It was around three o’clock in the morning after New Year’s Day (roughly, January 2nd) in Toms River, New Jersey. We had to leave the next afternoon, and we were all a little surprised by the going on-ness of things (or lack thereof). As often happens when we get together, the social lives of Der Schreiber, Il Giovine, and I had devolved into hour 4 of watching random YouTube clips while drinking scotch. I don’t remember many of the other clips we saw, but there’s one that resonates fiercely in my mind.
This video has 7.6 million views. There are only two things about this that need further explanation.
1. What parents would give their six year old girl a box of Wheat Thins as part of a present?
2. When I saw this, I got a lump in my throat. I’m an exceptionally jaded person, but like most cynics the frustrated idealist dwells right beneath the surface, so an emotional reaction is hardly atypical of me. Far more surprising was the reaction of Der Schreiber, whose emotions run from A to B, yet was very nearly weeping at the sight of this.
It’s all too easy to make fun of the sincerity of a video like this, and had we not watched it in the middle of the night after hours of copious scotch intake, I don’t doubt that’s exactly how we’d have reacted. On the other hand, when was the last time you cried from happiness? How many of us even remember crying from happiness as a child? Whether or not Disney was above your chiefest joys, we all had our own magic kingdom as a child that made us happier than we ever could be as adults. In my own childhood kingdom, I would conduct the New York Philharmonic in an incandescent performance of Brahms Third Symphony before sitting down to a dinner of pizza bagels with Papa Smurf, Bugs Bunny, Jean Valjean, and Hamlet, and playing Nintendo with my stuffed animals, a lion I named Ashley (even then I liked angry women) and two dogs named Japan and Little John...I was a simple boy.
But at the same time, ...I feel like I’m inviting trouble by even saying this, there is something about this video that’s genuinely icky. Nobody, whether 6 or 60, should ever get this many wishes to come true at once. And if it’s a kid in this situation, no parents should broadcast their children getting them granted. Nothing is more guaranteed to cause an race among their friends for who can spoil their kids the fastest than to display how happy their family is so conspicuously. For the rest of her life, this poor girl will probably never feel so happy again. A week later, the Disney trip will be over, and it probably won’t be as fun as she thought it was going to be - too many long lines and monorail breakdowns, yet will the thrill of watching her granddaughter be the class valedictorian come anywhere near the joy she felt at going to Disneyland when she was six? So why does Disney need to spend hundreds of millions a year in advertising when America’s children are already so bought-and-paid-for that every six year old girl weeps at the thought of going to Disneyland? Yet you know that so long as there’s still an America, there will still be a Disney, and we will spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year to keep it thriving and they will put our hundreds of millions back into advertising so that we can spend still more hundreds of millions.
Now...I must admit, I have a gigantic ax to grind with Disney. I was innoculated against Disney’s spells when I was 5. 5 was the age when my parents tried to take me to Disneyworld, and on the way there it was discovered that I had chicken pox. I got one lousy day at Disneyworld before my skin had so broken out that there was no way I could sneak in for anything else. All my parents could do was drive me home from Florida. Aside from the It’s a Small World ride, my only memory of the trip is of my parents trying to shove me into an oatmeal bath at a hotel in North Carolina while I was screaming at the top of my lungs. Thanks Disney.
But even I’m not immune to Disney’s affect on us. It combines amaing drawing with an ability to see our fond wishes become reality. Does that make it art or vulgarity? I don’t know if Disney movies should be considered art, but Art is not an American aspiration, and there’s nothing more American than Disney.
Does Disney need us or do we need Disney? Does the distinction between us even mean anything? Would we even be the same country without the Walt Disney Disney Company? Without Disney, would seventy years of American children have grown up to be far better read than we are? Without Disney, would the film industry find adult themes much easier to deal with than they clearly do? Without Disney, would there be any insistence at all that every major Hollywood release have something in it that speaks to everyone - adult and child?
(Disney’s most racist moments...it’s a long video...)
