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Understanding Disney The Walt Disney Corporation Film Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 3012 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The Walt Disney Corporations mission, at least according to them, is to make people happy.  In order to fulfill this statement, the company has grown from a small cartoon studio run by Walt and Roy Disney to a major multinational corporation.  Disney researcher Janet Wasko describes the corporations multifaceted setup as “The Disney Empire” (29). The Disney experience has created and still creates happiness for various people around the world.  This “magic” is created through the use of values, branding and fantasy , allowing Disney customers to escape from reality allowing us to go back into our inner child. 

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In her book, “Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy”, Wasko argues that Disney reinvents folk tales to create the values of America using the Classic Hollywood Cinema story model. She shows how characters used in the Disney films are predictable and conform to clear archetypes, including attractive, happy, heroes or heroines, who are on a journey of self-discovery, as well as cute, usually animal, sidekicks and villains with exaggerated and off-putting characteristics. Furthermore, she places a distinct emphasis on Disney as a corporation and business through its theme parks and branding. She discusses how the Disney business has represented individual rather than group needs, as well showing a general sense of optimism from Walt and his employers carried on throughout the years. This optimism and fantasy manufactured by Disney is best illustrated by the now-famous line from Pinocchio, “When you wish upon a star, your dreams come true”.

The 2nd chapter of the book “Disney History(ies)”, focuses on the history of Walt Disney and the Disney Company until his death in 1966. This chapter reminded me a lot of the first chapter of the book Understanding Disney. It touched upon some of many of the same points, which this chapter expands on them. One of the points was about Oswald the Rabbit and the issue that Universal had rights to it and as a result Mickey Mouse was created and Disney became very controlling over “copyright and trademark-related issues” (Stein, 18). In this chapter it elaborates why Disney lost the rights over Oswald as well as why the creation of Mickey Mouse was so great for him and the company. Overall, this chapter was very informative on the development of Disney and it was able to show both the good and the bad of the Disney cooperation well.

Chapter three “The Disney Empire” discusses what happened to the company after Walt’s death in 1966. It was a progression of leaders of the company from Roy Disney, to the current CEO Bob Iger. I found fascinating the amount of alterations the company has gone through since Walt’s death. However, more amazing was that when making decisions for the company they would all go back to the idea “what would Walt Do?” Keeping Walt’s vision in mind has made the company seem one big conglomerate even under new management. Another, point I found in the reading was that after 80 years Oswald the Rabbit was finally Disney’s again. I though this takeover was a tribute to Walt and unlike the other companies that Disney has acquired I feel that owning Oswald showed the American public that the Disney Company values its small beginnings.

Chapter four, “Corporate Disney in Action”, talked about the Disney characters and the new ways Disney has found to remarket old characters and reach specific audiences with newly added characters. The chapter said that with the development of the “Disney Princesses line” was sending mix messages to young girls about self-esteem and beauty, so Disney created another line for girls called “Disney Fairies.” This line was centered on the Disney character, Tinker Bell. I have to agree with Disney on this strategy, because she is an independent woman who knows what she wants, she in no way shape or form submissive like many of the Disney Princesses before her. This shows that Disney’s corporate side of the company knows its audience and gives them what they want.

Chapter five, “Analyzing the World According to Disney”, was essentially a history of Disney films from its start in short cartoons, to its full-length animations, live action films, and the purchase of several film companies. Disney’s Silly Symphonies was revolutionary in the technology it used and the forerunner for many other shorts such as Technicolor, and The Three Little Pigs. Walt himself, in my opinion practices what he preaches. This is evident in Disney’s push for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs even though many people including, Roy Disney had doubts about the success of this film. The Disney Company followed in Walt’s footsteps with experimentation of new technologies, such as computer animation and business ventures such as buying Touchstone, Miramax, Pixar, and Marvel. For Disney these business agreements have been profitable and mutually beneficial.

Chapter six, “Dissecting Disney’s Worlds”, discussed Disney’s history into television. At first Disney was reluctant to go into television, but he realized its potential for advertising his theme park. Disney was very tactful in his business ventures. Before he started producing the weekly show, Disneyland, he tried out a few dry runs to gage his audience and see if television was right for the Disney Company. For every experiment he took he had a backup plan if it failed. Disney grew and was able to adapt to changing times. This awareness continues to make the Disney Company a success.

Chapter seven, “Disney and the World”, is all about the Disney Theme Parks and the public’s opinion on them. Before reading this chapter I hadn’t realized just how extensive Disney’s presence was around the world. I knew that many people around the world had heard of Disney, but I thought that was because of the movies. I also had no idea that Disney had to revamp its image to attract audiences in France and China to meet their cultural needs. It was interesting reading about these places from an economical, business, and educational stand point.

Chapter eight, “Living Happily Ever After”, focused on Disney Music. It illustrated the role that music has played on enhancing the animation and advancing the storyline. This combination of music with animation has made Disney from its earliest input in Steamboat Willie to Fantasia, to the classical songs that are as memorable as the films itself. The end of the chapter is basically a summary of the entire book and discusses how Disney is known all over the world, as it has come to be a “universal” brand, bringing much criticism and scrutiny along with it .

Wasko describes how the company creates fantasy by referring to universal themes and values.  For example, in Beauty and the Beast, Belle’s optimism and individualism overshadow the darker undertones shown through the character of the Beast. Escape, fantasy, and imagination are ever present in the company operations.  For example, “Imagineering”, Disney’s research and development division, illustrate these values with the creation of an idealistic town called “Celebration” (Wasko 59).  Another example is the magic, romance and happiness evoked by Aladdin and Jasmine in the film Aladdin. Aladdin has a genie and magic carpet and jasmine has a pet tiger, creating a world of fantasy and wonder. As well, Aladdin and Jasmines romance has a contagious effect, causing people to feel happy at seeing Aladdin’s happy ending, where good triumphs over evil. This theme has become universal throughout Disney, making it a well know brand.

Fantasy in the Disney Empire, according to Janet Wasko, must be manufactured (5).  Therefore, we can conclude that in order to understand Disney, we must also understand the people who work in it, and this can be seen in the theme parks.  Alan Bryman describes the theme park experience as “a family pilgrimage,” (81) one requiring a great amount of “control and predictability” (99) for their successful operation.   In the imaginative world of a place like Disneyland, it is easy to forget that the park is indeed a show, one that must be run by people, or cast members.  After guests leave the park each day, custodial crews work on a strict schedule to clean the park for the next day’s arrivals to make sure it stays the exact same and keeps the fantasy of Disney alive. Due to this, the world of fantasy and idealism the Disney Corporation has created has resulted in much criticism. 

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Wasko argues that the studio regularly moulds and transforms the morals of the original tales for its own stories into a specific world view, Americanizing and “Disneyfying” it (Wasko 113).  She analyzes this theory of the Disney aesthetic, by examining the universal traits with a “psychoanalytic analysis of Disney’s world” with reference to Pinocchio. According to Freudian psychoanalyst Michael Brody, the plot incorporates a role reversal when Pinocchio saves his father.  This device, he argues, appeals to adults, as it makes them feel that they will be taken care of by their children (138).  Additionally, Pinocchio is not born from a human mother, but rather from a magical creation process (138).  The concept of the protagonist being assembled by his father appeals to male audience members, showing them that they are capable of creation. But, Although in many ways it might seem to be an archetypical Disney film, incorporating the usual concepts of wish fulfillment, an idealistic young hero, cute sidekicks and the use of magic, Robin Allan argues that Pinocchio in fact largely eschews the conventions found in Disney’s previous venture, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, including the use of musical comedy and romance.

Allan claims that it is an altogether darker piece, in keeping with the sinister undertones of Carlo Collodi’s original story, published nearly sixty years previously (67). Allan identifies several key elements that have been altered during the adaptation process, key among these being the Victorian morality the book, but which is absent in the film. Specifically, he notes that Victorians assumed that “children were uncivilized and must have the devil forced out of them”, with Pinocchio being portrayed as “a delinquent” who is naturally inclined to be disobedient and is forced into good behaviour by the cruelty that is inflicted upon him (71-72). Disney’s Pinocchio, however, is an innocent boy who arrives in the world with no sense of morality, good or bad, and is thus is easily led astray. Pinocchio in the film version seems to be naturally mischievous, repeatedly asking Gepetto why he must do certain things, but is also portrayed as being eager to please. The characterization of the villains, who are all portrayed as exaggerated ugly archetypes, which creates a noticeable contrast between the tale’s “good” characters of Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket and Gepetto, who portray American ideals of honesty, bravery and generosity. The villains, Honest John, Gideon, Stromboli and the Coachman, all have “foreign” accents, which help perpetuate a sense of otherness, which carries on the conventional model of most Disney films.

