February 28, 2005 12:00 PM

By James B. Stewart

NONFICTION

Backstabbing and pettiness animate every page of this packed but plodding corporate history by Pulitzer-winning New Yorker magazine contributor Stewart. His tale starts in 1984, when former Paramount exec Michael Eisner set about transforming Disney from a moribund company riding on its past glories into an entertainment powerhouse—with a culture of underhandedness to match. “The network seethed with resentments, jealousies and turf battles,” Stewart writes about Disney subsidiary ABC, and it wasn’t alone.

Disney’s history is the story of modern pop culture, and there’s fun in matching hits like The Lion King and The Sixth Sense to the executive skirmishes that birthed them. Stewart draws characters sharply; everyone’s unlikable, but some are more so than others. Visionary Eisner comes across as mercurial and megalomaniacal; his brusque but talented former protege Jeffrey Katzenberg elicits more sympathy. But too often the personalities take a back seat to recitations of bonuses unpaid and backs stabbed. The shallowness and endless jockeying may fascinate Hollywood insiders (or those who think they are); they’re less interesting to the rest of us.

As Eisner now prepares to step down after a shareholder revolt engineered by board member and former ally Roy Disney (Walt’s nephew), the book is creepily timely, and Stewart crams in some fantastic reporting: Eisner rejected The Lord of the Rings because he thought the fantasy audience was limited; his last words before undergoing heart surgery in 1994 were “Ovitz or Diller would be good choices to succeed me.” All in all, though, what could have been high drama rarely rises above palace intrigue.

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