D23 Unveils PBS documentary American Experience: Walt Disney

When a person says Walt Disney, a lot of images spring to mind: Disneyland and Disney World, classic animated features, and Main Street USA. But who was the real man behind the mouse ears?

His vision launched a thousand movies into the film industry. Can anyone imagine not knowing the cinematic beauty of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Cinderella, or even Sleeping Beauty? Imagine no Bambi, Thumper, or Flower decorating bedrooms for decades. Or no pictures of 1950s boys in raccoon skin hats.

Western and American experiences in consumerism are deeply tied to Walt Disney’s perfectionism. And at the bi-annual D23 expo, The Disney Company revealed a PBS documentary that’s about to hit the small screen.  

American Experience: Walt Disney sets out to examine what drove the businessman to such heights, according to the official fan club. After all, Saturday night movies around the television set began when Walt’s company and ABC teamed up. Without Disneyland, ABC may not have reached the same amount of success. In fact, the companies’ history goes back forty years before merging.

Why did Disney run to ABC for exclusive rights on the beginning of Disneyland and the suburban dream of visiting the most magical place on earth? Mutual benefit seemed to help the show go on, especially when Disney was over budget and out-of-time in getting Disneyland up and running.


Produced by Don Hahn, the two-part, four-hour documentary will tell what people experienced as the entertainment juggernaut launched. Featured in the documentary, the producer feels objectivity is absolutely mandatory when looking at what made Disney tick.

“It’s a journalistic exercise, a third-person look at this man’s life.” American Experience interviews those who worked with the creator. All the way back to Snow White and as current as his death in the 1960s.

Hahn was joined by Walt Disney producer and director Sarah Colt, Walt Disney Archives Director Becky Cline, and Disney biographer Neal Gabler at the Stage 28 presentation. Premiering September 14-15, the documentary looks to be less Saving Mr. Banks and more critical of what the true experience was really like.

Colt discusses the “long process” of creating Disney’s first hit, calling it “a really fun experience.” Noting how the artists “remember the long hours and the excitement of the project and the craziness of getting it all done on time.” Even reticent illustrators connect with American Experience, to show the real impact of Walt Disney—including legendary Marty Sklar.



Remarkably, the film will feature rare looks inside the Disney vault. Anyone who remembers the Iron Man 2 scene where Howard Stark is speaking to Tony on camera will see the similarities of Walt Disney’s own paternalistic appeal to audiences. Even as darker demons urged the leader forward at times.

Speaking to PBS, Executive Producer Mark Samuels explained why the film is so important. “Walt Disney is an entrepreneurial and cultural icon. No single figure shaped American popular culture in the 20th century more than he.”

When Disney died in 1966, 240 million people saw a Disney movie, 100 million tuned into a television program, 80 million bought merchandise, and close to seven million visited Disneyland. Seems Samuels is right about the amount of cultural influence.

Look at how big the company’s grown; devouring and assimilating products like the Muppets, Marvel, and Star Wars.



Disney runs the world entertainment industry. But will the documentary talk about the negatives, not just the positives?

PBS seems to think so. They’re banking on the critics tuning in as much as the fans. After all, this is the same man who called his employees “communists” after striking from unreasonable requests. Relentless drive created one of the most historic brands, but cost people a lot of sanity and patience, too.

Colt describes Disney in less abrasive terms, citing “an extremely complex man” based on his own experiences. “Beginning with his childhood, which was dark in many ways. He seemed to alternate between darkness and a certain kind of lightness.”

Gambler delves even deeper on how to create an international brand that doesn’t seem to stop innovating customer experiences.  “What did this guy understand about the human psyche?”

PBS aims to answer the question in an honest, deep look into the life of the man behind the mouse on September 14 and 15 in American Experience: Walt Disney.

Originally posted in i4u News

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