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France's arbiters of high art anoint Walt Disney's 'genius'

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 16, 2007


It took the French to "discover" the genius of William Faulkner and Billie Holliday. And in a most unusual event at the most improbable of places, the world's guardians of culture are rediscovering an American animator named Walt Disney. Moreover, Disney has made it to the Grand Palais, a museum of arts high and fine, as a 20th-century "genius" often dismissed as being, well, too Mickey Mouse.

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It's paradoxical enough that the French, perhaps the leading snoots on middle-class Americana, did a major reappraisal. But droves of Parisians have lined up for months to see "Once Upon a Time Walt Disney."

The show illuminates two main points: That Disney deserves to be liberated from the corporate image spawned by Disney Inc. And it reveals how deeply Disney drew from European artists, fables, settings, and imagination.

Disney produced "an imaginary world somewhere between Europe and America," says curator Bruno Girveau.

Some 14 of Disney's 17 major films, including "Cinderella," "Pinocchio," "Snow White," and "Fantasia" "originate in European libraries," exhibit text suggests.

The mass appeal of Disney has "obscured the extraordinary origins of his artistic adventure," says Mr. Givreau.

"I know Disney and the stories from Europe," says Helen Phalempin, a Paris school teacher visiting the Grand Palais last week. "What I didn't know was how much Snow White and Fantasia borrowed from earlier German and French films."

Americans may be unaware that Disney – unable to enlist in World War I because he was only 16 – joined the Red Cross and was sent overseas, arriving after the armistice. He spent a year in France soaking up the culture. He and his wife, Lillian, returned in 1935, and brought back some 350 books of illustrations – romantic castles, royal ceremonies, woodland sprites, evil witches, anthropomorphized animals.

Indeed, the farmlands and forests of America, or the newly sprawling suburbs of Los Angeles, aren't the main source of the Disney magic. Rather, working in Burbank with dozens of refugees and vagabond artists from Europe, many of them Jewish, the Disney bunch borrowed from masters like Honoré Daumier and Bruegel, imitated Gustav Dore's illustrations of "Dante's Inferno," consulted landscapes by Philippe Rousseau for the "Jungle Book," snatched ideas from 1920s films like F.W. Mernau's "Faust" and Chaplin's "Modern Times," and revised "Pinocchio" from the Italian writer Carlo Collodi. They copy, embellish, and alter from every possible source – producing a highly cross-pollinated vision in "living color."

Pinocchio is a Mediterranean boy, living in a Bavarian Alpine village modeled after the German town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber that has Scandinavian-style chalets – a rendering by Disney artist Gustaf Tenggren of Sweden, raised in a chalet.

One arresting museum feature shows Disney clips next to clips from European films from the 1920s; some images seem directly lifted by Disney animators.

As Disney said, "it all began with a mouse." Yet it probably began with a number of mice, distant cousins of Mickey that trace to 19th-century European illustrators.

Along with Beatrix Potter's creatures, there are pre-Mickey mice by French artists Benjamin Ravier and Philippe Rousseau and a violin-playing mouse by German artist Heinrich Kley, whose art Disney collected and whose whimsical "skating elephants" were the inspiration for later "Fantasia" drawings. Those illustrations captured the imagination of Spanish surrealist Salvadore Dali, who collaborated with Disney after World War II (though only 18 seconds of film resulted.)

US outsiders found refuge in France