The Chronicle Review

The Wonderful World of Disney Studies

July 21, 2006

The buckets and broomsticks sloshing around the sorcerer's apprentice in Fantasia pretty much spilled the corporate game plan: Replicate endlessly, sweep the planet, and flood the imagination. Floating high above earthly woes on miles of film and acres of real estate, the magic kingdoms conjured by Walt Disney — animator, mogul, logo — have long since congealed into a single, idyllic Disneyland. When the Super Bowl victors say that's where they're going, they don't just mean to a place on the map.

Drawn to — if seldom dazzled by — the spectacles, scholars of all ages and disciplines continue to queue up for what is surely the least remunerative franchise with the brand name: Disney studies. The body of scholarship, whose growth spurts began in the mid-1970s, when legions of Disneyfied baby boomers entered the professoriate, has an interdisciplinary cachet that compensates for the paucity of ancillary marketing opportunities. Media studies scrutinizes the cartoons and feature films; anthropology, sociology, and psychology poke around the theme parks; economics audits the business practices; international studies tracks the global positioning of colonial outposts; and any field left out is welcome to come along and join the jamboree.

The proliferation of things Disney on screen, stage, ice, and land has certainly given scholars plenty to chew on for years to come. Whether one's interest runs to "Classic Walt" (roughly the work conceived by the founding father from 1923 to 1966), "the Disney Brand" (the cultivation of the synergy from Walt's death to the present, especially the branch offices established in Orlando, Tokyo, and Paris), or the 1984-2005 tenure of CEO Michael Eisner (credited with rejuvenating the company and the second-most-important nonanimated character in Disney history), it's a very large world, after all.

Indeed, the sheer size of the regime — its oceanic volume as economics and ethos — is what most agitates the current wave of Disney scholarship. Unlike the company's consumer base, scholars have never much cuddled up to Walt and his friends, never wanted a souvenir photo with that guy in the Goofy outfit. But lately the impulse to deface the squeaky clean pictures and trash the pristine grounds of the perpetual-motion image machine has become something akin to a professional duty.

Critics who presume to tilt at the Magic Kingdom have their work cut out for them. The impulse to begin with "once upon a time" will be resisted, but Disney's own fairy tale has always been one of his best. In 1923 a plucky cartoonist from Kansas City, Mo., armed only with ink, pencils, and a visionary grasp of the uses of enchantment in a capitalist marketplace, arrives in Hollywood and wishes upon a star rodent. "Over at our place, we're sure of just one thing," Disney often said. "Everybody in the world was once a child."

The company film at the pavilion next plays a familiar highlight reel. The first clip shows the early draft of a future trademark in the seminal synch-sound cartoon Steamboat Willie (1928), introducing the falsetto squeak given voice by his creator heard round the world. While Mickey Mouse conquers the screen, Disney perfects his craft with a series of cartoon "Silly Symphonies" that often play better than the featured attractions on the marquee. Besides Mickey, Disney's breakout sensation at the time is the zeitgeist avatar The Three Little Pigs (1933), who bait the Great Depression huffing and puffing just outside the door with "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?"

Unique among his peers, Disney saw cartoons not just as appetizers but as the main course, rolling the company dice on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the first feature-length animated film in the United States, a Technicolor masterpiece more than two years in the making at a then-staggering cost of $1.5-million. It was a quantum leap not just in running time but also in technical sophistication and artistic vision. The newly devised multiplane camera gave a realistic depth of field to the 2-D action, and the personalized "character animation" (think Snow White's crinkling nose) added an emotional dimension no less absorbing. "Should make box-office figures sound like fairy stories," salivated Variety, pretty much summing up the verdict on Disney films ever since.

The great wave of feature-length classics that followed — Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942) — imprinted the brand and kept printing money in re-releases timed to meet each new crop of moppet movie-goers. Even the commercially disappointing Fantasia — featuring Leopold Stokowski conducting the likes of Bach, Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven — earned cultural capital for highbrow aspirations. Disney succeeded by tapping deep enough into the Jungian pipeline to know that loss, pain, and trauma were inseparable from a great children's tale: the terrifying transformation of the lying marionette into a jackass in Pinocchio, the anguish of deformity and peer-group isolation in Dumbo, and the cold-blooded murder of the fawn's mother in Bambi. "If the shower scene in Psycho was the shocker of the 60s," the screenwriter William Goldman wrote in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983), "then its equivalent in the entire decade of the 40s was when Bambi's mother dies."

