Few lives can sustain a two-hour documentary, but with "Walt Disney," four doesn't seem nearly enough. Filmmaker Sarah Colt paints a portrait that's far more complex than the avuncular presence people came to know — or feel like they did — hosting those Sunday-night TV introductions for "The Wonderful World of Disney." Here, Uncle Walt is described as a man who was "restless and driven," and whose genius and tenacity left a towering legacy despite his less admirable qualities. Even those who are familiar with Disney will likely come away with renewed appreciation of his contributions, in a film that, despite a few drawbacks, captures his inextricable link with Americana.
Inevitably, Colt and her key talking heads (more on that in a moment) can't resist putting Disney on the couch to a degree, discussing how his idealized version of his youth in Missouri — the inspiration for what became Disneyland's Main Street — stemmed in part from his emotionally withholding father. Biographer/cultural historian Neal Gabler speaks of Disney's "dark soul," and a former animator is quoted is saying of Walt, "If you crossed him, he was a mean SOB."
Those personal elements and anecdotes, fortunately, are intricately woven into how Disney — with the help of his more business-minded brother Roy — birthed a new form of entertainment, developing and refining animation as an art form, as well as the merchandising that flowed from it. Narrated by Oliver Platt, the documentary includes parts that deftly transport the viewer to a darkened movie house in the 1930s, noting of "Snow White's" premiere, "Audience members gasped at the opening shots of the Queen's castle."
Mostly, the project presents Disney as a visionary who often left it to Roy to sort out the financial details, and who thus kept pushing the company to the brink of bankruptcy to fulfill his demanding vision. The most indelible segment, however, closes night one and continues into the second part of the docu, charting how Disney dismissed complaints from his employees, who eventually went on strike in 1941. The episode not only forever changed Walt's attitude toward his workers — he finally left it to Roy to settle the dispute — but prompted him to name names a few years later to the House Un-American Activities Committee, seeing communist influence underlying the labor movement.
Disney is also slightly pigheaded — soliciting input from experts about "Song of the South," only to be dismayed when the movie received criticism for depicting happy, singing blacks on the plantation. Still, at times that personality trait served him well, including his determination to launch Disneyland, with jaw-dropping aerial views of the barren fields that he transformed into "the happiest place on Earth."
All of this is meticulously chronicled by a vast assortment of experts and collaborators, although a handful of the former — among them Gabler and Ron Suskind — receive what feels like an inordinate amount of screen time. Granted, they're all eminently quotable, but at times the mix feels slightly out of balance, tilted toward them and away from those closer to Walt, like son-in-law-turned-Disney chief Ron Miller and composer Richard Sherman.
Colt makes some tough choices, too, about what to emphasize, capturing the explosive popularity of "Davy Crockett" and Disney's move into live-action movies, but covering less about the wheeling and dealing with ABC that helped finance Disneyland, or, for that matter, giving context in terms of the company's trajectory after his death or the massive giant it has become (so big, in fact, that it's worth disclosing my wife is among the 180,000 people who work there).
The exclusions are a quibble, admittedly, especially when there's so much to recommend this "American Experience" offering. But if demanding excellence — to the point of occasionally being a bit of a jerk — is a fair appraisal of ol' Walt, well, it's certainly hard to argue with the results, or with demanding this portrait of him do the same.
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TV Review: 'Walt Disney'
American animator and producer Walt Disney with one of his creations Mickey Mouse. (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)
"Plane Crazy," the first creation of the character Mickey Mouse which debuted in a test screening to a theater audience on May 15, 1928.
