U.Va. Professor Joins PBS for New Disney Documentary, Premiering Monday

September 11, 2015

In a PBS documentary premiering Monday night, America will get a deeper look at the life and legacy of Walt Disney, with rare footage and interviews accompanied by the insights and commentary of a University of Virginia scholar.

Carmenita Higginbotham, an associate professor in the McIntire Department of Art, has extensively studied Disney’s outsized impact on American culture. Her courses include an American studies course, “The Art of Disney,” and an art history course on the history and visual world of Disneyland. In February, she gave a talk for U.Va.’s Look ’Hoos Talking speakers series, titled “Why We Can’t Let Disney Go.”

Higginbotham joined a panel of scholars providing commentary for the documentary, which is part of the PBS American Experience series. Filmmakers were given unprecedented access to the heart of Disney’s empire and will be sharing footage from the Disney archive, as well as interviews with some of the storied filmmaker’s closest colleagues. The result is a nuanced look at the man behind the legend, with insights that surprised even Higginbotham.

UVA Today caught up with her to learn more before the film’s two-night premiere, beginning Monday at 9 p.m.

Q. What did you enjoy most about working on the documentary?

A. The director, Sarah Colt, gathered a spectacular collection of advisers for the project and I really enjoyed talking with them. I learned things about Disney directly from the people who worked with him and knew him well. One of them, Don Hahn, was a producer for hallmark films like “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King.” Talking to him and others helped me better understand how Disney constructs its own history.

I also loved working with a filmmaker who is inquisitive, smart and focused. Disney gave PBS access to the Disney archive, which is typically kept very private and tightly controlled. Even now, leaders at Disney have not seen the film in its entirety; they will be watching Monday.

Q. Have you seen the film?

A. I have. It’s a great documentary and I don’t just say that because I am in it. This is a great moment for us to examine who Disney was and his impact on us, as the brand is expanding in so many ways.  

Q. Did you learn anything new about Walt Disney, or anything surprising even after years of studying his work?

A. I came away with a real sense of his personality, learned directly from the people who knew him. His commitment to making art – not just films – was something that I knew was there, but did not realize the depth of. I also learned more about the Disney animators’ strike in 1941, the inflections of that conflict and what Disney’s emotional response was. 

There were also a lot of fun tidbits that I never knew. For example, when pitching “Snow White” – his first animated feature film – to his creative team, Disney sent the whole team to dinner. When they came back he acted out the entire film, performing all of the parts and voices by himself. That’s pretty remarkable.

Q. In your opinion, why does Disney have such a compelling hold on our culture?

A. Disney taps into what is emotionally significant in all of us – a common concern and response to childhood, to love, to death and to the desire to belong.

Childhood is a key part of it. Disney’s narratives bring us back to that childhood space and give hope about our ability to respond to and cope with the changes of growing up.

Q. Given the depth of his impact, there has always been a lot of speculation surrounding Walt Disney. Does the documentary dispel any myths about the man himself?

A. The film exposes how complex he was, as an individual. He is a polarizing figure in American cultural history – you either really love him or really hate him. There is not a lot of neutral emotion about Walt Disney.

Nonetheless, this is not a black-and-white film – it is very layered. You get a sense of his idealism, but also how that was balanced by his desire to be a part of Hollywood, which often brushed him aside as just a cartoonist. He comes off as a man who was looking beyond his own boundaries. He demanded intense control over his cultural product, and though he was actually not a very good artist himself, he was very good at picking out those who were.

In some sense, his story taps into the America ideal of the individual who fights his or her way to the top. But the film goes beyond that archetype to really look at his emotional side, which was certainly complicated.

Q. What do you think it would have been like to work with Disney himself?

A. I think it would have been like being a part of a large family of people who were serious about and committed to animation. In the early years, he was very much a presence in the studio. It would have been an exciting place, but tempered by very real pressure. Disney wanted to create a hermetic environment that solely focused on making art, not on labor or social problems going on in the outside world. He succeeded to some extent, but those pressures were latent and bubbled over at points.

Q. What do you think Disney would think of the current state of his empire and its most recent blockbuster, “Frozen”?

A. I’m not sure even he would be able to imagine how big it has become today, with acquisitions like ABC, ESPN and Marvel. Every time the company got really big, Disney actually retreated. At one point, he left the studio because he felt like he could not control it anymore and set up an office off-site, where he began to conceive of his parks.

He always wanted to be innovating and was constantly exploring his relationship to what he was making. He probably would have loved the ABC acquisition because he had to cut a lot of deals with them to fund his parks. Overall, however, I think he might have retreated a bit from how big the company has become.

In films like “Frozen,” though, I think he would see the kernel of what he was trying to do in his early films. Those early films were very violent, and the stakes for the characters were very high. Something like “Frozen,” where there is a very significant chance that Anna or Elsa could die at the end, would have really interested him. He would also love the beauty of the film, and be excited by the innovation in technology and animation.

Q. Finally, what is your favorite Disney movie?

A. It all depends on the mood I am in, but one of my favorites is “The Lion King.” It’s Shakespeare; it’s “Hamlet.” Don Hahn, who worked on it, told me that they wanted to add something that was missing from the film “Bambi,” where we do not really see the character grieve his mother’s death. In “The Lion King,” the whole film is an exhibition of and display of grief, as Simba figures out how to deal with his loss and honor his father without being crippled by the pain. That is pretty heady stuff.

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