Walt Disney: Amidst Enchantment

January 14, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Walter Elias Disney was born 100 years ago in Chicago. These days, I suspect many of us imagine the American townscape of 1901 rather like Main Street at the entrance of every Disney theme park, with its ice cream parlor, emporium, and Town Square. In fact, Walt Disney’s family lived not far from Al Capone’s headquarters, and in a neighborhood where two boys were arrested for killing a policeman. Disney’s father called Chicago a “cesspool.”

MICKEY MOUSE: Pretty soon, Walt’s family moved to a farm in Missouri…

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: …Where the work was hard and unprofitable. It was there young Walt encountered streams and pigs and squirrels. (Birds chirping) In a forest, he saw an owl one day and chased it, was clawed by the bird, and in a fury seized it and slammed it to the ground, stomping the bird to death. The more one learns of young Walt Disney’s America, the more one is struck by its darkness and difficulty. When his father went broke, the boy watched as his favorite farm animals were sold and taken away.

BAMBI SEGMENT: Bambi, quick. The thicket!

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: It’s no coincidence that in so many of Disney’s early full-length cartoons, happiness is easily threatened. Danger lurks.

BAMBI SEGMENT: Faster, Bambi! (Gunshot)

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: As Bambi learns when its mother dies, tragedy is as natural as a cloudless sky.

BAMBI: Mama!

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Since early December, when the Disney corporation began advertising the centennial of Walt Disney’s birth, I have thinking about America’s most famous fantasist. Here we are, just months after the surreal events of September 11, and America’s movie theaters are filled with fantasy: Gothic quests, comic monsters, British witchcraft. Computers, of course, are the true wizards. As a kid, I first saw Walt Disney on television in the 1950S. Every Sunday, with grandfatherly charm, his voice raspy from cigarettes, he invited America’s children into one of the chambers of his imagination. I admit I was little charmed by fantasyland. I preferred the humor of Warner Brothers’ cartoons.

BUGS BUNNY: What’s up, doc?

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: There was bite to bugs bunny and Sylvester the cat. In Warner Brothers’ cartoons, character was everything– wit, sass, malice. The backdrop was flat, which was true later with Hanna Barbera’s “Flintstones,” or today with those postmodern “Simpsons.” The punch line is delivered in a world that barely is drawn.

MARGE SIMPESON: So I guess life goes on.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: The ’50s was a profitable decade for Walt Disney, with Davy Crockett and the insufferable Mouseketeers. What seems to be more audacious in that decade was Disney’s dream of Disneyland. It was as though he wanted to make fantasy real by constructing a series of movie sets, props, and common places we recognize from movies, through which visitors could wander. Like other post-war urban planners, Walt Disney displayed both an innocence and an arrogance. After all, to create the happiest place on earth, he needed to clear away all that is messy. Disneyland is scripted reality. To his disgust, neon and the honky-tonk of Anaheim intruded on the edges of his dream, so Disney planned a bigger park in Florida, where the messy world would be kept at bay. Before he died from cancer, Walt Disney planned to build houses on fantasy plots. He would call his dream suburb “Celebration.” Perhaps his whole life was a quest, as fantastic as any on today’s movie screens, to remove ugliness and unhappiness from our lives.

SNOW WHITE SINGING: With a smile and a song…

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Not until I was in college did I see the movies that had made Walt Disney famous in the 1930s, and then I was astonished by his sense not of character, but by the backdrop. (Birds chirping) Disney saw the way a saint might, with a sense of wonder. Every leaf is finely veined, every drop sparkling, every cloud rounded. Nowadays Hollywood has schooled young audiences to prefer bang to visual detail. But as six-year-old boys might tell us, we could be entering a real world that resembles the animated mayhem of video games and movies, with steroid heroes and exploding skyscrapers.

But I remember a night in Berkeley, in the unruly 1960s, when I first saw “Fantasia.” The theater was crowded with unkempt men and women who had grown up in the uniform suburbs. The movie began. The flowers danced and the raindrops sparkled. Many in the audience dropped acid and smoked pot in order to see the world’s redeemed as Walt Disney dreamed it should be.

I’m Richard Rodriguez.