Walt Disney on American Experience

September 14, 2015September 15, 2015

Walt Disney was uniquely adept at art as well as commerce, a master filmmaker who harnessed the power of technology and storytelling. This new two-part, four-hour film examines Disney’s complex life and enduring legacy, featuring rare archival footage from the Disney vaults, scenes from some of his greatest films, and interviews with biographers, animators and artists who worked on early films, including Snow White, and the designers who helped turn his dream of Disneyland into reality.

The NEH-funded Walt Disney, premiering on PBS' AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Monday and Tuesday, September 14-15, 2015, 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings) offers an unprecedented look at the life and legacyof one of America’s most enduring and influential storytellers.

From Steamboat Willie to Pinocchio to Mary Poppins, Disney’s movies grew out of his own life experiences. He told stories of outsiders struggling for acceptance and belonging, while questioning the conventions of class and authority. As Disney rose to prominence and gained financial security, his work became increasingly celebratory of the American way of life that made his unlikely success possible.

Yet despite the success he achieved, he was driven and restless, a demanding perfectionist on whom decades of relentless work and chain-smoking would take their toll. He wanted his films to make people feel deeply, yet he often buried his own emotions. Aspiring to create great artistic films, he felt he wasn’t taken seriously by the movie industry and was stung when critics panned his productions. Never satisfied with his previous efforts, he always pushed forward to a “new adventure,” but his attention to detail and quest for innovation frequently meant delays and cost overruns. When his employees organized and went on strike, Disney felt betrayed, unable to understand how people who worked for him could be unhappy; years later he called them “communists” before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

A polarizing figure — though true believers vastly outnumber his critics — Disney’s achievements are indisputable. He created one of the most beloved cartoon characters in history, Mickey Mouse; conceived the first-ever feature-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; pioneered the integration of media and marketing with thousands of branded products; and conceived Disneyland, the world’s first theme park and a three-dimensional realization of his own utopian universe.

Executive produced by Mark Samels, directed and produced by Sarah Colt, and written by Mark Zwonitzer, the film features rare footage from the Disney archives, scenes from some of his greatest films, and interviews with biographers and historians, animators and artists who worked on Snow White and other early films, and designers who helped create Disneyland.

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Station: Walt Disney premieres on PBS' AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Monday and Tuesday, September 14-15, 2015, 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings)