What’s Opera, Diz?
In 2008, I reviewed Working With Walt: Interviews with Disney Artists for this website. I have also read (most of) Didier Ghez’ multivolume series Walt’s People. When we see Walt Disney reflected in the mirrors of those who worked for him, no single image is resultant. Walt may be remembered as a shining idol, a tyrant, an enthusiastic cheerleader, an unsophisticated hick, a laser-focused critic of his studio’s work, a problem-solving genius, a paranoid political conservative. Some biographies of Disney are superior to others, but it’s a fair bet that none presents a complete picture.
Humans, by nature, hate ambiguity. When faced with a mystery, they tend to do one of two things; devote time, attention, and resources to understanding it, or inventing explanations for what they cannot understand. Often these explanations are self-serving, fanciful, or even illogical. Once entrenched, they are staunchly defended, simply because they stand in for the believer’s intelligence.
It is certain, for example, that biographers Marc Eliot and Michael Barrier approached the mystery of Walt Disney with differing beliefs about the man. It’s likely that Philip Glass accepted the version of Disney forwarded by Jungkt, or The Perfect American would not exist. Yet, each of these individuals tried to come to an understanding of Walt, chasing a chimera on different colored horses.
Walt Disney was a private, unknowable person for most of his career. The closest consensus we can come to was that Disney was a visionary, but even that term has variegated meaning. Dr. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela were visionaries; so were Adolf Hitler and Mao Zedong. As far back as 2003, I did a column for this website detailing how Walt Disney was skewered by both the right and left wings of America’s contentious culture wars. As sectarian conflict heated up in recent years, revisionism has become more nasty than analytical, and it is in that arena Uncle Walt has become a victim.
It would be best, in consideration, to develop a critical eye, study the subject of Walt Disney as objectively as possible, and come to logical conclusions supported by available evidence. However, there are two problems with that approach: First, the more famous and renowned the individuals, the more difficult it is to remain objective about them. Second, such individuals are far more likely to be subject to multiple interpretations than an ordinary person would be.
Barrier and Solomon have a legitimate complaint, but only in the sense that they are closer to understanding some truths about Disney’s life. They may also have a complaint about the way our society enjoys putting a spin on even the most trivial events, and how we deem it fashionable to tear down and scandalize the famous and the mighty. These recent shots at Walt Disney, nearly fifty years after his passing, will not be the last. In fact, as cultural standards tend increasingly towards the scatological, there may be worse to come.
The Long Pink Line, or Brave New Girl
Three cheers for Merida, the 11th inductee into the honorable realm of Disney Princesses. Or is it really something to cheer about? The star of Brave marked her coronation with an appearance on the official Disney website, but outraged fans had a spot of trouble recognizing the auburn-coiffed bowslinger. For the occasion, Disney artists redesigned Merida with an hourglass waistline, flamboyant attire (the exact dress, in fact, Merida disdained in the film), and a sexy smile beneath flirtatious eyes.
Fans of Brave staged a revolt complete with numerous petitions, angry missives, and demands to return Merida to her pre-princess proportions. Foremost among them was Director/Creator of the spunky Scot, Brenda Chapman. Stating that Diz was sending a message that “the original girl was inferior”, Chapman took the studio to task for implying that a woman’s value equated to “a narrow definition of beauty.”
It was not long before “glam” Merida disappeared like mist on the moors from the website, along with a hasty explanation that Merida had put on a new dress and makeup for her one-time “special event” since she wanted to look her best for the party. Of course, this is rather disingenuous; Merida is, in the end, a character concept, a collection of pixels, and a voice artist who is not even a redhead. Disney’s problem is that, from these disparate parts came a memorable character beloved by audiences, the brave lass with a powerful will of her own. How did she end up? Doing what the publicity department assumed and decided she should do, at least until fandom rose in rage.
This is where Disney gets the arrows, as well as the shafts: The Company has ten moneymaking “princesses” already, easily enough to rule all of Europe. If Ariel were to piss Belle off, I imagine there could be another Hundred Years’ War. Of late, the Mouse has made a habit of turning every distaff star of their films into princesses, whether the crown fits or not. Now, Disney could simply have let Merida be. There would have been no contradictions, no controversy, no fan backlash, no further salvos in the cultural wars, no feminist outrage. Merida could have simply been a pal to the royals, waving hello to them as they passed through Scotland, all the while living her own stalwart life.
The Merida Makeover Morass could have easily been avoided, but at a huge cost to the company; Merida as a Disney Princess is worth a king’s ransom, and this, unfortunately, counts for more than what even her creator thinks. Uneasy may be the head that wears the crown, but how much more uncomfortable it must be when an increasing number of heads have to wear them.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.