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In the Mouse Trap

The Art of Walt Disney

by Christopher Finch
Abrams, 458, 763 illus., 351 plates pp., $45.00


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.

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