A key difference which marks Pinocchio as different from other Disney stories and the classic Hollywood Cinema story is a distinct lack of punishment for its villains. In most Disney tales, the villains, if not killed outright, as is the case with the Wicked Witch in Snow White, Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, or Captain Hook in Peter Pan, they are at least stripped of their power and humiliated in some way. Pinocchio’s villains, in contrast, simply disappear when their function in the story is completed. For example, the fate of the other boys turned into donkeys at Pleasure Island is never resolved. This has the effect of making the Pinocchio world feel decidedly more open-ended than most Disney films. The film, it seems, is acknowledging the fact that life is filled with danger and the unknown, and that, despite overcoming the hurdles that face him in the film and becoming a real boy, Pinocchio will continue to face obstacles in his life and will not simply live “happily ever after”. Despite only being the studio’s second feature film, Pinocchio can be seen to oppose traditional notions of an archetypical Disney aesthetic, which goes against Wasko and the critics in her book, even with its use of cute animal sidekicks and catchy musical numbers.

  I believe that Wasko wrote a very informative book, providing knowledge to it readers on the business and corporation aspect of Disney more than just the movies and images itself. She provided many different perspectives and views in her analysis, which shows that she doesn’t necessarily carry a bias for, or against Disney. But, there were some parts of the book which I do not agree with, especially in the chapter “Analyzing the World According to Disney”. Sayers’ criticizes the idea that Disney’s films “falsify life” and are “not really related to the great truths of life” (126). I believe that this statement is true to a certain extent, but is not completely true, as seen above with the life lessons in Pinocchio. He seems to think that the misrepresentations of life in the films are all negative. In my opinion I think that some fantasy and excitement is good every now and then. Walt Disney himself is quoted in this same chapter as saying, “I do not make films primarily for children. Call the child innocence. The worst of us is not without innocence… In my work I try to reach and speak to that audience” (118). I think the point of all of the early Disney films, as well as the later animated films is to provide some escape but to teach not only children, but adults some valuable lessons in life. Children are exposed to enough of the harshness in the “real world” that many of them are able to tell that the world of a Disney film is make-believe, and is separate from the world in which they live in. I think that many kids today are smart enough to tell the difference. And as more and more mainstream media becomes saturated with violence, it’s nice that there are still these animated films, which usually result in a solution or “happy ending”.

Going along with this, Sayers is quoted as saying that the Disney adaptations of classic fairy tales make it so that “there is nothing to make a child think or feel or imagine” (128). When I read this, I again disagreed. I have distinct memories from my early childhood of that amazing feeling after a Disney movie finished, when I wanted nothing more than to be one or more of the characters I had just been watching. For example, watching Pocahontas encouraged me to spend more time outside and appreciate nature, where I would go on adventures in my backyard. Disney films provided the basis for so many of my childhood make-believe games. While it is very true that Disney condenses and changes the original fairy tales, Disney is not trying to take, for example, an Andersen or Grimm story and present it is their own, they have simply taken an idea and made it into a more family friendly tale. The Disney versions are certainly more widely known in today’s society, but I don’t think that is a bad thing, they are simply another version allowing parents to enjoy watching the Disney films with their kids while not being completely bored.

Lastly, there were the few critiques about The Lion King in this chapter. One reviewer apparently found that there are no strong female characters in the movie (133). Nala goes further than anyone to find some sort of food for the rest of her family and friends, as well, she helps to convince Simba to go back and take his place as king. Not to mention the fact that she is a lion, who are seen as majestic and powerful creatures. The other comment made about The Lion King was about the apparent racism of having the three main hyena characters be voiced by black and Latino actors. In response to this, Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin, who are two of the voices, are popular comedians, and they’re playing hyenas, where their barks sounds like laughing. I think this is a classic example of critics possibly looking too deeply into the story.

The notion of a singular Disney aesthetic that applies to the entirety of the corporation has been used on numerous occasions both as a criticism, classifying these films as repetitive and uninspired, and as a positive trait, stressing their value as reliable, child-friendly entertainment. As seen in Wasko’s book, the company itself has invested a great deal of effort into securing the idea of a single Disney brand and universe, staring with Mickey Mouse. Additionally, the legacy of Walt Disney is continually used in order to maintain the image of a single guiding vision shaping the whole Disney studio, regardless of the fact that he has been dead for almost 50 years.

I believe that the assumptions that a single Disney aesthetic exists throughout all Disney products is an overly simplistic argument and that there are many more factors to be considered. While certain traits can be seen to apply to multiple films, I don’t believe that any one rule holds true for each and every film. Yes there is a template which is followed, making Disney a recognizable corporation, but how is that different from every other movie or media company today?



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