Defend Disney from his Mickey Mouse critics

In the summer of 1928 Walter Elias Disney hung a bedroom sheet from his office wall and asked some members of his family in to watch a film. Disney was only 26 years old, but he'd lived quite a tough life. And he was down on his luck - he had been cheated in a business deal, he had no money and he couldn't find anyone to distribute his films.

That June night, however, Walt was exultant. He had his brother Roy man the projector and his small team of animators produce sound synchronised to the action. They had to improvise - banging pencils against a spitoon that served as a gong, for instance. But however amateur the improvisation, the result shone through. Steamboat Willie would be a hit. It would make Walt Disney. It would save the Walt Disney Company. It would change the world.

Yesterday was the 80th anniversary of the first public showing of Steamboat Willie, the first commercial cartoon with sound, and of the first appearance of Mickey Mouse in American cinema. And I want to defend Walt Disney. I want to proclaim that Walt Disney was one of the great men of our era. That Walt Disney helped to make our world a better place. That Walt Disney was a genius.

It seems a bit odd arguing that Disney needs defending. After all, the man made a mint in his lifetime, and his company is still coining it.

But the reputation of Disney the man hasn't done as well as the accounts of Disney the company. These days the Mickey Mouse critics, who began their assault in the final decade of his life, are winning the battle to define Disney in the public mind. Wasn't he a hard-faced mercenary? Don't they say that he was an anti-Semite? And what of his life's work? Didn't he infantalise America, concrete over its culture, homogenise and pasteurise its art? Wasn't he the prince of the phoney, the king of the cute, the master of the comforting myth? Even Disney's famous signature, said one of his assailants, was a fabrication.

This assault on Disney's reputation is worth taking trouble to rebut. Not just because he deserves his rightful place in history, but also because when Walt is being criticised it is more than Walt that the critics are taking on. The attack on Walt doubles as an attack on the values on main street America, an attack on commercialism, an attack on mass culture and on wholesomeness. All these things and Walt Disney, they go down together if we let 'em.

When Disney had the idea of making the first sound cartoon, he did something very typical. He started badgering Roy to find money for it, to seek out a bank loan. Wearily, Roy complied. That was the pattern of their relationship. Walt would have a wild, innovative, absurdly expensive idea, and Roy would somehow persuade someone to pay for it.

Disney may now be the poster boy of commerce, but in his life he didn't care much for money - save that its absence might prevent him from doing what he wanted to do. His aim was not, as a fabulous recent biography by Neal Gabler makes clear (“he hated money and its acquisition, was wary of materialism”), to be rich. It was to be free. He wanted to live his dreams through his creations, and he drove Roy crazy seeking the resources to make his dreams come true.

The result of this relentless pressure was a stream of innovations. So much of the entertainment we take for granted was invented by Disney. Walt Disney invented the sound cartoon, with Steamboat Willie. Walt Disney invented the feature-length cartoon film with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Walt Disney invented the main techniques of commercial animation. Walt Disney invented entertainment merchandising with his spectacularly successful promotion of Mickey Mouse. Walt Disney invented family television entertainment, capturing more than 50 per cent of the audience for his pioneering Disneyland show at a time when there was almost nothing else on. Walt Disney invented the nature documentary. He invented the theme park with Disneyland in California.

Even as he was dying of cancer, Walt pressed on. He wasn't much interested in Disney World in Florida, which opened after he died. Disney World's only appeal to him was to allow a city of tomorrow to be built on the adjacent lot. He wanted an experimental land, a Utopian city, the ultimate symbol of his determination to create his own world. He envisaged houses that were completely self-sufficient, with their own power plants and no need for rubbish collection. This was 1965.

When Disney died the following year, his vision of a city of tomorrow died with him. This is the answer to those who criticise him as a control freak, an obsessive. His determination and drive were good, they served his creativity. Without them, his vision could not be realised.

His drive could make Disney a difficult man. He could be moody and he didn't let arguments go easily. He insisted on being in control. But it is wrong to characterise the “Uncle Walt” image that the company created for him as entirely a fiction. It wasn't just that he was loved by children. Those who worked with him were devastated when he died. When news of his passing reached the studios, employees stayed for hours, weeping.

Nor was Disney an anti-Semite. This is a pernicious myth. Almost every other Hollywood studio of the time was run by Jews and Disney wasn't. But the Disney brothers employed Jews and their main commercial partner, whom they loved, was a New York Jew running a company of New York Jews.

Why should Disney have attracted critics who describe him as unpleasant and bigoted? It is partly for prosaic reasons. He fought a strike and made an enemy of organised labour. He reciprocated the dislike, becoming a strong Republican in the last 20 years of his life. None of this endeared him to the avant garde.

There was, however, more to it than that. The critics disliked Disney not because they hated his flaws, but because they despised his achievements. He created modern mass entertainment. And that is what his opponents don't like. They think it is plastic, naive, a sin against nature, an insult to creativity.

Walt saw it differently. He was bringing high quality entertainment to people who had little in their lives, good quality merchandise in place of tat, brilliantly made films in place of amateur ones, artistic imagination to those who almost never encountered it. He provided capitalism with its best defence - that it can nourish creativity and inspiration.

The brilliance of Snow White, the wit of Mickey Mouse, the overwhelming, stunning commercial vision that produced the theme parks. Walt Disney was a genius.

Daniel Finkelstein