(Photo by Mary Evans/WALT DISNEY PICTURES via Ronald Grant/Everett Collection)
Democratic Presidential nominee Jimmy Carter grins as he meets a youngster dressed as Mickey Mouse as he greeted people in downtown Columbus, Ohio, on Thursday. Sept. 9, 1976. Carter campaigned in Columbus Thursday morning before flying to Illinois. (AP Photo)
Mickey Mouse greets a few of the thousands of happy youngsters that showed up in downtown Indianapolis on Nov. 19, 1978, for a mini-parade in honor of the worldâs most famous mouseâs 50th birthday. (AP Photo/AB)
Northwestern University band forms likeness of famed cartoon character Mickey Mouse during halftime of game against Michigan State at Evanston, Illinois on Nov. 18, 1978. Saturday is Mickeyâs 50th birthday. (AP Photo/Fred Jewell)
Walt Disney, the man who created “Mickey Mouse” arriving in London with his wife on June 12, 1935. (AP Photo)
First lady Betty Ford and Mickey Mouse welcome children of the members of the Diplomatic Corps to a party in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Dec. 11, 1974. Mickey Mouse is portrayed by Marvin Weems. (AP Photo/Harvey Georges)
Mickey Mouse greets fans in Chicago on Nov. 15, 1978, as his cross-country whistle stop train arrived at Union Station. Mickey, less than five-feet-tall, is making the trip to mark the 50th anniversary of his birthday. (AP Photo/Fred Jewell)
Mickey Mouse, the cartoon character created by Walt Disney, became the 1700th star, and first animated personality, to have his star placed on Hollywood Boulevardâs Walk of Fame in Los Angeles on Monday, Nov. 13, 1978. Minnie Mouse joined Mickey on ceremonies in front of Mannâs, formerly Graumanâs, Chinese Theater. Event was one of many that will kick off a nationwide tour for Mickey, celebrating his 50th birthday, as well as the 75th anniversary of Hollywood. (AP Photo/George Brich)
Two of Americaâs best known entertainers discover they have one prominent feature in common. Mickey Mouse was the official greeter when âOle Ski Noseâ arrived at Disney World in Orlando, to help celebrate the parkâs tenth anniversary. Bob Hope was Grand Marshal at the Tencennial Parade in Orlando, Florida on Oct. 3, 1981, the climax of the opening week of festivities marking the parkâs first decade. (AP Photo/PW)
Mickey Mouse and Anaheim Mayor Don Roth celebrate the release of at least 1 million balloons in Anaheim, Calif., at Disneyland, Dec. 5, 1985. The balloons were released to commemorate Disneylandâs 30th year on what would have been Walt Disneyâs 84th birthday. (AP Photo/Lennox McLendon)
Mickey and Minnie Mouse and the dog, Pluto, entertain guests at Tokyo Disneyland on May 11, 1983. (AP Photo/LL)
397155 08: Mickey Mouse rides in a parade through Main Street, USA with Cinderella's castle in the background at Disney World's Magic Kingdom November 11, 2001 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
LAKE BUENA VISTA, UNITED STATES: Mickey Mouse and Roy Disney look upward as fireworks are launched during the rededication of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, 01 October, for 25th Anniversary of the opening of Walt Disney World. AFP PHOTO Tony RANZE (Photo credit should read TONY RANZE/AFP/Getty Images)
Disney's Mickey and Minnie Mouse wave as they speed by on dolphin-shaped jet skis at the Tokyo DisneySea park in Urayasu, Japan Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2002. Tokyo DisneySea celebrated its first anniversary Tuesday with a special show at its Mediterranean Harbor at the entrance to the park. (AP Photo/Tsugufumi Matsumoto)
Former first lady Nancy Reagan, second from right, smiles as she is joined by Walt Disney Company Chairman and CEO Robert Iger, right, and Frederick J. Ryan Jr., chairman of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, third from right, Minnie Mouse, Mickey Mouse and David Ferriero, Archvist of the United States, during the opening ceremony of the D23 Presents Treasures of Walt Disney Archives exhibit at The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif, Thursday, July 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 23: Volunteers help inflate a Mickey Mouse flotation for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on November 23, 2011 on West 77th Street in New York City. The parade which started in 1924 is celebrating its 85th year. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
PASADENA, CA - NOVEMBER 16: Mickey Mouse waves during announcement naming him as the Grand Marhsall of the 2005 Tournment of Roses Parade on November 16, 2004 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
Southern California tailback Reggie Bush, right, poses with Mickey Mouse during a visit to Disneyland on Thursday, Dec. 29, 2005, in Anaheim, Calif. Texas and Southern California will play in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 4, 2006. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Disney character Mickey Mouse (C) exchange greetings with guests at Tokyo Disneyland in Urayasu, suburban Tokyo on January 1, 2014. Tokyo Disney Resort, Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea, is expecting to attract 30.7million visitors for their fiscal year ended March 2014, the first time to mark over 30million guests as they celebrate the 30th anniversary of Tokyo Disneyland. AFP PHOTO / Yoshikazu TSUNO (Photo credit should read YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)
An employee of Mitsukoshi Department Store intoduces a pure gold Mickey Mouse at the head store in Tokyo on April 3, 2010. The department store started selling the only figure in Japan, which is 20cm tall and weighs 2kg, at 225,800 USD to commemorate the second anniversary of Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings Ltd. AFP PHOTO/Toru YAMANAKA (Photo credit should read TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images)
Walt Disney characters Mickey Mouse (R) and Minnie Mouse pose for photographs in front of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon on September 25, 2014. The Disney characters, icons of the US entertainment industry, were making their debut in Myanmar, which has emerged from being a highly reclusive state. AFP PHOTO / Ye Aung THU (Photo credit should read Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images)
Mickey Mouse shaped balloons are for sale at Disneyland, Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)