Wednesday 21 February 2018

Film: Walt Disney: The man and the magic

A visionary: Walt Disney
A visionary: Walt Disney
Mary Poppins
Mickey Mouse in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice"
More than a spoonful of inspiration: Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in 'Saving Mr Banks'

Paul Whitington

It's been a good year for Tom Hanks. He's already considered an Oscar nomination shoe-in for his portrayal of an embattled seaman in Paul Greengrass's recent thriller Captain Phillips. And his performance as Walt Disney in a new film that's released here next week has been almost as highly praised.

Saving Mr Banks dramatises the battle of wills between Disney and Australian author PL Travers over the film adaptation of her children's novel, Mary Poppins. Travers, played with commendable gusto by Emma Thompson, was a notoriously crusty and formidable woman, and looked down her nose at Walt Disney's tinseltown razzmatazz and background in animation.

He pursued her for 20 years for the rights to a book he was sure would make a hit film and, in 1961, Travers finally agreed to come to Hollywood where she was assiduously wooed by the steely-eyed old charmer.

In Saving Mr Banks, Tom Hanks plays Disney as a chain-smoking showman with an uncanny instinct for the zeitgeist. And although John Lee Hancock's film is produced by Disney Studios, it depicts him as a flesh-and-blood, mildly flawed man rather than a secular saint.

Since his death in 1966, Walt Disney's family business has expanded into an entertainment empire, but the man himself has fallen slightly from fashion. In the 1970s and 1980s, he was posthumously accused of anti-Semitism and racism, with some critics finding a sinister and even vaguely fascistic agenda behind the wholesome façade of his classic animations.

Stuff and nonsense for the most part, because although the real Walt Disney was a man of his time in many respects, he was also an artist, a visionary and an indefatigable entrepreneur.

Walt was a prime example of the go-getting All-American, but he also had a strong Irish connection. His great-grandfather on his father's side had emigrated to Canada from Co Kilkenny in the mid-19th Century, and by the time Walt came along in December of 1901, the Disneys had made their way to Chicago, where his odd-jobbing father Elias worked in construction.

Walt had a tough childhood. The Disneys moved around a lot, and Walt developed his affection for animals while living on a farm in rural Missouri. He began drawing pictures of birds, dogs and horses, and was so traumatised when he accidentally killed a small owl that he vowed he would never again kill a living thing.

During a stint in Kansas City, Walt was introduced to the joys of vaudeville theatre and early cinema. He began studying art in Kansas, and when the family moved back to Chicago, Disney created humorous cartoon strips for his high school newspaper.

In 1920, he and another aspiring young animator called Ubbe Iwerks set up a commercial art company together, offering their services for commercials and newspaper ads. Their business failed, but Iwerks would stay with him and become perhaps his most important artistic collaborator.

Walt's brief stint as a commercial artist awoke him to the rich possibilities of 'cel' animation, in which figures and scenes hand-painted on to celluloid sheets could be used to create higher quality and more cost-efficient cartoons. His earliest animated shorts were shown in movie houses before the main feature and became successful enough for Disney to open his own studio, the Laugh-O-Gram.

It soon went bust, but Walt was learning, and when he moved to Hollywood to start again, he brought his financially savvy elder brother, Roy, with him. A quiet man with a horror of publicity, Roy Disney was a great organiser and facilitator, and left Walt free to do the dreaming.

After they set up their Disney Bros studio in 1923, Walt hired Iwerks to draw for him, and in 1927 they scored a big hit with Iwerks's character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, the mischievous and resourceful star of a series of animated shorts. The studio expanded, but disaster struck when they were outflanked by their producer and lost control of the rights to Oswald.

Under pressure to find a character to replace him, Walt remembered a rotund mouse he'd drawn regularly in his youth. Iwerks used rough sketches by Disney to create a jovial anthropomorphic mouse with a cheeky streak and a winning smile. Disney planned to call him Mortimer until his wife Lillian suggested the more appealing name of Mickey instead.

Mickey Mouse made his first appearance in a silent short called Plane Crazy, in 1928, which initially failed to find a distributor. But when Disney and Iwerks combined Mickey with sound in Steamboat Willie (1928), something magical happened. The famous image of Mickey whistling and tapping his foot while steering his boat changed everything for animation, and the Disney Studio, and launched an entertainment empire.

Within a year Mickey Mouse had eclipsed Felix the Cat to become the most popular cartoon character in the world. But instead of trading profitably on Mickey's success, Walt dreamt of new conquests, and in the mid-1930s began planning the first feature length animated film.

During its long and fraught production, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) ran so far over budget that it became known as "Disney's Folly". Everyone was sure it would end in disaster, and both Disney's wife and Roy tried to talk him out of making it. But Walt was a man on a mission: he'd dreamt of turning the Grimm brothers' fairytale into a film since he was 15, and members of his animation team would later remember him acting out the movie for them before they started working on it.

The budget shot six times over Walt's original estimate, he had to remortgage his own house and for a time his precious studio's future also seemed in doubt. But the finished film was ambitious and sublime, a superb reimagining of the German folk tale with some of the darker bits taken out.

For contemporary audiences, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was something entirely new: it ran for years after its original release, and became the highest grossing sound film to that date.

Snow White's success allowed Walt to build a new studio campus in Burbank, and dream ever bigger dreams. During the 1940s and 1950s, he oversaw a string of magical children's animations. Bambi, Pinocchio, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan are still watched by small children today, and represent a high point in the history of animation. Later, Disney would daringly combine animation and live action in the 1964 smash-hit Mary Poppins.

And in 1955 Disney became more than just a film studio when Walt opened the first Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, Orange County.

The vast complex has welcomed more than 650 million visitors since it opened, and there are now Disney parks all across America, as well as in Europe and Asia.

Disney once said: "I sell corn, and I love corn," but what he was actually selling was a kind of essence of American optimism. Though tragedy sometimes impinged on his universe (I'm still traumatised by my first viewing of Bambi), all of his stories ended happily, and took place in worlds flocking with kindly cartoon characters and god-fearing Christian animals.

Walt did flirt with right-wing politics in his day, and was as unevolved about matters racial as you'd expect of a white American born in the early 1900s. He didn't much like commies either, and tried to cause trouble for his enemies during the McCarthy witch-hunts.

But more than anything he was an American, with all the good and not so good things that description simultaneously implies.

He died on December 15, 1966, from lung cancer, and while it may be apocryphal that his last words were a complaint about how shabby the Disney water tower looked, it would have been absolutely typical of his remarkable, driven, over-achieving perfectionist of a man.

The top three classics that drew audiences in

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

A labour of love that nearly cost Disney everything, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (left) is a magical and beautifully hand-drawn animation. The warbling little guys provide the light relief, but the film's most mesmerising scenes involve evil Queen Grimhide and her infernal mirror.

Bambi (1942)

This warm and sentimental animation is perhaps the quintessential Disney film. When a young fawn sees his mother killed by hunters, he must learn to survive in the forest on his own with the help of some friendly animals. A bit of a flop on its first release, it's now a much-loved classic.

Mary Poppins (1964)

Never mind Dick Van Dyke's spectacularly dodgy cockney accent, Disney's adaptation of PL Travers's children's stories is infectiously enthusiastic and full of wonderful songs. Julie Andrews plays a magical nanny who descends from the skies to put manners on the unruly children of a neglectful suffragette.

pwhitington@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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