Disney has a lot to answer for. It could not be otherwise. The corporation is, after all, one of those behemoth machines that has been engineering what we naively think of as our reality for over eighty years now; you can’t do that without getting some blood on your hands. We have, for example, Disney to thank for conferring an entirely bogus humanity on savage beasts, on unthinking organisms red, like nature itself, in tooth and claw.
I wonder has Disney ever been sued by someone who tried to cuddle a bear, and who couldn’t understand why its response wasn’t as good natured as the ever avuncular Balou from The Jungle Book? I wonder what its response would be: ‘you’re a moron’ seems a little blunt for the company that has made trillions from counterfeit touchy-feeliness.
The industrial scale anthropomorphising of the animal kingdom that Disney has engaged in since the 1930’s has to have had a major effect on human consciousness over the decades. The corporation has organised the animal kingdom along human lines: dogs are cute and loyal, snakes are treacherous. It has helped us forget the truth: that they’re all just animals. Disney has coined GDPs ten times over by telling its consumers that no sentimental impulse, no matter how retarded, can ever be wrong.
I’ve never seen a study, but it seems possible that the global success of Disney has contributed to the upsurge in people identifying themselves as vegetarian or vegan, in the western world at least. It is tempting to wonder if the most famous vegetarian in history, Adolf Hitler, ever saw ‘Snow White’ or ‘Dumbo.’ Alas, that is probably one of those footnotes to history which is forever lost to us.
Of late, when it isn’t reorganizing the Star Wars franchise to generate profits even George Lucas never dreamed of, Disney spends a lot of its time championing female empowerment. Movies like ‘Mulan,’ ‘Beauty And The Beast,’ ‘Tangled’ and the inescapable ‘Frozen’ have lifted the heart of every parent who wants to see their little girl become President of France or a Professor of Nuclear Physics.
The profusion of girl power Disney movies prompted The Onion to quip that the Corporation was probably due a seriously misogynistic flick any year now. I won’t hold my breath. The power of the brand, the continued generation of Imperial sized fortunes, depends on the notion that you can be anything you want to be, so long as you’re kind to furry cartoon animals, are an all round good egg, and decorate your bedroom with the appropriate Disney merchandise.
Postulate a future nightmare in which some messianic lunatic briefly gets control of the company. He causes the Corporation to channel billions into its greatest artistic triumph: a four hour epic which questions the very meaning of human existence itself. The thing is a box office flop. One of the greatest corporations in history, one of those bedrocks which anchors the entire matrix we call reality, comes crashing down. They’d surely assassinate the loony CEO before things got that far.
Yet it’s intriguing to think that once upon a time, Disney movies were actually very different. Maybe they were reflective of a harsher, less sentimental time, or at least a time which was more open about saying that when you get down to it, some things in life will never be anything other than shit.
Some of the early ones feel as if they were written by the cold hand of a bona fide sociopath. Consider that final scene of the Corporation’s first ever main feature, ‘Snow White,’ where our heroine – having just set eyes upon the handsome prince – duly leaves behind the Seven Dwarves, who have protected and nurtured her, without so much as a backward glance. Even today, I can’t watch it without thinking: ‘what a bitch.’ Even the makers of the very creepy ‘Wizard of Oz’ found it necessary to have Dorothy tell Scarecrow, Tin Man et al that she’d never forget them.
Early Disney is also very curious on the subject of comeuppances, and nowhere is this more evident than in one of the most disturbing movies ever made, ‘Pinocchio.’ Scholars often point out that most children’s fairy tales were incredibly dark entities before they became Disneyfied. That’s largely true, but when ‘Pinocchio’ was made back in the 1930’s, Disney may have existed, but Disneyfication didn’t, at least not yet.
Consider what happens to the bad guys in modern Disney movies. Shan-Yu in Mulan ends up being blasted to smithereens by a rocket, Scar in ‘The Lion King’ meets a suitably nasty fate. Even ‘Beauty And The Beast,’ in one of its few real flaws, artificially inflates the oafish Gaston into a full blown villain, merely to deliver the appropriate, emotionally satisfying comeuppance, and also liberating the Beast.
Warp back sixty years however, and it’s all very different. Yes, Pinocchio does ultimately meet his goal of becoming a real boy (wonder how he got on with that?) but along the way, he meets some seriously nasty people. Indeed, the gallery of villains in ‘Pinocchio’ is creepier than most of the rest of the corporate corpus put together.
Pinocchio comes face to face with child traffickers: Stromboli wants to exploit him in a puppet show and chop him into firewood, the amoral Honest John doesn’t care about cooperating with predators so long as he makes a few bucks, the literally demonic Coachman actively seeks young boys to entrap on Pleasure Island, turning them into donkeys who can be shipped around the world as pack animals.
Pinocchio eventually survives all this, but so do the bad guys. They are the white walkers of today: implacable and apparently untouchable. The only baddie who gets a comeuppance is Monstro the Whale, who is, after all, only doing what monstrous whales have been doing since the dawn of history, i.e. eating stuff. Where’s all the animal sentimentality now?
The Coachman is presumably free to go on kidnapping other boys and shipping them to Pleasure Island. Honest John will presumably help him, and anyone else who wishes to do kids some ill. Stromboli suffers the annoyance of loss of a money maker, but is otherwise undamaged.
In its undeniable foreboding and darkness, Pinocchio presumably reflects a very different type of society. The Great Depression had just happened, many institutions of society broke down either partially or altogether. As always at these times, it was children who suffered first and most.
It’s also one of the few Disney movies that’s reflective of a more moralistic outlook upon childhood. Little boys will get up to all kinds of nastiness because they are little boys. There are all sorts of dark forces out there who are waiting to take advantage of that nastiness, and those forces are immutable, perhaps because they enjoy demonic protection.
Of course, Pinocchio may also reflect the conditions under which it was created. Was Walt Disney himself a bit like The Coachman, patrolling the dark aisles with a whip as his millions of drones hand painted every single gorgeous frame? Perhaps some of this bled into the movie.
Be that as it may, the darkness at the heart of Pinocchio makes it infinitely more memorable than the saccharine morality of a Frozen or a Tangled. It’s all the more unsettling because we’re not really sure what it’s trying to say. Maybe Walt himself wasn’t sure. Perhaps all the fakery Disney has engaged in since then, all the counterfeiting of emotion, makes Pinocchio all the more disturbing.
But I thought of it again recently, contemplating yet another child protection scandal in my country, Ireland, which will yet again result in failure to identify and punish those responsible, the bulk of their damage having already been done etc. With the world around us screeching itself into meltdown, disparate fogs of war gathering while billions work for less and less to give the hyper-rich more and more, I can’t help wondering if Disney and the rest of us wouldn’t be better employed warning our kids that things might not be so great after all.
Maybe it’s time for a remake. Why not? They’ve remade everything else.