Although kings, presidents, and generals can have a tremendous impact on history, others sometimes influence our lives in even bigger ways. Think of the impact on society and culture by people like Ray Kroc (McDonalds), Elvis Presley (need I even say his last name?), Bill Gates, or Steve Jobs. And sometimes those people are a lot more interesting to read about than the kings, presidents, and generals.
A year ago I reviewed biographies about Alfred Hitchcock and Charles Schulz who certainly left an impact in their mediums and on our culture to a degree. One who was perhaps more broadly influential was Walt Disney. The company he created still influences the movies and television shows we watch and the music we listen to – especially if you have young children – as well as the way many people enjoy their vacations. But for Walt, it was never really about the money...
...well, almost never. Walt Disney was always more interested in "the next thing," and making money on a venture was usually just a way to finance his projects. Initially drawn to animation but burned by dishonest partners, he created his own studio to produce animated "shorts" – short Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony cartoons shown before regular feature movies. But he was always pushing for better animation and quality, eventually creating "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," the first feature-length animated movie, with the best animation for the time. But even as his fame soared he wasn't breaking-even financially and eventually had to cut corners just to pay the bills and some movies were made just to generate income (like "Dumbo" and some live-action films). As Walt became bogged down in the studio and trying to make too many movies at once and always striving to create something bigger or better (realism in "Bambi" and high-class art in "Fantasia"), plus with WWII forcing him to rely on government work just to keep going, he became discouraged. As a result, the animation that was once the top in the industry lost its edge and Walt turned to other interests like trains and eventually television and Disneyland. But in the end he left a legacy of memorable characters and family-friendly entertainment that still continues.
Books about Walt Disney either paint him as a saint or an evil tyrant, and I guess he could be both depending on the perspective. Gabler is careful to point out where the "legends" were embellished, and that "Walt Disney" became more of a brand than a man, but I thought he portrayed him fairly and honestly. Gabler tells Disney's faults, ego, and the complaints many of his employees had, but also why he did what he did and what motivated him. It sometimes bogs down in too much detail about finances, but it not only shows why he was so culturally influential but also that he was as human as all of us.