A spirited defense of Disney entertainment which argues that Disney paved the way for today's multicultural values through its positive portrayal of women, ethnic minorities, gays, and non-Christian spirituality.
In his latest iconoclastic work, Douglas Brode—the only academic author/scholar who dares to defend Disney entertainment—argues that "Uncle Walt's" output of films, television shows, theme parks, and spin-off items promoted diversity decades before such a concept gained popular currency in the 1990s. Fully understood, It's a Small World—one of the most popular attractions at the Disney theme parks—encapsulates Disney's prophetic vision of an appealingly varied world, each race respecting the uniqueness of all the others while simultaneously celebrating a common human core. In this pioneering volume, Brode makes a compelling case that Disney's consistently positive presentation of "difference"—whether it be race, gender, sexual orientation, ideology, or spirituality—provided the key paradigm for an eventual emergence of multiculturalism in our society.
Using examples from dozens of films and TV programs, Brode demonstrates that Disney entertainment has consistently portrayed Native Americans, African Americans, women, gays, individual acceptance of one's sexual orientation, and alternatives to Judeo-Christian religious values in a highly positive light. Assuming a contrarian stance, Brode refutes the overwhelming body of "serious" criticism that dismisses Disney entertainment as racist and sexist. Instead, he reveals through close textual analysis how Disney introduced audiences to such politically correct principles as mainstream feminism. In so doing, Brode challenges the popular perception of Disney fare as a bland diet of programming that people around the world either uncritically deem acceptable for their children or angrily revile as reactionary pabulum for the masses.
Providing a long overdue and thoroughly detailed alternative, Brode makes a highly convincing argument that with an unwavering commitment to racial diversity and sexual difference, coupled with a vast global popularity, Disney entertainment enabled those successive generations of impressionable youth who experienced it to create today's aura of multiculturalism and our politically correct value system.
- Introduction. I Had a Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes: In Defense of Disney, Part I
- 1. Return of the Vanishing American: Disney and the Native Experience
- 2. Together in Perfect Harmony: Disney and the Civil Rights Movement
- 3. Beat of a Different Drum: Ethnicity and Individualization in Disney
- 4. Racial and Sexual Identity in America: Disney's Subversion of the Victorian Ideal
- 5. "If It Feels Good, Do It!": Disney and the Sexual Revolution
- 6. Our Bodies, Ourselves: Disney and Feminism
- 7. Something Wiccan This Way Comes: Walt's Wonderful World of Witchcraft
- 8. Beyond the Celluloid Closet: Disney and the Gay Experience
- Conclusion. Popular Culture and Political Correctness: In Defense of Disney, Part II
Nothing's either good or bad; thinking makes it so.
—William Shakespeare, 1606
Perception is reality.
—Andy Warhol, 1966
Beginning in the early spring of 1963, the New York World's Fair played host to several attractions designed by Walt Disney's initial team of "Imagineers." Corporate-sponsored pavilions, each in some distinct way, combined Disney's ongoing fascination with showcasing in the present a vision of where we as a people had realistically been and where we most likely were next headed. However popular The Carousel of Progress and Hall of Presidents were, an attraction called It's a Small World quickly emerged as most fairgoers' favorite. Satisfying tourists from around the globe, and not a little startling owing to then-innovative ideological implications, It's a Small World offered a vision that would not characterize the thinking of mainstream America for another quarter century.
The term "diversity"—exclusive to the vocabulary of a radical minority only ten years ago, in the lexicon of most people today—has become such a staple of our everyday speech that we may forget such an idea did not exist, even among liberals committed to the civil rights movement, during the century's first half. At that time, "integration" remained the key byword. Those of the Old Left called for a full assimilation of ethnics and others deemed "different" into the vast national middle. They were opposed by strict segregationists, the Old Right that reeled in horror at the thought of any mingling of the races. Significantly absent from our ideology at midcentury, and the popular culture expressing that zeitgeist, was anything akin to what we now consider a preferable alternative to either extreme: Multiculturalism, based on the maintenance of any one group's beloved background while simultaneously asserting that all lingering value distinctions as to worth, based on race, gender, or other arbitrary, outmoded, intolerable standards, must be eliminated.
