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PBS' 'Walt Disney' is an entertaining, enlightening look at the visionary

PBS' 'Walt Disney' is an entertaining, enlightening look at the visionary
Walt Disney, shown here examining a Pinocchio marionette circa 1939, is the subject of an "American Experience" documentary on PBS. (Disney / PBS)

There was once a person named Walt Disney, who made cartoons and created a new kind of amusement park; there remains a corporation bearing his name that also has something to do with cartoons and amusement parks. They are not synonymous.

"Walt Disney," a new two-part, four-hour documentary about the father of Mickey Mouse and the animated feature, airing Monday and Tuesday on PBS, does not confuse the two. Appropriate to its title, the film ends when Disney does, dying of lung cancer in 1966 at age 65. What happened in the half-century since has been the work of other hands.

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Except for the new interviews (and all the interviews are new, save for a couple of audio scraps in which Disney himself is heard), the documentary presents no images or statistics from outside his lifetime — no branded ocean liners, or foreign theme parks or princesses who rebuilt the company's fortunes in the 1990s. No "Let It Go." No ABC. No Muppets. No "Star Wars."

And that's as it should be: There is no need to justify or explain the early work and products and enterprises in light of the later ones, to sweeten the accomplishments of the man with the success of the corporation. He changed the world a couple of times before leaving it: the first sound cartoon, "Steamboat Willie"; the first three-strip Technicolor cartoon, "Flowers and Trees"; the first American (and the first wholly hand-drawn) animated feature, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs"; and Disneyland. Disneyland!

A certain sort of person — a person like myself, who can get worked up over a "Snow White" pencil test or color footage of Disney's Hyperion Avenue studios — will find "Walt Disney" the kind of gift of which you say, "This will count for Christmas and my birthday, all right?" The production seems to have had the run of the family closet and the studio archives. But anyone interested even a little in Life Before Ariel should find this an entertaining and enlightening four hours.

If anything, the documentary feels short. Much is left out, or left behind, as the film follows the track of Disney's own attention and ambitions, from knockabout cartoons to emotion-driven animated features ("We're not making cartoons here," he would say), to live-action movies, to TV, to Disneyland, which he conceived as a kind of three-dimensional, interactive movie experience — virtual reality, minus the virtual. (Blink, literally, and you'll miss Donald Duck.)

What director Sarah Colt and writer Mark Zwonitzer do especially well here is to make these things feel fresh and exhilarating. They take you back to a time when cartoons were still marvelous, wonderful, amazing, astonishing and even awesome, in the strict sense of those words. Before Disneyland opened, there was nothing like it; now there isn't even a single Disneyland. You get a sense of the riskiness of the moment — Disney was always going into debt to get to the next untested place — and the size of the payoff.

This film comes, fittingly, under the umbrella of the series "American Experience." There is no more American an experience than a Disney film or a Disneyland. Walt Disney himself has been personally identified with a strain of apple-pie Americanism — and sometimes a poison apple-pie Americanism, as when he went before the House Un-American Activities Committee to denounce communists he believed had tried to ruin him.

Colt and Zwonitzer smartly split the film at the 1941 animators' strike (Disney was the last studio to refuse to unionize), which they cast as the beginning of the end of Disney's interest in animation. He had imagined the studio as a happy confederation of workers eager to work as hard as he thought they should. But the place had grown big, the schedules punishing and the pay scale disjointed — and his imagination was limited in certain respects.

Note is made of the racial backwardness of "Song of the South," the institutional bias against hiring women to animate. (They were relegated to the ink and paint department.) He's painted as a chain-smoking mass of contradictions — a man without close friends but who "wanted acceptance and love and acclaim with a greediness that would have looked pathetic in a less successful man." He could be as obtuse about the people who worked for him as he was insightful about the people his work was for. And not every film was "Pinocchio."

If there's a fault here, it's one not uncommon to such biographies — the desire to see the art as a direct reflection of the life, and expression as kind of self-medication. So Disneyland's Main Street becomes the manifestation of Walt Disney's longing remembrance of a brief, real childhood in small-town Missouri; "Mary Poppins" is somehow the story of his own father's coldness. The outsider characters in his films spring from his own feelings of an outsider in Hollywood.

Well, maybe. Maybe it just makes a good story. Which Walt would have understood.

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