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

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.

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

But, as Uncle Walt might have said in his Sunday evening Wonderful World of Disney prologues, "now let's hold on a minute and step back."

France has long been a US sounding board. In the 1950s and '60s, Paris was looked to by American outsiders – minorities, jazz musicians, and artists – as a refuge. Faulkner was out of print before being discovered by French literati. Jerry Lewis's offbeat humor was first appreciated here. In the aftermath of German occupation, American pop culture was the rage in Paris, viewed partly as a way to get rid of Nazi shadows.

This month, a tap-dancing musical honoring Josephine Baker's 100th birthday just closed; the jazz singer was born in St. Louis but felt most at home in the Paris of the late 1920s. "Looking for Josephine" travels to Barcelona and then to New Orleans, La., and is the only tribute anywhere to her centenary.

Disney, "Uncle Walt" to millions of Mouseketeers by the late 1950s, came across as an ordinary guy who somehow got diverted from a career as a milkman in Kansas City, Mo. (Indeed, a teacher there once pronounced him "second dumbest" in the class.) But Disney was no slouch. He corresponded with Charlie Chaplin, socialized with Spencer Tracy, and knew Sergei Eisenstein, the Russian film director. They were all Disney fans.

The Grand Palais assesses Disney as a "modest artist." But his genius lay elsewhere. He brought to life a new art form. He's gauged less as a virtuoso cellist and more as conductor of an orchestra.

Under Disney's creative hand, for example, backgrounds were as much a "character" in a film as Jiminy Cricket or Daffy Duck. Backgrounds had their own creative artistic directors: Trees with arms, or polka-dotted toadstools that jump and dance. The entire picture was alive. "Snow White" took 200 years of manhours to complete, and even that didn't satisfy Disney, according to his biographer.

The section of the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" called "Night on Bald Mountain" was designed by Max Reinhardt, the European impresario known to Americans as the owner of the castle Leopoldskron in Salzburg, which played home to the von Trapp family in "The Sound of Music."

Decency – but with sharp edges

It was in the 1950s that the irritation with the Disneyization of reality set in. Disney came to represent a world of happy endings, fuzzy creatures, and the harmonizing of animals, humans, and nature in a way that has little relation to the darker underside of a world smashed by Auschwitz. The sense that Americans looked at the world through a Disney vision of a "small world after all," got laid at Disney's door, especially overseas. Yet that ignores many of the sharper-edged realities in Disney's own work. The shooting of Bambi's mother, or the wicked witch in "Snow White," are truly fearsome images. The dark forests whose branches reach out to ensnare princesses caused mothers all over the world "to pull their children out of the theaters," as Pierre Lambert, a historian of animation in France, points out. (His mother pulled him out of a French showing at age 5.)

Yet Disney's concept, forged on a farm in Missouri and in Kansas City, is finally one of the decency of ordinary people striving to surmount difficulties, much as he did. It is a vision, the French note, that has traveled all over the world – most recently to Asia in the form of a Hong Kong Disney.

While the Paris show closed Tuesday it will shortly travel to Montreal, opening at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on March 8, closing June 24.

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