With one key exception. Disney—and Disney alone—offered a portrait of the future that ought to be hailed in intent and impact as a prototype, perhaps even progenitor, of the way we perceive the world today. Disney's innovative pavilion was created for UNICEF with full cooperation from Pepsi-Cola, one of many instances in which Walt served as a creative bridge between an idealistic cause in need of proper funding and the financial strength of a major corporation. Employing a highly regarded illustrator of children's books, Mary Blair (who had begun her professional career at Disney), with her talents augmented by designers Marc Davis and Claude Coats and songwriters Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman, Disney offered the public a diversion (or so it seemed) consisting of a boat ride along a picturesque canal that passed through miniature re-creations of the world's various regions. Diverse peoples were signified by children living everywhere from the frozen north to the rain forests of Africa, via a collection of 297 puppets, augmented by another 256 toys. Each wore authentic clothing from his or her land, while their coloring accurately reflected specific regions. Yet these "representations offered a common face, modified a little for skin color and racial characteristics," while Blair's "compelling color schemes underlined" rather than ignored "regional differences."
Each child sang the same title song, in his or her own language. At the end, all the children of the world joined together, performing the song in unison—offering a rich variety within the through-line that is the human race.
Today, some critics—those who find a reason to attack any offering that bears the Disney logo—complain that these are stereotypes, reductive instead of realistic. To a degree, they are correct. "Rather than a caricature of individuals," Walt himself stated in defense of his approach, "our work is a caricature of life." His meaning reverberates today: No one group was ever singled out for caricature or stereotyping in Disney films; all people were equally open to the same artistic approach. As an aesthetic, caricature is benign, so long as it is not misused for negative purposes. Caricature rests at the heart of literary works by Ben Jonson and Miguel de Cervantes, the paintings of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Pablo Picasso. When democratically applied, in a work that does not reserve caricature for any one ethnic group, there is nothing invalid about it—at least not to any mind that remains open during the observation process, and free of the limitations that any strict ideology, left or right, imposes.
Such open-mindedness is precisely what's missing from much of the current devastating criticism of Disney. As to one specific ethnicity and its depiction, Marisa Penalta (of the Rafael Hernandez School), speaking on the current Disney regime's portrayal of Latinos, comments about Oliver & Company (1988) and its characterization of Tito, a small Chihuahua (voiced by Cheech Marin). Aghast, Penalta asks: "Why this thing with Latinos as dogs?" She does not note that, in the film's animated approach to Charles Dickens's novel, every human character had been reimagined as some breed of dog. Her statement suggests that Latinos alone were singled out for caricature as animals. Had that been the case, Disney would be liable to charges of vicious bigotry. Obviously, that isn't what an objective viewer encounters. The Disney company employed a storytelling tradition that reaches back at least to Aesop, in which animals uniformly substitute for people. The French woman is (naturally) a poodle, etc.
The whole point of the film is that to succeed as a society, the onscreen dog characters must celebrate their diversity while also finding the essential connection that belies differences. All the dogs, here representing varied human ethnicities, are initially suspicious of one another. In time, though, each grows morally, accepting the others as part of a greater canine heredity they all share. They learn to tolerate, then understand and enjoy, each other's uniqueness. By the end, they become a working community, without any among them needing to assimilate so completely as to divest him- or herself of essential ethnic identity.
It's a small world, after all.
As to that pavilion: Following the closing of the World's Fair, the attraction was relocated in Disneyland, California (premiere date: May 28, 1966). Each new Disney park built over the following decades also featured an identical pavilion. From the moment of its inception, It's a Small World managed to entertainingly educate people (adults and children) about what would, in time, gradually emerge as the predominant multicultural view. To what precise degree people's exposure to the ride created a new generation that would envision and then insist on diversity is impossible to say. What can't be denied is that exposure to mass media experiences—be they theme park diversions, the music that forms our aural environment, or the omnipresence of televised programming—subtly but significantly alters our vision of the world.
