Walt Disney's name has not always been synonymous with childhood. In the 1930s his work was seen as populist and avant-garde. It was considered populist because, three decades earlier, he had been born into poverty, and his cartoons had the simple outlines of folk art. (They were seen as "his" cartoons even though, as the story goes, one of his animators had to teach him to draw his signature Mickey Mouse.) Disney's cartoons were considered avant-garde because the cinema was a new art form, and at this time when photography still had only dubious claims to artistry and live-action motion pictures could be seen merely as moving photographs, animated cartoons could make a greater claim to artistry. The preeminent name in the art of animation–thanks to Mickey Mouse, the Silly Symphonies, and "The Three Little Pigs"–was Walt Disney.
Early in his career Disney was both a popular success and the darling of intellectuals. Between 1932 and 1941 his work won thirteen Academy Awards, and he was granted honorary degrees by Yale and Harvard. The philosopher Mortimer
Adler rhapsodized about Disney's greatness, as did the Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein; the French filmmaker René Clair called his artistry sublime; the artist David Low called him the most significant graphic artist since Leonardo. The film historian Lewis Jacobs referred to Disney as the most acclaimed of current directors: Disney's willingness to plow profits into new technology and to take financial risks to achieve desired effects was, for Jacobs, a sign of artistic integrity–not, as it would later be construed, entrepreneurial savvy.
Disney's audience included both young and old. Critics often praised his films for addressing the young, the old, indeed "artists, intellectuals, children, workers, and everyday people the world over," to quote the Atlantic Monthly in 1940. Consider the Disney merchandise of the 1930s, which included not just Mickey Mouse dolls but also ashtrays, beer trays, negligees, and Donald Duck Coffee. (Disney pioneered tieins and cross-merchandising, and the corporation is now the industry leader in cross-promotion.)
In the 1940s Disney's productions continued to be popular with the general public, but his reputation among critics and intellectuals waned. In the 1950s it plummeted. This shift may have resulted from Disney's decision to include human figures in his feature-length cartoons, starting with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1938, and that these figures imitated real life only imperfectly. Perhaps disenchantment derived from the bitter strike at Disney Brothers Studios in 1941, or from the experimentalism of The Three Caballeros in 1945. Perhaps, too, critics resented the fact that Disney simply did not focus as much on his cartoons as he had in the past, producing live-action films, nature documentaries, TELEVISION programs, and THEME PARKS, launching what has been called the first multimedia empire.
Disney's reputation continued to suffer in the 1950s. The reason may have had something to do with the advent of television. Previously cartoon shorts had been an expected part of an evening's entertainment at the MOVIES, no matter how sophisticated the feature film. But in the decades following World War II, cartoons appeared less often in the theater and more often on Saturday morning television. Eventually, they were regarded as strictly for children.
In other words, once Disney's cartoons came to be seen as suitable only for children, and once he himself became Uncle Walt to millions of viewers, Disney's cartoons were no longer suitable for intellectuals. In a twentieth-century intellectual climate where anything considered juvenile was suspect (a very different climate from that of the nineteenth century) Disney's productions were devalued.
Some critics disapproved of Disney's works even in the 1930s. As a Mickey Mouse book was placed on the recommended reading list for New York City schools in 1938, Louise Seaman Bechtel, in the Saturday Review of Literature, regretted "the pressing semi-reality of all the hurrying scenes in color on the screen, the over-elaborated story and crowded canvas" of the film Snow White. In later decades one of the louder salvos was fired by the librarian Frances Clarke Sayers, who in a 1965 letter to the Los Angeles Times (later expanded into an article for the Horn Book Magazine) made an often-quoted statement bemoaning the obviousness of Disney's work, particularly its violence, mediocrity, vulgarity, and its "pretending that everything is so sweet, so saccharine, so without any conflict except the obvious conflict of violence." Other critics include Richard Schickel, who in his The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney (1968) lamented, "In this most childlike of our mass communicators I see what is most childish and therefore most dangerous in all of us who were his fellow Americans."
In recent years Disney's popularity with the general public has soared. Disney products are seen as cute, safe, and cheerful. The company's CEO Michael Eisner claimed, in the 2001 annual report, that Disney's various studios had been number one at the U.S. box office for six of the previous seven years and number one internationally for five of them.
He added that Disney was the largest publisher of children's books in the world and that more than a billion people worldwide had used a Disney product during the previous year. Giants slugger Barry Bonds exclaimed, upon hitting his record-breaking homerun in 2001, "I'm going to Disney World!," and in the wake of terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush advised the American public, "Go down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life the way we want it to be enjoyed."
Yet cultural critics and film historians continue to accuse the entertainment company of reinforcing corporate, patriarchal, ethnocentric, and imperialistic values by modifying, for instance, traditional tales such as "Snow White," "Cinderella," "Sleeping Beauty," and "Beauty and the Beast." Only in Disney's version is Snow White such a happy housewife for the dwarfs. While traditional tales with oral sources have been altered throughout their history to reflect the concerns and biases of individual tellers and transcribers, once Walt Disney Productions (as the company is now known) creates a version of a story–whether it is a traditional tale or a classic text such as Pinocchio or Alice's Adventures in Wonderland or Winnie-the-Pooh–Disney's version becomes the standard one for millions of children. The Little Mermaid's underwater witch is now visualized around the world as a drag queen named Ursula, and the American Indian Pocahontas is a brunette Barbie.
Other cultural critics and historians find points of contestation in Disney's films. In From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture Elizabeth Bell found visual images of strength and discipline in the fairy-tale heroines, whose bodies were modeled on those of classical dancers. Lori Kenschaft, in her essay "Just a Spoonful of Sugar? Anxieties of Gender and Class in Mary Poppins," reminded us that not everyone experiences a film such as Disney's Mary Poppins in the same way, especially in this age of multimedia and fast-forwarding: whereas one individual might register the energy of the chimney sweeps in the film, another viewer might pick up on the film's intermittent critiques of class and gender.
The company struggled financially in the 1930s and 1940s, achieving stability only in the late 1950s, and since Walt Disney's death in 1966 the corporation has experienced a number of ups and downs. In 1999 and again in 2002Fortune magazine called it the "world's most troubled entertainment giant." Nevertheless, it is one of the largest media corporations in the world, firmly ensconced in the Fortune 100, with annual revenues of more than twenty-five billion dollars. Its holdings include Touchstone Pictures, Miramax, the Disney Channel, Radio Disney, Hyperion Books, Hollywood Records, the various theme parks, and the television networks ABC and ESPN. It is arguably the most influential corporation in the world. For Disney gets us young and helps to shape our understanding of who we are, getting us to whistle while we work, to be unafraid of the big bad wolf, to wish upon a star that some day our prince will come, indeed to accept Disney products as the spoonful of sugar that helps any medicine go down, in this small world after all.
Bell, Elizabeth, Lynda Haas, and Laura Sells, eds. 1995. From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Kenschaft, Lori. 1999. "Just a Spoonful of Sugar? Anxieties of Gender and Class in Mary Poppins." In Girls, Boys, Books, Toys: Gender in Children's Literature and Culture, ed. Beverly Lyon Clark and Margaret R. Higonnet. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
The Project on Disney. 1995. Inside the Mouse: Work and Play at Disney World. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Sayers, Frances Clarke, and Charles M. Weisenberg. 1965. "Walt Disney Accused." Horn Book Magazine 40: 602–611.
Schickel, Richard. 1968. The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Smoodin, Eric, ed. 1994. Disney Discourse: Producing the Magic Kingdom. New York: Routledge.
Watts, Steven. 1997. The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
BEVERLY LYON CLARK