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Alex Stroup and Kevin Yee
July 6, 2000

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STEVEN WATTS investigates Walt Disney's entire Kingdom and its cultural resonance

Reviewed:
The Magic Kingdom
Steven Watts
New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997

 

ALEX KEVIN
  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)

"Undercutting 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 rationalization." (128) 

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. 

As for 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 do.

The contemporary 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" (305).

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. 

While 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! 

I'm not 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 EPCOT). 

At each turn, Watts points out that Walt's brand of populism morphs. I just love this thesis. I find it academic, yet accessible.

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. 

New 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 repeats himself. 

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.

That's true; 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. 

I 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 Thomas bio?).

 
  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 few. 

One gets a sense of the studio living and breathing, actually developing. This is an element usually missing in books about the studio.

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 antagonistic. 

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)

Definitely an 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 people. 

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.

 

NEXT: Tinker Belles and Evil Queens

 
SEE ALSO:

Innoventions: Time well spent or waste of time?

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