This idea is asserted also by those who disparage Disney and is fundamental to their complaints. In her documentary Mickey Mouse Monopoly, writer-producer Chyang Feng Sun warns that children are apt to learn from all the pop culture they are exposed to and unconsciously absorb. Such children are most strongly influenced by films that, like Disney's, are seen over and over again, and by generation after generation. That is true, and it negates a statement made by Richard Schickel in The Disney Version (1969), the book that initiated the ongoing attack on Disney. Schickel explained why he felt no necessity to analyze any of the comedies and dramas, lumping such beloved favorites as 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954), Old Yeller (1958), and The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) together with minor fare like The Monkey's Uncle (1965) and The Ugly Dachshund (1966) as "live-action features that most people scarcely remember," adding that "there is really very little point in discussing these movies critically."
As I hope to prove, Disney revealed more of his personal ideology in such fare than in elaborate animated classics. Even if most of those films (though not, certainly, 20,000 Leagues) were hardly ambitious enough to be evaluated as art, that hardly diminishes their social, political, and cultural impact on the audience that eagerly consumed each on its original release, and has continued to do so over the years thanks to TV and home video. As Gale Dines (Women's Studies, Wheelock College), a contemporary vocal critic of Disney, says in the documentary Mickey Mouse Monopoly:
Encoded in media images are ideologies about how we think about the world: Belief systems, constructions of reality. And we develop our notions of reality from the cultural mediums around us. One of the most important cultural mechanisms that we have today is indeed the media. It gives us a wide array of image stereotypes, belief systems, about race and class and gender. It's really important to analyze the institutions of media in order to understand how we, as consumers and citizens, understand the role the media plays in socializing us into certain belief systems.
Dines's assessment is apt. My sole argument is that she then condemns Disney as perhaps the worst perpetrator of outworn if notably long-standing myths.
There can be no arguing with the fact that Disney entertainment—from the most prevalent single media conglomerate in existence—exerts a greater influence on our line of vision than any of its competitors. Whether Disney provides negative conditioning is the issue. In my previous volume, From Walt to Woodstock: How Disney Created the Counterculture (2004), I argued that the films made by the company during Walt's working years (1921-1966), largely written off by the academic elite as grossly commercialized and superficially conventional, contained then-radical ideas. As a result, Disney films played a key role in paving the way for the youth revolution of 1967-1972. The cult of the antisocial outlaw, the back to nature movement, radical environmentalism, a glorification of then-controversial rock 'n' roll, animal rights activism, antiwar attitudes, disparagement of raw capitalism, the defense of free love and communal living, an early awareness if not acceptance of an abiding drug culture, and the glorification of long hair were all introduced in Disney movies and television shows that, amid the otherwise bland media environment of the late fifties, future hippies saw and absorbed.
The aim of this current volume is to extend that thesis to issues of race, gender, sexual preference, and various other forms of "difference." It's a Small World, unveiled only three years before Disney's death, offered the first significant glimpse of this new avenue of perception. As I learned, to argue that Disney set the pace for political correctness is to open oneself up, however paradoxically, to charges of political incorrectness. Disney—whether one means by that term the works of the man himself or of the company that today still displays his name—has been bandied about as the primary symbol of an American mid-cult sensibility that projects the precise opposite of our modern view. To try and alter that perception (not to argue with the essential precepts of political correctness) is to challenge a notion that for years has been set in stone to such a degree that many believe any argument ought not be raised.
I became painfully aware of this when I mentioned in an e-mail to a young Fulbright scholar, who in the past expressed great admiration for my work, that I was in the process of completing a book on Disney and diversity. My announcement was met with enthusiasm. The scholar explained that he uses clips from Disney films in his own American Studies courses abroad to illustrate how offensive the Disney vision is. When I explained that in my book Disney would be defended as an early proponent of diversity, I was greeted with the cyberspace equivalent of stony silence.
