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An American Experience: Walt Disney #WaltDisneyPBS

I just finished watching the second season of the terrific, Sherlock. I noticed that, as I perused it over on Netflix, that it had tension, but there was not the annoying build-ups that lead to a commercial break that plague (enhance?) American shows. You know what I mean. You have the story moving along, and there’s tension-tension-tension and then? Blackout as a commercial rolls. They don’t have as many commercials in the UK and overseas. So the story moves at pace that, well, isn’t like I’m used to.  It all resulted in a bit of cultural awareness was needed to help with the shift of paradigm.  The program was standing on it’s own-purely on narrative.

The show was excellent, and a learning experience in a most unexpected way.

And it got me to thinking, since I’ve been watching the BBC’s Sky News as well-there’s something to be said about the lack of commercialism and such public broadcasting.  The story is expected to carry it’s own and the perspective is expected to carry some of the weight by attending and pondering the information as presented.

It’s seems fitting that this past week, I was treated by the Plunge website to see a sneak

preview of PBS’ American Experience:  Walt Disney.  It is appropriate, for fairly obvious reasons, that this market is a perfect place to generate interest. Not that any would be needed to be heated up. I mean, think about how many Plungers are running to the Florida state line to just get a better glimpse of the awesome castle!  But the presentation is also not marred with the rapid timeline of having to name a sponsor every ten minutes. Just like those shows over on the BBC. And it changes the whole pace of the presentation.

In a good, intellectual, way.

The preview was held at the Garden Theater on the main drag of the always charming Winter Garden. I need to write a day trip about coming down here, it’s so much like my favorite Mount Dora. The theater held it’s own charms and reminded me of the Plaza inside the Mexico Pavilion. Constellations dance about the proscenium; there’s even a little box office right off the street.

And they’re doing La Cage aux Folles by the end of the month.

However, the focus was the presentation, produced by Public Broadcasting and was fascinating. Really, can the true fans really find something they do not already know? It was evident, as the presentation was carried along, after a brief viewing, with a Q and A with Executive Director Mark Samuels and Managing Director Jim Dunford and Lou Mongello of the always high quality WDW Radio. His knowledge was brought to the forefront, and was an excellent selection of a local for whom the audience would have commonality.

Sadly, this presentation had an audience filled with the fans who would like such a show regardless of quality and not those who should really be experiencing Walt without prior knowledge.  I was reminded of the great, thick, text of Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: the Triumph of American Imagination as I watched the small snippet we were allowed to see. In fact, he appeared in talking-head form several times and I sense that the PBS production and his book might make perfect complements to each other.

And if you read that book and liked what you heard, you will like what you see. It might also be a bit redundant, as well, but I have a feeling true fans will not mind such things.

The show indicated that Disney gave PBS full access to their archives. It was evident that this lead to this film and that snippet, giving another glimpse into this famed man. The film’s producers used the term ‘Cultural Icon’ during this stay and this was telling on why they choose to emphasize a man who held no office and never had a Peace Prize. Instead, they show a man who is still valid today, not only through his ongoing legacy of parks and movies and media, but through important concerns that still are discussed today.

In fact, off the cuff remarks by Samuels and Dunford proved the power of the piece they had created. They cavalier remarked about the “universality” of the film-something they should not probably say to Disney fans in Central Florida; Dunford said the most interesting fact about Disney was…his brother, Roy. Such comments showed that they did not play into the adoration of fandom; they truly kept their subject matter at arms’ length and allowed the works express themselves.

This suggests a truly exceptional presentation.

At one point, the film mentions how dear Uncle Walt chose to isolate himself from his workers, earning barely enough money to get by. It’s not an endearing picture, but it eerily poignant given today’s concerns of workers and living wages. There’s also a decent emphasis on the pangs of being an artist and being judged on the merits of one’s art. How Disney sweated in the premiere audience of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” hoping that everyone would understand and appreciate the piece; how he finally got his Oscar nomination for pure artwork with Best Picture nomination for “Mary Poppins.”  It was as if he finally gained legitimacy in his own artistic eyes.   These are always concerns of every artist and every person who creates, to get recognition for what they do purely on their creativity.

I speak from experience.


And I guess it’s an American Experience as well.

Such moments connect with the audience and give this account a heavier weight. We see our struggles along with our Dear Uncle Walt. This is vital for the success of any documentary.

Will you love it? Absolutely. Is it worthwhile? Truly. But understand this goes beyond mere entertainment. It requires the audience to be actively engaged in pondering the lifestory before you.  The themes are numerous and will hit the audience where they are, proof of good work. Where you won’t enjoy it is that it is not passive watching. This is not summer fare, it’s rare photos and talking heads. I am fine with it. You might not be.  It’s a documentary, after all.  And besides, why do I have a feeling we’ve all watched the animated films a few hundred times. Maybe it is time to look at them all from a different angle. You never know what kind of experience you might have.

American Experience:  Walt Disney will premier on Monday and Tuesday, September 14-15 on PBS, 9pm to 11pm EST on PBS.

Joe Triggs-Smith

Joe Triggs-Smith

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