A still more cynical person than I would ask if our umbilical chord to Disney is the partial cause for all sorts of meta-events: from the narcissism of the baby boomer generation to the ambivalence of generation-X - both products of a country in which we’re told from birth that our wildest dreams are possible. Perhaps a more misogynistic blogger than I would ask if Disney spoiled generations of American women into waiting for those perfectly strong yet sensitive princes with no ugly needs who exist in nearly every Disney movie - even if I’ve heard many men ask that before, I’m utterly above such crude condescension to women (I reserve it for their love of Jane Austen).
But the fact remains, Disney movies never spoke in any language but exactly the one in which Americans saw themselves. If Snow White’s happiness seemed to be the only purpose in life for all the animals and dwarves of the forest, how hard a leap of faith is that to believe in a country whose every product is assembled in other countries by factory workers in slave conditions? If the Aladdin and Jasmine were the only characters of their movie not portrayed as Arab stereotypes, why should it matter in a country that cared so little about what the Middle East thought of them? And if the crows in Dumbo seem like such fun and good natured black people, what’s the harm in including a little joke for the grown ups, like naming one of the crows Jim Crow.
Archetypes are eternal, said that Nazi collaborator Carl Jung, yet nothing seems to date quicker than an attempt to tidy up human nature by understanding what makes people similar to one another. Once you’ve boiled human nature down to the traits that make certain people similar, you begin to wonder who has the same traits you have, and then you begin to wonder who has different traits. And rather than view each human as a unique specimen to be viewed in balance, you view them through the lens of ‘same’ or ‘different.’ Yet even when these archetypes date, they never date. Human beings aren’t particularly thoughtful, and will always use archetypes as a subconscious way of distinguishing friendly traits from unfriendly. It’s just a shame that human beings are this way, and because we are what we are, archetypes will always be necessary.
And so, America has the archetypes of Disney - just as Germany has the archetypes of Wagner and the Grimms Brothers, France has LaFontaine and Perrault, Italy has Commedia Dell’arte, Rome had Ovid, Greece had Aesop, England has....a millenium of this literature. Each of these examples contains characters which are completely knowable to the audience for which they’re meant, and a reflection of the place and time in which they were written. Whereas the Grimms Brothers wrote fairy tales to warn children about the dangers that lie in store for them, Disney makes movies that promise the world to children on a silver platter.
But either way, the characters of these stories all contain traits which we recognize. In our best and worst moments, we resemble characters from each of these stories - the only part of human nature that’s missing in these myths is the people we are when type entries into a database or move furniture or take out the trash or read a fairy tale. I could expend another 2500 words to give you the details of how each archetype fits in within the characters of Disney fairy tales, but I neither want to write that nor do I think you’d want to read it. The only point worth making is that by watching any good movie, each of us undergoes a process, generally called mimesis, in which we’re called to identify with the protagonists in their quests to fulfill their desires. This ‘call’ casts a powerful bond on each of us, because when we feel that call, whatever happens to the hero(ine) happens to us as well, in a sense. It’s no different than how we would celebrate in a friend’s good fortune or feel for a friend’s bad fortune. In comedy we are the fools who get their just comeuppance, in tragedy we are the flawed heros who fall low, in irony we are the fools who are deservedly punished, and in romance, we are the heroes who are raised still higher by meeting our desired goal. For three quarters of a century, Disney provided the world with the ultimate American romances.
This is not romance in the contemporary sense, which is far too adult for anything Disney purveys. This is Romance, in the ancient sense of the word, for which bards told us tales of legendary knights with noble quests, in which they rescue their damsels in distress and perform deeds of valor and peril against their horrid villains. The knights are as close to absolute good as art allows, while the villains are as absolute evil. But it’s worth mentioning that in the Olden days, no one loved these Romantic tails as much as aristocrats - who were accustomed to thinking that their every desire could be satiated. When the knight attains his desire, so have the readers. And what are we Americans but the world’s aristocrats, accustomed to getting what we want when we want it?