After recouping, my colleague offered an example of how abhorrent Disney is by mentioning a sequence he employs in classes to reveal Disney as both a racist and a sexist. Donald Duck, in The Three Caballeros (1945), literally "strafes" (in the style of a World War II dive bomber) a group of Latino women on a Rio beach, the Duck's desire for sex literally transforming into an act of implied violence. How, the scholar argued, could such a sequence be viewed other than as one of the most odious examples of insensitivity to race and gender in Hollywood's dubious history? In answer, I could only argue that to remove that sequence from the film's context, as well as Disney's oeuvre, is to utterly misrepresent it. To label Disney as politically incorrect on the basis of that sequence, then (for consistency's sake) we also ought to attack writer Larry McMurtry and director Martin Ritt for the sequence in the former's novel (Horseman, Pass By) and the latter's film (Hud) in which Hud Bannon attempts to rape (he succeeds in the book) his attractive middle-aged housekeeper, Alma (Patricia Neal).
If that sequence were presented at face value—if the reader/viewer were encouraged to "side" with Hud at this moment in the narrative—the book and film surely would rate as offensive to any woman or man possessing modern enlightened values—even more so in McMurtry's book, where she is a woman of color. That is not the case when one considers the entire drama. The point-of-view character is Lon (Brandon de Wilde), Hud's young nephew. Early on, Lon idolizes the lazy womanizer. But as Lon grows to maturity on their contemporary Texas ranch, he rejects what, to a naïve mind, seemed charmingly roguish. We are meant to share Lon's arc and—if the reader/viewer did once, like Lon, find Hud appealing—finally reject the man as fully and completely as the young protagonist does. That is how the rape scene functions in Hud's context.
Likewise, in The Three Caballeros, Donald is an offensive character. The Duck was initially created when Walt realized he needed a foil for the gentlemanly (by the mid-forties, if not before) Mickey Mouse, Disney's alter ego and a role model for the audience. In contrast, Donald emerged as Disney's designated jerk. We are induced to reject his vicious actions when he similarly "strafes" his harmless nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie (a trio of "Lon" figures) in a variety of short subjects including Donald's Snow Fight (1942) and Trick or Treat (1959), then to cheer those children when they give Donald his comeuppance at each movie's end. Whether a child abuser or a sexual predator, Donald becomes the subject of ridicule, for other characters in the film as for those watching. In The Three Caballeros, when Donald is humiliated, we laugh at—not with—him. The film's context makes clear that the women he attacks are, like the three nephews, the positive figures. Context is everything; in context, Donald's vicious approach—like Hud's in Ritt's adult movie—is presented as the kind of male behavior to condemn.
Disney films are ripe with respect for women, an attitude that derives from the filmmaker's childhood. "My mother," Walt liked to recollect, "used to go out on a construction job and hammer and saw planks with the men." Such words were spoken with glowing admiration. Just such a tone surrounds the memory of Jeremiah Kincaid in So Dear to My Heart (1949), Walt's most autobiographical film, when he recalls Grandma (Beulah Bondi) plowing the family farm's rock-strewn fields. Her strength and tenacity are akin to those of men who perform such hard physical labor in movies by other Hollywood legends. In George Stevens's Shane (1952), Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) engages in such exhausting duties, while his wife, Marion (Jean Arthur), remains in the cozy cabin, perfectly kempt, humming sweetly as she bakes a pie intended less for her hardworking husband than for the elegantly handsome stranger (Alan Ladd) who has fortuitously arrived on their Wyoming homestead.
Disney's women have no time for such romantic drivel, even when they do happen to be young and beautiful. Texas cattlewoman Katie Coates (Dorothy McGuire) in Old Yeller (1958), though every bit as pretty as Marion, dutifully plows the land just like old Mrs. Kincaid. Like Grandma, Katie wears an unglamorous man's slouch hat while she works. When a handsome cowboy (Chuck Connors) happens by, she does not, like the heroine of Stevens's more "adult" movie, develop a crush on him. They maintain what, in modern terminology, can only be considered a gender-free relationship. Katie speaks to Burn Sanderson on a person-to-person basis, even as her husband, Jim (Fess Parker), would if he hadn't left with a cattle drive. In the Encyclopedia of Frontier Literature, Mary Ellen Snodgrass cites Old Yeller as one of the rare Westerns to feature a strong, independent woman as the focal character. Other studios showed no interest in Fred Gipson's novel, though Disney eagerly optioned and filmed it. The result was a cinematic tribute to the frontierswoman, herstory rarely if ever brought to the screen. Even in those rare cases where other filmmakers depicted such women (Victor Seastrom's Wind, 1922), they likely focused on females who go mad owing to their inability to survive (as "stronger" men do) on the plains. Disney's women, like those in books by Ellen Glasgow (Vein of Iron), Edna Ferber (So Big), and Willa Cather (O Pioneers!), endure—often without a man around to help.
