Sunday, November 05, 2006

"What Would Walt Do?"

This question was one that executives were heard to ask when I worked at Walt's Place in the 1970s. And it's still a parlor question today (distant cousin: "What would Jesus do?"). Now that author Neal Gabler has a massive new biography of Walt Disney hitting the bookstores, VARIETY editor Peter Bart devotes his latest column to the question:

In his exhaustive, and somewhat pedantic, new biography of Walt Disney, Neal Gabler takes 633 pages to paint a picture of this seemingly unremarkable man who "created a new art form..and built one of the most powerful empires in the entertainment world."

The Walt that emerges is not exactly "a fun guy," but rather an austere and distanced control freak whose boundless vision propelled him into a series of brilliantly precarious financial misadventures.

But while Gabler painstakingly recounts Walt's flights of imagination, he avoids speculating on what "the founder" would have thought of the global empire that he inadvertently spawned -- a corporate kingdom rather than a magic kingdom...

I don't pretend to have any unique insight into Walt's thought processes, though I met him a few times... But here are some guesses about how he might have assessed the various components of the present-day Disney empire:

Walt likely would be appalled that the studio's animation output grew ever more pedestrian in the later Eisner years and, indeed, that it now has been outsourced to Pixar which is now, to be sure, owned by Disney...

...Walt today probably would find (Disneyland) too crowded, too commercial and too pricey...

...Walt pleased to hear Dick Cook's pronouncements about focusing more on family films and building on the Disney brand and he would have been astonished by the "Pirates" franchise...

I side with Gabler in declining to speculate about what Disney might have thought about this or that. It's always dicey to pull some great personage out of his (or her) own time and speculate how she or he would have reacted to popular culture, new technologies, 3-D glasses or whatever. Times are ever-changing, and human beings -- both the great figures of history and lesser lights -- usually change with them. And we can't know with any certainty HOW they would have changed.

So what would Walt have thought? Or done? It's pretty much unknowable, isn't it?


Anonymous said...

The "austere and distanced control freak" would better describe former CEO, Michael Eisner.

To be sure, Walt Disney was not my best buddy. I was only a dumb kid when I worked for the "Old Man" at Disney in the fifties and sixties. Yet, I got a pretty good sense of the man by just hanging around.

Walt was always full of surprises. I doubt if anyone could have predicted what he would do next. I can tell you this, however. He damn sure would have built EPCOT had he lived.

It's too bad Neal Gabler never met Walt. He might have been surprised to learn what a warm, decent and sincere man he would have encountered.

Anonymous said...

Shamus Culhane and I once had a conversation about Walt. He told me:" Walt Disney was a genius, he was a warm friend and a generous, considerate person. He was also a mean, tough SOB to anyone who crossed him. It sounds contradictory, but he was all those things, at once."

Anonymous said...

I reckon I'm one of those people who continues to ask "What would Walt do?" and happens to appreciate the post-Walt years when Card Walker, Ron Miller and others ran the Disney empire by trying to adhere to Walt's longtime creative judgements. To be sure, there was an atmosphere of conservatism and a tendency to play it safe rather than jump into untested waters, but the accumulated library of films produced under that regime are still infinitely more satisfying to me than those of the Eisner years. In short, the people who had worked alongside Walt seemed to be in line with Walt's inherent sense of good taste and what constituted genuine entertainment.

That's not to denigrate all of the films from the last 20 years but, aside from the handful of traditional animated features from "The Little Mermaid" through "The Lion King", there really hasn't been very much that I personally have liked. (For the record, I consider "The Great Mouse Detective" a wonderful feature that was largely the result of the pre-Eisner dictates. Burny Mattinson gets my kudos for that little gem.) As for the live-action output, I really have nothing nice to say about most of it. I still consider the Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures labels to have vastly watered down the Disney image, having reduced the amount of live-action family films under the Disney banner markedly during the Eisner Reign of Error. And, yes, I do realize that Touchstone technically was created under Ron Miller, but he only was there long enough to see "Splash" realeased under that banner, whereas Eisner ran with it whole-hog, as it enabled him to be the movie mogul he'd always dreamed of being while allowing others to worry about that animated kidstuff that he'd just as soon do away with were it not for Roy acting as a human shield.

If I were to be so bold as to speculate as to "What would Walt do?", I would suggest that it probably would have been unlikely that he'd have formed "strategic partnerships" over the last 20 years with the likes of Steven Spielberg, Jim Henson, or even Pixar for that matter. After getting burned early with "Oswald", I don't think Walt trusted outside forces enough to allow his Studio's films to be compromised by having to share the artistic vision with others. Though he might have set up a second film banner like Touchstone, I suspect he would have limited its output to the types of serious, highminded films that tend to get Oscar nods, rather than use it as a way of putting out asinine, prurient, teen comedies to make a few quick bucks.

I agree with Floyd that Walt certainly would have built EPCOT as closely adhering to his vision as was practical to do so. Walt was one of our great futurists whom I am absolutely convinced was looking to do his part to show mankind what could be achieved for the betterment of living and working communities. Basing it on the "hub" design that he'd used successfully at Disneyland, with a central work community radiating out along spokes of mass transit to the outlying living areas, still strikes me as a brilliant foundation to build new cities. It's a tragedy that Walt Disney did not live long enough to bring this dream to fruition, as I feel it has been civilization's great loss.

Warnwood said...

I agree with Floyd and Pete's assessment. I think Walt would be pursuing two areas, only one of which his company really seems to have any interest in these days: his experimental prototype community of the future and its equivalent on the Internet, realtime 3D animated communities (whose current incarnation is MMOGs.) I'm almost certain, based on what I've read in the many biographies and given his interest in audio-animatronics, that he'd have been fascinated by the control bestowed on the animation process by computer tech -- both in films and in the kind of expertise WDI R&D showed recently in concocting Lucky the dinosaur. I don't think he'd have had much interest in hand-drawn animation anymore, although he may have maintained it for sentimental reasons. By the time he died, it's pretty clear that the focus of his attention was elsewhere.

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