Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Disneyfication of ME!

Or How I Stopped Worrying And Learned To Love Disney.

There is a consensus out there that Disney is Evil. Disney = Evil. Anthropomorphic Cartoon Animals in a made-up world called Walt Disney World = Eternity of torture by Anthropomorphic Animals in made-up world called Hell. Get the point? I have friends who would rather have their eyelashes pulled out one-by-one while bamboo chutes are shoved under their fingernails than go to Disneyland or watch a Disney film.

I used to be one of them.

Yes, I admit, I was a Disney hater too. Mostly because of my ignorance. See, I never went to see a Disney movie when I was a kid. I never saw Bambi in my youth. I never watched the Dwarves shack up with Snow White and I never got to see booty-calling Cinderella make it with her babe-a-licious beau, Prince Charming. I blame my parents. They were not very big fans of Disney. Also, the proliferation of VCR movies and more recently DVDs hadn’t come about when I was a lad.

Now if my mother will stop screaming at me I will tell you that once, when I was in third grade my family did make a trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando Florida. I had the time of my life. It was a great fun. All of it. I still remember how it felt to ride in the Haunted Castle or the Pirate’s of the Caribbean ride. I remember the Electric Light Parade and the butter pats shaped like Mickey Mouse. But alas, that was in the Seventies and I should not return to that enchanted land for almost 30 years.

In between I was rarely exposed to anything Disney-like. There was a dry spell in the eighties of animated Disney films. Or at least very good films. The kind that harkens back to the golden age when they produced Cinderella and Snow White and Bambi. Then in the early Nineties they came out with The Little Mermaid. A musical based on the Hans Christian Anderson tale. It was a great little movie. A friend of mine had a sister who watched it on a daily basis when she finally scored the VCR tape. By that time, thought, I was a jaded art student just discovering my inner Goth. Despite the fact that the bad guy in the movie was a dark, octopus like creature who wanted to steal the beautiful voices of the Mer-People, it still didn’t go far enough for my brash, young, self.

I raised the banner with the best of them as to how bad it was that Disney took stories and themes and simplified them, making happy endings out of them. “The original fairy tales were cautionary tales that rarely had happy endings,” I’d explain. It was a bad thing to take the world and candy coat it into something sweet and fluffy and good. The real world is full of darkness, evil and rarely do things work out. Besides, if the Walt Disney Company had its way we’ all be strolling down fake, cobbled stoned streets, hanging onto white picket fences, Zipadeedodaing all around town like a nation of Stepfords.

A relentless litany of animated films came out in the Nineties. The Little Mermaid followed up with Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1993), Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Hercules (1997), Mulan (1998), Tarzan (1999). Along with 3-D animation company, Pixar, a former Lucasfilm Company bought by Steve Jobs of Apple fame, (and if you know me at all you know how giddy this makes me!) Disney distributed the Toy Story movies (19995 & 1999) and A Bug’s Life (1998). Then there was the Tim Burton classic, The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).

Since then the studio has produced or distributed many other animated films although they have not reached the renaissance of animated musicals that they achieved in the 1990s. Disney and Pixar produced a slew of new films together ushering in a new age of animation where 3-D ruled. With the success of Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, Disney announced that they were giving up on 2-D (traditional) animated movies and called the format dead. But after purchasing Pixar as a wholly owned subsidiary in 2005, Disney has rediscovered a commitment to 2-D cartoons and is producing them again.

When I had children of my own, they demanded that I put on Disney films. My wife sent me out at ungodly hours to buy Limited Edition DVDs that peeked out of the Disney Vault but might disappear for another fifty years if we didn’t hurry and buy them all up.

Through repeated viewings and osmosis, the fairy tales began to seep in and I admit to now having the soundtrack to Aladdin on my iPod. (Love that Robin Williams!) And for the first time in 30 years the gates of the magic kingdom opened and I strode the clean streets while men and women dressed like a Technicolorized version of the late nineteenth century descended on us.

If you’ve ever been, you know what I mean. At a moment’s notice a band of happy characters dressed like they stepped off a paddleboat on the sparkling Mississippi River will roll through the streets dancing and singing a happy tune. There’s a candy store on the corner and a bunch of places that will sell you everything that you ever wanted, with Mickey Mouse slapped on it. Any true ex-Industrial-Goth would just melt into a black puddle right there, the sticky sweetness shooting holes into my old black combat boots.

Truth is, I enjoyed it. A lot. And I traded combat boots for Docksiders years ago.

There is something innocent and nostalgic about the park. Perhaps because the last time I was there I was just an eight-year-old boy. Perhaps it’s just because Disney gets it right. You heard me. They get it right.

Kids will always be kids. They love cartoons, they love candy and they love music they can sing along to. If you combine them all together well, Jackpot! That’s what Disney World is in a nutshell. It is like actually stepping into one of Walt Disney’s animated films. Judging from all the historical information you can get on the man while touring the park, this is exactly what he intended.

Disney is not an enigma. It is not complicated or deceitful. No matter what happens behind the scenes in the corporate world, the face of Disney is a cartoon wonderland full of wonder and magic and history. History that might be its own, self-referential history, but by now, after all these years, it’s true history. It’s magical.

If you don’t dig too deep you can find a na├»ve, simplicity in Disney. The cartoons always have a happy ending, they always teach some lesson and they are usually so well done you can’t help but get sucked into the story, the music, the images or all of the above.