These are no mere exceptions but ongoing examples of an attitude toward women present from Disney's first female character, the diminutive heroine of the Alice in Cartoonland series (1924-1927), in which a real-life girl entered an animated world. "Alice," a diehard Disney critic can claim, "had no real character beyond a certain willingness to try anything and therefore get into 'situations.'" One can conversely argue that such an orientation constitutes Alice's character. Further, we can read an entire attitude toward women (a positive one at that) into not only Alice's propensity for adventure, but also the end results of what occurs. Alice does, in film after film, discover that curiosity may indeed kill the cat. Often, her life is in peril as a result of a gamesome, willful, nonchalant attitude toward inherent dangers in the world. Always, though (and this is consistent in the Alice shorts), she in the end extricates herself from the latest difficulty. Grinning at the audience as any film fades out, Alice is no worse off for her mischievous exploit. If anything, she emerges stronger as a result of solving its problems on her own.
For purposes of contrast, we can compare Alice to Lois Lane in the Max and Dave Fleischer animated renderings of the Man of Steel and his inamorata. All but identical to Alice in outlook, Lois perversely must always go where the "wise" patriarch (newspaper editor Perry White) tells her it's too dangerous for a "mere girl" to venture. The difference is Lois always finds herself trapped by villains, unable to do anything but scream for help until Clark Kent assumes his secret identity and—the ultimate symbol of masculine prowess—hurries to rescue the damsel in distress. The Disney paradigm is precisely the opposite. In the 1955 TV serial Corky and White Shadow, the child-heroine (Darlene Gillespie) ignores warnings by her patriarchal father (Buddy Ebsen) against venturing into dangerous places and does so anyway. Her heedlessness proves to be a positive thing, in this hardly cautionary fable, when she captures two bank robbers that her dad, the sheriff, could not apprehend.
Moving from gender issues to those involving race, one quick example from another Western should suffice. Were a contemporary filmmaker to produce a movie about a young Native American and cast anyone other than a Native American actor in the lead, we would rightly consider that an implicitly racist decision by contemporary standards. To so charge Disney for casting Italian American Sal Mineo as White Bull in Tonka (1958) would be to unfairly judge him by a standard that did not exist at that time. Major Indian roles were played by Anglo actors until Chief Dan George in Little Big Man (1970); he won the part only after producers first considered Laurence Olivier, Richard Boone, and Paul Scofield. Also, since Disney's project was a commercial undertaking, there was the significant need for a nominal "star" to attract youthful audiences.
The proper way to analyze Tonka—what made it so innovative at the time—is to point out that this was the first (and, incredibly, only) theatrical motion picture to entirely depict Custer's Last Stand from a Native American point of view. Even Little Big Man did not go that far. For a hero, Arthur Penn chose a white (Dustin Hoffman) sympathetic to the Indians, not an actual Indian. Lest we forget, only one live-action movie has been made in our own time that, like Tonka, portrays the great encounter of whites and Indians from the Native American point of view. Squanto: A Warrior's Tale (1994) stars Adam Beach (a Native American actor). Not surprisingly, it was produced and released by today's Disney company.
