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Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination
Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination
Neal Gabler
Knopf, 2006
851 pp., $40.00

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Bill McKibben


The Cheerful Solipsist

Walt Disney and his century.

I'm the right person to review this book. I grew up in the shiny new L.A. suburbs in the early 1960s, and for my fourth birthday, my parents took me to Disneyland—then itself still shiny and new. We rode the Mad Hatter's Teacups, took the boat ride through the jungle, visited radiant Tomorrowland. And then, on the way out through Main Street, we came across the capering Disney characters. Mickey himself frolicked my way—and proceeded to stomp on my small foot with his big wooden shoe. It hurt, and it scared me too—this big-headed rodent, a confusing blend of real and pretend. In our newer, more litigious age I'd probably have been able to collect a million or two for psychic damage, but at the time I just limped away as fast as ever I could. It's possible that a seed of ambivalence toward mass entertainment culture was planted then and there, though in fact I remember many subsequent Sunday evenings watching quite happily many years of The Wonderful World of Disney. All I know is, it made a big impact on me.

But then, Mickey and Uncle Walt (and at times they were very nearly the same) made a big impact on everyone in the 20th century. Disney was by no means an insignificant artist—he and his team of animators made major breakthroughs in the visual arts. But his greatest innovations were as an impresario and a businessman, and by the time he was done his combination of image and music and merchandise and theme park had paved the way for the cocooned entertainment culture in which we now exist. Even more than Coke and McDonalds—and perhaps even more than the church—Disney was the great brand artist of his era, carving out a niche in most American brains and hearts. As the consumer society grew more secular, he supplied an easy and alternate creed, complete with icons, pilgrimage sites, and spiritual comforts. In the hymnal of the American religion, most of the happy, whistling tunes were his. He bears pondering.

Neal Gabler, it should ...

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