And the power amplifies still further when we realize that just as Pinocchio can become a real boy, or Belle turn her beast into a handsome Prince, we might be able to achieve our dream job, or girl, or family. But unlike the heroes of Disney, we’re not figures of absolute good - and in our own quests to achieve what we want, we we might do some evil things along the way.
Disney never prepared us for that. In the world of Disney, there are no compromises necessary to achieve what we want, merely the happily ever after that we’re assured exists after the movie ends. No story ends merely because the movie does, we just have to abandon it. If Cinderella continued after the happily ever after, we might have to read about Cinderella’s obnoxious in-laws, her eating disorder, suicide attempts, affair with a rugby player, the son she might have born out of wedlock, and dying from an accident in a Parisian car tunnel.
And yet...when Disney rides at its highest, it edges ever closer to something real, only to back away from the truths just before it seems poised to cross over from popular entertainment to real art. It’s happened at least three times over Disney’s history, and it will probably happen again. Here are those three:
1. Bambi: Bambi is, to this day, the best Disney movie. Like everything else Disney ever made, it’s beyond ridiculous - containing a gorgeously hand-drawn forest with more natural detail than anything in the movies until the arrival of computerized special effects, and it’s put to the service of anthropomorphic animals cute enough to sell billions of dollars of merchandise and otherwise perfectly irritating. Bambi is a comically, perfectly annoying movie, except when it’s not. Suddenly, all the irritating cutesiness is stood upside down, and the world becomes a place full of shadows, hunters, carnivores, fires, loss, and even rape. And it’s through a process of enduring terrible tribulations that Bambi proves himself a mature adult, ready to care for a family and forest of his own. Disney had been edging closer to life-like darkness in every movie - turning bad kids into donkeys forever in Pinocchio, portraying animal extinction in Fantasia, locking up Dumbo’s mother. But for the hero him/herself, there was always reprieve. Not so in Bambi, Bambi’s mother dies, as all mothers eventually do - and she dies prematurely, as many mothers don’t. Suddenly, all that sugary pap seems to fit perfectly with the fabric of the movie, in which every scene is a part of the life cycle - with all its good and bad moments intact. With Bambi, Disney finally seemed ready to grow up, no Disney movie has ever given a better sense of life’s real flavor. But Disney never grew up, and the company’s been backing away from Bambi’s truths truths ever since. Many parents wrote to complain about the darkness of Bambi. After Bambi’s controversy, Walt Disney stopped green lighting any project that might court controversy by having anything too close to what life really is. Disney moved into family-friendly live action movies, with mixed success; and their cartoon movies became ever more crudely drawn with less compelling music, and themes more obviously geared towards children and merchandizing than any artistic pretensions. The decline continued for nearly a half-century until...
2. The Lion King: Obviously, the decline of Disney stopped when The Little Mermaid came out. But Disney, in its usual way, was ready to tidy up everything that might be considered in the least objectionable. Anyone familiar with the Hans Chrstian Anderson fairy tale knows that in the end, the mermaid commits suicide. Anyone familiar with the original novel Beauty and the Beast knows that Belle had two evil sisters who conspire to make the Beast eat her alive. Anyone familiar with the original Aladdin of The Arabian Nights knows that Jafar had an evil brother who tried to kill Aladdin in a vendetta (rent The Thief of Baghdad, you’ll be stunned by how much Disney plagiarized for Aladdin). But then comes The Lion King, which is, in many ways, the real successor to Bambi - dealing unflinchingly with so many of the same adult themes. But this was a Bambi for the 1990’s, and it was Disney’s first true attempt at giving Africa, and black culture, the dignity they denied for so long. The result is both deeply felt and deeply condescending. For songs that are so clearly supposed to have a black or African feel, it’s rather absurd to commission Elton John and Tim Rice. Why not Ashford and Simpson? Or Stevie Wonder? But who can deny that the music works extremely well, and that it fit with the general tone? We’re seeing an African jungle of White people’s imaginings, with lions, hyenas and mandrills who speak in insulting variants on Black patois - except for Scar, who sounds like Klaus von Bulow. For the second time in Disney history, we get a sense of grim darkness and dread that feels entirely real. Beyond Pride Rock is a land of death, where even a lion can be in terrible danger. For once, the creepy uncle turns out to be just as creepy as he looks, and not only manages murders the father, but betrays the son by convincing him that he’s responsible for his father’s death. This is the primal eldest curse, the stuff of Hamlet and Claudius, Cain and Abel, Eteocles and Polynices. The story is about a kid who spends more than half his life an orphan, and then must exact a vendetta against his father’s brother - this is not G-rated stuff, and only a company with too many lawyers could pass it off as such. True to form, Disney got complaints - this time from single mothers who said that their children began to blame themselves for their fathers’ deaths - and that’s a powerful, powerful scar (no pun intended) for a movie to leave. It was too powerful for Disney, and once again, the animated movies after The Lion King were progressively less interesting, less fully realized, less adult.
