A quick perusal of any major online bookstore yields numerous biographies of Walter Elias Disney. I should know, having emptied many piggy banks obtaining them over the years. These books run the gamut of objective to subjective, factual to conjectural, original to derivative, worshipful to denigrating. The best of them offer well-researched, balanced accounts of Disney’s life and works. The worst are tabloid slime containing a wealth of factual errors.
Now Disney has an opera detailing his purported last days. This piece of art tends towards the lower spectrum mentioned above, but that is not really the point of this column. A far more absorbing question is why it exists at all.
The Perfect American is the brainchild of minimalist composer Philip Glass and librettist Randy Wurlitzer. A fictionalized account of Disney’s decline in 1966, the opera is less than kind to Uncle Walt. He is portrayed as an alcoholic racist with a particular dislike for Jews and blacks. He is philandering with studio nurse Hazel George. His studio is depicted as an animation sweatshop, where anonymous artists toil for Disney’s greater glory. One of them, a chap named Wilhelm Dantine, is fired by Walt and spends much of the opera stalking him and witnessing his misdeeds, rather like a vengeful Jiminy Cricket.
Glass has become somewhat like the Ken Russell of his field. He composes operatic biographies of famous men such as Gandhi and Einstein, to name a couple. Glass apparently chose Walt Disney after reading Peter Stephan Jungk’s truly dismal novel, which makes Marc Eliot’s Disney biography look like a benediction. The Perfect American premiered at Teatro Real in Madrid in January of this year, to mixed reviews and an outpouring of hatred from the learned animation community.
I was able to see this opera (which is in English) on streaming video. I must immediately confess that I am not an opera buff and have little familiarity with the art form. I am a bit more familiar with Philip Glass, if only by dint of seeing a performance years ago at my college campus. He rather reminded me of Rick Wakeman playing octaves on the same five keys for ten minutes at a stretch, but that’s not a fair assessment of his total output. It is probably much more accurate to note that Mr. Wakeman might understand Disney far better than Mr. Glass. I have no idea if this production is a presentable opera, but I assure you that it is not accurate biography.
August historians of Disney were not slow in responding. Michael Barrier, who can likely relate what Disney ate for breakfast on a given day, lambasted the “insanely stupid” libretto as well as the source material. Animation maven Charles Solomon castigated Glass  for perpetuating false rumors about Walt (as well as the vicious portrayal of the man). Although reviewers did not know exactly what to make of The Perfect American, animation fans and experts on countless blogs and websites were clearly not pleased.
As if the opera were not enough, performance artist Paul McCarthy is ready to go on the road in June with “White Snow”, a scatological takeoff on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. McCarthy has a long history of working animation-related material into his outrageous and profane exhibitions, and his depiction of Walt follows suit. While performance art is loopy virtually by definition, audiences had best be prepared to see “Walt Disney” participate in a dizzying orgy that features him, Snow White, and seven penis-flapping dwarfs having at it. Another major flap occurred when New York Times feature writer Randy Kennedy likened Mr. McCarthy’s impersonation of Disney to that of Hitler. Clearly, 2013 seems to be open season on Walt Disney.
Some media analysts claim that a backlash against Disney the Megacorporation is in effect. Walt the man becomes a stand-in for the company he founded, a symbol of all that is hated about the far-reaching media conglomerate that devoured ABC, Marvel, and Lucasfilm, among others. Might this be true at some subconscious level? Somehow, I doubt it.
Walt Disney passed away forty-seven years ago, and when he did, a nation grieved. Epcot was unfinished. ABC was an independent broadcasting network, George Lucas was a college junior, and the Disney studio was beginning to spiral downwards in the quality of its vaunted animated films. Walt was still a beloved American icon, not the greedy ruler of a multinational juggernaut. Richard Schickel would not file his biographical salvo against Walt for another two years.
In 2008, I reviewed Working With Walt: Interviews with Disney Artists for this website. I have also read (most of) Didier Ghez’ multivolume series Walt’s People. When we see Walt Disney reflected in the mirrors of those who worked for him, no single image is resultant. Walt may be remembered as a shining idol, a tyrant, an enthusiastic cheerleader, an unsophisticated hick, a laser-focused critic of his studio’s work, a problem-solving genius, a paranoid political conservative. Some biographies of Disney are superior to others, but it’s a fair bet that none presents a complete picture.
