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[An introductory note: You'll find very full, well-illustrated coverage of the Paris exhibition at Ben Simon's site, Animated-Views. The exhibition opened in Montréal, Quebec, on March 8, 2007, at the Musée des Beaux-Arts and was up until June 14; more information is at this link. Some items included in the Paris version were not seen at Montréal, and vice versa, but the catalog indicates that all the Paris items originating with the Disney studio—that is, all the items of greatest interest to students and fans of Walt Disney's films—were part of the Montréal version as well. An English-language version of the catalog is now available at amazon.com.To read feedback about this review, including a detailed rebuttal by Didier Ghez, click here.]

The Disney studio's in-house newsletter, the Bulletin, for May 17, 1940, included this message from Walt Disney addressed to "all studio members":

Since we are about to resume the running of pictures in our theatre each Wednesday evening, I want to explain to all members of my organization the purpose of these showings. The entire idea was conceived with the thought of showing only those pictures that would not only be helpful but would stimulate the minds of the creative groups in the work they are doing. For that reason, we select only those pictures that tie in with the work we now have in production. Therefore, because of this arrangement and due to the limited seating capacity in the theatre, which even now is unable to care for all of the creative groups, it is obvious that everyone cannot attend. I want to emphasize at this time that these pictures are not to be considered in the light of `entertainment' nor are we running in competition with the motion picture houses in the city. May I ask for your cooperation in this situation?

Paris PosterIt's clear from that statement, and many others, that Walt not only expected his artists to find inspiration in a variety of sources, he all but ordered them to do it. Bear that in mind when you hear statements about who or what "inspired" the Disney artists, as with this wall text at the entrance to the huge exhibit called "Il Était Une Fois...Walt Disney" ("Once Upon a Time... Walt Disney"), which closes January 15 at the Grand Palais in Paris: "The exhibition confronts the original drawings from the Disney Studios, which have never been shown in a major exhibition, with the European art works which inspired them."

There are a number of problems with that statement, not least the inconvenient fact that Disney drawings and paintings have been exhibited in museum settings many times since the 1930s. (There's a very short list, at the back of the catalog, of what are presumably considered minor exhibitions.) I curated a 120-item Disney show at the Library of Congress in Washington in 1978—the occasion of my only encounter with Lillian Disney—and the Whitney Museum in New York hosted a much larger show, "Disney Animation and Animators," in 1981. As for "the European art works which inspired them," I have trouble reconciling that statement with the kitschy German satyrs and even kitschier English fairies in the paintings that fill too much wall space at Paris. "Inspiration" is not a word that sits comfortably alongside such stuff.

The exhibition's great virtue is that it puts on the walls and into vitrines many very interesting objects, most of them originating in the Disney studio. Its crucial failing is the simplistic thinking that compresses into the word "inspired" many different relationships. "Il Était Une Fois" would clearly not exist were it not for the example of Robin Allan's book Walt Disney and Europe: European Influences on the Animated Feature Films of Walt Disney, but Allan's book is subtle and intelligent in ways that the exhibition is not; thus his use of the unexceptionable "influences," as opposed to the exhibition's much broader language.

Allan was involved in the exhibition and wrote an essay for the catalog, but he fell desperately ill in the summer of 2005. I have to believe that the exhibition would be better if he had been in good health during crucial stages of its preparation. I smile when I think about Allan's mention in his book of a "topographical mistake" in the Toad half of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (a film not represented in the exhibition): the Disney artists stumbled by introducing distinctively American fences into the English countryside. There's nothing nearly as amusing about the show in Paris.

The two sets of seven film clips showing continuously near the entrance—one set from Disney cartoons, the other from various live-action films that supposedly "inspired" the cartoons—sum up the exhibition's problems. The clips include a couple of obvious parodies, of King Kong and Modern Times (what do they have to do with European sources, anyway?), one or two bull's-eyes (German expressionist films like Murnau's Faust—but didn't everyone in Hollywood, Orson Welles included, see them and steal from them?), and a few more whose only connection appears to be a coincidental resemblance. There's evident in these clips, as throughout the exhibition, an urge to pile on sources of "inspiration," as opposed to making the more demanding effort to distinguish the various kinds of influences involved and then assess their importance to the finished product.

The unhappy result is to encourage the sense that the Disney artists borrowed heavily from inferior sources, and that their work is on the same level. (The exhibition's final section, devoted to recent art that borrows from Disney, reinforces that reading. It's hard to see in many of these pieces anything more than contempt for the Disney originals.) The exhibition catalog is an exceptionally handsome book, and perhaps its text, which includes contributions by Charles Solomon and Pierre Lambert, makes careful distinctions that aren't evident in the exhibition itself. I read French, but on a Lucky Luke level, and although I've skimmed much of the catalog, I won't pretend to have read any part of it closely. In any case, it's what's on the walls that really matters.

An important thing to remember about southern California in the 1930s and 1940s, when the Disney films were at their peak, is that there weren't a lot of museums well stocked with Old Masters. Unless they had grown up on the East Coast (or in Europe) and haunted the museums there, the Disney artists were dependent on reproductions for much of their knowledge of fine art. Perhaps for that reason, some of their strongest influences were artists whose work spread through engravings or lithographs or some other means of reproduction. Heinrich Kley comes first to mind, but there were others, like Doré, Grandville, Rackham, N.C. Wyeth, and the German illustrators whose work Joe Grant introduced to his colleagues. Not only is the influence of these artists readily discernible, but it was often acknowledged by the Disney artists themselves. There were easel painters whose work entered the studio at one or two removes—Allan traces Franz von Stuck, an academic painter of centaurs and fauns, through the Swiss-born Albert Hurter and into Fantasia's "Pastoral Symphony"—but they simply had less impact on the films. Inevitably though, large, richly colored paintings look more important in an exhibition than more modestly scaled reproductions of drawings in black and white.

