three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
26-Jan-Feb-2007
By: 
Neal Gabler
user_rating: 
0

The Triumph of the American Imagination

A-Walt DisneyWalt Disney broke free of an unsatisfactory midwestern upbringing to chase a dream in Hollywood. As a young man, he could hardly have known the impact he would make on American (and world) culture. Biographer Neal Gabler explores Disney’s legacy—from Mickey Mouse and the rise of animation to the groundbreaking feature-length films and the ever-popular amusement parks. Gabler also explores another side of Disney: he was a lonely, depressed, often financially strapped man accused of Red-baiting, anti-Semitism, and alcoholism (claims that the author debunks, for the most part, through his exhaustive research). Gabler attempts the most comprehensive biography yet of the man who did more to fire America’s imagination than perhaps any other visionary in the country’s history.
Knopf. 880 pages. $35. ISBN: 067943822X

Baltimore Sun 4 of 5 Stars
"Neal Gabler is the first writer with unrestricted access to the Disney Archives. Walt Disney … is a richly detailed, often poignant, psychological profile of a visionary, reactionary, perfectionist, paternalist and petty tyrant." Glenn C. Altschuler

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s a stupendous accomplishment, written for the general reader, and worth every page. With so much written about Disney (1901–1966), it’s difficult to say that any one book, no matter how long or how well researched, can be definitive." David Walton

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"This exhaustive, serious biography does not gloss over Disney’s faults. Yet it is clear Gabler ended up with a wistful affection for his subject and his dreams of a perfect childhood." Deirdre Donahue

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"One of this book’s great strengths is its volleys of anecdotes and eyewitness observations, although Gabler is so historically rigorous that he’s often quick to contradict a juicy story with an aside (and, occasionally, a footnote), undercutting what we’ve just read. … Gabler does a deft job of describing Disney’s troubled reality." Fred Schruers

St. Petersburg Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Gabler sorts through the contradictions and gives us a coherent image of the man, making us understand how he could inspire loyalty and fear, affection and contempt. If there are flaws to this tremendously researched and eminently readable biography, one is that the first half of the book, which takes us up through the creation of Fantasia, is more generously documented, more spaciously narrated than the second half, which seems cramped and more sparsely detailed." Charles Matthews

Cleveland Plain Dealer 2 of 5 Stars
"A biography of Walt Disney threatens to become a biography of 20th-century America. … The weight of detail here is frustrating because Gabler is a lucid writer and incisive analyst." Anne Trubek

Wall Street Journal 2 of 5 Stars
"As suggested by the book’s subtitle—The Triumph of the American Imagination—Mr. Gabler seems over-concerned with cultural analysis and Big Ideas. … [His] exhaustive account of Disney’s storytelling perfectionism—and of his struggles to make the cartoons and early features well-paced and entertaining—may leave readers fervently wishing that the author himself had felt similar concerns." Whit Stillman

Critical Summary

Neal Gabler, who penned a well-received biography of journalist Walter Winchell and An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, among other books, is the first writer to have complete access to the Walt Disney archives. Much of that wealth of information makes its way into this hefty tome. At nearly 900 pages (including 200 pages of notes), the author risks losing all but the most devoted Disney fans. Gabler uses engaging prose, numerous anecdotes, and firsthand accounts of the events of Disney’s life, however, to balance the more mundane details about production budgets and the day-to-day workings of Disney’s empire. For the most part, Gabler succeeds. The book works best when he focuses on Disney’s often contradictory and mercurial character.