Now that we’ve been in this lockdown for nearly two months I find myself wanting to get back to another world, one that I manifest through sheer will and can fully inhabit, maybe even share with others. I’m kidding, sort of. I’m just a humble writer with a humble new magazine. But I can understand the impulse.
It was the guiding impulse of Walt Disney’s life and career, according to biographer Neal Gabler, author of Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.
Inscribed in it’s opening pages is an excerpt from William Blake–one of our favorite poets–whose words hint as to where the rest of the book is going.
I must create a system
or be enslaved by another man’s;
I will not reason and compare:
my business is to create.
“The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”
I don’t mean to spoil the ending, but Disney succeeded. I’m sure you knew it by looking at everything today that bears his name. Disney, the man who launched a groundbreaking animation studio that revolutionized motion pictures. Disney, who created a theme park that continues to dramatically influence American culture, for better or worse.
A sympathetic view might say that his creative legacy and the force of his imagination inspired the imagination and creativity in countless generations to come all around the world, while critics might insist that the legacy of his films, the parks and merchandise only glorify some childlike escapism, a tacky sentimentality and gross materialism.
I can’t lend much to the discussion either way, one that most people might have anticipated before even reading the book. How a person connects to the films and theme parks is their own business. I only finished the book with a renewed perspective on a man far more complicated than I realized.
What I never expected to learn was how many times he failed. How ridden with obstacles, and miseries and all sorts of horrible anxieties that long road became, the road to his own utopia, the road that ultimately never ended.
Throughout the book I found myself revisiting one question in particular. One that I think is essential in understanding the nature of success itself, specifically in this country. To what degree did his achievements rest on the ingenuity of other people?
It’s the gray area of his life and career that proved the most compelling for me. The relationship between the big idea and the details. The back-and-forth from which, it turns out, most of his problems arose.
I wondered if he ever missed the old days when he started in mixed animation and live-action shorts, and only needed a small crew and a couple of friends to stand in front of the camera.
His talent was more in coming up with ideas, and less about the smaller details on how to realize them. Of course those details played the most decisive role in getting the task done, and so naturally a far greater deal of credit is owed to those with whom he surrounded himself.
Still, the more heads in the room, the more problems arose; and it wasn’t long before he suffered one of the most devastating disappointments in his career following the studio’s loss of it’s first original character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, the rights for which were lost during a contract dispute with Universal Studios.
It’s worth noting that, shortly thereafter, Disney and chief animator Ub Iwerks created a new character that launched Disney and his studio to international fame and served as the creative foundation from which everything would follow.
Yet from that point on, he had a harder time trusting people, which only grew following the labor strike in the early 1940s, shortly after the success of Snow White and the subsequent financial losses incurred from Pinocchio and Fantasia, cemented as classics today despite nearly bankrupting the studio at the time.
It survived but was never the same. For a brief moment before the strike, the studio had served as the closest thing to Walt’s very own creative utopia, a community of visionaries operating at the intersection of art and technology, constructing worlds that broadened the public imagination and provided a psychological, emotional, even transcendent experience for anyone willing, if not just for the artist themselves.
Following years of creative stagnancy, Disneyland was the first project to resurrect that old vision. As he once did with the animation studio, he could regard it as a perpetual work in progress, something that was both a creation in itself and a workshop for continued ideas.
Creation was the guiding impulse of his life; and so by that measure, on a core level at least, Disney was an artist, first and foremost. While the scope of his creative vision is arguably unparalleled, his greatest successes seem equally linked to his ability to manage and lead other creative people in seeing that vision realized.
Shortly after the park’s completion and enormous success, he started planning a second and far more ambitious project that would serve as the apotheosis of his creative energies.
Where Disneyland had become the quintessential amusement park, this would serve as the quintessential city. The Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow. Unlike the theme park and most of the innovations bearing his name, EPCOT would form a fuller synthesis between his own imagination and the real world, an environmentally sustainable community, free of pollution where people would actually be able to live and work harmoniously.
It would break down the long-standing walls between the fantasy worlds he helped create and reality, and challenge the long-standing critique that he was more preoccupied with escaping our world, rather than changing it.
An artist can stay true to their vision and hope others relate to it, but of course they have little control over that in the end. Disney learned as much through frequent creative disappointments that likely sobered his own perspective on the matter.
He passed away before EPCOT was ever approved, and today what stands in its place is a much smaller version of what he envisioned, a theme park only hinting at the community he had in mind.
One might dream ’till the cows come home, but when it comes to the big ones, it takes communicating to others, appreciating and counting on them to help make it happen. Recognizing the stake one person has in the other.
We could guess how well Disney understood that in the end. My guess is that he knew it, and that through every failure and subsequent success, he was always working on it.
I also think it’s no small thing how EPCOT as he saw it, represents that idea more directly than anything else he ever put to paper.
I hope someday we’ll see it realized.