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Reviewed by:
  • Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination
  • Arthur P. Molella (bio)
Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. By Neal Gabler. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Pp. xx+851. $35.

In this monumental, meticulously researched biography fully based on archival documentation, Neal Gabler seeks a theme strong enough to pull together the diverse strands of Walt Disney’s life. He finds one in Disney’s drive not so much to escape but to control reality by creating a parallel fantasy world. This drive he traces ultimately to deep psychological needs arising from a fraught paternal relationship and childhood hardships in small-town U.S.A., a place that he both rejected and nostalgically treasured. And yet, Gabler could have just as easily latched on to another theme, that of Walt’s technological enthusiasm, a passion bordering on the geeky. For, as Gabler shows, in one guise or another—film animation, black-and-white and color, television, audio-animatronics, model railroading, tinkering, theme park rides, futurism, and urban planning—technology permeated his life. As Walt rode the postwar wave of technological boosterism, he changed nearly every technology he touched. And, through television shows that beat the drums for NASA and the space program, he fueled America’s enthusiasm for the technological future.

Disney’s earliest technological feat, his reinvention of film animation, was among his most interesting. At the core of Gabler’s book is a fascinating story of how Walt and his original crew of animators plied their demanding craft. Gabler describes how Walt chose the paints used in Snow White and, to get the colors exactly right, even used a spectrophotometer, one of only twenty in the world at the time. To create the illusion of depth, he and his team jury-rigged a photo-apparatus on which were mounted several planes of cels. Facing impossible deadlines, they often resorted to “rotoscoping,” in which a “live-action” film draft, using real actors, guided the cartoonist’s hand. The practice may strike one as cheating, and, in fact, Walt concealed it from the public. Yet, how different was this from Renaissance artists using the camera obscura to render perspective?

The various incarnations of Disney’s studios were amazing places of invention. But for all the advantages of science and technology, at the end of the day his devoted team of animators had to grind out their quotas of cels and film footage. Long, anxious hours at the drawing board were required and Walt drove his team relentlessly. In the early 1940s this led to a crippling strike against Disney studios, Walt’s visceral reaction to which made him ever after an ardent antiunionist and anticommunist flag-waver.

Just a few years before his death in 1966, Walt embarked on his final act: the creation of EPCOT, his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow in central Florida, which he never lived to see. Before it became reduced to an amusement park, EPCOT was Walt’s dream “to create an entire urban environment from scratch.” He hated big cities, especially Los [End Page 823] Angeles, and EPCOT was his futuristic utopian alternative. This vision was the summation of a life’s work: animation morphed into animatronics, miniaturized model cities into a full-blown town, under real political controls that mirrored his control of his animated world. Walt’s imagined solution to all the conflicts of his life, EPCOT was based on a contradiction—the merging of nostalgia for a small-town past with a vision of the future.

Gabler locates EPCOT within Walt’s personal narrative, viewing it as essentially sui generis. Yet outside influences were clearly at work. In planning EPCOT, Walt read Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities of To-morrow, first published in 1902 and reissued in 1965, a seminal treatise that had inspired city planners around the world to try to reconcile industry, town, and country. Disney’s urban fantasy can be seen as a culmination of this new-town tradition. Implying menace, Gabler titles his EPCOT chapter “Slouching toward Utopia,” a title belied by Walt’s insistent idealism. The biography ends with Walt’s death and fails to mention Celebration, Florida, the Disney company...


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