Disney Revisited, Or, Jiminy Cricket, It’s Musty Down Here!

I call him to account for his debasement of the traditional literature of childhood, in films and in the books he publishes:

He shows scant respect for the integrity of the original creations of  authors, manipulating and vulgarizing everything for his own ends. His treatment of folklore is without regard for its anthropological, spiritual, or psychological truths. Every story is sacrificed to the “gimmick”…of animation.…

Not content with the films, he fixes these mutilated versions in books which are cut to a fraction of their original forms, illustrates them with garish pictures, in which every prince looks like a badly drawn portrait of Cary Grant, every princess a sex symbol.

Guess who Frances Clarke Sayers was talking about in 1965? This letter she published in the Los Angeles Times was printed as part of a longer article in The Horn Book (December 1965), and Walt Disney survived her attack by only one year. He died December 15, 1966. Three decades later, the single subject that will ensure debate among glazed undergraduates and exhausted graduate students of children’s literature is criticism of a Walt Disney production. I have learned to muffle my salvos lest Disney devotees drop the course completely, but even so, one fan was close to tears when she exclaimed, “Can’t you leave the poor man alone? He’s dead!” This particular class presented me with a parting shot of three plastic figurines from the Disney Studios’ Beauty and the Beast — plus the paperback spin-off.

Do Sayers’s assertions of 1965 need an update? She was a sharp critic, preceding by a decade and more the landmark commentary of scholarly theorists, from Kay Stone (“Things Walt Disney Never Told Us,” 1975) to Jack Zipes (“Breaking the Disney Spell,” 1993). Disney is continuously under attack by critics of both academia and the popular press for messing up revered literature — witness the recently skewered Hunchback of Notre Dame. And Disney films are more wildly popular than ever. Is this cultural schizophrenia? The pro-Disney crowds at theaters and video stores speak in cash. The anti-Disney crowds speak in print. What’s happening here? and what could anyone add, besides micro-analytic details, to Sayers’s articulate assessment of the structural, tonal, stylistic, and didactic alterations with which Disney and company have “revised” traditional and/or classical stories?

Perhaps we can add just a bit of perspective. Disney’s films changed within the forty three years between his first Hollywood partnership with brother Roy in 1923, the year they released a short cartoon called Alice’s Wonderland, and his last hands-on production, The Jungle Book, in 1966 (released posthumously in 1967). Disney films have changed between 1966 and 1996, too, and throughout both periods, the socio-economic and aesthetic context for Disney films has been changed by almost a century of events. To the audiences of the 1920s, Disney was entertainment. To the audiences of the 1960s, Disney was an icon. To the audiences of the 1990s, Disney is myth. In the absence of a permanent electrical blackout, the Disney Olympus is centrally mapped as a pinnacle in the kingdom of childhood. With just these few words, an image may have sprung to mind of the glowing castle with myriad spires thrusting phallically toward the heavens and triangulated banners waving over all.

Well, now that we’re here, let’s look over the landscape. Obviously, the concept of fairy tale revision wasn’t born with Disney in Chicago, Illinois, on December 5, 1901 (the same year Peter Rabbit was published, speaking of landmarks). In 1697 Charles Perrault refined some lusty old tales passed on by his children’s nanny. In 1812 Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm made a real hit with the stories they collected from folk and family (more family than folk, as it turns out) and then revised, sometimes radically, over the next several editions of Kinder- und Hausmärchen. From 1889 to 1910 Andrew Lang stamped folk and fairy tales with his own style to the tune of ringing commercial success in a twelve-volume series starting with the Blue Fairy Book and proceeding through Red, Green, Yellow, Violet, and all the way to Lilac (multi-color literature was only a few letters short of multi-cultural, but the time wasn’t ripe yet). Perrault, the Grimms, and Lang all addressed adults as much or more than children: Perrault and Lang with a wink-wink-nod-nod, and the Grimms with an agenda of glorifying — according to their lights — a cultural heritage. Is Disney the missing twentieth-century link in a chain of clever men who borrowed stories (often from anonymous women) and broadcast them via the latest mass medium? Whatever his critics say, Disney is even more of a cultural fact now than when he was alive. Thirty years worth of successful films produced by the studio that bears his name have extended his lifetime work beyond a mortal frame.

Now, of course, Perrault, Grimm, and Lang are, if not household words, at least uncontested cultural touchstones. And yet, in earlier chapters of high culture versus popular culture, they too had their share of detractors. It may come as no surprise that the folklore we so venerate today was once viewed as common and vulgar by the educated elite of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (most notably the moralistic Sarah Trimmer and Mrs. Sherwood). Will the newly created field of “Disney Studies” legitimize animated versions during the last quarter of the twentieth century in the same way that “Folklore Studies” legitimized printed versions in the last quarter of the nineteenth century? Are the changes “frozen” into film from the print tradition any more deleterious than the changes “frozen” into print from the oral tradition?

