11/13/2012 02:49 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2013

Uncle Walt Disney as Spiritual Guide

"The missiion is to bring happiness to millions," a promotion piece about Walt Disney stated in 1966. "It first became evident in the twenties, when this lean son of the Mid-West came unheralded to Hollywood and began to animate his dreams." What dreams! They extended from Mickey Mouse to Snow White, "Mary Poppins" to Disneyland.

Let me confess, however, that I was an early theological critic of Uncle Walt, which he was often enthusiastically called. He represented a spiritual point of view sharply antithetical to mine. I wrote about it in a couple of early books and agreed with Time magazine's evaluation of him: "He knew what he knew about Protestant middle-class, Midwestern America, and he knew that what he liked, it liked."

Indeed, Disney went so far as to say (on July 18, 1955): "Disneyland will never be completed, as long as there is imagination left to the world." I find it ironic that Disney's path (global) and mine (utterly personal) converged in an actual neighborhood sense. My home of nearly 30 years is located a mere two blocks away from what was once the Disney Studio in Silver Lake, a neighborhood in Los Angeles. He and I have something else in common too. He moved from Kansas City to Hollywood in 1923. It is the year in which I was born.

Disney was an influence in my life, far more than I realized. Yes, I was touched by the beauty and innocence of Snow White, laughed with the seven dwarfs, and have visited Disneyland -- undoubtedly in search of existential experience -- any number of times during the years. A definitive book about Disney is Richard Schickel's "The Disney Version." I find it balanced, fair and authoritative. It gives us a real sense of Disney's global outreach when it lists some of Mickey Mouse's foreign aliases. In France he was Mitchel Souris and popularly Mickey Sans Culotte. In Japan he was Miki Kuchi; in Spain, Miguel Ratoncito; in Italy, Topolino; in Sweden, Musse Pigg; in Greece, Mikel Mus; in Brazil, Camondongo Mickey; in Argentina, El Raton Mickey; in Central America, El Raton Migujelito. Walt Disney commented: "I guess the cartoon is something everyone knows and likes."

Precisely. Is that a sin? I used to think it was a flaw. A critic's established role is to criticize. The best critics manage to place their subjects in context and also avoid overt sermonizing. I'm not sure that as a young writer and critic I was always fair about this. It's easy to be swept up in passion re one's opinion. Of course, serious criticism with which one disagrees needs to be taken seriously and weighed carefully. A New York critic, Paul V. Beckley, cited Disney's stress on "soft cuteness." He explained: "Goodness gets itself defined as a form of bumbling innocence with a perky tail-twitching, simpering quality, just as badness becomes unvaryingly sinister, black, slinky, sinuous and grotesque." So creativity and criticism somehow go hand in hand. A qualified critic's review of a grand opera or a serious play becomes a part of the creative process itself.

Richard Schickel, in his serious look at Walt Disney and his work, refers tellingly to what he calls "the Mickey audience." He quotes Disney as saying:

"The Mickey audience is made up of parts of people; of that deathless, precious, ageless, absolutely primitive remnant of something in every world-wracked human being which makes us play with children's toys and laugh without self-consciousness at silly things, and sing in bathtubs, and dream and believe that our babies are uniquely beautiful. You know -- the Mickey in us."

As a part of my own growing up I am finally grateful to Walt Disney. Not because "the Gospel According to Uncle Walt" is the whole of life. It isn't. Yet clearly it's a genuine part. I think we try to ignore it at our peril.

May I share with you what I think is my final link to Uncle Walt? I found it on the roof of Disney Hall, the center that bears his name and dominates Los Angeles' cultural scene. Apparently, it was designed by architect Frank Gehry as an homage to Lillian, Walt's wife. A fountain's blue and white coating was created from 200 vases created by the Royal Delft company in the Netherlands. Here, on the quiet roof, one finds an altogether different world from the bustling, energetic, competitive one on the street below. Actually it exists on its own terms and, yes, within its own boundaries. It is quiet and meditative. It provides a fitting memory of the eternally complex, eternally simple man who bore the name Walt Disney.