Quick Takes : Movies and Popular Culture Series
New Brunswick (New Jersey): Rutgers University Press, 2017
Hardcover. 159 pages. ISBN 978-0813589138. $65
Reviewed by Kathy Merlock Jackson
Virginia Wesleyan University
Writing about Disney has become a cottage industry of sorts, with new titles coming out regularly, indicative of the public fascination with all things related to the man and the studio that he founded, now a major media and entertainment conglomerate. However, Disney means more than an individual and his business; it is a culture. This is what John Wills captures extraordinarily well in Disney Culture, a recent volume in Rutgers University Press’s Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture, described as “a series offering succinct overviews and high-quality writing on cutting-edge themes and issues in film studies” [i]. Academics know that it is more difficult to pen a short text than a long one because the writer must get to the heart of the matter, cutting away everything extraneous and crystalizing what is important. In his thin volume of four chapters and roughly 150 pages, Wills does this, offering an astute analysis of all things Disney. What he accomplishes is remarkable, providing a balanced assessment of the art, business, ideology, and audience of the Disney organization, spanning from Walt Disney’s early career in Kansas City to the empire’s worldwide reach in the current day. Wills uses Disney Culture as a lens for understanding American values and the rise of a corporate media conglomerate in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Disney Culture, he notes, “is our culture reshaped by Walt Disney; it is a Mickey Mouse take on the world” . His use of the word “us” is intentional; the book is as much about the audience as it is about Disney.
Although Wills organizes his book thematically rather than chronologically, he begins with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Disney purported to be simply selling good entertainment, but Wills argues that by the 1930s, following the arrival of Mickey Mouse and Snow White, he had created not only the Disney brand but, more importantly, Disney Culture. Snow White, he contends, “contains all the core elements of that culture: the assimilation of a classic story using new ideas and new technology, the promotion of a move using modern consumer marketing, and the coupling of Snow White with notions of universal happiness, childhood naivete, and cultural tradition” [7-8]. Cultural values shift over time, and Disney is no exception, as traditional gender roles and white, capitalist views give way to more progressive treatments. Nevertheless, some characteristics remain constant. Disney Culture, according to Wills, “provides immersion in childlike fantasy and simulation (Disney magic), facilitated by media, technology, and control (the Disney way) and mass consumption (Disney dollars)” .
In his first chapter, Wills recounts the story of Disney’s rise to prominence and the creation of his distinctive style of animation art, dubbed “Disney magic.” Disney faced many challenges in his career and found ways to overcome them. For example, he lost an early character, Oswald the Rabbit, in 1928 when he learned that he did not own the rights and created Mickey Mouse in response. When animation proved too expensive to sustain the studio in the 1960s, he began producing live-action films to pay the bills. Disney was quick to embark on new projects and technologies to stay current, a practice that continues into the twenty-first century with the Disney Channel’s teen programming; the purchase of Pixar; the animated feature Frozen (2013), which netted over a billion dollars worldwide; and Magic Bands technology in the Disney theme parks. Art, music, and technology combine to create “Disney magic” and provide an escape from people’s daily lives. As Wills quips, “Disney amounts to a mass comfort blanket” . This effect does not happen by chance, as Disney Culture is highly controlled, governed by a set of codes. Decisions in Disney theme parks, for example, are based on the Four Keys of safety, courtesy, showmanship, and efficiency—in that order—and nothing non-Disney exists in a Disney park. Disney delivers perfection in its highly controlled fantasy products, and while cultural scholars such as Umberto Eco and Henry Giroux deride this, enthusiastic audiences embrace it, preferring fake Disney to the real thing.
The second chapter explores assimilation, or Disney’s appropriating and adapting (or “Disneyfying”) stories for world-wide consumption. Disney takes traditional tales and makes them new, infusing them with American values such as an affinity for the underdog and nostalgia for small towns and the lost frontier. Wills chronicles the Disney Company’s failed attempt to build a historic theme park in Haymarket, Virginia, in 1993. Both residents and historians objected to the notion of Disney history, calling it “Distory,” for inevitable distortions of the American past. Others have found fault with Disney’s depiction of the future, characterized by technological advances, atomic power, and utopian living. As Disney Culture spread across the world, many felt it misrepresented classic stories and damaged American culture.
A chapter titled “Disney Dollars” looks at commerce and how Disney makes money. Citing former Disney CEO Michael Eisner’s declaration that “To make money in our only objective” , Wells outlines how “Disneyfication” has been profitable for the company in the digital age. Now ABC, Broadway musicals, Pixar, Marvel, and the Star Wars franchise fall under the Disney umbrella, offering cradle-to-grave experiences for consumers. Disney takes advantage of this with lucrative merchandising options and collectibles, including the pins that are traded among guests and cast members in the theme parks. A key example of convergence, Disney markets its wares over multiple media platforms. Wells argues that Disney sells first and entertains second, contributing to a consumer-based culture and functioning as a potent symbol of American capitalism.
The final chapter in the book, “Disney Values,” the most interesting and provocative, takes on the question of what Disney has wrought regarding childhood, the family, daily living, religion, the environment, race, gender, sexuality, and the future. Wells writes that Disney Culture “has shaped American mass culture by dominating family entertainment and recreation” . This characteristic is particularly enhanced in those labeled “Disneyphiles” or “Disney-obsessed,” who plan their lives around Disney experiences and regard the brand as an alternative religion. Popular culture has always been a site of struggle, and while Disney Culture exhibits examples of traditional gender roles, racist depictions, homophobia, and old-fashioned morality, some conservatives criticize it as too progressive.
In an elegantly written and well-researched book, John Wells makes a strong case for the powerful influence Disney has exerted on American life over the past century, how it has spread worldwide, and what it means for civilization. A senior lecturer in American history and director of American studies at the University of Kent, UK, he analyzes American culture as an outsider with a sharp critical eye, ending with a challenge for Disney: that it find “purpose beyond corporate growth or story recycling” . Disney Culture is a small book filled with big ideas that will be sure to spark discussions in classes in American studies, popular culture, media, childhood, and twentieth-century history. Of the many books on Disney that have been published recently, this one is indispensable.
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