Here then is another premise: Though I will, as in my previous volume, concentrate mainly on films that Walt personally supervised, I also argue that the current Disney studio adheres, progressing along a continuum, to social and political attitudes set in motion by Walt himself. It's important to note that CEO Michael Eisner's Disney company, when not fending off critical attacks by the radical left, has to deal with equally angry complaints from the reactionary right. The venom of Southern Baptist Convention president Richard Land's attacks, as well as those of other groups (the American Family Association, the Catholic League), derives from their openly expressed fear of the current Disney regime's "promotion of homosexuality." In the eyes of the extreme right, Disney is indeed politically correct, explaining why its activists are so upset. To prove this, rightists point to the Disney theme parks, which allow gay organizations to openly express their lifestyles and pride while on property. "I think it would be a travesty," Eisner retorts, "for us to exclude anybody." The right rejects today's Disney films owing to a belief that what passes for "Disney" in our time breaks with what they consider the "wholesome" tradition of an earlier era in Disney entertainment.
Nothing, I hope to prove, could be further from the truth. Disney went out of his way to anger the Christian fundamentalists of his time (and was threatened by them with a boycott of Fantasia) when he represented Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring with, as the film's narration puts it, "a coldly accurate realization of what scientists believe went on in the first few billion years of life on earth." This was taken as a personal insult by rightists who were "still determined to scourge Darwin as a heretic." Twelve years later, when Walt re-created Main Street, USA in Disneyland, he made certain every possible type of building was included except a church. He had, since childhood, considered organized religion to be a source of dangerous divisiveness, even though he did fervently believe in God. The belief by today's Christian right that their predecessors loved, and were well served by, Disney is mythic and untrue. Ignoring such enlightened attitudes on the part of either Disney or Eisner, Chyang Feng Sun describes how the company's output is generally accepted as "wholesome family entertainment," recommended by parents and teachers as a good influence on children. True, most parents and (elementary school) teachers do adore Disney. These people are part of families that exist somewhere in the vast American middle, squarely at the center or, in mild degrees, somewhat to the left or right politically, culturally, and socially. They despise extremism, be it from the reactionary right or the radical left, those polar opposites that at last have one thing in common: mutual hatred of Disney, past and present.
With this in mind, the academic demonization of Disney seems not only wrongheaded but takes on a strikingly antipopulist quality. This became clear to Dr. Henry Giroux (Pennsylvania State University) when, following the publication of his own anti-Disney diatribe, he made numerous media appearances across the country. Giroux claims to have been stunned at the rabid hostility he encountered, "especially talk radio interviews in which the public would call in," angrily chastising him. The elitist dismissal of Disney's work typified by Giroux initially coalesced in Schickel's aforementioned book, expressed in that author's open contempt for Disney as one who both reflected and helped create "the culture of the American majority."
In such a condescending context, Schickel insisted that what Disney offered was the polar opposite of true culture, in its most exalted state—work comprehensible only to highly educated persons of elevated intellectual tastes (i.e., "cultivated"). Disney was but an artist of the people, connecting with what Schickel patronizingly tags "the lumpen bourgeoisie." As José Ortega y Gasset once commented, most epochs contain "two different types of art, one for [elitist] minorities and one for [the] majority." Disney self-consciously attempted to create the former only once, if at all, with Fantasia (1941). Even there, despite inclusion of highbrow music, the obvious intent (whether cheered or scorned) had been to bring culture to the masses—a move that endeared Disney to neither the cultivated few nor the vast public.
Another critic, Rudolf Arnheim, disparaged "the general, artistically untrained public" and its crass (in his opinion) appreciation of ultrarealistic art. Arnheim preceded Schickel in damning Disney for not experimenting with more abstract visual forms. In fact, there are no more abstract images within the context of commercial cinema than Fantasia's experimental segments. Nor are there more expressionistic and surreal sequences than those awaiting rediscovery in The Three Caballeros. Disney's critics cannot forgive his attack on "culture" as something essentially "un-American . . . sort of snobbish and affected—as if it thought it were better than the next fellow." This can be taken as the words of an unregenerate urban redneck, with no appreciation for the finer things in life, or accepted as the honest assertion of a true populist of a variety known nowhere but in these United States.
