5:57 PM EDT, October 16, 2013
Walt Disney was a man of many hats, and not all of them had mouse ears attached.
The Chicago-born animation, filmmaking and theme-park pioneer, a man who invented new techniques when existing ones couldn't deliver on his vision, is celebrated in the richly detailed new exhibition “Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives,” at the Museum of Science and Industry.
It's a long celebration, beginning with Disney's birth on the South Side in 1901 and carrying past his 1966 death to cover the present-day Disney corporation. Julie Andrews' nanny costume from “Mary Poppins” is here. So are Johnny Depp's buccaneer get-up from “Pirates of the Caribbean” and the 11-foot-long, creature-like submarine model used in filming “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”
The original Mickey Mouse watch is on display, too — more sacred object at this point, and in this context, than kitsch.
Kids probably won't, but their grown-ups could easily spend a couple of hours with this, reading the cards on the wall about, say, the drawings Disney did at McKinley High; watching some of his original videos for silent-film theaters; reminiscing about the first time they noticed the girl on TV with “Annette” in black letters at the top of her white sweater.
That sweater is on hand, along with the pleated gray-blue skirt, ankle socks and Mary Janes that original superstar Mouseketeer Annette Funicello wore with it. To think that there is a direct line from Funicello to latter-day Mouseketeer Britney Spears is, well, confusing.
Artifacts abound, as befits an exhibition crafted by the museum, the Disney Archives and D23, the official fan club. Original scripts, marked with Disney's notes, show a hands-on boss, even when the script was “Son of Flubber.”
Charming and instructive in a section detailing the 11 steps to animation are the maquettes (small plaster models) of some of the characters from “Fantasia,” for instance, used to help the animators improve the illusion of three dimensions.
One of the company's elaborate, stylish animators desks is in the show for mid-century modern furniture collectors to covet and current-day denizens of drab, cramped cubicles to envy. The office of Disney himself is set up, too, faithfully recreated as it was, a mixture of power and whimsy at the center of the exhibition.
But still, the show's true core is the story of Disney. The museum's main, first-floor traveling exhibit space is transformed, first, into a couple of hallways packed with the Disney backstory: the formative family move to a Missouri farm between Chicago stints, early filmmaking ventures and business disappointments, the founding of what would become Disney and the first big success, with Mickey Mouse, and then Disney's gamble to make, in 1937, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the first color animation feature, and a box-office champ.
What's unfortunate is that there is a much greater sense of what Disney did than who he was and how he was. Missing is the good biographer's quest to find and share the telling behavioral details, good and bad. (For that, see, for instance, Neal Gabler's 2006 work, “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.”)
The Disney exhibit continues the museum's unofficial American masters series. At this time of year for the last four years, it has done, in succession, exhibits covering Jim Henson, Dr. Seuss, Charles Schulz and, now, Disney. All shaped the culture with the creativity, but Disney's is the richest of those stories because the career was so broad, the work output so diverse.
It is also the one best-suited to a science museum. Disney didn't just make movies. His company invented, for instance, the multi-plane camera, which allowed better and more efficiently made depth of field in animation. He was an early adopter of the new medium of television, where “The Wonderful World of Disney” would become a Sunday night fixture.
And he invented, of course, the modern theme-park industry, having the vision to populate a former orange grove in the Los Angeles suburbs with sort of mechanized outtakes from the Disney films that children could actually ride in. He also animated the presidents, of course, and, given that this exhibit is in Hyde Park, it gives us a Hall-of-Presidents Barack Obama head next to a Lincoln head.
The heads don't move, however, and the show in general does feel archival, which is fine for information junkies but may vex active young hands looking for something to do. A wall of mirrors lets children try to mimic Disney characters' expressions. Some iPads are set up with a Disney animation app to play around with.
But only in the very last room is there a full-on activity, a docent-led “Disney Animation Academy” that will guide its charges in the creation of, say, their own Mickey drawing. (Mine looked like Mickey Mouse's chubby sibling, or a Mickey storing up nuts for the winter.)
Still, “Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives” more than lives up to its title. And along the way, it reminds us that Walt Disney is more than just a name on a studio or a park entrance gate. It might even make you rethink what you mean when you toss around the adjective “Disneyfied.”
‘Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives’
When: Through May 4, 2014
Where: Museum of Science and Industry, 5700 S. Lake Shore Drive. (773) 684-1414, msichicago.org
Tickets: An additional $9 for adults, $7 for children.
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