The first thing you notice about Michael Barrier’s “The Animated Man: The Life of Walt Disney” is the comprehensive research. Barrier, who lives in Little Rock, began interviewing subjects in 1969, two-and-a-half years after Disney died, and interviewed more than 150 people before he was through. Many of the interviewees have since died. To preserve their memories of a giant of popular culture is a public service.
In spite of his huge impact on American life, still felt today, Disney has remained a distant, even mysterious, figure to most of the public. Those who are old enough can vaguely remember a smiling, avuncular fellow on the early Disney TV show, but that was hardly the real Disney, according to people who knew him. The real Disney worked, dreamed and fretted over his reach exceeding his grasp, they say. He seldom smiled.
But it’s not that the man who made children laugh was himself deeply unhappy, or that he was hiding dark secrets, as some would have it. There’s no scandal here. It appears that Disney’s chief sins were smoking, swearing and, sometimes, being mean to his employees. Millions of American men were equally guilty, and they weren’t making “Snow White.”
An interesting subject, somewhat illuminated, and writing that’s smooth enough so that reading it isn’t drudgery, are about as much as can be expected of a biography. Barrier passes the tests. There’s more here about the process of creating animated cartoons than the general reader will want to know, but those parts can be skipped through easily.