The Art of Walt Disney: In the Mouse Trap

I

“a…mouse came over with…the Conqueror.”

Alice in Wonderland

“Visitors from the real world,” the Disney World receptionists say, and “real world” is a term of reference in Christopher Finch’s seven-pound book. But since Walt Disney World is a part of Florida, reality is hardly the issue. The Disney complex is simply another, albeit the ne plus ultra, Sunshine State resort. Peter Blake, who contributes a chapter on Disneyland and WDW, rates the hotel and motel architecture of the latter “considerably above Miami Beach standards.” (That is a recommendation?) No doubt, too, WDW is not only technologically newer but also physically and morally cleaner than other, amusement parks. Yet its outward aspect is no more incongruous in the Florida setting than are the derelict structures of World’s Fairs along the traffic-jammed expressway to the New York airports.

What is more, the interior of WDW is primarily a shopping center, the outstanding “magicians” in the Magic Kingdom including such familiar entertainers as Gulf Oil, Goodyear, Eastern Airlines. (“One purpose of WDW is to make money,” Blake writers, as if he were revealing a well-kept secret.) As for Fantasyland and Tomorrowland, these hold few surprises for a nation accustomed to stylistic agglomerations of the spuriously old and the sterile modern, and to stultifying model communities of the past and future. In short, the borders of the real world, as distinguished from those on maps of the Disney enclave, may well have been crossed by society as a whole and some time ago. And vis à vis this general schizophrenia, WDW is remarkable mainly as an attempt to establish an isolation ward.

The truth of Marx’s argument, that the economic life of capitalism is responsible for the secularization of society, could hardly be more blatantly evident than it is in parts of Florida. Not that this state has a corner on the theory that the greatest public good derives from the greatest private selfishness, but the attempt to prove it is certainly more concentrated and apparent here. Wherever market value is both the determinant and the criterion, indifference to aesthetic quality is inevitable, to say nothing of the disappearance of spiritual content and the alienation of the individual.

And what about the spiritual and cultural life in this materialist Eden? Surely the utter vacuity of both is without precedent in human experience. Regardless of the claims of the going religions on Man’s Immortal Soul, it is the body that counts, and dead or alive. Yet by whatever name, death is unmentionable, which could hardly be the case in a gnostic civilization, and which is all the more hypocritical in this one since mortality has created some of its liveliest industries.

Ante-bellum Greek-revivalist funeral homes (making a point about “gone with the wind”?) are everywhere, their pillared porches flooded with realistically cyanotic light. And, not surprisingly, these and other death-related businesses—of which the latest is the Audio-Visual Memorial, a substitute resurrection via sound film (“This Was Your Life”?)—are most cruelly conspicuous in the communities of the elderly. (The failure to find Ponce de Leon’s fountain has resulted in a sociological problem of the 1980s, the shortage of gerontologists and the superfluity of pediatricians; in Florida, futurology, the science of predicting that what is will become more so, can already indulge in a backward look.) All of which is remote indeed from the Crucifixions stencilled on bus-stop benches—and in one case inscribed: “Love is a many-splintered thing.”

The state of culture in the peninsula can be gauged by the deterioration of language. Words, though often unrecognizable in the new orthography, are being adulterated to the extent that soon nothing will mean what it did only a generation ago. Syntax, too, has begun to disappear as the parts of speech become interchangeable. (Disney used “plus” as a verb, “to plus or not to plus.”) And as a minor corruption, Floridian is now compulsively euphemistic and alliterative. Thus a garage is a “Collision Clinic,” a furniture store a “Gallery” selling not tables and chairs but “Concepts” (though without explaining how one sits on a concept).

Some of this roadside epigraphy, moreover, is genuinely puzzling. What is meant by “The Frame Up,” for instance? Fake paintings? And “Asterisk Incorporated”? Porn? Are “Mini-Adult Books” simplified porn? Some of the difficulty may be blamed on the proofreading (“Mery Xmas”) but who could be certain in the case of “Enter, Rest, Pay” by the door of a church? At family and boy-scout-minded WDW—no youthquake types, no Bikini culture—hypocoristic language is inescapable, every name from “Amazon Annie” to “Zambesi Zelda,” the principal jungle cruisers, being either cutely alliterative or wholesomely euphemistic. Thus a bartender, rare species that he is in these precincts, is a “Beverage Host.”

