Once Upon a Time: Walt Disney: The Sources of Inspiration for the Disney Studios
The catalogue concentrates on the feature films produced in Disney's lifetime, the first being Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), and the last, The Jungle Book (1967). Using a rich and generous collection of illustration (cels, preliminary sketches, movie still frame enlargements and artworks), the book unveils some of the exact sources of inspiration of the studio's craftsmen. The borrowings are numerous: the Gothic Middle Ages, the English Pre-Raphaelites, the Flemish Primitives, the German Romantics, etc. The films present a composite aesthetic, since several influences could coexist within any one film. Despite their many sources, the films have an undeniable graphic coherence, a unity of style due in great part to Disney's control over every step of production, which enabled him to clearly visualize the final results.
Disney is a highly charged figure in the history of cinema. His empire today has become so dominant that it naturally invites criticism. In its 80 years of existence, the Disney machine ended up generating an aesthetic of conformity that left little place for innovation. In France, the exhibition was welcomed with equal measures of praise and scathing criticism. For instance, in the daily newspaper Libération, Gérard Lefort viciously deplored the fact that the exhibition swept under the rug Disney's "extreme right convictions," his anticommunism and his manner of reinterpreting the great classic European folktales (the Brothers Grimm, Perrault, Andersen, Collodi). Mickey Mouse's spiritual father was a seminal figure/personality of the history of cinema and of the 20th century in general, who for many people came to symbolize quality family entertainment, but for others he represented the levelling power of an uneducated and domineering America. Whether justified or not, opinions about the man are far from unanimous, and the organizers of the exhibition were highly conscious of that fact. The authors of the book's preface, Thomas Grenon and Guy Cogeval (director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts), forewarn us that the aim of the exhibition is not to tell the Disney saga, but to examine the links between the studio's popular productions and fine art history. As they discuss these amalgams, Grenon and Cogeval remind us that "the prejudice that opposes highbrow and lowbrow culture still prevails today." Overall, the catalogue successfully demonstrates that the Disney productions of that time, despite their uneven quality, possess an intrinsic artistic value.
The catalogue of the Once Upon a Time Walt Disney exhibition also contains articles on the links between Disneyan art and cinema, literature and architecture. A few pages are devoted to the Animation Research Library (one of the studio's archives centres), the Destino project (which was supposed to be directed by Salvador Dalí but was only completed in 2000) and Disney imagery borrowed by contemporary artists. Finally, the book ends with a filmography, a glossary, and biographies of the studio's main craftsmen. The catalogue is a bit expensive, but is a great reference book that could easily be consulted in libraries and at the Cinémathèque Québécoise documentation centre.