That Disney's statement in no way suggested resentment toward the classical tradition is made clear in Fantasia, rich with symphonic music. The idea was to make such material, beloved by Walt, accessible to the public at large, which at the time failed to rise to his level of expectation, as the film's original box-office failure made clear. However disappointing the commercial and critical results when it was released, the dream for Fantasia was decidedly democratic: to strip away the stigma of "culture" that proved off-putting to the blue-collar audience and reveal to them, by marrying such stuff to the antics of the Mouse, that great music was nothing to be afraid of. To borrow a current term and apply it to that situation, Disney set out to demystify symphonic music for those intimidated by it. He believed that what had become the domain of a self-proclaimed elite could, when properly packaged, prove every bit as appealing to the common man. One way of interpreting Fantasia is to see it as a work that, however unconscious the desire may have been, set out to forever end the distinction between the two cultures José Ortega y Gasset described. No wonder that for closure to his above-quoted discussion of culture, Walt felt the need to add: "As I understand it, culture isn't that kind of snooty word at all." For him, culture at its best implied a realm of imaginative experience in which Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours could be accompanied by balletic hippos.
Despite a desire on Walt's part to expose the public to both classical music and then-contemporary avant-garde visuals, Schickel's (quite incongruous) line of attack insists Disney held an abiding "contempt for art." This notion of the man derives from a single statement he once made: "I've always had a nightmare. I dream that one of my pictures has ended up in an art theater." Precisely such a statement was made by Kenneth Branagh on the eve of his four-hour-plus Hamlet film's release in 1996. The actor-director wanted that film to play at the multiplex, not on the arthouse circuit, hoping to bring ordinary people in to see the Bard. This explains Branagh's use of American stars in Shakespearean films. He hoped to remove Hamlet from the world of high culture into which it has been absorbed, returning the work to Old Will's original audience. That is, the Elizabethan era's equivalent of that vast middle class which many observers condemn Walt for playing to—the very audience that, in the first half of the twentieth century, fell in love with Disney and, in the second, with the work of Disney's key descendants, most obviously Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
Disney never felt, much less expressed, any contempt for art, be it high-, middle-, or lowbrow; visual, aural, or literary. His ongoing attempts to bring the best in music to the masses—which, following the financial disaster of Fantasia, had to be scaled down—make this clear. Films like Make Mine Music (1946) and Melody Time (1948) attest to the truth. So does Disney's insistence that his animators regularly attend art classes at the finest Los Angeles schools. What Disney despised was not art but the self-aggrandizing attitude of those who openly identify themselves as artists. What he hated was pretentiousness, particularly that of the specialized sector of the creative community composed of self-conscious artists.
These are the people who like to announce that they are indeed artists; therefore, anything they produce automatically falls into the realm of art. For Walt—as for other similarly minded American filmmakers such as John Ford, Frank Capra, and Howard Hawks—the self-conscious artist puts the cart before the horse. Disney and his colleagues were intent on creating works that displayed the highest level of craftsmanship. If someone wanted to tag them as art, that was their business. The true artist is too busy doing to talk much about what he's done.
What Disney accomplished in Fantasia, whether he was aware of it or not, was to pioneer the breakdown between elitist and crowd-pleasing art so necessary in a rough-hewn democracy like our own. This began a reexamination of what "the finer things in life" really were. And resulted during the turbulent Woodstock era in such works as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1968), that book's very title attesting to a sea change in values. Modern popular culture studies—serious attention paid to everything from rock 'n' roll to poster art, from Fonzie's black leather jacket placed on display at the Smithsonian to Roger Corman's once-déclassé drive-in horror flicks receiving a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art—proceeds on some level from Disney daring to suggest that Mickey Mouse and Leopold Stokowski were not incompatible.
Schickel pejoratively dismisses Disney as an "untutored" man. If a formal education were required for the highest level of competence at any artistic endeavor—if the title "artist" automatically accompanied a university degree—then every graduate of New York University, the University of Southern California, and Northwestern University who headed for Hollywood would swiftly prove more influential than Spielberg. For he spent approximately two years at Long Beach Community College, eventually leaving sans degree. Certainly, Disney did have a sense of the vast American middle, as Shakespeare did for the audience of his time, Spielberg and Lucas in our day. The total filmmaker, Charlie Chaplin, had it more than any other twentieth-century artist. It was he who inspired Walt to become a filmmaker, which helps explain why Mickey Mouse is the Little Tramp reimagined as an animated character.
