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Rethinking Disney: Private Control, Public Dimensions

by Mike Budd and Max Kirsch, Editors
Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 2005
341pp, Trade, $70.00; paper, $27.95
ISBN: 0-8195-6789-2; ISBN:0-8195-6790-6.

Reviewed by Victoria de Rijke
Middlesex University, Trent Park Campus


Dante’s Inferno’s ‘Giganti’ strike terror into the poet’s verse; they dwarf mountains and have unstoppable octopus reach. His giants are morally horrible, too, in their brute force and folly.

In his introduction, editor Mike Budd suggests Disney studies are contributing to "a new kind of public criticism of mass culture". Rethinking Disney confronts the socio-economic giant ‘out there’, but not the Disney in us. It is not an appealing title. Would Demonising Disney be more representative? The Media Giant’s reach into Urban Planning and Themed Environments, Representation, Simulation, Appropriation, Capitalism, Commodification, and Globalisation inspire this latest collection of critical essays.

Alternative Histories at the start of the book has Susan Willis visiting "Animal Kingdom" theme park (Africa to your right, Asia to your left), beginning with the superb summary: "The only prerequisite to reading Disney is to bear in mind that nothing is real but the meanings." Willis goes on to slaughter the hallmark Disney infantalisation of imagination by way of a medieval bestiary "whose electric sheep is named Dolly".

Disney has remade world continents into "Africa, Asia, Camp Minnie-Mickey and Dinoland." Animal Kingdom is again picked apart by Scott Hermanson, where the reality of the model is improved to its mediated impression and visitors kept in awe of the simulated, not the real. Aaron Taylor’s study of market saturation argues Disney’s "Classic Pooh" commodities "violate" Winnie the Pooh as "an icon of children’s literature and a British cultural product." (Having paid $350 million to the Milne Estate for the rights to the Bear of Very Small Brain, I’m sure Disney feels the cake is theirs). Anglophilia as an intriguing aspect of Disneyfication is dealt with again when Radha Jhappan & Daiva Stasiulis critique The Discreet Charm of the English Voice in Pochahontas films. Sean Griffin’s Gay Days at the Disney Theme Parks traces a history of private parties or charity AIDS events, plus attendant resistance from the Christian Right amid an apolitical stance by Disney conscious of spectacle and the market. Maurya Wockstrom’s title Magical Capitalism argues for the mimetic as "sympathetic magic," upon which postmodern capitalism (and Disney) draws "with a great deal of sophistication." Wockstrom draws effectively on Benjamin’s ideas of "empathy" with the commodity and writes with great sensitivity about Disney’s theatre show The Lion King.

Disney’s immense creative power is not, otherwise, dwelt on in this book, which is a pity.

As urban developer, Greg Siegels critiques Disney’s "solipsistic and fortified enclaves devoted to high-concept, high-roller consumption," drawing comparisons between theme parks and huge sports stadiums as places of technological seduction dedicated to revitalising the promise of the American Dream. Frank Roost, the only scholar working outside the US or Canada to feature in the book, writes (appropriately enough, since he is from Berlin) a Schreck or Warnmårchen (scare and warning tale) about the distinctively Disney business strategy of "synergy." Roost examines how the Disney company use urban space for promotional development, investing in much of 42nd street, "cleaning up" Times Square of all its sex shops and other adult business for "neotraditionalist" town planning. Celebration looks set to become a city and Disney to own and run most of central New York, more towns, radio and news networks, parts of the Internet and much more besides. Be afraid? Stacy Warren, in a piece titled: Saying No to Disney, counters this response more optimistically, accepting Disney dabbles in utopian expansion of empire, but also meets with local opposition significant enough to curtail its drive towards a total vision of "simulacra, placenessless and control." Most of the contributors remain pessimistic about Disney’s inevitable world domination, due to its abilities with "technology, technique and culturally palatable content", but I am not convinced. What about the invention Eisenstein wrote about so enthusiastically as early as 1946? Has that gone away? Hasn’t the individualist emphasis shifted with the Pixar team producing works of collective action like Bug’s Life and Monsters Inc? Couldn’t Rethinking Disney have imagined solutions, or alternative futures?

Dick Hebdige’s Dis-gnosis takes his usual witty, etymological approach, close-reading theme parks as "narratives in 3 dimensions." Hebdige, importantly, is the only contributor to raise the doubt I wanted expressed repeatedly throughout the book:

"It remains to be seen how long tomorrows children (as opposed to tomorrows happily regressed adults) will respond to storylines that insist on positioning them as innocent bystanders at the carnival of signs rather than as knowledgeable customers."

How long indeed? Disney is one of our biggest Media Studies Giants, not least in the size of academic response. Disney’s private control and public dimensions are of giant global proportions: a measure and metaphor for 20th and 21st centuries’ growth and regression in the over-developed world. Despite Rethinking Disney’s position, surely in the long term corporate self-reproduction suffocated by copyright paranoia cannot prosper. Not long now.



Updated 1st May 2006

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