In addition to its fundamental problems of scale and selection, the exhibition suffers in other ways. For example, there's a misplaced emphasis on Allan's idea that the picturesque Bavarian town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber was transformed into Geppetto's village in Pinocchio. I've been to Rothenburg, with Pinocchio in mind, and the resemblance is simply not that clear-cut. It would be fascinating to see a true side-by-side comparison of real town and cartoon town, but the exhibition offers nothing so direct. It is, in any case, Pinocchio's characters that establish the film's location as a sort of fantasy Europe where a coachman might be English, a woodcarver with an Italian name German, the idle boy Lampwick an American teenager, and so on. Settings weighted toward northern Europe, as Pinocchio's undoubtedly are, can't overpower its welter of accents and origins.

I was particularly disappointed by the display of illustrated books from the studio's old library (the books are now housed at Walt Disney Imagineering in Glendale). There was evidently no effort to single out the volumes that Walt Disney brought back from Europe in 1935. He certainly didn't bring back all the books on display; some were published after World War II.

The first floor of the exhibit is broken down thematically—"Architecture," "Anthropomorophism," and so on. Despite the superfluous European objects and the dubious wall texts, there's a lot to enjoy here, like the background painting from the opening scene of Pinocchio that is included in the "Architecture" section. This is the scene, showing on a loop a few feet away, in which the camera pans down from the stars and across the roofs of Geppetto's village, finally moving down a street toward the lighted window of his shop. It's abundantly clear here, even more than in the film, what simple means (camera movement, a little effects animation) have been employed to marvelous effect.

It's when you move down to the second floor, and the themes give way to displays devoted to individual films, that the exhibition both ceases to make sense, in terms of its stated purpose, and begins to justify itself. There's still a lot to complain about—some films with strong European connections are shortchanged or ignored altogether—but there's a great deal of top-of-the-line Disney material. In the Pinocchio section alone, there are plaster models of major characters like Jiminy Cricket and Stromboli (I remember the wonderful Monstro model very well from my Library of Congress exhibit), and Gustaf Tenggren's watercolors, so perfect in their storybook atmosphere. Ahead lie Mary Blair's colorful sketches for Alice in Wonderland—appealing on their own terms, however questionable as cartoon designs—and David Hall's much earlier and very different drawings for Peter Pan. And then there are Eyvind Earle's bejeweled background paintings for Sleeping Beauty.

If, like me, you find the best Disney films fascinating and even the lesser films worthy of close study, there is much to admire. What a pity that the exhibition whispers a negative message, that the artwork, and the films for which it was made, are really rather low.

A few years ago, I wrote about what I called "Disneyism": defining the best qualities of the Disney films in terms that foreclose discussion of what actually makes the films worth watching. Similar thinking is visible in "Il Était Une Fois," which neglects almost entirely the central achievement of the Disney films—the creation of a new and tremendously potent kind of figural art—as it tries to determine what "inspired" this or that background painting. As always, I'm amazed by how readily orthodox Disneyism and its adherents, at the Walt Disney Company and outside it, can absorb something like the Paris exhibition, or Neal Gabler's Walt Disney biography, and then proceed as if such things will not, in their ultimate effect, diminish the reputations of Walt Disney and his best works.

I remember being startled a few years ago when I was reading Walt Disney's Nine Old Men: The Art of Animation, John Canemaker's very well-researched collection of biographies of the famous Disney animators. In the chapter on Ward Kimball, Canemaker quotes a Disney studio memorandum in which Eric Larson, another of the nine, remembered being with a psychologist friend when they encountered Kimball, who was dressed in typically gaudy and eccentric attire. The psychologist, Larson wrote, "motioned toward Kimball and said: 'There's a guy with the biggest inferiority complex I've ever seen.'"

What a departure from the orthodox depiction of Kimball as a madcap genius! There's nothing new in the idea that great art can grow out of mental disturbances of one kind or another; but what about great animation? Kimball's animation in the 1940s and early 1950s is, for my money, far more exciting than that of most of his colleagues—would it be as good if he hadn't had that inferiority complex that Larson's friend spotted? And what about other people, at other studios, like Bob Clampett and Rod Scribner, whose work was comparably unconventional?

That line of inquiry would have limited potential, obviously, but the results could be interesting (for an example of a highly regarded survey of the quirks of artists of other kinds, click here). How much more stimulating it would be to read a well-informed—the critical qualifier—essay of that sort, as opposed to all the orthodox Disneyist bromides that are merely longer versions of this recent peroration by John Culhane in a letter to the New York Times: "In personality, Mickey, like Walt, was genuine, cheerful, enthusiastic, humble, confident, versatile, adventurous, clever, charismatic and, above all, warm." Yes, and they both liked cheese.

To get back to "Il Était Une Fois," or, as we can say now that the exhibit is about to open in bilingual Canada with an English-language catalog, "Once Upon a Time... Walt Disney." In sum: anyone who cares about the Disney films should make every effort to get to Montréal to see the exhibition. Just ignore what the curators tell you is important about what you're seeing.

[Posted January 8, 2007; introduction updated July 9, 2007]