The title of Christopher Finch’s book is misleading. A more exact one would be The Art of Hurter, Iwerks and Others, and the Business Acumen of Walt Disney. But the text is a gloss rather than a critical study, a mere puff written in publicity-release prose. Not that ideas are to be expected in the literature accompanying picture books of this sort, but neither is such fatuity as Finch’s description of WDW—“The Versailles of the twentieth-century but a Versailles designed for the pleasure of the people”—or Peter Blake’s peroration on the Parks: “What a wonderfully ironic notion it is that in this turbulent century, urban man might, just possibly, be saved by a mouse.”

Finch scarcely looks beyond the claims of the advertisements for meaning in Disney’s world, or even for the true nature of the Disney phenomenon in the century’s cultural history. No hypothesis is proposed to explain the largest manifestation of anthropomorphism on record—an infantile one, moreover, that uses the other mammals not didactically, to warn of moral, social, and political hazards, but simply as nursery toys. Finch also evades a discussion of the Disney mixtures of sentimentality and sadism, suppressed sexuality (apart from that of a censorship requiring udderless cows) and rampant, though apparently unconscious, Freudian imagery. As is well known, some adults seek to re-enter the child’s world because their sexual desires are not then apparent to them as such. But ten million visitors annually, and by no means preponderantly children, entering not only a sexless but also a degenitalized (viz., the Polynesian statuary) speaking-animal kindergarten?

Finch also misses an opportunity to examine the animated cartoon gag, based as it is on maulings, murderous accidents, pratfall pranks. So conditioned is the laugh response to the sight of Donald Duck breaking his neck in a mishap, walking into an unseen abyss, being flattened by a boulder—though always sending up auras of colored stars—that one wonders if there actually is something innately hilarious about these painful disasters.

Disney’s feature-length animations warrant even closer investigation of the subject, furthermore, for they appear to have instilled permanent fears in many who were exposed at a too tender age. Thus the “mother’s” death scene in Bambi left an emotional scar on some viewers, and no doubt Stromboli in Pinocchio, the yellow-eyed Satan in The Night on Bald Mountain, and other Disney villains—generally more successful than the Prince Charmings—would be identified as the anamnestic figures in the nightmares of later life. (Finch is aware of this charge. The claim that “Snow White is excessively frightening,” he says, “can be countered by pointing out that many episodes in the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm are far more terrifying.” But how can the Disney animations be compared to Andersen and the Brothers Grimm?)

Yet the book’s most glaring omission is that it does not analyze Disney’s social philosophy as expressed in the films and inside the gates of the Florida and California institutions. This is where Disney’s mid-American origins and modest early circumstances are basic to his conceptions. Of WDW’s two utopias, one, EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow), represents the totally controlled technological future, the other the good old days in the shallow, complacent, and extraordinarily ugly towns of the Mid-America-the-Beautiful of Disney’s childhood. The two are expressions of the “counteridentities” of an authoritarian personality that Finch, who boundlessly admires it, for some reason describes as “artistic”:

Disney…would go to any length to ensure that a project was carried out exactly as he had conceived it. He would surround himself with talents of every kind, but at all times he was in complete control. The master plan was in Walt Disney’s head….

The real significance of the “New Art Form,” Finch’s first chapter, is that it reflects this personality in both the process and the finished product. Apart from the question of whether or not Disney’s animated films are “art,” they are undeniably totalitarian. No part of them has been left to chance, each of the 100,000 frames that are required for an animated feature film being drawn in every detail. The other elements are no less strictly controlled, from the synchronization of image and sound to the numbers of lines used in the construction of the cartoon figures. This may account for the sense of frustration that some people have felt in Disney’s full-length animated movies (though another factor is an inadequate spatial depth, something that even the use of the multi-plane camera did not entirely dispel). Conversely, the same feeling could explain the relief that audiences have been known to experience in Fantasia as a result of a few moments of seeing a flesh and blood Stokowski or even Deems Taylor.

If the book’s huge sales figures are attributable to its pictures, a few more examples of Disney Studio Art at its best would have been preferable to the full-page color portraits of Dopey, the Blue Fairy, and the Big Bad Wolf. The color is not comparable to that of Disney’s films, but fidelity of the kind required in photographing paintings would in any case be wasted in what is essentially an oversized souvenir album. Finch commends the Disney artists for the degree of realism that they sometimes attain, but the book fails to place them in any historical perspective, or to suggest similarities and possible influences—apart from pointlessly dragging in Picasso—from the larger world of the graphic arts. The preliminary sketches for the Pastoral Symphony, for example, recall both Klimt and Moreau, while more than one forest landscape evokes Casper David Friedrich.

