Book reviews The Disney Studio Story

The Disney Studio Story

By Richard Holliss and Brian Sibley.
Octopus Books 1988.

Review by Robin Allan.

This is a welcome addition to the growing number of books on animation in general, and on the phenomenon that was – and still is -Walt Disney in particular. It complements John Grant’s Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Characters, published in the previous year and reviewed in Animator No 23, p12. However the new book stands up well quite independently; in Part One, Brian Sibley’s succinct telling of the Studio story from its beginnings up to the present day is unique. It is also the only book which lists, in Part Two, by Richard Holliss, every Disney film in chronological order, with brief descriptions wherever possible. This is no mean achievement in itself, and our authors lead us confidently on a fascinating and often surprising journey; Messrs bliss and Sibley, who have already mined much gold in Disney territory, find here more undiscovered treasure.

However, let me get my criticisms out of the way before the enjoyable task of recommending the book in general and its distinctive felicities in particular.

Like the Grant book, it does seem muddled in presentation – both authors give value judgements where a single view might have sufficed, but this is perhaps an editorial matter. I also had to dig, via indexes and dates, to find out certain facts and had to refer back to Leonard Maltin’s astonishing The Disney Films (Crown NY 1984) for details. Perhaps I was looking for a less sophisticated account – more facts and less comment. I must not give the impression that the work is lacking in information – it is packed with it, but I did miss credit lists for the features, which deserve an updated record, and even Maltin hasn’t been able to give this to us completely (see his Of Mice and Magic for more information). Names can be gleaned in the text, it is true, but there are no precise release dates and no running times.
The serious fault is lack of captioning in Part Two, for which there is no excuse and the editor Lydia Darbyshire and more particularly the designer Ron Pickless must take the blame for this; after wading through text, sometimes six columns, in order to identify an illustration, there is still insufficient factual information. Who, for example, is with Brian Keith, middle paragraph p209 for the picture “opposite right above”? And who is with Dean Jones on the same spread? I hope that Octopus Books will rectify this fault in later editions.

I should also have prefered less illustration of the witless live-action films which would have permitted Mr Holliss more elbow room to illustrate the seminal work, but doubtless editorial considerations affected both quality and quantity of pictures. The book certainly brings home through its very comprehensiveness, as no other has ever done, the extraordinary diversity of the Studio, the brilliance of the shorts and animated features, the genius that created the Magic Kingdoms, the quality of some of the live-action films and the crass mediocrity of the rest. These lurches in taste, quality and style were of course inherent in the Studio’s founder, Walt Disney, and the book returns us again and again to his fascinating and enigmatic personality.

Mr Holliss is to be congratulated on his tireless identification of all the films; these are admirable in aiding personal classification and in jogging the memory. He also notes TV packaging and compilation versions and has quoted, to charming and ironic effect, from the Studio’s own publicity. He is not afraid to criticise, though I beg to differ over some of his enthusiasms. “The whole affair”, he says, referring to one animated feature, “is directed without a single frame being wasted” (p184). Snow White or Dumbo perhaps? No, this is a comment on Sleeping Beauty. Hm…

Brian Sibley gives a clear and concise account of the whole history of the Studio. He covers much old ground with a fresh eye and gives new insights on both Walt and the Company he founded. It is the continuity that fascinates, the striving of one man of genius for technical perfection in everything he touched from the earliest cartoons to the latest developments of his Magic Kingdoms. The story, too, after his death, has never been so clearly told, and it is to both authors’ credit that praise is tempered with criticism and objectivity. This is no hagiography. There is fascinating and new material on the animated features; for example we are given perhaps for the first time an objective account of Dumbo, and also of the strike of 1941. Mr Sibley quietly goes about setting the record – so biased in Schickel’s book on Disney -straight. I also like the quotations and stories – many recorded for the first time – by some of the great artists who still survive – men like Marc Davis and Joe Grant; there are enchanting examples of the latter’s work which have never been published before.

The pictures in general are well chosen and beautifully reproduced. Look, for instance, at the illustration to Alice on p165 and the special effects animation for Bambi on p145. Other illustrations never before seen include fan cards, Christmas cards and original drawings from private collections. P58 offers some delightful examples; two fan cards from The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad and Melody Time, figurines from Fun and Fancy Free and a still from So Dear To My Heart. All these films come from what I call the forgotten years of Disney and I am delighted that both Mr Sibley and Mr Holliss pay just tribute to them.

Excellent use is made of the Company’s Annual Reports which offer a running commentary on the Studio’s fluctuating fortunes. Perhaps Mr Sibley is at his best when he is permitted to be most expansive; the accounts of Mary Poppins and Disneyland are fascinating, and I wish more space had been allowed for the latter part of Disney’s life. The narrative seems rushed at this point, catching perhaps Walt’s own sense of urgent acceleration as he hurled himself into plans for the second Magic Kingdom and Epcot. What indeed would he have achieved had he lived to supervise his second prototype city, tantalisingly touched on in this book?

The Disney Studio Story is packed with interest for the general reader and specialist alike, and the authors are to be complimented on the freshness and tactful confidence that they bring to their subject. We still, however, await the definitive study of perhaps the most powerful popular artist and mythmaker that the western world has ever known – Walt Disney.

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