The Reanimation — and Rehabilitation — of Walt Disney

Walt Disney and an early Mickey Mouse (as Steamboat Willie) collaborating at the drawing board, in an undated photo

Like so many of my fellow Gen-X-ers, I led a childhood that was significantly Disneyfied.

The first movie I ever saw, as relayed to me by my parents (since it occurred at an age far too young for me to remember), was Disney’s Cinderella. Beginning at the age of four, I took several trips with my family to Disney World and Disney Land. And also to Epcot Center, whose plastic sci fi utopia enchanted me. Most Sunday evenings I watched The Wonderful World of Disney on ABC, except for when I was obligated to go to church, which wasn’t nearly as fun or interesting as Disney. Far from being a typical passive sponge for the Disney meme, I actively soaked it up.

Based on this manifest interest, one Christmas my family gifted me with a copy of the massive uber-tome Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life (576 pages, coffee-table sized, lavishly illustrated). Written by two of Disney’s legendary classic-era animators, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, it still stands today as the single most comprehensive, authoritative, and valuable tome about its title subject. I reveled in the book for years.

Along similar lines, I once convinced my parents to buy an 8-track of an audio play titled “Disney’s Christmas Carol” — the progenitor of the later short film, “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” — from a television ad. It was accompanied by an 8-track of Christmas carols sung by Disney-voiced characters. I listened frequently to both of them for a couple of years, even when it wasn’t Christmastime.

But then I grew up and, as I saw it, left childish things behind. In college I learned to scoff at the artificiality of Walt Disney’s saccharine, anti-real or hyper-real portrayal of human life, and also his gaudy techno-utopian future vision for the human race, not to mention his virtually totalitarian corporate leadership style and his exploitation of the underside of American proletarian values (anti-intellectualism, consumerism, etc.). This, despite the above-described Disneyfied childhood.

Now a new article in The Chronicle of Higher Education — “Walt Disney, Reanimated” (March 21) by Randy Malamud, an English professor at Georgia State University — is, to put it bluntly, fascinating the hell out of me. Malamud reviews the new Walt Disney Family Museum, which opened in October at the Presidio complex in San Francisco, and finds it a worthy, non-hagiographic presentation and examination of Disney’s life, ethos, and contribution to America’s culture.

He notes the scorn that became prevalent among American academics and intellectuals over a span of decades, and then points to a raft of recent books that have begun to reshape the conversation by taking a more open-minded and less condemnatory approach to Disney — the man, the media empire, the artistic/entertainment legacy, and the cultural force. “If Walt Disney,” writes Malamud,

is a hugely overdetermined figure — and he himself bears considerable responsibility for that — it’s a valuable corrective to have this museum return us to the actual flesh-and-blood man behind the curtain, and back to the work itself. . . . Before visiting, I had wondered if the Disney Museum would be a hagiography, or a glorified gift shop, or a propagandistic reification of the Disney empire. It isn’t any of those things. It’s a collection of ideas and documents, a diverse array of archival, filmic, and pop-cultural texts that historicizes Disney’s work and compels us to think twice about how we appraise it. The museum energizes the fascinatingly charged scholarly debate that the Disney phenomenon has provoked, shaking the worn, staid, sometimes cynical images we have of Disney and his empire, bringing to them renewed color and motion.

I haven’t kept up with any of the cultural and philosophical criticism leveled at Disney over the years. The last I really remember reading anything about it was when I browsed through Beaudrillard’s Travels in Hyperreality nearly two decades ago. But now, for some reason — one that I suspect is tied as much to my innate interest in cultural studies and ideas as it is to the Disneyfication of my childhood — the news that some critics and observers are starting to sing a different tune really snags my attention.

On initial inspection, from the tiny bit of poking around that I’ve now started to do in this area, the observations of these critics appear sound. The scorn has been overbaked and overblown. The Disney wave-and-meme really does represent something that deserves to be engaged with rather than dismissed or used as scholarly cannon fodder, and this is true both because of its inherent qualities and because of the general and pleasantly fresh-smelling fact that, as Malamud points out (drawing on a very worthwhile Chronicle article from last year titled “What’s the Matter with Cultural Studies?”), “scholars should respect and engage with the mass appeal of popular cultural texts rather than dismiss ones deemed politically or aesthetically flawed as evidence of the audience’s false consciousness.”

Thanks for that, Mr. Malamud.

Welcome back into my Fockerian circle of trust, Uncle Walt. It’s nice to remake your acquaintance.

Image credit: / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

About Matt Cardin


Posted on March 22, 2010, in Arts & Entertainment and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Matt, thanks for posting on Disney. I too have mentioned him from time to time, particularly in his more dark contributions to pop culture. He was a formative influence in the fantastic in my childhood as well through not only the weekly television show, but also the Haunted Mansion album, movies like The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and the great cartoons like Fantasia with its Night on Bald Mountain segment. I am glad to see a more balanced approach to Disney and culture from scholars. Perhaps this means those of us in cultural studies can once again embrace Uncle Walt.

    • That’s a great list of items you mention, John. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was pretty important to me, too. The Haunted Mansion at Disney World scared the bejesus out of me when I was a very little kid, and then I craved that scare again and again, which was surely something formative for my development as a horror student and practitioner. The terrifying chase through the forest in Snow White, not to mention the scenes with the hag-version of the queen at the climax, not to mention the Snow White ride at Disney World with its authentic dose of darkness, marked me deeply. Night on Bald Mountain had to wait until I saw Fantasia for the first time as a late teen on videocassette — but by then I had already absorbed quite an effective dose of its heady power via the detailed account of its creation in the book about Disney animation mentioned in the above post.

      Indeed, Walt Disney’s rehabilitation seems a welcome thing. I’m glad you enjoyed what I wrote.

  2. As I was thinking about this further today I recalled my previous research on the development of Halloween, particularly in American culture. Here Walt Disney was a significant influence. This came through the 1949 adaptation of Washington Irving’s story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and the Headless Horseman that were featured as part of the film “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.” Further Disney sources of influence came in the form of the 1952 cartoon “Trick or Treat” with Daffy Duck and Witch Hazel. One scholar argues that this cartoon was “one of the most important media influences on the postwar candy-begging tradition.” This film played in theaters for the entire month of October that year, and was later shown on television and released on a record album with with the voice talents of a young Ron Howard that involved a narration of the Haunted Mansion attraction. Interestingly this provided a behavioral template for trick or treating practices that influenced millions of Baby Boomers. We could mention other aspects of Disney’s contribution to horror in the past, but this has continued into more recent times with Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1994) released through Disney’s Touchstone division due to concerns over potential controversy due to its dark themes, but later wholeheartedly embraced by Disney as evidenced by its merchandising and the annual change of the Haunted Mansion into a “Nightmare Before Christmas” theme. Childhood memories and our Halloween traditions wouldn’t be the same without Uncle Walt.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.