Chaplin, incidentally, never made it through grade school.
Others have understood and appreciated what Disney, like Chaplin, achieved. Time magazine, in its review of The Living Desert (1954), noted that a viewer felt enraptured by "the sense that the camera can take an onlooker into the interior of a vital event, indeed into the pulse of the life process itself." Mark Van Doren, a leading intellectual figure of the 1950s, insisted that Disney "lives somewhere near the human center and knows innumerable truths that cannot be taught." In fact, though, those truths can be taught. Not to Disney, who sensed it in his soul without any need for advanced "tutoring," like other intuitive geniuses from Shakespeare to John Lennon. But by Disney, to us, through his work. No truths contained in Disney films are more significant than the teaching of tolerance and acceptance through a heightened understanding for the full range of diversity among members of the human race. This was particularly acute at a time when such an awareness was nowhere else suggested by mass media and popular culture.
There are, as Joseph Campbell noted, myths that are regional and/or national in origin, others that are universal, found among virtually every race inhabiting the planet. These basic and essential myths, when intellectually explored from our present perspective, reveal what it means to be human, even as more limited myths expose the uniqueness of any one people or place. Disney, and Disney alone in the golden age of motion pictures, had it both ways. Chaplin's Tramp, so utterly universal in appeal, never really seemed American, despite the vivid settings. Gary Cooper in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) may have expressed a uniquely American ideal, yet Capra's output proved something of an anomaly, an acquired taste anywhere other than at home. Disney, more than any other filmmaker, proved easily accessible to a global community. Mickey could be read either way, as an image of what it specifically meant to be American or what it universally meant to be human.
In the 1960s, It's a Small World likewise projected just such a personal philosophy, inherent in Walt's work from the beginning. In addition to the Mickey shorts, Disney early on set about retelling ancient fables and folk tales, which, as Campbell put it, offer "the primer picture-language of the soul"—particularly so when animated by Walt. Like any true artist, Disney also has his own thematic through-lines. He did not film all the fairy tales, only stories which, when interpreted—that is, presented in the Disney Version—would allow for the expression of his worldview. This more or less held true with original material. Nikki, Wild Dog of the North (1961) concerns a tamed dog and a wild bear cub—natural enemies who, when thrown together by accident, set aside their instinctual enmities to survive. That theme, translated to human terms, suggested before it was popular to do so that an intermixing of the human races (like animal species) was both desirable and achievable. Diversity within society could be realized without the divesting of ethnic identity. This idea was repeated in a live-action feature, The Incredible Journey (1963), as well as the animated The Fox and the Hound (1981), released after Walt's death. It is the essence of A Tale of Two Critters (1977). Bear cub and baby raccoon are thrown together, cooperating to survive until they are finally safe. Afterward, they part company, but with a new respect for one another as individuals and representatives of their breed.
Dines notes that Disney's "scripts are written by real people, who themselves have been socialized by this society, and they have internalized these norms, and these values. So when they produce work, it's bound to come out in some way [expressing that society]—unless they make a conscious decision to operate within an alternative ideology" (emphasis added). Her statement is undeniably true. What can be argued with is the assumption that Disney filmmakers, then and now, are the least likely to have made that conscious decision. I read Disney's films as a scathing indictment of the status quo.
There will be those who insist on taking this volume as an attack on political correctness. It is intended as a defense of politically correct thinking, daring only to suggest that Disney (a targeted archenemy of PC) was the single member of Old Hollywood who set what would come to be called multiculturalism into motion. His works challenge all those societal norms and once-unquestioned values in a way that no other filmmaker of the studio era dared—if, in fact, any had even thought, or wanted, to do so.
“Brode emerges [as] a worthy proponent of Disney's democratic vision, wielding a powerful argument for Disney as a forerunner of multicultural values in America. The significance of his work cannot be overstated.”
Deborah C. Mitchell, Westminster College