The “New Art Form” chapter traces the technical development of animation, touching on the zoetrope; the kinetoscope; Edison’s and others’ experiments with motion pictures; the photographing of drawings to create the semblance of movement; and Earl Hurd’s process of painting the animated figures on celluloid, thereby eliminating the necessity of drawing a complete picture for each frame when the background remained the same throughout a scene. By 1917 the adventures of such popular newspaper-cartoon characters as “Krazy Kat” and “Maggie and Jiggs” were available in animated-film form, a more consequential development than anyone foresaw since this soon became a rut in which the subject matter of the animated cartoon has been stuck ever since.

What if Max Fleischer, rather than Disney, had dominated the animation field? Fleischer made an animated five-and-a-half-reel film, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, at about the time that Disney began work on Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. But would the medium ever have reached its grand dimensions without Disney? Finch is too reticent about Fleischer’s role, incidentally, for Disney seems to have borrowed Fleischer’s idea of combining live action films with animation, as well as his rotoscope method of filming actors to guide the animators.

In 1927 Disney “completely abandoned his career as an animator to concentrate all his energies on the production side of the business.” Yet Finch does not venture much of an appraisal of Disney’s talents as a draftsman even during the brief period before the twenty-six-year-old artist’s “retirement.” He had had some training at the Kansas City Art Institute, as well as experience as a practicing commercial artist in the Missouri metropolis. While still a youth there, he met the most important person in his professional life, the Dutch artist and inventor Ubbe Iwerks. Disney later induced Iwerks to come to Hollywood, where he was principal draftsman, inventor-in-chief, and, in sum, house genius to the expanding Disney Studios. (It may be worth noting that in the Successful Man, business talent is dominant over artistic, a Mendelian law, no doubt; Iwerks left Disney for a time to establish a studio of his own, which failed utterly although his creative powers were as strong as ever.)

Finch does not name the creator of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, but the metamorphosis from Rabbit to Mouse was so slight, graphically speaking, as to look like plagiarism. At the time, Iwerks was given sole credit as the designer of Mickey Mouse. Then, at a later date, the Mouse was described as resulting from a “collaborative effort” between Iwerks and Disney, the latter having contributed “the gift of personality.” But to compare the facial expressions and even the gestures of the two rodents (page 46 for Oswald, the cover for Mickey) is to be struck by the closeness of the resemblance and in fact to suspect that the unlucky rabbit was a victim of artistic myxomatosis. Finch argues that “Disney’s control over the situations in which the Mouse found himself allowed his personality to develop.” But at what stage did attribution of authorship to Disney become necessary? Obviously he had a “thing” for the Mouse, even continuing to dub Mickey’s voice for twenty years. Here Finch, for once, risks an uncharacteristic speculation: “Disney may even have viewed Mickey as his alter ego.”

Disney’s vision, entrepreneurial imagination, and intuition for making the right moves were evident in his every undertaking from the earliest years in Hollywood. To begin with, he understood the potential of his “artistic” property, nor was this simply blind conviction. No matter how hard pressed, he resisted every offer to be bought out, and he survived partly because of consistently wise choices among distributors. Above all, he was quick to see the importance of each technical innovation, especially those of sound and color. And, almost alone among the studio moguls, he showed foresight in negotiating with television.

Like all great showmen, he knew his public (“Disney films are carefully designed for family audiences”) as well as the way in which to exploit the appetite that he had created for the new medium. Moreover, his timing was perfect. He sensed when both the industry and the public were ready for feature-length animated films, and, in later years, the advantageous moment in which to convert to live-action cinema. And, finally, he was lucky. Seal Island (1949), for example, was not one of his own projects and at first the film failed to excite his interest. Riding on the early tide of the ecological movement, it had an unexpected success. But Disney was quickly alerted to the trend and quick to follow Seal Island with Beaver Valley, The Living Desert, and other nature documentaries that are his most valuable legacy—just as the one worth-while lesson of WDW is that men and animals can coexist to their mutual enrichment.

Disney was also a talented story editor, and more closely involved as one in the production of his films than is generally realized. That he could both diagnose a script and prescribe for it is illustrated by his story conferences for Snow White—which also bring Finch’s readers closer to Disney the man than do the memoirs of his intimates. The minutes of these meetings display his absolute certainty in knowing what he wanted and how to obtain it, as well as his hard-boiled, unsentimental language: “Snow White is stooped over, which gives you a swell position for the knife in the back….”

