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Mar 19, 2009

THE DISNEY VERSION - PART 1

I’ve sorted out my laptop issues, and I’m back blogging with a vengeance.

I grew up, as most people did in the 20th century, watching and loving Disney movies and TV shows. As a child, I always wanted to go to Disneyland (or Disney World), and as an adult I have the great fortune to be an Annual Pass holder and can now go pretty much whenever I want. Nobody or company has quite matched the mystique and staying power of Walt Disney and his creations which still captivate long after his death.

Disney the man has always been a cultural target. A Hollywood mogul that was not very Hollywood, whose obsession to detail is legendary (especially in terms of Disneyland where he even kept an apartment) whose films set the standard for what is known as family entertainment. All this thanks to a Mouse that became an American icon, and was the foundation for an entertainment empire.



I recently just finished 2 books on the subject of Disney and his films. The first was Neal Gabler’s WALT DISNEY: THE TRIUMPH OF THE AMERICAN IMAGINATION which is a straight biography from his early days in the Midwest through to his death in 1966. The second is Richard Schickel’s THE DISNEY VERSION: THE LIFE, TIMES, ART AND COMMERCE OF WALT DISNEY which employs many biographical details, but overall is a questioning of the Disney myth and, what the author argues, is its damaging effect on American culture.

It is the second book that really started me thinking about the Disney Magic. I say magic because if you ever watch any Disney trailer (especially for the animated classics) or visit Disneyland (also known as THE MAGIC KINGDOM) you will find the word magic is thrown around an awful lot.

Mr. Schickel’s argument stems from the idea that Disney is a product of American Midwestern values (read bourgeois), where the drive to succeed and conquer vastly outweigh an attempt to understand and absorb the world as a whole.

Not that Mr. Schickel denies Walt his ability and incredible success in giving the public exactly what it wanted. No, Walt’s drive to build up his studio (which btw with the exception of period in the 1930s was constantly struggling and always on the verge of collapsing) and make the films he wanted to make, the way he wanted them is nothing short of amazing. It is something though to read Schickel’s absolute revulsion over Walt’s creation of the Mr. Lincoln animatronic first for the World’s Fair, and then later taking up space at Disneyland (currently, Mr. Lincoln has been replaced in the California park by a film chronicling the history of Disneyland). His reaction is one of absolute horror at Walt daring to turn a real human figure into a (as he puts it) fantasy idol.

It is also hard to believe reading both Schickel and Gabler’s book in this day and age that many of the Disney “classics” (including PINOCCHIO, FANTASIA and SLEEPING BEAUTY) were box office bombs. Now of course they are released and re-released in super-special editions – SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959) having been released in October of 2008, and just this past month PINOCCHIO (1940) in a 2-disc platinum edition on both Blu-Ray and DVD (SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS is due for this same treatment come October).

I read Schickel’s book on the same week that PINOCCHIO was being released. While SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937) was the animated feature that started it all (it was a huge success at the box office), much more of Walt’s ideas and brand shaping can be seen in PINOCCHIO.

First off, PINOCCHIO takes place in a European setting – the background art really exemplifies this. But outside of Geppetto and the villainous Stromboli who are the only 2 with any sort of accents, most of the other characters are cut from American molds. Take Jiminy Cricket for instance. Jiminy has an “aw shucks” Midwestern way about him, acting as Pinocchio’s conscience (and recruited somewhat unwillingly by the Blue Fairy – drafted as it were as many Americans at the time were being drafted into the army to fight WWII). It should comes as no surprise that Honest John and Lampwick, both who lead Pinocchio down morally troublesome paths, sound like they come from more urban settings like The Bronx.

Of course this could be said of even the more recent Disney company animated features. Most of the characters in ALADDIN for instance haven’t a trace of a Middle Eastern accent with the main character sounding like an average American youth, Jasmine as a spunky free-thinking feminist (in a land where generally women are to barely be seen or heard) and of course Robin William’s Genie is a mile-a-minute fast-talking wise-cracker – yet another take on the Jiminy Cricket influence.

Another aspect of PINOCCHIO that has firmly attached itself to the Disney brand is the song WHEN YOU WISH UPON A STAR which it seems is the anthem for the theme park and the company itself. Just try walking around Disneyland and not hearing it – it is impossible. It is also played over the opening Disney logo before features (unless replaced by a film’s score or special audio leading into a particular movie). Is it also coincidence that another Hollywood icon known for his "brand" and success, Steven Spielberg, slipped references to PINOCCHIO (Richard Dreyfuss' tries to cajole his kids into going to see the film at one point) and that WHEN YOU WISH UPON A STAR can be heard within John William's score?

Schickel’s book was written in the 1960s, but has even more impact now given the staying power of the company and the myth of Walt Disney being a man of the people and ground breaker of family values. Personally, reading it ultimately did not affect my view of the films or the Disney brand which is one that I absolutely love. However it does inspire a look at the Disney myth in a more critical way.

Stay tuned…this is shaping up to be a multi-day/post topic.