This Week’s Birthday: Walt Disney

The most influential artist of the 20th Century?

Awhile back, I was flipping channels and came across Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Now, normally, that would mean that I’d keep flipping, but in this case I had to stop. There, in the contestant’s chair, was an adult male, wearing a Goofy hat.

You know those Goofy hats: you get ’em at Disney World or Disney Land, or Euro Disney or Japan Disney or, heck, Qatar Disney for all I know. It’s a hat that looks like the head of the Disney cartoon dog Goofy. There’s those slim ears hanging down either side of the head; two big, silly eyes gaping at you from the crown; and the brim is the dog’s extended upper lip, with a pair of buck teeth at the tip, which makes it appear as if Goofy is devouring your brain like some cartoon zombie. “You’ve got to let the little kid in you out once in awhile,” the man said, en route to his riches.

When Antoine de Saint-Exupery laments in The Little Prince that adults can’t see elephants being devoured by snakes, he was not crying about the fact that grown men should be wearing Goofy hats. Saint-Exupery was talking about tapping into the child’s sense of a world without boundaries, where anything can happen, and imagination hasn’t been fettered by rules. He was not, I think, talking about being a brat. Wearing a Goofy hat as an adult is being a brat–it’s not growing up. Wearing that hat, aside from its utter lack of dignity, is akin to saying “I don’t want to learn to play games with rules, to share, to even truly imagine”–a Goofy hat is actually lacking in childish imagination. The “inner brat” has taken over, in various forms. Its progenitor–none other than old “Uncle Walt”, Walt Disney.

I will suggest now that Walt Disney is the most important artistic figure of the last century. He was an artist, and a businessman, and he has reached into the soul of this country and changed it immeasurably. He has changed the way we take vacations; the way we watch movies and television; animation obviously; influenced the way suburbs are built; but he has also changed the way we grow up, the way we react to stories, and it is these last moments that are a bit insidious in my mind. Look at the minivans driving by with the TVs in the back, the kids wearing t-shirts bearing advertisements (adults, too), gated communities, your trips to Disneyland or Universal Studios, the idea of Kids’ Movies (as opposed to a movie aimed at anyone, including kids), and you see Walt Disney.

Disney was a maverick, at the forefront of animation, and it can be said that his drive has done wonders for animation. At the start, animators could be lazy, doing the very least to get a cartoon made and out to a movie-starved public. I probably shouldn’t write “lazy”–primitive cartoons were still hell to make. But Disney wasn’t satisfied with quaking images, with black and white, with an image that didn’t seem so real as to steal you away from this life. Not Disney. Let’s give him credit for never being content to just sit on his laurels. He pushed “Steamboat Willie” farther than most short films and then Snow White into the stratosphere. If you are amazed at Avatar, know that that is the spirit of Disney, that attention to glorious (and imagined) detail. Since you probably know I loathe Avatar, look at it this way: Star Wars to The Incredibles to Ratatouille are also Disney. That’s good.

But know, too, that Avatar’s shitty and one-dimensional plot is also in the Disney universe. For Disney utterly warped the world of children’s literature and film. For starters, as David Thomson notes, there used to not exist a world of “children’s films”, or for that matter, “children’s books”. Certainly there were books for kids who were too young to read chapter books, adult themes, etc. But it used to be that adults would sit and read books that were of interest to both parent and child: like Treasure Island, Dickens, etc. Disney took the very wicked (and perfect) Grimm’s tales and made them pabulum.

Those old fairy tales were perfect for the little children–tense, often violent, sometimes sad, with happy endings that were usually Pyrrhic. In my mind, that’s exactly what children’s literature should be–a method by which we can indoctrinate our children on the vicissitudes of life. You read, and then you can comfort or discuss. This does not mean we show kids Saw, and then talk about it. But it does mean that now adults no longer give their kids truly mind-bending and crazy tales. Even Harry Potter has been influenced by Disney. If you think Potter #7 is dark, then I really challenge you to read the Brothers Grimm.

Disney wanted control; Grimm’s fairytales are about enduring life that is not in your control. So Disney insisted that his movies have happy endings, with the bad guys vanquished, and sharp, easily noticed delineations between the good and the evil. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is filled with dark shadow… in front of which ballooney, happy people sing and cavort.

Odd, then, that one of the greatest children’s cartoons emerged under Disney, and one I’ll defend to my dying day: Pinocchio. Surely there is the usual fun, the usual flutey tune to indicate a silly moment, the bright, rounded faces of Pinocchio, Geppetto, Jiminy Cricket. But unlike all other Disney cartoons (or any other studio film for that matter that I can remember), Pinocchio has a very subversive message: that evil cannot be defeated, but only endured, and that endurance is strengthened by love.