Sayers’s attitude was that “folklore is a universal form, a great symbolic literature which represents the folk. It is something that came from the masses, not something that is put over on the masses.…Disney is basically interested in the market.” Now, the market part is certainly still true. The Disney home videos I bought to review for this article included a snowfall of glossy pamphlets advertising The Cinderella Vacation Package, Tropicana orange juice and Pillsbury products and Cheerios (there must be a connection), and, of course, lots of Disney products in print, CD-ROM, and video format: “Play with Pocahontas, Sing-Along with Pooh, Roar with Simba and Soar with Aladdin.” Favorite films are released for only a few months on the home video market and then held off the market for several years (“Sleeping Beauty is in moratorium,” announced the video salesman solemnly), just to ensure ongoing consumer appetite; it’s a long-term strategy that works well to create a rush on any newly released golden oldie that won’t be around long. This is not to mention the myriad toy, clothing, and other products that sell because of Disney characters’ copyrighted graphic motifs. Of course, in a marketplace society any product has to make money — remember that the nineteenth-century folklorist Andrew Lang was not immune to the profits from his best-selling fairy tale series — but the sheer sophistication and international dominance of the Disney commercial machine guarantee that a Disney version of a fairy tale or classic will be THE authorized version for millions and millions of young viewers all over the world. Do we criticize Disney simply because he is so successful in shaping so many children’s imaginations into one mold? In that case, shouldn’t we be criticizing the capitalist/mass media system itself (the cause) rather than its cultural freight trains (the symptom)?

Probably. But in any effort to countermand the Disneyfication of storylore, dissenting parents, teachers, and librarians are often frustrated by the film company’s monolithic global influence. How many children (and adults) can we reach with alternative fairy tale variants or with classics whose originals become sausage in Disney’s grinder? As he said to one of his “story men” assigned to work on The Jungle Book, “The first thing I want you to do is not to read it,” adding later, “You can get all bogged down with these stories.”

Remarks like this confirm every dissenter’s objections to Disneyvision. Does this sound as curmudgeonly as Sayers’s earlier remarks? Yes, but…let’s add some perspective to the rude facts, and here’s where Sayers’s assertions about the folk seem more questionable than her assertions about the films: “Folklore is a universal form, a great symbolic literature which represents the folk.” Okay, but the folk keep changing; and although folklore is universal, the folk are not a universal unit. Further, she says of folklore: “It is something that came from the masses, not something that is put over on the masses” — as opposed to Disneylore, obviously, but that leads us to a conundrum. Disney does come from the masses as well as being put over on the masses, which we’ll discuss further in a minute. Disney films represent the same chicken-and-egg syndrome as do the Barbie dolls his heroines so closely resemble. Our society exalts the impossible body form that Barbie represents, witness Playboy bunnies and Hollywood stars who have come closest to resembling her. Clearly, Mattel didn’t originate that exalted body. But the dolls do perpetuate the exaltation through advertisement propaganda and mass distribution. Of course, there’s also the little-studied question of what children do with those dolls. My kids cut off all their Barbies’ hair and contorted the plastic bodies into what might benevolently be called positions of advanced yoga, but we’ll try to stick to theory for a little longer and set aside the question of whether or not pernicious corporations are influencing every little girl to grow up wanting to look just like her Barbie doll (or a bald guru).

Although there’s no question that private commerce manipulates public will, public will also shapes private commerce, and both are shaped by social forces that influence the creation of and response to Disney’s films. Dare we look at Disneylore as a grassroots movement, as electronic myth driven by social need as well as commercial greed, as formulae of exaggerated effects à la American tall tales? As even, perhaps, a form of parody, which his wry 1922 Laugh-o-Gram films of Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, and others so clearly were? Indeed, Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame — based on a book that never, of course, was intended for children — takes parody to dizzying heights. Why is Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales or The True Story of the Three Little Pigs — along with a recent multitude of revisionist fairy tales — considered cleverly entertaining by so many children’s book literati while Disney revisions, also cleverly entertaining, are deeply suspect? Why is it okay for feminists (of which I am one) to update passive heroines into active roles, or for socially sensitive library-storytellers (ditto) to omit elements of violence, racism, and other unacceptables from their story hours, and not for Disney to make changes, too? Do we really want to go graphic with heroes who trick their adversaries into eating a boiled relative, one of Brer Rabbit’s escapades that somehow got left out of Disney’s Song of the South? Can you just see animated blood dripping from the toes and shoes of Cinderella’s sisters, per the Grimms’ version, or two adorable little pigeons plucking out the sisters’ eyes at Cinderella’s wedding, one eye from each sister going into the church, and one eye from each sister coming back out? The folks at Disney want to make zippy productions and make everybody happy and make money, not hemorrhage all over the audience.

