Walt Disney is, in my view, about the most interesting a figure to work in film in the twentieth century, for all sorts of reasons. Nobody did as much for their particular corner of the film medium as Disney did for animation: proper character animation, as we now think of it, was basically a Disney invention, created during the studio's great creative period between the late twenties and the early forties. Disney took animation from a primitive form to its maturity; it seems likely that cartoons would have remained a very peripheral novelty had there not been Disney's vision of something grander on the horizon. Yet Disney is also fascinating because of the way in which he lost interest and branched off from cartoons, leading to an incredible variation in the quality of the works prepared by the studio within his lifetime (Disney deservedly went from being a seriously regarded artist in the thirties to something of a critical pariah by the sixties). His devotion to amusement parks and other non-film corners of his business also foreshadowed the economic models that would define Hollywood in the last quarter of the century, with films increasingly becoming just one element in a wider suite of cultural products sold to audiences (so, for example, we don't just get sold Spiderman the movie; we are sold Spiderman computer games, comic books, clothing, CDs, theme park rides, and the like). As a person, too, Disney is fascinating for his mix of visionary artistic ambition and staunch conservatism. So he's a particularly rewarding subject for a biography.
Michael Barrier's The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney is one of two recent biographies released on Disney, the other being Neal Gabler's Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. Gabler's book is - as Barrier frets on his website - the more high profile release, backed by a bigger publisher. Yet I think most animation buffs will go straight to Barrier's book. Barrier has been researching animation for decades: he started interviewing important figures in the industry in the late sixties, and was publishing serious scholarly writing on the subject from around the same time in his magazine Funnyworld. Barrier's research in the field therefore started decades ahead of most writers who now write on the subject, and there is certainly nobody who can match the breadth of research and longevity of serious writing in the field. The first book-length result of Barrier's years of work was Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation In Its Golden Age, which quickly staked a serious claim as the definitive book on the subject. Yet in many ways The Animated Man is the superior book. Hollywood Cartoons suffered from its breadth; by necessity Barrier had to switch his attention from studio to studio, and that meant some areas had to be glossed over very quickly or not at all. In The Animated Man his focus is squarely on Disney, which makes for a much neater, more linear structure. And of course, the focus on one man, rather than an industry, gives the book more of a human focus.
Barrier declares his hand early, noting in the Preface that his chief focus is Disney's work, and particularly animation. This latter point would perhaps be an obvious conclusion, but there are a lot of Disney cultists who see things like Disneyland as his chief achievement. Barrier, rightly, takes the view that it was in animation that Disney was a first rate artist, and while he doesn't neglect Disneyland and the live action films, the book is strongest when focussing on cartoons. The early chapters are particularly interesting. It's easy to forget how long Disney struggled to find his feet in the industry (he started literally from nothing) and there's something comical about a small animated film ad company in 1920 unwittingly having the man who would revolutionise animation as an entry-level employee. But Barrier makes it clear how uncertain Disney's early years were. Other accounts tend to imply that Disney had high ambitions for the medium from very early days, and that the various setbacks he had in the 1920s were roadblocks on a journey towards inevitable greatness. Yet one thing that struck me in Barrier's account was that in the mid twenties Disney was more entrepreneur than artist; his interest in these years was in making his business a success, but that didn't seem to involve grand ambitions for the cartoons themselves. Hugh Harman, one of Disney's employees from the twenties who later made cartoons for MGM and Warner Bros., tends to come off in other books as a pale imitator of Disney. Here, though, Barrier suggests that in mid-twenties he was briefly ahead of Disney in his vision for where the medium could go. Yet it was Disney who would soon make the great strides ahead. This is partly a result of changes in Disney's thinking that occurred in the latter part of the decade, but it is also instructive about the blend of personality traits that made Disney the figure he was. Harman might have harboured similar aspirations, but it was Disney who had the ability to make it happen.
Barrier writes with a critical eye, and in Hollywood Cartoons that occasionally got frustrating, because if your idea of what was interesting varied from his, the things you wanted to read about sometimes dropped from view. The narrower focus of The Animated Man means that's less of a problem, but it might still occasionally bother readers. I had no problem with Barrier's dislike of Mary Poppins, for example, but found it a little off-putting that his narrative of the early animated features is so shaped by his relatively low opinions of Pinocchio and Fantasia. There are also a few areas where I was left wanting to know more, such as the fascinating relationship between Disney and Ub Iwerks. Iwerks started as the studio's key talent and Walt's closest collaborator, and finished doing technical work for the studio; in The Animated Man the latter period of his career isn't mentioned. Usually, however, these omissions are pretty defensible. Iwerks' significance to Disney in his later years was pretty marginal, for instance, and to include all such little asides would have brought its own hazards of length and focus.
There is such a large gap between the time Disney was doing his best work (between 1928 and 1941), and the period in which he became an avuncular public figure on his television show (in the late fifties and sixties), that the picture of Disney is often clouded by preconceptions and urban myths. These get further magnified by those wishing to push an agenda: for example, I have often seen left-wing critiques of Disney tie up their arguments with a grab-bag of ridiculous claims, such as those in Marc Eliot's execrable biography Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince. Barrier combats this with a methodical attention to detail and a rigid determination to rely on primary sources wherever possible. This can occasionally seem dogmatic or argumentative - Barrier is keeping a running list of errors in Gabler's biography on his website - but it is exactly the kind of attitude needed in a biography of a figure so surrounded by mythology. That Barrier is also so lucid and perceptive is the icing on the cake.