San Francisco — Given the heritage of the place, you expect to see a ride at the Walt Disney Family Museum, which recently opened in the Presidio here. And in a way, there is one, since the museum does just what Disney thought a ride should do when he created Disneyland more than half a century ago: It tells a story.
And while the museum is almost leisurely in relating its narrative, only here and there veering into uncharted terrain, and while children will quickly pass by many sections that will fascinate their elders, there are more than enough thrills for everyone.
Who needs Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, Caribbean pirates, Matterhorn rides or a robotic Abraham Lincoln when the story being told touches the experience of anyone who had contact with the 20th century and its Disneyesque amusements?
The ride in question is, of course, just a walk, but it leads through 1,765 square meters of galleries in this new museum complex, a $110 million transformation of an Army barracks and two neighboring buildings, devoted to telling the story of Disney’s life and work.
This might seem a bit secondhand, since it means gazing at original character sketches and animation notes for the seven dwarfs (Dopey: “Droopy effect in all clothing” or Bashful: “Head usually down, eyes looking up”) rather than seeing them Hi-Ho-ing into their mine.
And it can hardly be said that Disney’s career is the stuff of adventure stories: He knew how to make cartoons and amusement parks, and he created companies that could do both. It is a life of relatively tame domesticity, extraordinary hard work and occasional controversy.
The motivation behind the museum did not seem to promise much more excitement. As the decades passed since Disney’s death in 1966, his daughter Diane Disney Miller discovered that fewer and fewer children had any idea that her father was more than a corporate logo.
Some recent biographies, she said in a recent interview in The New York Times, also portrayed him and his marriage in an unflattering light. So the Walt Disney Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization independent from the company, decided to create a museum entirely devoted to Disney.
His personal archives are enormous, but major copyrights and important films and artifacts are held by the Walt Disney Company, so it lent the museum materials, including a two-story-high “multiplane” animation camera that was used to create three-dimensional effects for “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia.” A 114-seat theater at the museum will host concerts and screen Disney films.
At first, the museum (Page & Turnbull are the architects) seems to be precisely what it promises to be: a family institution designed to undo anything negative and celebrate the man. The lobby is really a large gallery given over to displays of Disney’s many awards, certificates and statuettes. They include Harvard’s honorary degree and the special Oscar designed for “Snow White” in 1938, but also minutiae like a plaque presented to Disney in 1959 during “National Want-Ad Week,” commemorating the ad he answered in 1920 seeking a “first class man” to do “cartoon and wash drawings.”
But the impulse to put the rest of the family attic on display is resisted, and as overseen by the founding executive director, Richard Benefield (who had been deputy director of the Harvard University Art Museums), the Disney Museum is far from being an airbrushed portrait.
While there are no hints of the domestic tensions described, for example, in Neal Gabler’s fine recent biography, and while there is much more to understand about the arc of Disney’s life and the frustrations of his final decades, his imagination was so capacious, his ambition so disciplined and his achievements so vital to the evolution of American entertainment media that he seems a natural force.
The family movies on display show, at the very least, Disney’s childlike sense of play, particularly with his two young daughters.
Disney’s drive, the museum demonstrates, was relentless. Having mastered the basics of animation in the ’20s, Disney kept pushing at the possibilities. (The exhibition design, by Rockwell Group, helps provide a basic education in animation’s history.)
In one of his earliest achievements, “Alice’s Wonderland,” a young girl visits an animation studio and falls asleep, dreaming herself into the cartoon world, mixing fantasy and reality, a vision Disney must have shared. Small screens show clips of Disney’s Alice cartoons, framing them within larger drawings, amplifying the playfulness.
Disney entered a new era with his first sound cartoon, “Steamboat Willie,” the third starring Mickey Mouse. We take it for granted now, but at the time the work meant selecting an expensive technology, developing a technique for coordinating music and image, and convincing distributors the cost was worth it. Nothing about it was easy: One wall contains an array of 348 enlargements of drawings from that cartoon; they constitute less than a minute of action.
And there were other challenges. Disney’s first company went bankrupt. His second, created with his brother Roy, was nearly destroyed by a jealous rival who lured away staff members and took over one of Walt’s early cartoon characters, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
Out of that debacle grew the idea of Mickey Mouse, an insouciant creature whose pluck and autonomy must have been appealing in the wake of disappointments (those traits also found resonance with the temper of the times). A wall of display cases features Mickey memorabilia that will make collectors drool; it also shows how quickly Disney had figured out how to merchandise his characters, transforming the film business.
But if Disney had not been interested in character and story, this might have led to just an early onset of today’s merchandising fever. He was constantly running out of money, not because he was profligate but because he was a compulsive idealist, straining for something beyond the reach of common cartoons.
By the time he created his first feature-length work, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” he had transformed the very notion of animation. Disney insisted that cartoons literally animate their world, bring it so thoroughly to life that even inanimate objects would react to events. He pushed his staff to strain for realism (and sponsored drawing classes in his studios). But he was interested in something more than reality: Even tables and trees would display character.
One of the most fascinating objects here is an enormous notebook created by Herman Schultheis, a technician in the camera-effects department in the late ’30s, in which he documented how images were produced in “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia.” Next to it, an animated display of the book responds to touch, so you can almost feel the creators’ imagination at work as they transmute real objects into fantastical washes of color.
The museum goes on to describe the animators’ strike of 1941, which so shocked Disney that after World War II, he became an eager witness for the House Un-American Activities Committee; the displays deftly present interviews with workers on both sides of the picket lines.
Other exhibits cover the war years, postwar live-action movies (like “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”), nature films and, finally, in an annex to the original Presidio Building, a gallery in which Disney’s own toy train is on display — one he rode around his property — along with a model of his original plans for Disneyland.
In that final gallery, the pace is quick, the detail slight. In barely the space it took to define the beginning of Disney’s animation revolution, we hear about his television work in the 1950s (like “Zorro” and “The Mickey Mouse Club”), the years of continuing films, both flops and hits, and Disney’s final fantasies of an urban utopia to be constructed just beyond Disney World in Florida.
There is much to admire here (space is also devoted to Disney’s creations for the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair and to the movie “Mary Poppins”), but it becomes clear that while his energy and imagination remained intact until his death from lung cancer at 65, the trajectory he mapped out in the ’30s in animation was left for others to explore.
He was a pioneer in packaging and synergy, but nothing else was to break artistic ground the way those early films did, and no animated movie ever got Disney’s full attention again. He was preoccupied with other things. It is as if a cartoon character had broken out of all celluloid constraints and decided to test its fantasies in the real world — Alice returning from Wonderland. Those efforts had mixed results, but it was an exceptional ride.