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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: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pgamba62/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0