But also, you are qualified to ask, does every single story that Disney commandeers have to get so cute (except for the sensationally villainous scenes), no matter the tone of its ancestors? That charming little fellow we know as Jiminy Cricket, Pinocchio’s conscience and commentator in Disney’s film, was just an anonymous bug that got squashed in the beginning of Collodi’s book. (Let me thank University of Illinois graduate student Bill Michtom for ranting and raving about this point.) Collodi’s Pinocchio does bad stuff because he doesn’t have a conscience; in Disney’s version, he does bad stuff because of influence from villains. In other words, it’s a lot easier to blame outer forces than inner forces, to see the evil in others rather than in ourselves or those with whom we identify. Is it the dark side, our own shadows, from which Disney protects the twentieth century? Are the children of today, who have never experienced a Depression or a World War, especially susceptible to a diet unbalanced toward the sprightly side with dancing teacups, singing seafood, twittering birds, and nose-twitching bunnies? Do there have to be quite so many animal helpers? That crowd of small mammals in Snow White seems on perpetual verge of stampede.

What are the real offenses Disney commits, aesthetically (distracting story gimmicks, hyperactive graphic images) and socially (violence, gender and ethnic stereotypes)? Certainly no one, not even Sayers, has objected to Disney originals such as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Lady and the Tramp, and Roger Rabbit, for instance, or the various realistic nature/family dramas. What draws fire are the re-visions, the abandonment of past traditions for current values, which Disney reflects with unnerving accuracy. His first full-length feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), embroidered basic fairy tale formula with Hollywood romance, slapstick humor, and a utopian alternative to the harsh competition engendered by the Depression (witness the cooperative work ethic of the seven miners and of the heroine’s menagerie of housecleaners, an aspect that Terri Wright has explored in “Romancing the Tale: Walt Disney’s Adaptation of the Grimms’ ‘Snow White’”).

Some fifty years later, Beauty and the Beast has again emphasized romance and humor, but the Depression is long gone, and Disney films have long since entered the conservative mode adopted by Disney himself after World War II. Here we see cut-throat competition for Beauty’s love in context of a violent society including a brutish suitor, a bloodthirsty mob, and a demonic insane-asylum director. While the household appliances are friendly, the Beast has acquired a vile temper, and even the animals have turned nasty, with a pack of wolves attacking Beauty, her father, and the Beast himself. The wolves' villainous role is particularly ironic because one of the earlier story’s basic motifs was the transformational power of animal and human nature in balance.

Structurally, we’ve lost Beauty as hero: she who instigated the action by asking for a rose no longer asks for a rose; she who almost killed the Beast with her lack of perception but instead saved him by developing perception becomes an observer of two guys fighting over a girl. May the best man win. He does, but the woman has lost in the process. It’s not enough to pay lip service to women’s intelligence by propping a book up in front of a gorgeous female or showing her disdain for a macho suitor, when she’s been denuded of her real power. Doesn’t all this reflect an ongoing condition in our own society? Some of us don’t like what we see here because we are seeing what’s happening to us. Common television shows are full of it, but to watch a world-class artist like Disney glamorizing it is harder to take. On the other hand, in criticizing Disney, do we want to echo those who blame authors for producing books that reflect social problems we’ve created ourselves?

Without getting bogged down in a textual analysis based on scores of quotations from books and film scripts, we see over and over that Disney and company have given society not only what it will pay for, but also what it wants. The 1950 hit Cinderella spends as much time on Lucifer the cat chasing Gus and the other mice as it does on the main characters. Even Cinderella’s return from the ball turns into a chase scene, not just the prince following her down a flight of stairs, but a wild pursuit of the king’s horsemen thundering after her carriage. This device for escalating suspense is common to most of the animated features. Disney films have turned the folklore journey into a chase. What’s added? Speed and competition, both key characteristics of our society. All you have to do is look at stories mythologized on television and you’ll know how much our culture reverberates to chase scenes. Journeys of westward expansion turn into cowboy and Indian chase scenes; stories of crime and punishment turn into cops and robbers chase scenes. Beauty and the Beast, a television series that started with some tonal adherence to the main characters slow-paced journeys of development, ended as a chase between Beast and the villain who stole his son (Beauty is murdered after giving birth). Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is full of chase scenes instead of the journeys between castle and home that characterized Beauty’s earlier journey of maturation.

