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American Experience: Walt Disney

PBS // Unrated // September 15, 2015
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Randy Miller III | posted September 3, 2015 | E-mail the Author

He only lived for 65 years and 10 days...but in that brief window, American icon Walt Disney accomplished more than most could in several lifetimes. A sensitive but strong-willed young man, Disney was wildly ambitious from an early age and owned his own animation studio ("Laugh-O-Gram") by the age of 20. From founding The Walt Disney Company with his older brother Roy to redefining the concept of amusement parks, he rarely stood still before lung cancer cut his life short in 1966. Along the way, Disney won more Academy Awards than any other person in history and achieved an unparalleled level of name recognition. American Experience: Walt Disney, set to premiere in two parts on September 14-15 on PBS, takes an exhaustive four-hour look at the business mogul's life and times.

As expected, few stones are left unturned during this warts-and-all documentary: it reveals a man who often retreated to his own bubble of creativity and approval, had a strained relationship with an unsupportive father and, at times, refused to acknowledge his own employees. Constantly in search of new and exciting ways to advance animation through technology (including multi-plane images, the complete marriage of sound and visuals, broadening story-driven cartoons into full-length productions, and more), Disney also helped to pioneer the concept of merchandising to children...which, among other facets of his career, has continued to sharply divide critics and customers alike. More than a dozen colleagues and other figures are on hand to offer their first and second-hand experiences, including biographers Neal Gabler and Steven Watts, animators Floyd Norman and Don Lusk, journalist Ron Suskind, historians Sarah Nilson and Richard Schickel, UVA associate professor Carmenita Higginbotham, ink-and-painter Ruthie Tompson, designer Rolly Crump, Disney Imagineering's International Ambassador Marty Sklar, and more.

Each half of this two-part production ("1901-1941" and "1941-1966") runs just under two hours; highlights along the way include Walt's early ambitions, selling cartoon shorts, "Alice in Cartoonland", canned beans and bankruptcy, Hollywood in the 1920s, working with Roy and Ub Iwerks, marrying Lillian (his first and only wife), life in Marceline MO, creating Mickey and "Steamboat Willie", losing his first child, being snubbed at the 1938 Oscars, building a luxurious new studio, going public, office politics and union attempts, firing Art Babbitt in 1941, facing picket lines, the death of his parents, box office trouble, social context and Song of the South, competition from United Productions of America, testifying before HUAC, live-action films and documentaries, developing Disneyland, brand-building and freedom from bankers, the success of Mary Poppins (Walt's first and only "Best Picture" nomination), critical backlash during the 1960s, dreaming of EPCOT, health problems and, of course, his ongoing legacy.

Viewers are also treated to a wealth of rare and never-before-seen photos and footage, and the bulk of Disney's massive output during Walt's life is glimpsed as well (including Song of the South, which will most likely never earn an official DVD or Blu-ray release around these parts). Narrated by American Experience regular Oliver Platt, Walt Disney is an awfully ambitious undertaking whose reach doesn't exceed its grasp. It's accessible and entertaining, digging deep enough to satisfy those looking for more than your average white-washed biopic while avoiding the easy jabs that most are willing to throw at the omnipresent corporation (myself included). Though PBS' DVD doesn't offer much support, consider this two-part documentary a worthy effort for casual fans and die-hards alike.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, American Experience: Walt Disney looks decent with a few reservations. Recent interviews are clean with good image detail, while older 1.33:1 film clips (presented in color and black-and-white) are obviously rougher around the edges. Unfortunately, this footage is almost universally cropped to fill the 16x9 frame, which means that their native flaws are amplified even further. Highlights from vintage Disney productions---including Snow White, Bambi,, Cinderella, and about two dozen others---are not cropped and of good quality as well, while lesser-known films like Song of the South are understandably not as polished. Digital imperfections such as jagged lines and slight compression artifacts were occasionally spotted along the way, which may be partially due to this four-hour film being crammed on a single DVD. Unfortunately, there's no Blu-ray option.

DISCLAIMER: This review's compressed screen captures are strictly decorative and do not represent DVD's native 480p resolution.

The default Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track is our only choice and serves up the exact level of quality you'd expect from any decades-spanning documentary with a decent budget. New interviews sound crisp and clear; even older recordings (usually limited to audio) are of reasonably good quality considering their age. Joel Goodman's original music is mixed well and, along with a few moments of subtle ambient noise and tasteful additions to silent filmed footage, serves as one of the few instances of surround activity. Overall, there's nothing to complain about here.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

The plain-wrap menu designs don't take advantage of Walt Disney's deep library of visuals, but at least they're easy to navigate and load quickly. Separate play options are included for both parts, as well as individual chapter selection menus and a set-up interface for the optional English subtitles. This one-disc release arrives in a standard keepcase and includes one promotional insert for related PBS titles. Unfortunately, there are no bonus features.

Final Thoughts

American Experience: Walt Disney is a refreshingly warts-and-all examination of an American icon. Spanning almost all six decades of his life and loaded with mountains of rare archival footage and photos, it's also punctuated by interviews with more than a dozen of Walt's colleagues and film historians. Balancing his personal and professional lives with skill (although they intersect almost constantly), it's evenly paced and uses time wisely with few exceptions. Unfortunately, PBS' DVD package doesn't offer much in the way of support: all four hours are crammed on a single disc, and the lack of a Blu-ray (and no bonus features) makes the notion of "just watch it on TV in a few weeks" more attractive than ever. Still, if you're dead-set on owning an official copy, here it is. Mildly Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.
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