The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney

The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney

The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney

The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney


Walt Disney (1901-1966) was one of the most significant creative forces of the twentieth century, a man who made a lasting impact on the art of the animated film, the history of American business, and the evolution of twentieth-century American culture. He was both a creative visionary and a dynamic entrepreneur, roles whose demands he often could not reconcile.

In his compelling new biography, noted animation historian Michael Barrier avoids the well-traveled paths of previous biographers, who have tended to portray a blemish-free Disney or to indulge in lurid speculation. Instead, he takes the full measure of the man in his many aspects. A consummate storyteller, Barrier describes how Disney transformed himself from Midwestern farm boy to scrambling young businessman to pioneering artist and, finally, to entrepreneur on a grand scale. Barrier describes in absorbing detail how Disney synchronized sound with animation in Steamboat Willie; created in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs sympathetic cartoon characters whose appeal rivaled that of the best live-action performers; grasped television's true potential as an unparalleled promotional device; and--not least--parlayed a backyard railroad into the Disneyland juggernaut.

Based on decades of painstaking research in the Disney studio's archives and dozens of public and private archives in the United States and Europe, The Animated Man offers freshly documented and illuminating accounts of Disney's childhood and young adulthood in rural Missouri and Kansas City. It sheds new light on such crucial episodes in Disney's life as the devastating 1941 strike at his studio, when his ambitions as artist and entrepreneur first came into serious conflict.

Beginning in 1969, two and a half years after Disney's death, Barrier recorded long interviews with more than 150 people who worked alongside Disney, some as early as 1922. Now almost all deceased, only a few were ever interviewed for other books. Barrier juxtaposes Disney's own recollections against the memories of those other players to great effect. What emerges is a portrait of Walt Disney as a flawed but fascinating artist, one whose imaginative leaps allowed him to vault ahead of the competition and produce work that even today commands the attention of audiences worldwide.


Anyone who writes a biography of Walt Disney is obliged to explain what he is up to, given that a dozen or more biographies of Disney have already been published. It is not enough to say that most of those books are not very good. The question is whether a new biography can avoid the pitfalls that have doomed the earlier ones.

Most Disney biographies have portrayed either a man who fell short of perfection only in a few venial ways (he smoked way too much and used a great deal of profanity), or one who was personally odious (anti-Semitism being the sin of choice) and the products of whose labors are a stain on American culture.

I have found few signs of either Disney in my own research into his life, which began in 1969 with my first trip to California and interviews with Ward Kimball, one of his best animators, and Carl Stalling, the first composer for his sound cartoons. Disney was, in my reckoning, a stunted but fascinating artist, and a generally admirable but less interesting entrepreneur. The trick, I think, is to wind those strands of his life together, along with a few strands from his private life, in a way that yields something close to the whole man; and that is what I have tried to do in this book.

I have concentrated my attention on his work, his animated films in particular, because that is where I have found his life story most compelling. He was, from all I can tell, a good husband and a devoted father, but he was indistinguishable in those and other respects from a great many men of his generation. The Disneyland park was, and remains, an entrepreneurial marvel, but it was much more a product of its times than Disney’s films, and its impact on American culture, for good or ill, has been exaggerated. Thomas Edison and Henry Ford may have transformed their country, but Walt Disney only helped to shape economic and demographic changes that would have . . .

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