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PBS Walt Disney TV Salute Four Times as Long as Jim Henson's, but Not Four Times as Good
September 13, 2015  | By Tom Brinkmoeller  | 2 comments

Perhaps some day an episode of Nova will explain how the brains of PBS schedulers work. One week they clear away 10 hours of prime-time for a replay of Ken Burns' Civil War series and the next week give four hours to an overly long, does-anyone-care-that-much biography of Walt Disney.

War and Mickey on two sides of a scale. And though the scale tipped in favor of momentous history, pop-entertainment overkill produces more weight than one would expect.

Does a man whose entertainment legacy started with crude animation and ended, with his death in 1966, as head of a film, television and burgeoning leisure-entertainment empire really need that many hours to tell his story? People have waited in lines at Disney theme parks almost as long as American Experience has given its new "Walt Disney" four-hour biography epic (9 p.m. - 11 p.m. ET, Sept. 14 and 15 -- check local listings).

Or did the producers stumble into a gold mine of material and feel they had to spend it all? A vote for the latter is a good bet. More on that in a minute.

By contrast, a biography of another of the past century's creative superstars, Muppets maker Jim Henson, takes only an hour of PBS prime (8 p.m. ET, September 15 -- check local listings) to present a complete, entertaining and professionally crafted profile. It's the third of PBS' In Their Own Words series.

(Though it has been mentioned before in my TVWW stories, I left a Gannett newspaper in 1985 -- even then an easy task -- to work for five years as a Walt Disney World publicist. I am a fan of Mr. Disney. I am not a fan of the TV equivalent of a filibuster.)

After four hours, anyone who sticks with the Disney project will know more about the man. But what is the veracity level of all they have "learned"? A lot of people are interviewed throughout the show. Though people who worked with Walt still are available, most of the commentary comes from people who did not and whose comments seem to be opinions. If they are based in fact, there is no way to know that. And other times these people go inside Walt's mind, with "he told himself" quotes and suppositions only a mind reader or a "fly on the wall" could have known.

The earlier-mentioned goldmine of material is the other problem. Program publicity tells how the producers turned down a collaboration with the Disney company to make the film. But they jumped at the chance to have access to the company's astoundingly complete archives. They get away with using so much airtime because they had the use of visuals that only exist in the Disney vaults. More than once, a segment drags on because the editors just didn't know how to turn off the faucet. It's exhausting to sit through this video term paper, and it's frustrating to judge what might be fact and what might be conjecture -- expert as those drawn conclusions might be.

It can be argued that for every character Walt Disney created, Jim Henson created an equal or better one. And the strength of this biography is that it is built on the interviews of people who actually knew and worked with the man. The believability quotient is so much higher here. The hour is extremely well used.

Interesting parallels are that both Henson and Disney started their working lives with a goal to entertain, took lots of chances, made many people smile and died earlier than they should have due to health problems that could have been avoided. An additional irony is that Henson was in negotiations with The Walt Disney Co. to buy his at the time he died in 1990.

He, like Walt, was a complex genius. Difference is, we learn of that and all of his accomplishments inside of an hour. Funny.

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I have to respectfully disagree, Tom. Disney was a man in conflict, both a hard-driving businessman and technology pioneer, and a overgrown boy who could still tap into that side of his psyche, and in the process he changed the world with his animated feature films, the studio he built to create them, the Disney TV production/promotional machine, and the theme park/real estate ventures in Anaheim and Orlando (and their subsequent siblings). That's an awful lot to accomplish in a lifetime shortened by his addiction to tobacco and stress. I came into the film late on both evenings - mea culpa, it was also Rosh Hashana - but it held my interest through to the end each evening. What it was, in effect, was a video counterpart to the Walt Disney Family Museum (at the Presidio in San Francisco), another place you can lose an afternoon to.
Sep 16, 2015   |  Reply
Mark Isenberg
This was not exactly fair since Disney Company has bought the Henson Muppets and they are back on ABC this fall,thank you ABC and Disney.Also,down here in Florida,we have a Magic Kingdom in Orlando among other venues where families reconnect in long lines to marvel at animals,Epcot and shops galore etc. They will start building a Star Wars area now that Disney owns that,too. So,Mr.Disney deserves the airtime and Mr.Henson is still celebrated daily on Sesame St. and his children are doing very good work across LA at their Henson Company so no tears. Walt was not a saint but he did change entertainment and in our pop culture universe,that usually gets you extra air time,kind of like Regis Philbin?
Sep 14, 2015   |  Reply
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