by James R. Stewart

Published by Simon & Schuster

572 pages, 2005





The Gentle World That Walt Built

Reviewed by Aaron Blanton


You think about a lot of things when you hear the name "Disney." You think, for instance, about white-gloved mice with outsized heads and a perpetual smile. Big yellow dogs without agenda. Sibling ducks with matching suits. And movies with such seriously soft centers, it makes your teeth ache just to think about them. In short, you think about the gentle world that Walt built.

This Disney -- the one most of us think about -- is not the subject of Pulitzer Prize-winning author James R. Stewart's latest book. At least, not on the surface of things. The world Stewart writes about is not nuanced by the cartoon colors most of us think of when we hear the name. It's a world of familial battles and corporate manipulations as cold as any to be found on Wall Street. With access to many key players in the story -- including family members, current and former executives and even the often unavailable key players Michael Eisner and Roy Disney -- Stewart draws us closer than we've ever been -- perhaps closer than we ever wanted to be -- to the not so happy behind-the-scenes story of the happiest place on Earth.

DisneyWar is epic in both scope and actual weight. At 572 pages, this is not a book to curl up with in bed. Stewart, a former page one editor of The Wall Street Journal and the author of seven books including Den of Thieves -- about 1980s insider trading -- and Bloodsport -- arguably the book on the whole Clinton Whitewater business -- is a strong storyteller as well as a first rate journalist. Only the latter is necessary to write a comprehensive non-fiction book. Stewart, however, knows how to arrange his facts in order to compel his reader. He understands the importance of pacing and of structure. In DisneyWar's prologue, for instance, we see Roy E. Disney pull "his red 1999 Ferrari in the parking lot of the Bodega Wine Bar in Pasadena." The first half of the prologue is all hard edges and real business. The larger second half of the prologue intersperses the heart of the story with all that corporate steel. And, in this case, the heart of the story comes through Goofy's eyes. Or rather, the eyes of the author while inside a Goofy suit at Disneyland:

The young girl looks a little wary, but Goofy extends his arm, and she slips in next to him. He gives her a gentle squeeze. Then, for a moment, Goofy gets a clear look at the little girl's face. The shyness melts away, her eyes widen in delight, and her face glows. She leans in and plants a kiss on Goofy's nose.

Flashbulbs are going off. Goofy wishes he could get his paw over to wipe the tears that have welled in his eyes. Or maybe it's perspiration.

But this is James R. Stewart. Even lovely, tear-filled moments are not without point.

Those who have watched the headlines of the business section will not be disappointed in DisneyWar. The inside dope -- what really happened with Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Ovitz; what caused the rupture between Eisner and Pixar and how dirty did Roy Disney and Michael Eisner get in their dealings with each other -- is lovingly researched and rendered. Eisner does not emerge from Stewart's portrait as sweetly as Goofy. In fact, there's little doubt where the author feels many of Disney's most recent problems have their root. (And, in Stewart's assessment, Goofy is not to blame.)

Despite the high profile of DisneyWar's topic and the entertaining nature of Disney's enterprise, Stewart's book is, at its core, a hard and intimate look at what really happened to fuel all of those headlines. | May 2005


Aaron Blanton is an expatriate Kentuckian writer and musician living outside of the United States.