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6 Degrees Entertainment

'American Experience: Walt Disney He Made Believe'
(DVD / NR / 2015 / PBS)

Overview: Walt Disney was uniquely adept at art as well as commerce, a master filmmaker who harnessed the power of technology and storytelling. This new film examines Disney's complex life and enduring legacy. Features rare archival footage from the Disney vaults, scenes from some of his greatest films, interviews with biographers and animators, and the designers who helped turn his dream of Disneyland into reality.

DVD Verdict: 'American Experience: Walt Disney - He Made Believe' is not only an incredible, detailed work of cinematic art to bring forth the legend that we all still know here today, but informational, and highly compulsive viewing for those of us that didn't know where the great man, Walt Disney originally heralded from.

In this two part documentary, we are there at the very beginning, learning that Walter Elias Disney was born on December 5th, 1901 in Chicago, Illinois. He subsequently moved with his parents to Kansas City at age 7 where he spent the majority of his childhood. At age 16, during World War I, he faked his age to join the American Red Cross. He soon returned home, where he won a scholarship to the Kansas City Art Institute. There, he met a fellow animator, Ub Iwerks. The two soon set up their own company. In the early 1920s, they made a series of animated shorts for the Newman theater chain, entitled "Newman's Laugh-O-Grams". Their company soon went bankrupt, however.

The two then went to Hollywood in 1923. They started work on a new series, about a live-action little girl who journeys to a world of animated characters. Entitled the "Alice Comedies", they were distributed by M.J. Winkler (Margaret). Walt was backed up financially only by Winkler and his older brother Roy O. Disney, who remained his business partner for the rest of his life. Hundreds of "Alice Comedies" were produced between 1923 and 1927, before they lost popularity.

Walt then started work on a series around a new animated character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. This series was successful, but in 1928, Walt discovered that M.J. Winkler and her husband, Charles Mintz, had stolen the rights to the character away from him. They had also stolen all his animators, except for Ub Iwerks. While taking the train home, Walt started doodling on a piece of paper. The result of these doodles was a mouse named Mickey.

With only Walt and Ub to animate, and Walt's wife Lillian Disney (Lilly) and Roy's wife Edna Disney to ink in the animation cells, three Mickey Mouse cartoons were quickly produced. The first two didn't sell, so Walt added synchronized sound to the last one, Steamboat Willie (1928), and it was immediately picked up. With Walt as the voice of Mickey, it premiered to great success. Many more cartoons followed. Walt was now in the big time, but he didn't stop creating new ideas.

But 'American Experience: Walt Disney - He Made Believe' goes deeper than just the gleaming surface of his originals, as it explores the life and enduring legacy of Walt Disney - as he makes films such as Cinderella and Mary Poppins and realizes his dream project, Disneyland.

With the coming of World War II, funding for feature films dries up and the studio is faltering. When Bambi is released in 1942, critics give mixed reviews, but the film does not make its costs back, and the company faces a mountain of debt. Soon another wave of union organizing takes place in Hollywood, and studio bosses are determined to fight back. Along with a dozen other Hollywood executives and celebrities, Walt Disney testifies before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 as one of the “friendly witnesses.”

In the latter half of the 1940s, Disney travels to England to launch a series of live-action films and also visits Alaska, where the Academy Award-winning nature documentary Seal Island (1948) is shot. The studio begins production on Cinderella, but Disney, nearing fifty, is beginning to physically wear down.

When Cinderella premieres in 1950, the film is a critical and box-office hit, but Walt Disney is more interested in a personal obsession: building scale model trains, first at his studio and then in his backyard in Holmby Hills. The project leads to Walt’s most wildly audacious idea: the creation of Disneyland, a living movie, and a three-dimensional make-believe world where real people can experience adventure. To fund Disneyland, Disney exploits the growing medium of television, making a deal with ABC to create a weekly television series that provides much of the $5 million needed for construction.

When the gates open on July 17, 1955, visitors flood in; nearly half of America watches a live telecast of the events. Disneyland draws a million visitors in its first ten weeks; soon there are five million per year and Walt’s creation has become a must-see.

By 1960, Walt Disney stands atop one of the world’s most profitable entertainment enterprises. The steady stream of revenue from Disneyland means Walt is free from interference from his bankers for the first time in his forty-year career. But whether he was making improvements on his theme park, or overseeing his TV shows and the half-dozen movies his studio is producing every year, he seems more interested in his legacy than in taking the artistic risks that made him famous.

This is where we see a whole other side of Walt Disney emerge, one from behind the curtain, so to speak. But, not for long, for in 1965, news breaks that Walt Disney is planning another project on a massive scale in central Florida: the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or EPCOT. Sadly, he does not live to see its creation, passing away at the age of 65 on December 15, 1966 from lung cancer. He has won more Academy Awards ® than anyone else in history and received two Emmys. His death is front-page news around the world. Watch this documentary today and (re)discover the man behind the Mouse myth for yourselves. This is a Widescreen Presentation (1.78:1) enhanced for 16x9 TVs.