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STEVEN WATTS investigates
Walt Disney's entire Kingdom and its cultural resonance
The Magic Kingdom
New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997
||Let me start off by warning you that
this is one of my all-time favorite books to read about Disney. I
say that knowing full well that it's not a book for everybody,
however. The language is dense! But if you can penetrate the
prose, I find it well worth the effort.
|Ah, conflict! I
agree that the language is dense, and that there are many good
things about this book, but ultimately I don't feel it has the
focus it should.
||I suspected it might not be
everyone's cup of tea. But this is exactly my sort of thing to
read! Let me provide some background here: I'm trained as a humanities
professor (German literature), and this author, Steven Watts, is a
history professor. He speaks my language in a way. This is the
kind of prose I'm used to having to penetrate. I appreciate it.
But it's not for the faint of heart, sometimes.
|Well, I’ve certainly read
my share of dense texts (I've actually read histories of
classification systems). It isn't the writing style
that bothered me, but that he felt a need to put everything into
this book, much of which distracted from his central thesis.
||Hmmm... You're blowing my idea out of
the water! I assumed the language might turn some people off.
Here are a couple of snippets of his prose, for clarification:
"The unfortunate Dumbo is quickly enveloped in a milieu of
commercial exploitation." (89)
rationalization and its efficient engineering of experience,
Disney nurtured a vibrant antimodern impulse that invested many of
his films from this era with great emotional energy." (107)
"This primitivism had profound, complex implications. On the
one hand, Sergei Einstein believed that Disney’s protean animism
had emerged in part as a revolt against capitalist
Note that this is as bad as it gets.
But I wanted our readers to know that it does get this bad. But if
you feel it wasn't a problem, then perhaps I should shut up and we
can talk about Watts’ central thesis instead.
|Oh, I certainly agree
that some people will be put off by the scholarly style. But what
I think most people would find worse are the long sections where
Watts essentially says, "this critic said x, while this
critic said y, while this critic said z."
This is valid
technique from a scholarly approach (make a statement then provide
extensive proof) but it is boring from a narrative perspective.
People do need to realize this isn't entirely a popular work, but
more of a scholarly one.
||As I said, because I'm used to this,
it didn't bother me. I actually appreciated the critical synopsis
he provides. He doesn't do it all at once, he does it where
appropriate. And he certainly provides much more in the way of
contemporary reaction to Walt and the studio than most books -
that's one advantage of his predilection for research.
narrative perspectives, I found that his typical approach to a
story is this: He'll present a brief summary, give lots of quotes
and research, and then tell the story in a narrative manner, and
then - and this is the kicker - he reaches some sort of critical
conclusion; something most authors in this field do not bother to
commentary is definitely something that makes this a necessity for
anyone interested in Disney's history. For me this was brought
home with the section on Song of the South. I’m well
aware of the racial tensions caused by this movie. I had always
assumed that these issues arose in sixties and it was enlightening
to learn how much debate and protest there was at the movie's
release (and even during production).
||I agree with you about the commentary
Watts pulls from newspapers, something few others have done.
That's hard research! and it shows how the history could (and
SHOULD) be viewed with contemporary issues in mind.
This is a
perfect lead-in for my big point about this book, the one thing I
hope our readers take away from the review: Watts, like all good
humanities scholars, recognizes that the real interest here is
"culture." He reaches cultural conclusions about Walt Disney,
his studio, his employees, and even his theme parks.
One example that
leaps to mind would be his take on the True Life Adventure films
of the 50's as representative of a Cold War America, where Nature
was Americanized by Disney: They "seemed to affirm social
competition as a natural process that enabled the best to emerge -
an unspoken rejection of the hovering Communist specter of
artificial government direction and centralized planning"
|From an academic
point of view Watts does make many interesting arguments about how
Disney was reflecting and creating American culture.
But I think
many people who read this book will feel that many of his
interpretations are a bit overwrought. Won't many wonder if Watts
is just imposing his own views on innocent works? Much like the
early example Watts gives where a Disney work (I forget which one)
is turned into a socialist manifesto by one commentator.
Watts shows how people interpreted Disney in many different ways,
he never really shows how his interpretation is more valid than
all the others.
||I think I'm going to have to disagree
with that. Watts does have an opinion and an agenda here!
sure how transparent it is, but he sets out to prove that Walt is
a populist whose particular brand of populism morphs with time.
He starts out as a simple populist, then becomes an anti-Communist (a
sort of nationalist populist), then a libertarian populist
(suspicion of big government, fostering of American myth), and
finally turns into a technocratic populist (technology subsumed to
service humans rather than vice versa; the case in point being
At each turn, Watts points out that Walt's brand of
populism morphs. I just love this thesis. I find it academic, yet
|Yes, that is
definitely his thesis, though in a complete departure from his
academic approach he doesn't really state his thesis until the end
of the book.
I just think many people are turned off when
cultural commentators start interpreting cultural objects in any
but the broadest of ways. I'm not saying that it is an invalid
approach, but most people would prefer that Snow White was simply
a fun movie, not a political, moral, or personal statement on the
part of Disney.
||You may not be giving the average
Disney reader enough credit.
|Maybe not, but then I
am also stating something I, personally, felt to a certain degree.
Now let me
ask you a question. In his broad strokes I think Watts is right
on, Walt was always something of a libertarian populist (with
occasional variations as to degree). However, when Watts gives
specifics (such as the True Life Adventures section you mentioned)
I just thought he was trying too hard to find significance.
question: Don't you think many of the micro-biographies (such as
for Tytla or Bill Walsh) tended to distract from the focus on Walt
and American culture? Interesting, yes, but not of much importance
to the central themes.
||I'm glad you mention the
micro-biographies! What you see as a distraction, I perceive as a
big bonus! I'm not sure why, but this book just speaks my language
somehow. I loved hearing the stories about Bill Tytla, Ben
Sharpsteen, Norm Ferguson, and others that normally warrant only
small mention in similar books. I'm not sure if it distracts from
the big theme, as you put it. I suppose it might. But it's worth
the cost, those ditties are priceless.