Soon after Time magazine ripped Dumbo off its cover for the late-breaking news from Pearl Harbor, the Disney studio was designated an essential wartime industry. With top-security clearances, its animators now outlined instructional films on radar, bombsights, and airplane identification. Long the most elusive part of the Disney screen legacy — why re-release Donald Duck spitting in Der Fuehrer's Face (1942) every 10 years? — the studio's wartime propaganda resurfaced in 2004 on a fascinating DVD twinpack, Walt Disney on the Front Lines: The War Years, curated by the film historian Leonard Maltin and Disney's nephew Roy E. Disney. The must-see mind-boggler in the collection is the reissue of Victory Through Air Power (1943). The project was nothing less than a memo from Disney to the War Department on how best to wage World War II — namely, forget storming the beaches and bomb the enemy to annihilation. (The film critic James Agee couldn't help but notice in The Nation that "there were no suffering and dying of enemy civilians under all those proud promises of bombs; of civilians at all, in fact.")

After four years of service at government pay scales, Disney leveraged his fortune and future on the three pillars sustaining cold-war America — prosperity, security, and television. In 1954 he started Disneyland, an hourlong anthology show that under various titles — Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color (1961-69) was the best known — became a Sunday ritual as obligatory as church. On weekday afternoons, the cult of Disney gathered for indoctrination sessions with The Mickey Mouse Club (1955-59), a variety show featuring a squeaky-clean cadre of white-shirted, mouse-capped youngsters. Both TV shows relied on episodic serials and facilitated the exploitation of yet another Disney franchise, live-action family films injected with a jolt of magic realism: The Shaggy Dog (1959), The Absent Minded Professor (1961), and Mary Poppins (1964).

Yet two dimensions were never enough to contain Disney. Distressed that amusement parks were unwholesome for kids and uninteresting for adults, he envisioned a built environment that would be clean, secure, and family friendly, a realm of such enchantment that you would pay to get inside to spend your money. In 1955 he unlocked the turnstiles on the true revolution in wallet-siphoning entertainment, the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, Calif. In 1959, in an emblematic cold-war contretemps, the pristine spot was nearly smudged when the visiting Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev expressed a desire to go to Disneyland to "see how Americans spend their leisure." Denied entry by a skittish U.S. Secret Service, Khrushchev raged, "Has Disneyland been seized by bandits who might destroy me?"

Not likely. When Disney died on December 15, 1966, according to his obituary in Variety, he had earned 31 Oscars, six Emmys, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and was under serious consideration for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The first soot in the pixie dust was thrown by the film critic Richard Schickel in The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art, and Commerce of Walt Disney (Simon and Schuster, 1968). In Schickel's revisionist retelling, Disney was not the fairest of them all. The avuncular front concealed a miserly control freak whose capitalist pursuit usurped "the two most valuable things about childhood — its secrets and its silences."

Since Schickel, Disney criticism and scholarship has been more likely to ink a picture of Scrooge McDuck than Jiminy Cricket: Disney the plutocrat, who, during an acrimonious strike in 1941, busted a union of cartoonists unwilling to whistle while they worked; Disney the friendly witness at the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in 1947, who not only named names but helpfully spelled them; and, of late, Disney the Ur-purveyor of American cultural imperialism, founder of an empire built on the backs of third-world laborers toiling in sweatshops where the rodents do not wear white gloves and shorts.

In the protean days of Disney studies in the 1970s, activist-intellectuals in the academy favored the guerrilla tactics of How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic, originally published in Spanish, by the writers Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart. A pioneering study, it earned serious street cred when the 1975 English translation was seized by U.S. Customs for copyright violation. Predictably, feminist scholars shuddered at the saucer-eyed vacuity of the studio's fairy-tale females and lectured Cinderella for inhibiting step-sisterly solidarity and encouraging comatose passivity until Mr. Right came along. Perhaps only the postmodernists were really happy with Disney. "Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest [of America] is real," quipped Jean Baudrillard in the 1983 essay "Simulacra and Simulations."

The current wave of Disney studies — post-9/11, early 21st century — tends to be cast in the cultural-studies mode: global in outlook; socioeconomic in focus; and deeply hostile to the art, politics, and architecture of Disney, man and brand. When the Mouseketeers sing, "Why?," this chorus chants back, "Because we dislike you!"

A good barometer of the center of critical gravity is Rethinking Disney: Private Control, Public Dimensions (Wesleyan University Press, 2005), edited by two Florida Atlantic University professors, Mike Budd and Max H. Kirsch. The collection brings together 11 essays mainly bent on queering the Disney brand, dissing Eisner, and trashing the theme parks. "Behind all those cute characters, that family fun, and that nearly impenetrable aura is another avaricious multinational corporation," warn the editors. The volume has more index references for "commodity fetishism" than for Mickey Mouse.

