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DISNEY'S MICKEY-MOUSE RELIGION

12:00 AM, Jul 1, 1996 • By JAMES BOWMAN
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"Know him! I don't have to know him. They're all the same," he says. He then proceeds to destroy her entire collection of human artifacts, collected from the sea bottom. But when Ariel runs away from home and does a deal with a sea-witch to be human herself and go seek her true love, Daddy is bitterly penitent. In the end he must learn the lesson taught by the West Indian crab Sebastian: hat "children have to be free to live their own lives."

If you think that is a trifle premature in its application to a 16-year-old girl, it is about as harmless a message as you are likely to get from the New Disney, for whom parents, when they are not tyrannical, are simply irrelevant. The princess in Aladdin also defies her father the king, who is weak and manipulated by his chief minister, in order to be with her suitor, Aladdin. Originally a thief, Aladdin is here a street urchin with a heart of gold and a potent genie. It's true he does steal a crust of bread, but he shares it with the poor. Once again the film celebrates the ingenuous good intentions of children, which are rendered magically powerful, and perversely associates the worldly wisdom of their parents with moral impotence.

The irrelevance of parents is also a theme of Beauty and the Beast; here the father is a forgetful and incompetent inventor. But the movie's real theme comes with its rejection of a macho hunter named Gaston in favor of the gentle if grouchy Beast, because the latter is more respectful of Beauty's feminine autonomy. Thus the myth on which it is based, which stresses the risk and sacrifice involved in loving someone, is stood on its head. The real beast is Gaston, who is a slaughterer of Disney-cute animals as well as a male chauvinist, and our Beauty won't touch him with a ten-foot pole.

The Lion King at least features a sympathetic and admirable father, who serves as an appropriate role model for his son. But what is pernicious in The Lion King is not its view of the family, but of nature, which it sanctifies and makes an object of worship. The "circle of life" seems to have mystical significance of a vaguely Eastern and pacifistic kind. Our hero's revenge against the uncle who killed his father and tried to have him killed never comes.

"You're not going to kill me?" says the uncle.

"No," says the lion cub turned lion king, "I'm not like you."

The animist bias of The Lion King is at the center of Pocahontas. The title character is a typical American suburban high school girl who, like Ariel the mermaid, defies her overbearing father to meet a lover from a different ethnic background. Papa must learn from his daughter not to be prejudiced etc., and her liaison with Captain John Smith represents the hope of racial harmony.

But now what stands in the way is not just a misguidedly overprotective father but virtually the whole band of English settlers in Virginia, who, unlike John Smith, are foolishly afraid of the Indians and their "savage" ways. Their only interest in the New World is in the gold which they imagine is to be found there, and the evil governor, Radcliffe, celebrates greed by singing: "All the gold is mine!" Not only is he a proto-capitalist but also a proto-NRA member, since he tells one of the younger settlers that "a man's not a man unless he knows how to shoot." In all the confrontations with the Indians, naturally, the whites are the more sinister party, and shoot first.

Even Smith appears ethnocentric and insensitive when he says to Pocahontas: "We'll teach your people how to use this land properly." Naturally she bridles at this and primly instructs him that when he calls the Indians " savage" and "uncivilized" what he really means is "not like you." The Indians never make any such errors. Pocahontas's instruction points out the error of thinking that the earth is "dead, and can be owned" when, in fact, "every rock and tree and creature has a life a spirit and a name." Hence:

You can own the earth but still, All you'll own is earth until You can paint with all the colors of the wind.

That clanger of a mixed metaphor seems somehow appropriate to the casual detachment from reality of the New Disney: Only in a cartoon could the wind have any colors. Yet at the same time there is here, more than ever, a pretense of seriousness in dealing with the clash of white and Indian. As usual, however, this comes down to the child's-eye view of serious conflict. " Maybe we should try talking to them" says Pocahontas to her fellow Indians. Hmm. Never thought of that. So the Indian Chief, Powhatan, goes forth to make peace. "We have all come here with anger in our hearts," he explains. "From this day forth, if there is to be more killing, it won't start with me."

Radcliffe, who has promised the whites to "eliminate these savages once and for all," and ordered that "anyone who so much as looks at an Indian without killing him is guilty of treason and will be hanged," shoots anyway. The stereotypes of the good guys as well-intentioned and harmless nature- worshippers and the whites as greedy and violent Christians are fulfilled in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The sensibility of the New Disney is anti-religious and especially anti- Christian for the same reason the rest of Hollywood is: fashion. But Disney's reputation as a purveyor of wholesome children's entertainment gives it a special ability to do harm. Christianity will very likely survive the Disney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but the damage done to children by linking the anti-religious tendency to a more general attempt to discredit adult and especially parental authority may be more long-lasting.

Look, for instance, at James and the Giant Peach, released in the spring. The changes made in this charming fable by Roald Dahl are not as blatant as those wrought upon Victor Hugo's novel, but their vulgarity and fakery are the more insidious for being subtle. Dahl's escape-and-revenge fantasy, always appealing to children, has here lost all its whimsy and become instead an appallingly earnest paean to "self-esteem."

Roald Dahl had managed to keep the novel's verbal texture light enough that its villains -- the oppressive aunts Sponge and Spiker -- occupied the same moral dimension as the angry rhinoceros that is said to have eaten James's parents. But in the film, the aunts become an all-too-real fantasy of adult oppression. They insist that James "work, work, work, work, work"; they starve him and say no to him and tell him he is "lazy" and "worthless" and " nothing." Their cruelty is so insistent, so obtrusive, so overblown, that it suggests childish exaggeration. You never let me have any fun, says the spoiled child, you always make me work. This is that fantasy writ large. And so the center of attention is not, as it should be, the marvel of the giant peach, a wonderfully gratuitous image, but rather poor James.

Likewise the equally marvelous bugs -- a spider, a centipede, a ladybug, and an earthworm -- who inhabit the peach are turned from the wonders of a mysteriously souped-up nature into James's support group. They build his self- esteem by telling him that they owe everything to the brilliance of his plan in harnessing the seagulls to fly the thing to New York. The Spider tells him: "No one can make you do anything, James, if you do not want to" -- those words that every child subject to parental correction wants with all his soul to hear. "We're Family," the bugs all sing to James: "We never could love anyone as much as we love you." Indeed, they say, "Without you there would be no 'us.'"

It is interesting that that is the one thing every child knows is not true of his parents. It is a kind of signal that the chief point of Disney fantasy is to conjure up a world and a "family" in which it is true -- to provide children with a family that makes no demands and yet loves them unconditionally. "We'll always be together, won't we?" asks James. "You're stuck with us, kid," says the Centipede.

There is also the one moral such a fantasy will admit: Be yourself no matter what; pursue your dream in spite of all obstacles. James must face down the rhinoceros that supposedly did in his parents; the rhino appears in the clouds and charges James's flying peach. "You're not even a real rhino," James hollers at it. "You're just a lot of smoke and noise. I'm not afraid of you."

But if it's not a real rhino, how did it manage to eat his parents? Disney wishes to tell children that they live in a world where the only dangers are imaginary, where perfect strangers should love each other, where they should reject nothing but religious instruction and parental guidance, where they should seek wisdom in their own imaginations. In the world of the New Disney, imagination itself has become a dangerous thing.