I can, however, tell you
one thing I found which annoyed me in terms of flow: because he
deals with thematics rather than the progression of time, he
proceeds in a quasi-chronological order (instead of a strict one),
he frequently has to backtrack, with the result that he sometimes
I got the impression, fair or not, that this came
about because the book is so huge, he must have written it over
long periods of time and simply missed the redundancy.
occasionally the repetition did make it feel like portions had
been previously published and worked into the larger text. But for
the most part the repetition was more helpful than harmful.
agree with the quality of the biographies. They were very
well written and informative (wouldn’t you agree that the 10
pages on Roy Disney were probably equal in value to the
||Absolutely. I think we both find the
Bob Thomas bio of Roy Disney lacking.
|My problem with the
biographies is that they just don't really belong in THIS
book. Watts could write a really great Disney Biographical
Dictionary, but in this work they, for the most part, do not
advance his thesis (Walt's political/social/moral evolution).
||Hmmmm. I never thought of it that
way. Perhaps you're right: they do, in a way, detract from the
flow of his populist argument.
I would still cling to the notion,
however, that Watts is masterful when it comes to having a
critical eye toward the studio and its cultural impact. I've
mentioned this before but feel it so strongly that it bears
repeating: Watts struggles through numbingly large libaries of texts
and films, and is yet able to assign fresh and relevant categories
for the studio output such as the package genre (Fun and Fancy Free,
etc), nuclear family postwar dramas with happy endings (Pollyana,
etc) or nostalgia films (Swiss Family Robinson), to name just a
One gets a sense of the studio living and breathing, actually
developing. This is an element usually missing in books about the
|I agree that for the
first period (1928-1940ish) and the third period (1952ish-death)
Watts seems to have hit it right on the head. But he doesn't quite
satisfy me in explaining the middle period when Disney was
misfiring a bit.
In this period, Watts doesn't spend enough time
talking about how Walt's attitudes match (or don't) with general
America's attitude but rather spends all the time just talking
about Walt. If during this period Walt and America were just
working on different wavelengths, then perhaps he should have
spent less time on the period.
||Great observation. I didn't notice
that before, and it's quite accurate. I’m beginning to notice
that you and I have different biases on the nature of this book.
You see it more as a book about Walt, whereas I perceive it more
as a book about the studio (albeit restricted to Walt's lifetime).
Is that correct?
|Yes, I do see it as
more of a Walt book than a Company book (I was predisposed to this
by the subtitle). If you view it as a company book then the bios
are much more appropriate, but it doesn't make sense for the book
to have stopped with Walt's death. One could easily argue that
since Walt's death the company has taken on a drastically
different role in American culture.
||Agreed; the Disney wave post-Walt
(well, since Eisner's arrival anyway) has been every bit as
pervasive as the company's effect during Walt's time. Allow me to
indulge my sullen streak in having none of my ideas pan out, and
change tracks briefly to talk about something totally different.
I noticed a secondary, more hidden thesis that Watts returns to
repeatedly throughout the book: that Walt struggled constantly with
his status as an artist and acceptance by the critics. Am I
grasping at straws here or did you notice this too?
|Oh definitely. Don't
want to steal your thunder or anything, but I couldn't help but
imagine how this book could easily gone off on a completely
different track: Using Disney to show how over the last 80 years
highbrow and lowbrow culture have really come to be quite
Whereas in the twenties both could like the same things
(though they thought the other liked it for the wrong reasons) by
the sixties, if one liked something the other side had to
automatically dislike it.
||Even though I've
labeled this a secondary thesis, in reality it's a subset of his
declared argument: If Walt is a populist, seeking to gain favor
among the masses, then the issue "is Disney art?" would
need to be asked.
The separation of lowbrow and highbrow over
these decades could be argued to proceed along the very same steps
Watts traces in Walt's developing populism (nationalism,
nostalgia, technocratic, etc)
interesting idea, if not directly examined by Watts. Perhaps a
second book is in order.
One other thing I wanted to ask you
before we wrap up. You felt that some of the stories in Bob Thomas's Roy Disney
book were salacious, did you find many of the stories in this book
to be even more so? For example, learning of Walt’s propensity to
discuss turds, pg. 271-2.
||I noticed the reference to bathroom
humor of course, and yes, cursing - with all its warts so to speak
- is reproduced here. But I would have to say that it's handled in
such an adult, responsible manner that it didn't come across as
salacious to me. Maybe because Watts couches his argument in
academic language, it's not so jarring and it doesn't look like
he's trying to shock us.
The only exception might be his
suggestion (on p.357) that Walt may have hated women slightly. On
the whole, I'm still in love with this book and this analysis; I
can forgive Watts this one bump in the road.
|This is a nice book, but I don't think it is great. It has
something for everything: primary sources for the scholar, good
stories for the Disneyphile, good stories for the Disneyphobe
(HUAC, the strike, some management techniques), and plenty of
background information for the Disney novice.
The problem is that there is so much in this book that at times
it is hard to tell that Watts is not just telling the Disney story
but rather trying to point a light on a central aspect of Walt
Disney's character and why it seemed to resonate the American
This is an important book to have in your Disney
collection but if you don't like to read lots of dense text, rest
assured it has a very good index and you can just read the parts
you are interested in.
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