THE DOCUMENTARY "American Experience: Walt Disney"
WHEN | WHERE Monday and Tuesday at 9 p.m. on WNET/13
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Walt Disney -- who died in 1966 at the age of 65 -- has been the subject of very few documentaries, in part because The Walt Disney Co. maintains tight control over both his image and the footage. This four-hour film, years in the making, promises rare archival footage and lots of interviews.
MY SAY "Whenever someone manages to implant himself in American culture and the American psyche as deeply as Walt Disney did, analysts naturally look for explanations," once wrote social historian Neal Gabler (of Amagansett, by the way). Gabler, interviewed here, even produced an award-winning Disney biography partly in search of them.
Those explanations and that search are also what make a four-hour film on Disney so alluring, even exciting. What was it about Walter Elias Disney, who made so many glorious films but also spawned Disneyfication, which has even taken over Times Square? Did he refract some elemental part of the American psyche through his own genius? Or did he create a part of the American psyche out of whole cloth -- his own whole cloth?
It's a chicken/egg question, maybe, but a valid one. Disney made all of us, to some degree. Why did we so eagerly embrace this change agent, and still do?
I watched the first two hours of this Sarah Colt-directed film, and . . . the good news: It's mostly excellent. Straight down the middle, full of astute observations by smart, knowledgeable experts like Gabler and author Ron Suskind, and plenty of detail.
But something nevertheless is missing: specifically, an answer to the "Why?" that an "American Experience" film should be preoccupied with. Disney is an exceptionally hard target, and with the control-freak company named after him standing in the way, probably impossible to fully capture anyway. (There's almost nothing negative here, by the way, other than his coldly corporate derailment of a late-1940s union drive).
In fact, Colt is fine on the details, just less so on their deeper meaning or consequences.
BOTTOM LINE Very good (I watched only the first two hours) but thin on broader cultural impact. Those may arrive in part 2 Tuesday so stay -- as the saying goes -- tuned.