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by William H. Benson

December 5, 2002

     Time‘s critics say that the new Lord of the Rings movie, The Two Towers, is even better than last year’s first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring, a film that I did enjoy.  Although fantasy is not my favorite literary form, seeing the Hobbits, such as Bilbo Baggins and Frodo and the wizard Gondolf, on the screen held my attention for all of  the three plus hours the movie lasted.

     I did read The Hobbit some thirty-three years ago, when in high school, but I have never been able to finish John Ronald Reuel Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, despite numerous determined starts.  And the same is true of C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and even now of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.  With fantasy it seems that some people prefer the movie version.

     Someone who knew the power of a fantastic story presented on the screen, rather than in printed form, was Walter Elias Disney, born December 5, 1901, 101 years ago today.  He believed in children’s fantasy and built his career around cartoon animals designed for kids.

     After losing the rights to Oswald the Rabbit, his first cartoon creation, to unscrupulous distributors, Walt Disney turned to others animals: Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Donald and Daisey Duck, Pluto, and Goofy–all as American now as apple pie.  Never would he consider giving up his rights to them.

     Ridiculed initially, Walt eventually won over the critics to his movie-length cartoons, such as Snow White, Pinocchio, Dumbo, Bambi, and even Fantasia.  He said it best, “I prefer animals to people.”  And he put them on the screen again and again.

     True, Disney created a fantastic and unreal world, a place of happiness and escape from the less colorful facts of human life, but the reality of his own personal life was everything but happy.  Relentlessly, he strove to create his fantasy dreams through sheer willpower alone.

     Analysts now believe that Disney was probably manic-depressive who suffered from a death-wish mentality and who constantly lived on the edge of collapse.  He would live and work at the studio for months at a time on a project, exhausting himself to such a degree that weeks of rest were then required, only to be followed by more work.  And so the pattern was set; manic-like work followed by exhaustion and depression.

     Repeatedly he bet everything on his latest project, stringing himself out on the edge of financial collapse.  Twice he was bankrupt while still in his twenties.  Eight other times he faced personal insolvency.  Never was he able to estimate the costs, personal and otherwise, beforehand that a project would require.  And so he consistently moved from crisis to crisis, precarious at best.

     In 1931 his wife Lillian found Walt unconscious from an overdose of sleeping pills, and the doctors saved his life by pumping his stomach.  That was the first of eight total nervous breakdowns he would suffer during his adult life.   

     Driving himself to perfection, the overwork plus the cigarettes (three packs a day) and the heavy drinking took its toll as it always does.  He dropped dead on December 15, 1966 at age 65 unable to ever enjoy the dreams he had dreamed and which he had so graciously given away to others but at a tremendous personal cost to himself.

     While fantasy is dream-like, light, fluffy, in technicolor, it is usually short-lived; reality is of a darker hue with shades of gray, uglier, often heartbreaking, and lasts much longer.  We walk into a darkened movie theater seeking moments of escape from everyday life, and the original imagination-makers like J.R.R. Tolkein and C. S. Lewis and J. K. Rowling and Walter Elias Disney are there to provide us those pleasurable minutes.