The sad but undeniable truth is that most "Baby Boomers," including myself, have had a special relationship with Walt Disney that is impossible to define. Like Konrad Lorenz's famous study involving geese, we were imprinted at an early age.
Just as we hit our pre-teen years in the middle 1950's, along came TV's "The Mickey Mouse Club" and the Sunday night ritual that became known as "The Wonderful World of Disney." For boys, our first love was not the little girl next door, but Annette Funicello. But our love affair with Annette did not stop us from buying mock Flintlock rifles and coonskin caps by the millions after watching Fess Parker star as Davey Crockett in the mega hit mini-series.
Neal Gabler noted in his wonderful biography, "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination," that by 1966, the year of Disney's death, 240 million people saw a Disney movie; a weekly audience of 100 million watched a Disney television show; 80 million read a Disney book; 50 million listened to Disney records; 80 million bought Disney merchandise; 150 million read a Disney comic strip; 80 million saw a Disney educational film and nearly 7 million had visited Disneyland. Disney changed the American landscape, and we "Baby Boomers" changed more than anyone else.
But it was Disney's remarkable films that have had the longest lasting effect. He was literally the father of animation as we have come to know it. "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937) was the first full length animated film to be released, and it still is extraordinary to watch to this day.
Furthermore, while Disney's animated features were artistically flawless, their storylines inevitably involved a connection to the human condition that adults loved and children viewed with a sense of wonderstruck awe. Think of "Pinocchio" (1940); "Dumbo" (1941); "Cinderella" (1950); "Alice in Wonderland" (1951) and "Peter Pan" (1953) to name but a few. These films are classics precisely because their storylines are timeless.
However, as Mr. Disney aged, or maybe because of it, his movies became more maudlin and sentimental. The above films inevitably involved a sense of pathos, not to mention genuinely scary villains, that made them as magnetic as they were real. To put it another way, there was real danger and heartbreak.
Think of the wicked queen in Snow White; the horrible adventures of Pinocchio as he simply tried to be a real boy; Dumbo's separation from his mother and Cinderella's horrible treatment by her stepsisters. And if you think you cried in "Marley & Me" (2008), what do you think we kids did when we saw Bambi's mother shot and killed by hunters, or Davey Crockett die at the Alamo, or when Old Yeller was forced to be put to sleep after saving his family from a rabid dog?
But while Disney animated films lost much of this edgy spirit in the decades after Disney's death, their studio is gradually rediscovering some of their founder's creative genius. Not only did they release the splendid "The Princess and the Frog" last year this time, but now they have given us the spirited and engaging "Tangled." This is an absolutely splendid, not to mention slightly venomous, retelling of the classic fairy tale "Rapunzel," and you really should see it with or without children.