"DisneyWar"? What would Uncle Walt have made of that title, or of James B. Stewart's no-holds-barred account of the struggle between the...

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by James B. Stewart

Simon & Schuster, 572 pp., $29.95

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“DisneyWar”? What would Uncle Walt have made of that title, or of James B. Stewart’s no-holds-barred account of the struggle between the Walt Disney Co. and SaveDisney?

Disney, like Elvis and Hershey’s, is both a legacy and a brand; not just a business but part of American culture. Yet its value — and its very survival — depends on it being maintained as a business. This is the paradox at the heart of Stewart’s tale.

As a company that produces “content,” Disney is an especially inviting merger target for today’s cable giants. “DisneyWar” chronicles Comcast’s failed attempt to acquire Disney last year and covers events as recent as the tumultuous November stockholder revolt called SaveDisney.

Stewart, one of America’s most esteemed business writers, had unique access to this story. He sold Disney CEO Michael Eisner on a proposal to report on a year of inside corporate operations, not anticipating the events about to unfold. When stockholders, led by Walt Disney nephew Roy E. Disney, delivered Eisner a humiliating no-confidence vote, Stewart was there. The author attended meetings, listened in on phone conversations, received transcripts of others he missed. He even put on a Goofy costume and experienced an abbreviated version of the stint all new Disney executives serve, playing a theme park character.

His story is the stuff of headlines and prime-time interviews. The fall of Eisner, with its Shakespearean overtones, is a business history, a character study and a record of accomplishment and disaster.

Stewart covers the full 20-year tenure of Eisner as Disney’s chief executive — one of the best known and most richly remunerated figures in American business. Eisner’s own identity, Stewart says, “fused with that of Disney.” He hosted Disney’s TV shows, claimed to have visited Walt’s “secret” unmarked grave and would point out similarities between the French spellings of Eisner and Disney.

Stewart’s account of Disney’s dramatic and complicated history in many ways serves as a sequel to John Taylor’s 1987 “Storming the Magic Kingdom: Wall Street, the Raiders and the Battle for Disney.”

Stewart begins with Eisner’s first day as chairman and CEO, Sept. 12, 1984, and tracks each major subsequent crisis: the firing of studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg in 1994 and the hiring (1995) and expensive unhiring (1997) of Eisner’s close friend, Michael Ovitz, as president. He never loses his critical perspective, citing a host of creative and management blunders as well as “Eisner’s tendency to distort, embellish or forget the truth.”

Even so, somewhere the spark leaks out of this book. The paradox of “DisneyWar” is that Stewart has both swallowed and been swallowed by his subject. The peril of getting close, it turns out, isn’t loss of objectivity but loss of a sense of humor. Though an admirable and finely written book, “DisneyWar” fails to deliver on its antic title and proves too earnest by at least 200 pages.

The film version, if there is one, will no doubt correct that defect and take better advantage of the material. It will add a few songs, fill the board with familiar faces and not forget to stir some comedy into the pathos. Only one studio could make it. If only they would.

David Walton wrote this article for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland. He can be contacted at books@plaind.com.