Documentary Film Reviews, Making Documentaries, and Nonfiction Storytelling

American Experience: Walt Disney — Review by Jim Martin

American-Experience-Walt-Disney-to-Premiere-on-PBSThe PBS – American Experience: Walt Disney documentary provides an uncensored, well researched, exploration of Walt Disney, the man, his work, and his passion for achieving goals.  The 221 minute documentary looks into Walt Disney’s contributions to the art of film, his strengths and weaknesses.  The film examines Disney’s great insight into American culture and at other times his opaque insensitivity to historical, political and social issues facing Americans. Walt Disney was an artist and an entrepreneur, greatly aided in his goals by Roy Disney, his brother, who complemented Walt’s apparent obsessive personality with practical nuance.

American Experience: Walt Disney informs and entertains.   It is a great biography of Disney and the development of animated feature films. From a historical filmmaking point of view the documentary is a treasure trove of information, enhanced by the unlimited access given American Experience, to the Disney historical archives. There are photographs, and documentary footage of Walt Disney though out his life. Disney seemed to have someone there taking pictures or shooting activities all the time. The film’s narrative structure is greatly enhanced by this visual actuality of events. Interviews with people who knew Walt Disney also help tell the story. There is a linear chronology of Walt Disney’s life contrasted with events and life around him. Clips from classic Disney films are included throughout the documentary.Disney cover

Walt Disney’s early attempts at creating short cartoons for distribution ultimately lead to the creation of Mickey Mouse, demonstrating Disney’s innovation including the first use of audio for an animated short. These early scenes in the documentary may be of particular interest to aspiring filmmakers as well as Disney fans.

One of the most interesting aspects of the documentary is Walt Disney’s idea to create a feature-length animated film that was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Because of Disney’s determination to create a perfect, artistic film that transcended the notion that animationsnowwhite was only for cartoons, Snow White took five years to make and greatly exceeded its original budget. When it was finally released it was a huge national and international success. It achieved all that Disney intended, except winning an Oscar for Best Film.  It did win an Oscar for innovation which didn’t really meet Disney’s expectations.

American Experience: Walt Disney is set up in two parts that total four hours. It is well-edited and does not lag or get redundant. In fact there seems to be a pick-up of pace in the last hour to cover  Disney Land creation, it’s success, the beginnings of Epcot, Disney World in Florida and Walt’s untimely death at age 65 from Lung Cancer. This is a biographical film about Walt Disney; however, it might have included more about his brother and alter ego Roy Disney. This is not to say Roy’s important role in Walt Disney’s life is ignored. It’s that Roy seems to always be in the shadows making things happen and trying to rein in his brother. It would have been interesting to know more about Roy and how he accomplished these things. Perhaps Roy Disney is another story.

The documentary does not gloss over Walt Disney’s problems with his employees, unions, his obsession with communists everywhere, or his insensitivity to minorities and racial stereotypes like those seen in Song of the South and other Disney films, television programs and other endeavors. In many ways it seems from watching the documentary that Walt Disney mirrored the cultural biases of his generation.

 American Experience: Walt Disney does what an excellent biographical documentary should do. It explores reality, in this case the life of Walt Disney, with the goal of understanding who he was as a person and what he created during his lifetime. The successes, the failures and personality traits of a creative human being in the context of the world they lived in.

 American Experience: Walt Disney aired on PBS in mid September 2015. It is available on Apple TV and on DVD from PBS and Amazon.

Review by James R (Jim) Martin – Documentary Filmmaker and Author



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