Bad guys do not lose in Pinocchio. This film goes to great lengths to examine evil, in all its forms. Honest John and his voiceless assistant dog, Gideon, are fools, but cause terrible damage. We see later, when dealing with Stromboli, the jerk of a puppeteer, that Honest John and Gideon are but small players in this world. Again, Stromboli is nothing compared to the horrors of Pleasure Island, where we see a young boy, Lampwick, turned into a donkey. What is Lampwick? Just a kid gone astray, like many kids, and his ruin is very real, and awful. Because he likes to smoke cigars and shoot pool and play hooky, he’s punished. How? By being turned into a donkey, and going to work in the mines until his back is broken, when he’ll be killed for glue.

Let’s not forget that though Lampwick acts tough, has a tough’s name, he’s a child. Plain and simple.

Then, later, more: Monstro the whale, who is a reflection of natural evil, if you can call it evil–let’s say instead that Monstro represents nature’s utter indifference toward people. That’s terrifying enough.

Monstro, Pleasure Island, Honest John, Stromboli. None of these villains are defeated. At the end, Pinocchio becomes a real boy. And now the real pain begins…

Problem is, there’s little evidence that Disney had a say in this plot, or that he understood any of Pinocchio’s subtext.

Disney’s obsession with detail and making his pictures visually stunning has left its mark in the wonderful Pixar films, but if the Pixar folks are honest they’ll admit that they focus on great stories a hell of a lot more than Disney ever did. The Incredibles, Up, and Wall*E are three pictures that Uncle Walt would have most certainly kiboshed–for starters, both Up and The Incredibles have a husband and wife pair, one of whom is a mother. Women, mothers especially, seemed to terrify Walt, for they were utterly absent in his films, shorts, and even comic books–my favorite Donald Duck comics, written and illustrated by Carl Barks have no mothers, just aunts and girlfriends, and even they’re rare.

Disney linked arms with ABC in the 1950s to create his famous Wonderful World of Disney, which soothed the masses and gave him enough money to create Disneyland. This was essentially the first amusement park, a destination, a place where you could go, check in, and not leave until your vacation had ended. Sleep, play, eating, all under one roof. You didn’t have to think. You could leave life behind. And, God damn it, things had better fucking be perfect. Disney made sure they were, going to lengths that, if we’re healthy and we think about it, are pretty damn bizarre. This model has been duplicated everywhere, and it has affected how we build sports stadiums, Vegas, the Mall of America, and more. We want to escape reality in a world of plastic.

Though the planned community of Celebration, Florida was the brainchild of future Disney executives, this notion of the perfect town had its roots in Disney’s extensive notes. EPCOT, the amusement parks, the idea of a perfect world, that’s Disney. But know that he was no Le Corbusier–Disney didn’t care to help the lower classes, but rather wanted people like him to be able to escape the darker nuances of an imperfect world.

Control. That was Disney’s raison d’être, from freaking out when his employees grew resentful of being patronized, to his amusement parks, his cartoons which urged conformity and denied the messiness of life, to his designs for planned suburbs, many of which we see around the world today. George Lucas (an admirer of Disney) understood Walt’s emphasis on merchandising. You like to wear shirts with logos on it? Everyone does; I do. That’s Disney. Today we see grown men and women wearing Mickey watches, and we see our society encouraging us to live in the past, in an age of “innocence”. We see the past in Disney terms, as a clean place, yet another nifty exhibit at Disneyworld, easy in, easy out.

One more example: I have in my possession the new Mickey Mantle biography, titled, The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood. I’m convinced, too, that this attitude, of an “American Childhood”, which applies only to boomers, most notably white, is a direct result of Disney’s obsession with elevating childhood to a place of dreams, a sort of Garden of Eden. (Note, too, that our “childhood” began, oddly enough, a good 140+ years after the nation’s beginning–I mean, no one suggests that the late 18th century was our childhood, nor any point in the 19th century, or the first three decades of the last century.) To suggest that America in the 50s was a childhood is to place great faith in TV of that era, in white kids gulping down Disney and wishing that were the world. Something tells me the people getting hosed down by angry police during the Civil Rights movement wouldn’t consider the 50s an “America’s Childhood”. My guess is that they probably didn’t go en masse to sit through Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, a garish, simpleminded film, that doesn’t speak to anyone who isn’t a part of this idealized 50s “childhood”. Which is to say anyone of color, and anyone who finds themselves questioning this ideal, anyone but people who yearned for Disneyland.

Is this a legacy of dreams? Or a legacy of damaging illusion?

Walter Elias Disney was born December 5, 1901, and died December 15, 1966. Contrary to popular belief, he was not frozen in the hopes that he would be resuscitated later. Probably he knew that the future was no place he wanted to live.

This entry was posted in Birthdays, Essays, Film, film studies, History, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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