PBS’ latest entry in their American Experience series spends 4-hours documenting the life of Walt Disney, the founder of the largest family entertainment company in the world (you know, the reason this very website exists). This documentary debuted in two parts on September 14th and 15th, but fans could view part 2 earlier on September 15th with this DVD release, which was available for sale that very day. Note that this DVD comes from PBS, the network that aired this production, and is not a Disney product.
Like most documentaries on great minds who are no longer with us, American Experience: Walt Disney is filled with talking heads. Being that it’s been fifty years since Walt passed away, very few of the commentators ever met him. Sadly, this is the biggest flaw with the entire presentation. They can only speculate who they think Walt was, yet the documentary tries to make the case that this is Walt Disney. And as many of their comments contradict things fans have heard from those who worked with him, it’s hard to accept this as the definitive documentary about Walt.
For any Disney fan whose ever read a biography on “Uncle Walt,” this serves as a nice visual companion. To anyone who is looking to learn more about Walt as their first introduction, this is sure to be a very educational experience. Due to its length, it’s able to give more information than others. However, those looking to feel like they’ve met him should look to Walt – The Man, the Myth, the Legend, a 90-minute documentary produced in 2004 under the supervision of his daughter which featured new and archival interviews with people who were close to him. That documentary will leave you in tears at the end when he passes away too soon, this one leaves you feeling a little empty. It has a nauseating back-and-forth between sinner and saint, making you feel little empathy or affinity for this version of him.
With this documentary, Walt is presented as a somewhat cruel “slave driver” of a boss. When his animators go on strike, it takes their side over his. While acknowledging that he was responsible for nurturing the creativity of his staff and developing their art to improve the animation medium, it also portrays him as unfair and as having a large ego. “Man is in the forest,” something that his employees jokingly said when they could hear Walt’s warning cough, is presented here first as something grim that drove fear into their hearts, but repeated later as a joke. In other words, it presents the other side of the coin and perhaps goes too far.
Amongst the on-screen commentators, Don Hahn serves as the animation expert to highlight some of the bold choices Walt made to reinvent the medium. Neal Gabler, who wrote one of the lengthier and more complete biographies on Disney, adds a lot of facts to the discussion. Animation historian Michael Barrier provides a more positive commentary that sometimes counteracts Gabler, but he is used far less in the narrative. The most peculiar inclusion is Ron Suskind, whose autistic son was able to use Disney movies to connect with the world around him. He does seem to understand the films well, but gives the most peculiar description of Mickey Mouse’s persona that I’ve ever heard. Marty Sklar joins towards the end once Disneyland comes into play and it is at this point that the presentation changes and Walt once again becomes a decent human being.
Surprisingly with 4-hours to tell Walt’s story, quite a bit gets left out. For example, there is no mention of the World’s Fair and how that lead into Walt Disney World. EPCOT the city is briefly mentioned at the end, but it doesn’t spend nearly enough time on it. Disneyland is reduced almost exclusively to it’s construction and opening day. And to sum up his live action film achievements, the only films that get specifically called out are Song of the South, Mary Poppins and Bon Voyage. In general, the description of Disney’s films are that they were corny and have been lost to time, a sentiment I wholeheartedly disagree with. It also manages to bypass nearly his entire childhood, merely stating that Walt had a tough relationship with ol’ man Elias. Marceline is treated here as mostly a fabrication, a life he wished he had vs. a childhood reality. And his claiming of it as his hometown is treated as an almost maniacal notion rather than a sincere longing for his youth.
Overall, the documentary depicts Walt Disney as a vindictive genius, capable of being a great friend but also a ruthless enemy. Things that Disney fans typically delight about, such as his personal backyard train, are used against him to make him seem like a mad man. Too often, it feels like it sides with Disney critics who perceive his optimistic escapism as detrimental to society. In short, this is not the Walt Disney that fans have admired for nearly a century.
PBS’ DVD presents both parts in its 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio. Most companies would take a film this long and split it between two-discs, but not PBS. The video seriously suffers as a result, with such obvious compression artifacts plaguing the entire presentation. It is most evident when text appears on screen with the speaker’s name and credential. The letters appear pixelated and blocky and there’s simply no reason for this. Since the feature is in two parts without a “Play All” option, this is a hugely disappointing decision to not make it a 2-disc release.
The 5.1 surround sound mix does a fine job, filling the rear speakers with the original score while the narration and dialogue come from the front speakers.
Packaging & Design
American Experience: Walt Disney is housed in a standard sized case made of flimsy plastic. An insert inside advertises other PBS releases, none of which pertain to Disney. The static menu allows you to choose Part 1 or Part 2, as well a a peculiar option that says “PBS.org.” Clicking this brings you to a text screen that literally advertises the internet and PBS’ website.
American Experience: Walt Disney does a decent job of telling Walt’s story with images and commentary, but seems to have an agenda to tear him down at the same time. It’s erratic tone bounces between hero and villain and ultimately leaves you feeling very little about him in the end. PBS’ DVD release offers a lackluster video presentation and comes with a hefty price for what you get ($24.99). If you missed the TV airing and want to see it, I recommend buying it digitally where you can get the full presentation in better looking HD for just $3.99.
Alex has been blogging about Disney films since 2009 after a lifetime of fandom. He joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and covers films across all of Disney’s brands, including Star Wars, Marvel, and Fox, in addition to books, music, toys, consumer products, and food. You can hear his voice as a member of the Laughing Place Podcast and his face can be seen on Laughing Place’s YouTube channel where he unboxes stuff.