The truth of it is that Disney’s films relate less to their folkloric or literary predecessors than to their contemporary audience. While not all Disney’s films have been equally popular, their reception does not depend on fidelity to any original. Pinocchio, Peter Pan, and The Little Mermaid, all of which veered wildly from Collodi’s and Barrie’s and Andersen’s stories, were blockbusters. Alice in Wonderland, which veered wildly from Carroll’s work, was a bust. The remake of 101 Dalmatians stirred up some negative response not because it changed Dodie Smith’s book, but because it changed the “original” film version! Success seems to depend on a film’s fulfilling the Disney formula of visual and musical entertainment (a formula defined, circularly, by public response) and on fitting into the self-referential world established by the Disney canon.

This process begins with the very selection of the story itself. The Little Mermaid is the kind of persecuted female that Hans Christian Andersen loved to persecute even further (see also “The Red Shoes,” “The Little Match Girl,” etc.) and that Disney loved to rescue, sort of. Where are the swashbuckling heroines like Mollie Whuppie? Well, she’s maybe a little too active, switching necklaces in the dark of night to trick her giant host into smashing the skulls of his own three daughters instead of Mollie and her sisters, whom he has planned to cook the next day. Tit for tat, you may say, but it would make a tough scene for the two-year-olds who swarm with their caretakers to the theater, or sit propped before their electronic babysitters. A point here: the viewing crowd has gotten younger and younger over the century we’re discussing, and the venues more intimate. What stranger can you trust in your children’s bedroom but a filmmaker whose sales figures depend on innocence and socially acceptable villainy? Murderous stepmothers seem to be okay; murderous fathers wouldn’t be. Interesting, hunh? The Grimms, by the way, modulated their version of “Hansel and Gretel” through several editions to blame the children’s abandonment first on the mother and father, then on the stepmother and father, then mostly on the stepmother.

Disney’s modifications originate from accurate readings of our culture. He got the address right. This is where we live. We who criticize Disney have seen the enemy, and he is us. We are mistaken to speak as a voice removed from the rest of the population, as eighteenth- and nineteenth-century educators did in criticizing fairy tales and fiction, or to condemn artists as gulling the rest of the population. Disney belongs to us and we belong to him. What he does to fairy tales and classics is, in a sense, our own shadow. We don’t have to like it and we don’t have to keep quiet about it, but we do have to understand our own society and the lore it generates. The alternative is critical mustification. Popular culture and art are a vital dynamic. The past is always renegotiating with the present to become the future, and that requires the fresh air of our awareness.

“Beauty and the Beast” is a story I have loved all my life and studied for twenty years. Do I like what the Disney film has done to it? No, with qualifications. The scenes where the film-makers risk focusing on two characters’ slowly maturing transformation — on the dance floor, for instance — are moving, and the animated art is rich. However, the violation of profound elements and the frenetic pace bother me in the film just as they bother me in everyday life. Does my opinion matter? Yes, but there are better ways to express it than boycotting the film or keeping it from my kids. They live here, too. They need to know what’s going on, just as I do. We’ve watched and discussed it together; they cheer while I rant and rave. Disney is fun, they remind me. Our society craves fun, I remind them — but isn’t there something else to life? Sure, Mom.

So, can we have fun and still challenge what’s fun? Can we aim our criticism not at censuring/censoring an artistic reality, but at changing the self, family, and society that inspires and supports it? Sure we can, kids.

Obviously, all parents should follow their instincts about whether or not — and at what age — to expose their children to Disneyed stories. However, we may be mistaken to overestimate the changes Disney makes and underestimate the changes we can make. In one of my favorite anecdotes, from the ChildLit Listserv, Megan L. Isaac describes

a four-year-old who after months of pleading was finally given Beauty and the Beast dolls that were then being promoted as merchandising tie-ins for the film. (Previously her parents had resisted purchasing a Barbie, so they were loath to give in to this similar model of female perfection). Anyway, as the adults chatted, she sat on the floor blissfully playing with her two new dolls and creating a dialogue between them. A rough paraphrase follows:

Beast: Come on, Beauty, you have to come live in my castle.
Beauty: No, I don’t want to.
Beast: You have to. I say so.
Beauty: No I don’t. You’re not my boss. I’m going to put you in the zoo.

Here’s to the film-makers of the future!

From the March/April 1997 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
Betsy Hearne
Betsy Hearne
Betsy Hearne is a professor emerita and former director of the Center for Children’s Books at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science.

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