Saturday, November 25, 2006

Disney's Genius

A modestly talented cartoonist whose real strength lay in his uncanny ability to anticipate the next big technological innovation, young Walt Disney was indifferent to money and material comfort, unfazed by the long string of setbacks he encountered as a fledgling motion picture animator, and completely unabashed when it came to borrowing and losing large sums of money from friends and family members who were inexplicably generous in financing his dreams.

Almost from the start, he and his brother Roy, who managed the business end of Disney Bros. Studios (later rechristened Walt Disney Enterprises), seemed to be several steps ahead of the crowd. His first major animation project was a silent series called the Alice Comedies, which anticipated Who Framed Roger Rabbit by more than 60 years, with its combination of a live human actor (Virginia Davis, who played Alice, as in Alice in Wonderland) and animated companion characters.

After a fallout with double-crossing business partners, Disney, as always on the verge of bankruptcy, worked night and day to develop a new character, a mouse with human-like qualities who would combine his own sense of adventure with a puckish spirit. In developing Mickey Mouse, he had to labor behind the backs of his staff animators, who were working in connivance with his former business partners to push him out of his own fledgling studio.

American Heritage reviews Neal Gabler’s new book on Walt Disney.

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