Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Book Review: The Animated Man - A Life of Walt Disney by Michael Barrier

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Balanced picture of a famous man
Cons: Film critiques, some well known things left out
The Bottom Line
Man behind the mouse
Gets a well researched bio
That's hard to put down

Animated Man Does Seem to Sum Up Walt Disney

I decided a couple years back that I needed to get and read a couple biographies of Walt Disney.  Yes, I know most of his story, but I figured it would be interesting to read a biography.  I’ve now read The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney by Michael Barrier and found it very enjoyable.

I should start by saying that this wasn’t my first attempt at a biography of the man.  I actually tried to read Neal Gabler’s first.  Both of these books came out about the same time, but Neal’s seems to have gotten more praise and even some awards.  I couldn’t get through it because I felt like he kept going down all kinds of rabbit trails giving bios of some of the animators that worked for Disney in his very early days, for example.

So I was a little worried when I sat down to read this book.  Yet, I was drawn into the book right away and always had a hard time putting it down.  Barrier creates his biography from written and oral memories of Walt and his family and employees gathered over the course of several decades.  The result is well documented (there are over 100 footnotes per 30 page chapter) and gives us an idea of the man behind the entertainment company so many of us still love.  The author manages to weave many quotes and memories together without it feeling like a hodgepodge but all written with one voice, which is pretty amazing.

The man who emerges is at once a genius and a lucky man.  I do think that Walt gets credit here for his uncanny ability to tell a good story in a way that audiences will love.  But credit is given to the men who were able to turn his vision into drawings.  The book doesn’t try to white wash Disney’s flaws, but I also feel it does balance out and never goes into bashing mode.

I was left with the impression that much of what led to some of issues employees had working for Walt were partially temperament – Walt was very much a micro manager up until the very end – and partially the result of no one quite knowing what they were doing.  As the studio grew, Walt had to find a way to get his vision across to employees even as he moved more and more into a managerial role.  Those kinds of transitions are never easy, and some of the hurt feelings and worse are understandable.  Yet the book never dwells on them for long.

One aspect I liked was the way various things are woven together.  It was always hard to find a place to set the book down because one topic just flowed into another.  That gets much harder later in the book when we might move from live action film to Disneyland to animated film in a matter of pages, but it worked.  Along the way, we see the various projects Disney tackled as the natural stepping stone in his career even if they seem strange at first.  It also reminded me again just how much energy Walt had.  He was always going and doing something.  Yes, he was a workaholic, but even so you look at all he accomplished, and it is amazing.

For me, the biggest flaw of the book is when Barrier sets aside his biographer hat and picks up his film critic hat.  No, he doesn’t critique every single film made during the Disney years, but he does pick apart a few.  As the biography goes along, he grows increasingly harsh, especially of the live action films.  Honestly, I feel like he misses the point of many of them and looks at them as “art” instead of fluff entertainment for kids.  Okay, so that is probably the Disnerd part of me bristling, but I think it also shows his bias (Barrier has previous written a book about animation in the golden age of Hollywood).  For example, his critique of Mary Poppins all but dismisses the film and doesn’t take into account the short story source material or any of the control that the author had on the project.

Speaking of Mary Poppins, some of the famous stories surrounding Disney are absent here.  For example, the fact that Disney spent years negotiating with P. L. Travers for the rights to her stories is mentioned in passing without any talk about how much she tried to micromanage the project herself.

These flaws don’t make this the definitive biography of Disney, but those who want to know more about him will certainly gain much from reading The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney.

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