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Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination

by Neal Gabler
851 pages
Vintage (Random House)
Published: October 2006

Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination” by Neal Gabler was published in 2006 and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography. Gabler is an author, journalist and former film critic whose previous books include a biography of Barbra Streisand and a behind-the-scenes look at Hollywood. He is currently working on a biography of Edward Kennedy.

This biography of Walt Disney is one of two recent, compelling works reviewing the life of a man whose lasting impression on American culture is indisputable (the other being Michael Barrier’s 2007 “The Animated Man.”) Biography aficionados will quickly discover that Gabler’s hefty book – with 633 pages of text and about 200 pages of notes and bibliography – provides much to enjoy.

To suggest this book is built upon a foundation of impressive research seems an understatement. Every important moment of Walt’s early life appears to have been uncovered and, at times, it seems certain Gabler must have followed Disney through his entire life…and interviewed everyone who ever knew him.

Like many talented and highly-driven individuals, Walt Disney was a far more complex person than is generally appreciated and this biography adroitly captures his multifaceted (and occasionally unpleasant) personality.  Gabler also offered me something slightly unusual: a reading experience where I frequently found myself slowing my pace in order to more fully savor the literary journey.

From an engrossing introduction to coverage of the early days of the Disney Brothers Studio to a surprisingly interesting exploration of motion picture technology and, finally, to the consummation of Disney’s dream of building a theme park, Gabler’s book offers an impressive balance of insight, erudition and accessibility.

But fastidious detail and insight is not just one of this book’s great gifts, it is also the biography’s primary vice. Coverage of some topics is far more meticulous than many readers will desire, including the mechanics of Disney’s third-party business arrangements, minutiae relating to contracts and negotiations, blow-by-blow accounts of various hassles encountered during film production…

While the detail is undoubtedly enlightening, encyclopedic coverage of all events great and small will strike many as unnecessary and, quite possibly, tedious. So although this author seems to possess biographer Robert Caro’s penchant for unusually attentive and vigilant research, he also demonstrates a similar gift for garrulous gab.

Overall, however, Neal Gabler’s “Walt Disney” is a methodical, revealing and often engrossing look at a fabulously creative and complicated individual. But rather than convincing me I have no cause to read Michael Barrier’s contemporaneously-published biography of Disney, this book (to its credit) convinced me I would be crazy not to.

Overall rating: 4¼ stars