Humans, by nature, hate ambiguity. When faced with a mystery, they tend to do one of two things; devote time, attention, and resources to understanding it, or inventing explanations for what they cannot understand. Often these explanations are self-serving, fanciful, or even illogical. Once entrenched, they are staunchly defended, simply because they stand in for the believer’s intelligence.
It is certain, for example, that biographers Marc Eliot and Michael Barrier approached the mystery of Walt Disney with differing beliefs about the man. It’s likely that Philip Glass accepted the version of Disney forwarded by Jungkt, or The Perfect American would not exist. Yet, each of these individuals tried to come to an understanding of Walt, chasing a chimera on different colored horses.
Walt Disney was a private, unknowable person for most of his career. The closest consensus we can come to was that Disney was a visionary, but even that term has variegated meaning. Dr. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela were visionaries; so were Adolf Hitler and Mao Zedong. As far back as 2003, I did a column for this website  detailing how Walt Disney was skewered by both the right and left wings of America’s contentious culture wars. As sectarian conflict heated up in recent years, revisionism has become more nasty than analytical, and it is in that arena Uncle Walt has become a victim.
It would be best, in consideration, to develop a critical eye, study the subject of Walt Disney as objectively as possible, and come to logical conclusions supported by available evidence. However, there are two problems with that approach: First, the more famous and renowned the individuals, the more difficult it is to remain objective about them. Second, such individuals are far more likely to be subject to multiple interpretations than an ordinary person would be.
Barrier and Solomon have a legitimate complaint, but only in the sense that they are closer to understanding some truths about Disney’s life. They may also have a complaint about the way our society enjoys putting a spin on even the most trivial events, and how we deem it fashionable to tear down and scandalize the famous and the mighty. These recent shots at Walt Disney, nearly fifty years after his passing, will not be the last. In fact, as cultural standards tend increasingly towards the scatological, there may be worse to come.
The Long Pink Line, or Brave New Girl
Three cheers for Merida, the 11th inductee into the honorable realm of Disney Princesses. Or is it really something to cheer about? The star of Brave marked her coronation with an appearance on the official Disney website, but outraged fans had a spot of trouble recognizing the auburn-coiffed bowslinger. For the occasion, Disney artists redesigned Merida with an hourglass waistline, flamboyant attire (the exact dress, in fact, Merida disdained in the film), and a sexy smile beneath flirtatious eyes.
Fans of Brave staged a revolt complete with numerous petitions, angry missives, and demands to return Merida to her pre-princess proportions. Foremost among them was Director/Creator of the spunky Scot, Brenda Chapman. Stating that Diz was sending a message that “the original girl was inferior”, Chapman took the studio to task for implying that a woman’s value equated to “a narrow definition of beauty.”
It was not long before “glam” Merida disappeared like mist on the moors from the website, along with a hasty explanation that Merida had put on a new dress and makeup for her one-time “special event” since she wanted to look her best for the party. Of course, this is rather disingenuous; Merida is, in the end, a character concept, a collection of pixels, and a voice artist who is not even a redhead. Disney’s problem is that, from these disparate parts came a memorable character beloved by audiences, the brave lass with a powerful will of her own. How did she end up? Doing what the publicity department assumed and decided she should do, at least until fandom rose in rage.
This is where Disney gets the arrows, as well as the shafts: The Company has ten moneymaking “princesses” already, easily enough to rule all of Europe. If Ariel were to piss Belle off, I imagine there could be another Hundred Years’ War. Of late, the Mouse has made a habit of turning every distaff star of their films into princesses, whether the crown fits or not. Now, Disney could simply have let Merida be. There would have been no contradictions, no controversy, no fan backlash, no further salvos in the cultural wars, no feminist outrage. Merida could have simply been a pal to the royals, waving hello to them as they passed through Scotland, all the while living her own stalwart life.
The Merida Makeover Morass could have easily been avoided, but at a huge cost to the company; Merida as a Disney Princess is worth a king’s ransom, and this, unfortunately, counts for more than what even her creator thinks. Uneasy may be the head that wears the crown, but how much more uncomfortable it must be when an increasing number of heads have to wear them.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.