Through his art, Walt Disney sought to achieve the power, control, and perfection that eluded him during a childhood marked by constant toil and brief rural idylls that left a permanent mark on his psyche. Or so argues Neal Gabler's Walt Disney, a remarkable new biography of the entertainment giant. A chain-smoking, workaholic bundle of nervous energy, Disney kept dreaming bigger and bigger dreams. Even more impressively, he possessed the talent and demonic drive to realize those dreams, whether they involved building a robotic Abraham Lincoln or elevating moving drawings into high art. Gabler's admiring biography suggests that if its subject had only lived 20 years longer, he could have ended up the benevolent dictator of his own country, a true Disneyland. In that respect, Celebration, Florida—a planned community the Walt Disney Company developed long after its founder's death—represents the ultimate culmination of Disney's lifelong bid to reinvent the outside world to fit the contours of his imagination.
Walt Disney makes questions history answered long ago seem fresh. Would audiences for Steamboat Willie accept sound coming from a cartoon character? Could a feature-length cartoon invoke strong, primal emotions? Gabler's book lives up to its celebratory subtitle, and it seems designed as an antidote to Richard Schickel's The Disney Version, a withering attack on Disney and his influence. In Gabler's telling, even Disney's reactionary politics stemmed from his early idealism. Gabler convincingly argues that Disney strived to create a worker's paradise at his company, and felt deeply betrayed when his workers went on strike. Consequently, Disney came to see a communist plot lurking behind every professional setback. Gabler refutes the accusations of racism and anti-Semitism that have long darkened Disney's legacy, attributing those charges to guilt by association caused by Disney's affiliation with legitimately anti-Semitic hardline anti-communists.
Disney's life was so packed with incident that seminal achievements like Dumbo are mentioned only in passing, while his now-forgotten early "Alice" shorts are dealt with extensively. But the Alice experiments were a make-or-break proposition for Disney's nascent enterprise, while Dumbo was essentially a rush job designed to pump much-needed lucre into the company coffers. It's an example of how some crucial details get lost to history, and another reason Gabler's monumental bio of an influential icon feels like the definitive version.