Walt Disney: An American Original (Bob Thomas, 1994)

Walt Disney once said “I would rather entertain and hope that people learned something than educate people and hope they were entertained.” Whilst this isn’t strictly true of this book, there’s an awareness from the author of who his audience is and as we journey through the life of one of the greatest Americans of the 20th Century, we certainly see the best side of him.

I’m always keen to find out more about the life of an expert filmmaker and you don’t get much more expert than Walt Disney. Alas, his life wasn’t limited to making films.

In this book we cover his upbringing, early career as a political satire cartoonist, his earliest business ventures (including Laugh-o-Gram Studios), the creation (and loss) of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, the subsequent creation of Mickey Mouse and the Silly Symphonies, the blooming of Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio as a standalone company, the break into feature-length motion pictures, the struggles throughout World War II, the rebuilding of the company, his various television series, the creation of two theme parks, his family life and his sad passing in the mid 1960s. Evidently his life was far from boring and it makes for a fascinating read.

The book was officially supported by the Disney estate and various companies, and this means the author Bob Thomas was allowed unprecedented access to close colleagues and relatives for interviews, as well as more resources than anyone was previously afforded. Unfortunately the fact it is licensed has its price. At times the discussions seemed a little sugar-coated and I found myself wondering if something was being hidden. Certainly in the formative years things seemed to fall into place in a fairytale-like manner, with Walt having an uncanny ability to come up smelling like roses. During the studio strikes in the 1940s and throughout the war, I couldn’t help but think a lot of information was being glossed over for fear of losing support from the company. The accusations of anti-semitism that have dogged his name for many years could have been explored and disputed, but instead they simply weren’t mentioned. There are other examples of this throughout and I ended up longing to find out the whole story rather than a risk-free one.

What we end up with is an excellent read full of fascinating tales, but which shouldn’t be taken at face value. Be aware of the Disney logos slapped on the cover of the book and the fact it is so readily available in official Disney Stores. It’s worth a read if you’re happy to either put this to one side, read between the lines or blissfully ignore it all together.

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