20 October 2003

Clear, Cold, Beady Little Eyes
Professor Bainbridge notes today that Disney isn't, umm, a good creative citizen.

…Disney's relentless left-liberal/PC propagandizing is an equally severe problem in its recent films. Terry Teachout aptly criticized "the Little Mermaid/Beauty and the Beast Disney school of filmmaking, in which beloved children’s stories of the benighted past are updated by a political-correctness committee and fitted out with insipid soft-rock ballads." Indeed, it's not just recent films. The latest restoration of Fantasia, for example, cropped the "Pastorale" sequence to eliminate a female black centaur.

"Today's Links." Once again, I think Professor Bainbridge is right that Disney's output is crap, but not for the right reasons. It has nothing to do with ideology, and everything to do with disrespect for the source material. Three examples should suffice.

  1. Snow White had a sister, Rose Red. At least in three of the four major fairy-tale sources, she did; and the relationship between Snow White and Rose Red is actually the core of the tale, albeit in slightly different ways in each. At the core, the tension between the sisters depends upon sexual competition. One thing that all four agree upon, however, is that Snow White does not just wake up in the arms of Prince Charming and dance off happily ever after into the sunset. Instead, the Queen gets to dance—to her death, in magic shoes that won't come off (they either force her to dance to exhaustion or become red-hot and burn her to a pile of ashes as she begins dancing, depending upon the source).    
  2. Hans Christian Anderson's "Little Mermaid" dies. This is in fact necessary, whether from the standpoint of a psychological/mythological archetype or merely the internal logic of the story.    
  3. The less said about the purported resemblance between Disney's abominable animated Alice in Wonderland and Carroll's darkly humorous but played absolutely straight satire the better.

   There is a common thread here, and it is far from unique to Disney: the filmmakers don't trust their audiences. Ursula Le Guin's description of writing for children is priceless.

   All you do is take the sex out, and use little short words, and little dumb ideas, and don't be too scary, and be sure there's a happy ending. Right? Nothing to it. Write down. Right on.
   If you do all that, you might even write Jonathan Livingston Seagull and make twenty billion dollars and have every adult in America reading your book!
   But you won't have every kid in America reading your book. They will look at it, and they will see straight through it, with their clear, cold, beady little eyes, and they will put it down, and they will go away. Kids will devour vast amounts of garbage (and it is good for them) but they are not like adults: They have not yet learned to eat plastic.

"Dreams Must Explain Themselves" (1973). Then keep in mind that Le Guin is talking about a higher-end audience: kids (and adults) who actually read, instead of just allow the one-eyed babysitter to rule their lives. H.L. Mencken was right; but never forget that the purveyors of "entertainment" are also members of the American public.

   Adults simply do not understand that children already understand a disturbing truth about the world: it is ambiguous. It is not hard, clean-edged cartoon-panel animation, but murky shades of greys and earthtones. The Harry Potter books have succeeded largely because actions and individuals are ambiguous. Children are smart enough to see this. Perhaps that explains why R.L. Stine's little empire collapsed, while Tom Clancy's continues to roll onward (onword?): the children aren't eating the plastic.