Though not musical, Disney had an ear for the box office (“Walt liked the way Julie Andrews whistled”), and, paradoxically, he played a more important role than any other producer in employing music and sound effects in films. The audiovisual puns in the Silly Symphonies may have degraded some kinds of music but they also stripped some others of their pretensions. The Disney animators inadvertently became first-rate critics of second-rate music. Obviously a Beethoven symphony could not be satisfactorily pictorialized. But Ponchielli’s Hours was a sitting target for the parody that the animators did in fact make of it. To this viewer, any way, the ostrich and hippo ballerinas are the high point of all the animated cartoonists’ inventions.

Disney also played a large part in increasing the awareness of the possibilities of stereophonic sound. Fantasia—1939, and far ahead of its time—was recorded on seven sound tracks and intended for thirty speakers, though this equipment was installed in only a few theaters, and hence heard, as conceived, by only a few people. It might also be mentioned that whereas most soundtracks were recorded before the animators began their work, Disney insisted that the music be made to fit the action in one very special case: Mickey Mouse.

II

Do not return. If you can bear it, stay dead with the dead.

—Rilke

With every automobile moving at the same speed, as if remotely controlled, driving to WDW during the energy crisis was more dreamlike than any experience in Fantasyland itself. But the landscape anticipates WDW—the Haunted Mansions, at least—in the thick draperies of Spanish moss, and in the weird gray forests of dead cypresses and live oak. “Mickey & Minnie are Waiting for You,” a billboard proclaimed, but the coastal-style neon-language

ADULT MOVIE

Stop in if you are streaking by

No one under 18 admitted to ID

had phased out long before this.

At WDW’s Polynesian Village Hotel, a sidewalk hostess cheerfully informed this reporter of a long delay before his reserved room would be ready, and suggested waiting in one of two restaurants. In spite of People Movers, the Monorail, and a highly-touted mass transport system, every visit to WDW entails a great deal of queuing, waiting, and being told that this or that “attraction” is temporarily closed, or not yet opened, or still on the drawing board. In what seemed to be the less disastrous of the two restaurants, the aforementioned reporter managed to question some of the waitresses: “Are you well treated here? Do you like the job? Are you paid well? What induced you to come?” Answers: “It is a thrilling place to be. I feel connected with a great thing. The money is pretty good. Everybody here is just great.”

But the restaurant work seemed robot-like. And this proved to be one of the contradictions of WDW, that of people performing jobs that robots might be expected to handle very competently, and of robots accomplishing tasks that until very recently were widely regarded as human. Finch remarks the influence of Chaplin’s Modern Times on the multiplication of the water carriers in Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1939), but the repetitive and monotonous labor of some people at WDW—in shutting the doors of every compartment of the Monorail at each station, for instance—might actually have been copied from the Chaplin film.

The WDW robots, or “audio-animatronic figures,” are built, dressed, and made up to resemble human beings as closely as possible. The effect is like that of moving and speaking Madame Tussaud figures—or, worse, of galvanized fugitives from the Cosmetic Room at Forest Lawn. This reporter’s first experience of the robots was in Tomorrowland’s “Flight to the Moon,” where, in a model of the NASA control room in Houston, several “scientists” were seated at computer consoles and other hardware, backs to the viewer. A guide, who might better have been a robot, or recorded voice, spoke briefly, after which the figures began to move, standing and walking, and eventually turning around. Only then was it apparent that they were robots, and the realization was a shock. One of them, the closest to the glass panel separating the viewer from the control room, had a furrowed brow, balding but hair-pieced head, and a thoroughly lifelike appearance.

But why should a robot be made to resemble a human being? Surely a man-machine could be equipped with more, as well as more efficient, appendages than Homo sapiens. And what purpose is served by clothing imitation men—in surgeons’ whites, in this case—like real ones? In fact wouldn’t it be wiser to make our imitation men as unlike our real ones as possible, and especially at WDW, where confusion could so easily occur?

For the same reason, and some others, the “Hall of Presidents” is even more sinister. Finch reserves his highest accolade for it: “The most sophisticated attraction of all from a technological point of view.” (“Sophisticated,” used exclusively in the sense of “complex” and intended as a compliment—“a sophisticated drainage disposal,” “a sophisticated soundtrack,” “some highly sophisticated French-patented, double-ballasted automatic gates”—is the favorite adjective of both Finch and Blake.) As the Presidential roll is called and each of the nation’s Chief Executives acknowledges his name, the thought occurs that one of WDW’s minor educational values is in familiarizing school children with the succession of the many obscure holders of the country’s highest office. When all are accounted for, Lincoln speaks, and his predecessors and successors nod agreement, an “uncanny effect” to Finch, an appalling one to this reporter—who by then, however, was more interested in the likeness of the present incumbent, and in discovering whether it was still intact or if the dismantling and “de-audio-animatronicizing” processes had already begun.