3. WALL-E: When Disney bought Pixar in 2006, that should have been the end for the studio as a maker of memorable movies. In some ways, Pixar and Disney were an ideal fit. They both had the unholy mix of artistry and business acumen which provides popular entertainments as annoying and sinister as they are sometimes enjoyable. But Pixar’s fifteen years produced a far more memorable track record than any fifteen years of Disney, and their far more bloodthirsty taste for darkness goes a long way to explaining that. Pixar’s distant relationship with Disney worked to everyone’s benefit, there were plenty of volatile disagreements along the way (if only there were a tape of the Steve Jobs/Michael Eisner meetings...), but Disney recognized that they no longer understood what made animation compelling in the age of computers. From Disney, Pixar got a distributor that was something of a kindred spirit, and the animators had Steve Jobs to protect them from Disney’s focus groups. But by 2006, Pixar’s clout became so large that when Disney bought Pixar wholesale, Steve Jobs became the single largest stock holder in Disney. Disney did not control Pixar, Pixar controlled Disney. For a brief moment, Disney was controlled by a popular entertainment that thought nothing of portraying a father clownfish whose hundreds of unborn children were killed by a barracuda, or of a plot in which a monster plans to kidnap a little girl and gain power from her screams. Pixar made all sorts of movies that were darker than the Disney pablum fair, but none is darker, or more magnificent, than WALL-E. So many people view WALL-E as the ultimate adorable machine, I’ve met a number of fully grown women who own WALL-E toys. But WALL-E is not about a can-do machine with a romantic streak, WALL-E is one of the darkest movies ever made, most of which is filmed in almost complete silence. It’s about nothing less than the end of life on Earth, the inability of humans to stop destroying themselves, and the black hole toward which America’s compulsion for spending is leading us. It’s one of the bleakest visions of a human future in the movies, made far more digestible by the fact that it all takes place in the background of a rather dull robot who idolizes human beings. When humans return to earth, they’re plainly unfit (pun intended) to repopulate, but maybe the future of humanity is in the artificial intelligence we’ve created, perhaps WALL-E and EVE can succeed where human beings have failed.
I haven’t heard any firestorm of complaints about WALL-E, Pixar had too much business sense to allow the real plot of the movie to be anything but background, and it’s highly probable that most parents didn’t get the message. The followup,..UP was interesting in a completely different way. It was not quite as dark as WALL-E, but it did bring up the dreaded question of old age - and it wasn’t a moment too soon for a Disney subsidiary to tackle it. The first generation of children raised on Disney is now in the nursing home. Perhaps the ‘wilderness explorers’ club was simply our grandparents, raised on Pinocchio and The Reluctant Dragon (everybody forgets about that movie...) and long since shown by life that they’re too old to believe in the Disney dreams. Here, finally, is Disney’s last promise to them, that they can still be as young as they were when they saw Song of the South. Perhaps UP will be remembered as Disney’s final great entertainment. Now that Steve Jobs is dead, Disney announced that Pixar will mostly devote itself to being a cash cow that makes sequels and given Disney’s track record, there’s no reason to believe that all those sequels will be as good as Toy Story 3.