Daddy Walt is a different creature. The star of the recent Walt: The Man Behind the Myth wants to be recognized not for the gifts he bears but the salutary effect he's had on my life. In this Disney-produced documentary, career highlights are intercut with home movies. Daddy Walt is loving at home, and an unstoppable force for innovation at work. Any moments of friction are the result of simple family dysfunction: Daddy Walt spent too much on growing his business to reward everyone properly, the strike was a personal betrayal led by ungrateful children, and accusations of anti-Semitism are rumor-driven nonsense. Besides, how can you hold such human frailties against the man responsible for giving us motion, sound, color, animated features, the most successful family TV shows, and Dick Van Dyke's cockney accent?
A public personality overhaul for the long-dead Disney is revisionism perfectly suited for these complicated entertainment times. When a noxiously commercial enterprise like Shrek scores massive box office by sticking it to your control-freak image, it's clear you've got a branding problem. Watching three recent Disney princess stories on DVD--Princess of Thieves, The Shirley Temple Story, and The Princess Diaries--is like watching Jack Lemmon's character in Glengarry Glen Ross blow another sale. Disney used to own the princess market; now it can't even decide if it wants to encourage standing up to boys, listening to Mom, or good-natured comical transformation. The Princess Diaries offers up a graceful Julie Andrews, today's Robert Stevenson (Garry Marshall), and an ingénue seemingly grown in a test tube to appear on The Today Show (Anne Hathaway). But the memory that lingers even after multiple viewings is the hyper-aggressive marketing campaign, the kind that used to be unnecessary when Disney's name was up front.
Moving away from "Uncle Walt" also allows Disney greater freedom to emphasize its founder's savviest observation: that generations of filmgoers can be reintroduced to his company's best works. Disney has made millions re-releasing films, syndicating material for TV, and starting cable networks because it has the proven back catalog to do so. Didn't like Atlantis? Boom! Beauty and the Beast, IMAX-style! This dedication to repetition makes Disney the king of emerging technology. It was a savvy exploiter of television's infomercial tendencies--like the Disneyland U.S.A. series, a G-rated Disney After Dark designed to put butts in monorail seats. Disney is also the studio that made the most money in the '80s and '90s from chart-topping "limited" releases of direct-purchase videos.
Judging from its initial forays into archive-driven DVDs, another technology seems to have been invented just to sell Disney product. The Disney Treasures DVD series not only exposes new viewers to Disney's tradition of celebrating process with result--Disney has been doing the kind of behind-the-scenes feature common to DVDs since the '30s--but a lot of the material startles and shines. No animation moved quite like the Silly Symphonies, a criminally underappreciated series of shorts; Mickey Mouse in Living Color shows at the height of his popularity a blank-faced Hollywood star that bears up to a wider range of audience imprinting than Gary Cooper and Alan Ladd combined. And although watching the complete Davy Crockett is the buddy-movie equivalent of trying to count the number of shots in the seminal car chase in Bullitt, it's pleasant enough company (with Buddy Ebsen to boot).
Over the credits of Walt: The Man Behind the Myth, a late-in-life Disney is asked if he'd do anything differently. He says no, but he wouldn't want to do it all over again either. It's the only time in any film presentation that Disney really sounds like someone's father. Admitting he sometimes acted like one may give the Walt Disney Company the space it needs to define itself in terms of its actual accomplishments rather than its assumed ones. Uncle Walt might not understand that, but Daddy Walt would be proud.