None of the essays is dopey, but most are grumpy and not a bit bashful about branding Disney with a skull and crossbones. The social scientists Radha Jhappan and Daiva Stasiulis take him to task for whitewashing history ("In spite of the studied efforts at cultural relativism in Pocahontas I and II," they write, "the films ultimately absolve the English and thus whites of the history of cultural genocide."); for celebrating bad behavior ("Disney's dreamworld of individual heroes and royalty rests on cultural privilege, social inequality, and human alienation," charges the communications scholar Lee Artz); and for strip mining the earth via rampant "Disneyfication" (defined by the communications-studies professor Greg Siegel as "the aggregate of transformative logics and procedures by which a particular site or landscape is materially refashioned and symbolically reinscribed in such a way that the resulting site or landscape is conceptually, perceptually, and functionally redolent of the Disney theme parks." Translation: making Times Square safe for The Lion King).

The title of another recent volume of Disney studies — Multiculturalism and the Mouse: Race and Sex in Disney Entertainment (University of Texas Press, 2005), by the media scholar Douglas Brode — seems to promise more vilification, but the author risks ostracism from his peers by being a bona fide fan. Disney "was the single member of Old Hollywood who set what would come to be called multiculturalism into motion," writes Brode. Far from embedding the white man's brand, "his works challenge all those societal norms and once-unquestioned values in a way that no other filmmaker of the studio era dared." Nothing if not consistent, Brode takes a stab at rehabilitating Disney's notorious Song of the South (1946), seeing in the unreconstructed confederacy of the Uncle Remus fables the demolition of class and race barriers when Uncle Remus (channeling Uncle Walt) brings together a diverse audience of children.

Another friendly encounter with empire is Mouse Tracks: The Story of Walt Disney Records, by Tim Hollis and Greg Ehrbar, freelance scholars and one (Ehrbar) a Disney veteran. Forthcoming from the University Press of Mississippi, it is a survey of jukebox Disney from "The Ballad of Davy Crocket" in 1954 to the sugar-sweet teeny-bop genre churned out today by the Disney cable shows. The Mississippi press, which is carving a specialty niche in comic studies and animation, has also published a useful compilation of interviews edited by Kathy Merlock Jackson, Walt Disney: Conversations (2006), from which the quotes from Disney cited above have been cribbed. Unfortunately, despite the occasional inadvertent revelation, the conversations are hobbled by the sycophancy of interlocutors dumbstruck at being granted an audience with the great man.

Indeed, the protective layer around what Variety calls the Mouse House may be the greatest problem bedeviling scholars. Notoriously protective of its brand, obsessively secretive about its archives, Disney employs squadrons of ruthless copyright lawyers to man the moat around the castle. To obtain access to the studio archives, much less permission to use the stills, Disney demands obedience to park rules. Not atypically, the critical Rethinking Disney contains not a single illustration from a Disney cartoon or feature — an omission common to Disney studies unwilling to trade sympathy for access or to pony up the hefty permissions fees. Even a booster like Brode feels compelled to preface his profusely illustrated study with a carefully worded statement noting that the photographs and stills were "either mailed or hand delivered over the decades to the author, in his longtime capacity as a professional commentator on movies, television, and the entertainment media" by Disney flacks themselves and may, therefore, under law be "included in books of an educational nature if they are deemed necessary by the author to precisely illustrate the thematic points being made in the text itself." Whew — but understandable. After all, Disney, which famously sued the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for an unauthorized use of the character Snow White during the 1989 Oscar telecast, could reduce a university press to ashes with the tap of a wand.

Perhaps even more than cracking open the studio vaults, the greatest challenge facing Disney scholars is to ponder the gulf between elite contempt and popular devotion. "What is more universally reviled among cultural critics today than Disney?" asks the Rethinking Disney contributor Stacy Warren, a professor of geography at Eastern Washington University, fully aware that almost everybody else disagrees. At the very least, the man who could schmooze with the Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (she visited Disney in 1938 to check out the storyboards for Fantasia) and brainstorm with Salvador Dali (he collaborated with Disney in 1946 on a surreal animation short, Destino) warrants a more three-dimensional rendering than either the official portrait as the genial Uncle Walt or the revisionist defacing as the Evil Stepfather.

Thomas Doherty is a professor of American studies at Brandeis University. His most recent book is Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture (Columbia University Press, 2003). Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 52, Issue 46, Page B10