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Book Review: 'The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney'

Russell Bekins caught up with Alexandre Petrov and talked with the filmmaker about his new film, My Love, as well as his career and his love of animation.

Michael Barrier's The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney is by far the most straightforward telling of the Disney legend ever published, concentrating on Disney's achievements.

About 195 pages into Michael Barrier's biography of Walt Disney, The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney, there is an anecdote told by Wilfred Jackson. A seemingly insoluble technical problem had arisen during the filming of Song of the South, and an entire production crew was stymied. Walt Disney arrived on the scene, summed up the problem, and then solved it with what appeared to be minimal effort. This short tale not only describes Disney's sharp mind; it also symbolizes the direct, concise route taken by Barrier himself in this, the latest lineation of Walt Disney's life.

There have been many biographies of Disney over the years, and they all share, to some degree, a similar failing. From Richard Schickel's denigrating effort in 1968 (The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney) to Leonard Mosely's fanciful account in 1985 (Disney's World, A Biography), to Neal Gabler's recent work (Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination), biographers seem to feel that no history of Disney is complete without an analysis of the man's purported personality. This need to explain Walt Disney's unique psychology reached its grotesque nadir in 1993 with Marc Eliot's incoherent, barely credible psychoanalysis of Walt (Walt Disney). There is Walt and there are his achievements but, as Barrier reveals, only the latter is truly open to examination.

Barrier's telling of the Disney legend is by far the most straightforward ever published, concentrating on Disney's achievements and leaving conjectures about his innermost thoughts untouched. For all his fame and renown, Disney was perhaps one of the most insular figures associated with Hollywood. His friendships were few, his partnerships short-lived and his social life minimal. Concerned with perfection and control, driven by an ever-expanding universe of interests, Disney was so self-absorbed that it was difficult for him to see that other human beings simply could not think like him. Barrier highlights this point in his introduction by opening the book with Disney's egocentric and ill-fated speech to a studio on the verge of going on strike (The introduction is sagely titled "All About Me").

Walt was not one to bare his soul or share intimacies with anyone, and this is the fact that many of his biographers did not -- or refused to -- grasp. In realizing that Walt Disney left very little behind to psychoanalyze, Barrier undertakes to understand the man through his projects and his ever-expanding vision of a world that could be (with the right hand at the till) perfected into a utopia. Barrier's Disney is, in the final analysis, a protean figure whose true self can only be dimly glimpsed through the varied and crowded interstices of his works.

There is the Disney that encouraged and guided the development of startlingly new animation techniques, the Disney that learned to build scale locomotives by hand, the Disney that clawed a tortuous financial path to the realization of his first theme park, and the Disney that turned out live-action films that, though inferior to anything his studio had even animated, were tightly under his control and direction. The same Disney that planned to regulate the life of an entire city is the same one that sweated over building a miniature piece of furniture well into the night. The same Disney whose obsessive oversight permeated every frame of Snow White is also the Disney that virtually ignored Sleeping Beauty while building his Disneyland.

The difficult task in writing such a biography is deciding, then, which works to give primacy to. To lack balance in this regard is to risk giving an inaccurate picture of the subject. Fortunately for the reader, Barrier is well versed not only in Walt Disney's career but in animation's history as well. Events that are truly seminal are given more due, and thus reflect Walt Disney's real effect on both animation and culture. For example, some readers may be dismayed to find that the creation and initial production of Mickey Mouse commands only two pages, whereas other biographers have devoted entire chapters to the subject.

However, Barrier has taken the right path in this regard. As he correctly points out, Mickey Mouse was a formula character. Aside from his rampant popularity, there was nothing truly new or groundbreaking about Mickey in terms of design, personality, or action. In truth, the studio and its artists had not yet advanced enough for anything much different. Barrier does give much more attention to the design, story, and the role of the animators in creating the 1933 cartoon Three Little Pigs.

This cartoon is recognized as one of the most innovative and influential ever made, and Barrier recognizes this. Although it is lauded as a breakthrough in personality animation, Three Little Pigs is also novel in its depictions of movement and action. Barrier's analysis of Norm Ferguson and Fred Moore's animation in this short is excellent. In comparing their animation with that of Art Babbit and Hamilton Luske in a later short, The Pied Piper, Barrier gives a striking example of how the Disney studio was able to critique and refine its own goals for the medium as the studio readied itself for Snow White.

Readers will find, as they progress through the book, countless examples of Walt Disney's influence on animation, recreation, culture and television. Paradoxically, Disney grew into a public figure endeared by a nation even as he held himself deeply in reserve. Walt Disney had little to give to individual people, including insights into who he truly might have been. He had, however, much to contribute to animation, a medium that continues to develop and diversify to this day. In addition, one cannot examine American culture without acknowledging how much Disney shaped and reflected its images.

Whether these images are false or accurate, or for good or ill is a matter for other biographers; for Barrier they are simply a point of fact. Some readers, perhaps those more accustomed to exposés, celebrity gossip and paparazzi-fueled speculations about the rich and famous, may consider The Animated Man a dry biography. For those, however, who hold more interest in the deeper meaning of Walt Disney, Barrier delivers with the simple contention that: "By his works shall ye know him".

The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney by Michael Barrier. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007. 411 pages illustrated with 26 b/w photographs. ISBN-13: 978-0520241176. ISBN-10: 0520241177 ($29.95).

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.