind of revved on pop culture icons at the moment. But back to Jobs and Disney.
Both men were visionaries. Both could see where others couldn’t. Both were disruptors, game-changers, rebels, utter enemies of The Man. But Steve Jobs will always be remembered as the kid in the turtleneck, and Disney as the avuncular mustachioed host of a tv show, the harmless guy your parents felt safe leaving you with in the afternoon. Jobs died a “young man” at 56. While Disney lived only nine years longer, he came from two generations prior, when 65-year-old men had really earned their senior citizenship. We remember Walt older and Jobs younger, frozen in time like Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, James Dean, John F. Kennedy, David Foster Wallace and Edgar Allan Poe. Imagine all those people living into their sixties and beyond. Think about Keith Richards while you imagine.
“Disney” has become a word of scorn in some circles, denoting a family-friendly worldview, vaguely sinister in its insistence on order, punctuality, and wholesomeness. (For a funny, creepy depiction of this point of view, see the ingenious “guerrilla indie” ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW, which was surreptitiously shot at Disney parks.) Times Square has, thus, been “Disneyfied,” though Walt’s company’s only genuine footprints are one retail store and some popular and lucrative Broadway musicals. But this reputation was scratched out over decades by dint of vision and hard work, and in case you think Walt was some kind of Organization Man pansy, allow me to re-hip thee. Once he decided animation would be his vocation, Walt Disney was actually a major-league badass, and he had a real problem with authority. In a sleepy industry that fed movie theaters cheap filler, he pioneered dozens of innovations including sound, color, realistic rotoscoping and, most impressively, full feature length. With the arrival of the majestic SNOW WHITE in 1937, a “cartoon” didn’t introduce the feature; a cartoon could be the feature.
Walt could mesmerize (some would say manipulate) his colleagues by the force of his personality. He matched Jobs’s “reality distortion field” with what longtime animator Ken Anderson described similarly: when Walt was pitching an idea, Anderson said he exuded a “magnetic field.” He knew the entire picture in such detail that it took him three hours to tell the story of SNOW WHITE, and his audience was not only rapt, it was insanely motivated to create something transcendent, something that would change the world. I heard echoes of Jobs while reading about this. For his adaptation of Felix Salten’s BAMBI, Walt insisted on the tragic early death of the title character’s mother against all advice, thus raising the power of animated drama to another vaulting (and child-traumatizing) level.
In the movie, Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak confronts Jobs and asks him just what it is that he does. “You’re not a coder,” says Woz, you’re not this or that, what exactly do you contribute? In response, Jobs likens himself to a musical conductor, and that’s what Walt was too. “He’s a genius at using someone else’s genius,” griped an animator, complaining that Walt was sucking up too much personal credit. But without him, there would have been no credit to apportion. Like Jobs, Walt saw what people wanted before they even knew they wanted it. To deliver, he invented a method of labor distribution that is still used in animation today, even when it’s being realized on a computer.
Steve Jobs lost his company and was hired back as a returning hero; Walt Disney slogged through one existential crisis after another. It is excruciatingly difficult and expensive to produce an animated feature (just ask the folks at Jobs’s Pixar), and one or two so-so box-office returns could threaten Walt’s leadership and make bankers so sour that the studio was reduced to making propaganda films during World War II just to stay afloat. Walt’s brother Roy was the money man and tried his best to rein in his sibling, but the dreamer always asked for forgiveness rather than permission. It’s heart-rending to read that such gems as FANTASIA and PINOCCHIO almost cost Walt his business, since the fullness of time has revealed them to be masterpieces. But he lived on the brink of insolvency, time and again.
Like Jobs, Walt was self-absorbed and had few real friends. He was a doting and loving father to his two daughters, but he was married to his studio, and was paternalistic even there. He became a notorious union-buster after “my boys” broke his heart by striking, and as the company inevitably got bigger, so did the distance from his staff. Ever prescient, Walt realized that he needed to find an easier, quicker method of production, and nature documentaries became “True-Life Adventures.” Before he knew it, live-action was at the helm, culminating in the mega-smash MARY POPPINS. But Walt’s mind was already off in the distance.
Disneyland wasn’t just an amusement park to Walt, any more than the iPhone was just a telephone to Steve Jobs. Walt’s “Happiest Place On Earth” was a callback to the town of Marceline, Missouri, where he briefly lived as a young boy and which he lionized for his entire life. In homage to Marceline, Walt willed Disneyland into being (and Walt Disney World some years later). He played his tv network, the lowest-rated ABC, like a violin, and the resulting cross-promotion was so intense that by the time the park officially opened on July 17, 1955 (the best day of his life, said his family), with Walt riding a horse alongside Fess Parker in his “Davy Crockett” coonskin cap, a capacity crowd already awaited at Minute One. Ray Kroc, then just getting started, had wanted in on Disneyland; Walt palmed him off on a minion, and Kroc went away to build McDonalds.
The book is full of examples of Walt’s exceptionalism. People frequently thought he was crazy. People frequently resented him for pushing them too hard. He was not a perfect man, or even a perfect boss. But when the Chiat/Day ad agency created a series for Steve Jobs called “Think Different” (in the movie, I was delighted to see Jobs’s daughter correct the grammar in a fit of pique), it honored such Different Thinkers as Einstein, Dylan, Branson, King, Edison, Ali, Gandhi, Hitchcock, Picasso — and Jim Henson. Dude, Henson wouldn’t even be there without Walt Disney, and chances are, given the ubiquity of Walt’s creations, neither would you. Walt Disney should have been up there in your pantheon too, and if you couldn’t recognize that, Steve, then he wins the vision thing.
12/18/15: The organization that Walt built just opened its latest flick. They’ve still got that cross-promotion thing down, man.