Even Tomorrowland still looks like the wide-eyed version of the future that Walt Disney himself tried to promote. I feel like I stepped into a realm created thirty, forty, fifty years ago and nothing has changed since.

But there’s more to it than just some silly old rides and cotton candy. The movies that Disney puts out for the children of America today are not your father’s Disney flick.

I should have known that all along.

Case in point: Nightmare Before Christmas. I loved this movie so much when it first came out I went and bought all the watches at Burger King. I saw it in the movie theater twice. This is not your typical Disney film yet Disney distributed it. Also, Tim Burton, one of my favorite directors, was employed at Disney as an artist for a time. Disney studio is where he first began thinking up the characters for Nightmare and he directed and wrote a short film called Vincent there, though the film was never released.

Burton originally pitched this film to Disney while working there but they turned him down because it was too dark. After meeting with success, he finally was able to create his masterpiece but Disney still thought it was too dark. They released it under their Touchtone studio releases. At the time the movie was released, I had no idea it had roots in the Disney studio.

Since then, after years of building momentum, Nightmare Before Christmas has become one of Disney’s greatest marketing movies, selling characters and merchandise inspired by the movie year after year. On October 20, 2006, Disney plans to release a 3-D version of the film in limited release.

So among the Mickey Mouse ears and Goofy hats are Jack Skelington snow globes.

Disney has even conquered Broadway. At the center of the Times Square redevelopment project was Disney’s purchase and restoration of the New Amsterdam Theater. Currently a very impressive performance of Disney’s The Lion King is playing there. If you go expecting a rehash of a cartoon with fuzzy costumed characters playing the central role, be prepared for disappointment. The Broadway version of this musical is impressive and beautiful in it’s own right. The production design and costuming are brilliant as is the casting. This is another good example of Disney getting it right.

Recently, Disney hit gold with a live action film done right, Pirates of the Caribbean. This movie had it all: Costumes, effects, beautiful sets, dialogue and superb performances by the four main stars, Johnny Depp (brilliantly playing Captain Jack Sparrow as one half-drunk, one half-mad, one half-Keith Richards), Geoffrey Rush (always a pleasure!), Orlando Bloom (playing the anti-Legolas) and beautiful and talented Keira Knightly (did I mention beautiful and talented?). This movie redefines the swashbuckling adventure like I only pray that Indiana Jones part four will come close to. Besides that, it single handedly brought back the Pirate craze. (When did the pirate craze end, I say!)

“It all started with a mouse.”

Continually throughout a visit to Disney World you are reminded by enormous graffiti and the voice of the man himself that Disney all started with a mouse. That’s only partly true. It started with a dream. The mouse came second.

Walt Disney and his brother Roy Disney started Disney Studios way back in the 1920s. Originally they began with short animated films staring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. (Who looked very much like Mickey Mouse with long ears.) When Walt lost the rights to Oswald to another production studio he had to come up with another character to star in his cartoons. Mickey Mouse was created and stared in one of the first popular cartoons that also featured a soundtrack called Steamboat Willie.

Not one to rest, after gaining popularity, fame and money with his Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony cartoons Walt decided he wanted to do a feature length cartoon. Other thought he was crazy but he pushed on and when Snow White came out, it was a smash.

From then on Walt expanded his empire from short cartoons to great big theme parks in California and then Orlando. These parks were going to be like stepping out of real life and into a fantasy. Just like most other things he dreamed up, Walt succeeded in this endeavor too.

At the core of it all is a basic premise: Tell a good story and tell it right. That has been the cornerstone of the Disney legacy. Walt Disney was a perfectionist. Snow White took longer and cost more money than originally planned because of his detailed personality. In the end it was all worth it. Meticulous detailing and an uplifting, well-told tale are what made Disney a great man and a great movie company. Over the years, Disney has had its ups and downs. It has fallen in and out of the public’s favor but all in all, we can’t imagine a world without Walt Disney’s fantasies. And we would not want to either.



Anonymous said...

I remember when the Baptists tried to boycott Disney. My friend had a comment to make that was interesting, "Boycotting Disney is like boycotting plastic." If you've ever lived in Southern California you understand the reality of that. When I last lived there, they owned The Anaheim Angels, The Mighty Ducks, ABC television, a local television station, ESPN, The History Channel and a radio station or two. We won't even get into the movie studios and publishing companies. I was beginning think that whole city of Anaheim should have just been called Disneyland. Although, I don't agree with the Baptists on their boycott, I do see how Disney could resemble the Anti-Christ.

ObilonKenobi said...

True but they really are just a company that makes entertainment. That's what got me interested in writing this... Why do people hate them so much. Besides the corporate stuff that happens at every single company on the planet and worse at some like Enron and Worldcom, what did they do to make people hate them so much.

The problem with religious groups boycotting Disney is that i do not agree with their reasons. They see the movies as "evil." like they are possessing our children which is rediculous and then they do it because oif things like the "gay week" that occurs in Florida in Disney.

i just can't get behind people who hate because of prjudice which led me to conclude that there is nothing wrong with Disney as long as everyone knows it's all Entertainment.

i do like the "boycotting plastic" comment by your friend. Classic.

mstar said...

It may be entertainment, even kid-focused entertainment, but it’s like giving the kids ice cream for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Complete with mickey mouse spoons and bowls, winnie the pooh booster seat and little mermaid pajamas –its all too much.

ObilonKenobi said...

Like everything else you must take it in moderation.