Peter Blake claims that WDW is the “first urban complex…to be fully equipped…with a fast, efficient, and quiet mass-transit system.” But if so, where is it? (And where, for that matter, are the escalators and moving sidewalks from the department stores and airports of Yesterdayland?) Blake counts not only the Monorail in this system but also “two hundred water-craft,” the “electric cars and trains,” and the “aerial transways.” Yet all of these together are inadequate even to transport a well-below-average-size crowd, a seat on the Monorail from the “Magic Kingdom,” except at off hours, requiring a wait of at least twenty minutes in cattle-style ramps and mazes. Anyone who can manage a pogo stick is advised to take it along.

Blake is still more ecstatic about WDW’s sanitation features, especially the “tertiary sewage plant” and AVAC, the Swedish “pneumatic garbage system” which “inhales plastic trash bags through an underground network at sixty miles an hour.” (AVAC is equipped with safety devices, but one cannot help imagining the accidental inhalation of a small child at that speed.) At the “tertiary sewage plant 97 percent of all suspended solids [are removed]. The effluent is chlorinated and fed into the swamp waters of the WDW nature conservatory. Some of the waste water is eventually channeled into the irrigation grid of the Living Farm.” (From which it is “eventually” recycled into the “Orbit Burgers” and “Space Dogs” that are sold, after forty minutes in line, on Tomorrowland Terrace?)

Neither Finch nor Blake seems to be aware that noise pollution at WDW—for this visitor the most repellent feature of the Park—is at the danger level, but loudspeakers blare indoors and out, medleys from the Disney films fill each “attraction” in 360° wrap-around stereo, and even the lake is irrigated by underwater Muzak. Noise, moreover, and not the quality but the decibels, provides the only terror of the Haunted Mansions, otherwise a kind of tunnel of love and something of a relaxation. Electronic reverberation and contortion vary the characteristics of the sounds from one primal scream room to another but the raw materials are the same old shrieks, detonations, ghostly organ music (all stops out, of course). The illusionist and spatial tricks here, and the antics of the animatronic Hi-Fi poltergeists, are probably ingenious, yet one’s blood is chilled not by them but by the thought of the colossal waste of human, technological, and financial resources.

This should be said of WDW as a whole, except that its financial aspect is the most astonishing part of the story, uniting as it does old-time Robber Baronism and the methods of the contemporary extortionist brother-hoods. In the first place, Disney World is as independent of Florida as is the Vatican of Italy, the “World” being its own government, with its own laws, police, and even its own judges—in the sense that these are appointed by a city council which is the elected body of a district owned by WDW. But Florida’s “Disney Bill,” an amazing piece of legislation, amounts to a charter for the secession of a principality, or, rather—in view of WDW’s political system and Neuschwanstein Cinderella castle—of a Kingdom.

The growth and financial structure of WDW are more “miraculous” than any of Disney’s film fairy tales. An acre of the surrounding land, said to have cost Disney about $167, has since been valued at $500,000, and in one case sold for that. And though WDW is a corporate enterprise, it only leases concessions to “participant” companies and at such stiff terms for the original franchise and the use of the brand names of the menagerie of characters from the Disney films that no “participant” makes money. Yet apparently all believe that the prestige is worth the price.

The prestige of what? A self-erected monument to a man and his movies, Disney World now exists to make money, and, despite the publicity, to do little else. One feels sorry for the customers, especially those from remote places (though surprisingly few were Japanese; because of the superiority of their own mechanical toys?). Everyone that this pollster questioned gave the name of a midwestern or southern state as his residence, and how this American heartland must have throbbed when, after sunset, a calliope began to play, the lake to churn (thanks to a “surf-making machine”), and a fire-breathing seamonster to emerge and to threaten the “World”—until exploding into three very red, white, and blue flags.

Disney World challenges many fundamental values. In small instances it does so in a street full of plastic flowers, in a shrub sculpture of an animated cartoon animal, and in a larger one in the whole cretinous cult of Mickey Mouse, whose sacred image is displayed by all true pilgrims on pins, balloons, articles of clothing (and reverently, not on boobs or seats of pants). Any demonstration of mass mindlessness is depressing. What makes this one all the sadder is that children are so greatly in need of good models, wise teachers, examples of beautiful and inspiring works of art. There is no more pernicious and powerful force against all three than WD and his WDW.

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