New York

“Disney Animations And Animators”

Walt Disney at the Whitney promised the sunniest of meetings between popular and high culture. At last, the Diaghilev of animation was getting his entrepreneurial due. Walt Disney, after all, set standards against which animation is still measured, established a formula for family entertainment that held together for the better part of 50 years, and produced a body of work that is unrivaled in its ability to transcend the cultural and political differences of a global audience. His animation is as calculated as a NASA space probe, but the embraceable reality of his characters and the sentimental sincerity of his material has laid an important claim on the collective affection of millions.

Unfortunately, the “Disney Animations and Animators” exhibition was an unremittingly gloomy installation. Something was seriously wrong; it was as if the worthiness of the enterprise was in question and had to be justified by the sobriety of the presentation. Insofar as the exhibition was devoted to secondary materials—concept sketches, working drawings, painted cels, and backgrounds—a certain amount of didacticism was unavoidable; but everything was subordinated to vaguely instructive categories such as “Principles of Motion,” “Storyboards,” “Caricature,” and “Injection of Personality.” The only displays in the exhibition that did not use the materials to illustrate technique were those devoted to individual Disney animators, but since their work was executed to blend into a homogenized product, there’s little stylistic difference from one to another. And nor should there be, when the work was being created on Disney’s assembly line. At almost every turn the curatorial decisions seemed intent on diffusing the emotional impact that Disney labored to achieve. By ignoring or mistrusting the works’ enduring populist appeal, a potentially valuable exploration of the chemistry of myth was sacrificed to a cursory survey of the mechanics of reproduction.

Happily, the accompanying film series made the wrongheadedness of the exhibition almost irrelevant. The 19 impeccably selected programs of shorts and features—many unavailable for years—fully revealed the Disney genius. Watching the drawings come to life, seeing the often labored concepts giddily transformed into, to quote Steven Spielberg, “magical stuff and things you’ll remember for the rest of your lives,” was a rare pleasure. Here, particularly in the string of narrative classics—Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942)—is a popular American art form at its acme. In them, family bonding rituals are shamelessly exploited with a Pentecostal fervor. Mothers, whether absent or present, are advanced as if the Disney machine were writhing in the grip of Great Goddess revivalism; fathers (or more accurately, father figures) are dei ex machina staving off calamity. With Mommy as The Force and Daddy as The Way, the kid can’t go wrong. Disney’s kiddie-protagonists always learn the hard way, of course—Electra and Orestes seem blessed by fate next to Dumbo and Bambi; but they finally attain the responsible maturity that, in a Disney movie, signals The End.

Dumbo and Bambi may be the great Oedipal melodramas of this century. It is difficult to imagine two films more relentlessly and wrenchingly focused on the mother/son relationship. The seductive anthropomorphism of these animations accelerates viewer identification and implies a universality that would be impossible with the burdensome specificity of real performers. The release of the films coincided with the United States’ entry into World War II—a period that definitively altered the fabric of American family life—and, for millions of children, Disney’s world of absent fathers and threatened mothers took on an added reality. Even today, the imprisonment of Dumbo’s mother and the death of Bambi’s are still capable of registering Jungian shockwaves.

Along with Pinocchio, Dumbo and Bambi are Disney’s boy-fantasy films, and each follows its hero from infancy to maturity. Dumbo and Bambi go through literal trials by fire; Pinocchio endures a trial by water. All three encounter obstacles that, when aggressively overcome through physical daring and moral decisiveness, result in a fully integrated personality.

Disney’s girl-fantasy films, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella (unfortunately this 1950 film was not included in the series), are quite different. Both heroines are introduced as orphaned adolescents and are persecuted because their budding sexuality threatens the narcissistic security of older women. Like de Sade’s Justine, they exist to be preyed upon, until, in states of passive stupefacation, they arrive at the dollhouse maturity of marriage. Whereas Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi are left reveling in their manhood, Snow White and Cinderella end up in the protective custody of their respective princes. Never socially innovative, Disney’s own passive acceptance and transmission of societal norms is seen most clearly in these narrative animations.

Disney’s other mid-career feature, Fantasia (1940), has become something of a popular success over the years. When it was released, however, the film was both a critical and commercial failure, and it remains an infuriating mixture of plodding literalism and inspired whimsy. The Disney studio had been exploring musical-visual equivalencies since Mickey Mouse first twirled to the tune of “Turkey in the Straw” in Steamboat Willie (1928). It was, however, the “Silly Symphonies” series of the ’30s that provided the Disney team with the perfect vehicles for the creative coordination of sound and image. The most sophisticated symphonies, Music Land (1935) and The Old Mill (1937), owed their music to Leigh Harline, a composer from the Disney stable whose greatest achievement was the Oscar-winning score for Pinocchio. Fantasia, however, was Disney’s fantasy of high culture. Rather than rely on his studio composers, he turned to the heady climes of The Classics. His material (Dance of the Hours, Night on Bald Mountain, Ave Maria, and so on) was the kind of classical meat and potatoes served up at a Boston Pops concert. Hosting this Chautauqua were Leopold Stokowski and Mickey Mouse who, regardless of personal charisma, were unable to breathe original life into such trod-upon clay. In the end, Fantasia looks more like a costly training exercise for Dumbo and Bambi than the ready-made masterpiece it was intended to be.

Removed from yet competitive with the rarefied world of the features is Disney’s kingdom of cartoon shorts and featurettes. It is here that Disney’s ultimate icon, Mickey Mouse, reigns with his Minnie, attended by such luminaries as Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto. On these five animals Disney built his empire. Mickey made his first appearance in Plane Crazy (1928) and achieved overnight stardom; crazy with energy and ingenuously show-offy, the little mouse caught the antsy spirit of the ’20s and, after the Crash, helped buoy up a dispirited nation with his squeaky persistence. His raw, positive enthusiasm provided a perfect foil for Minnie’s skepticism, Donald’s selfishness, Goofy’s obtuseness, and Pluto’s lugubrious naiveté.

As these characters grew more finely articulated, the early comedy routines gave way to comic narratives. Mickey was inevitably right and Donald, more often than not, was wrong; yet wrong was rarely bad—it was merely misguided hubris, with shamefaced embarrassment as its punishment. Gradually, Mickey and his pals became ambassadors for the better way and eventually propagandists for the United States. During World War II, in such shorts as Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943) and How to be a Sailor (1943), the Disney characters all did their bit for the war effort. Rooted as they are in a vaudeville tradition, Mickey’s ensemble acquired a nose for adaptability and the diehard stamina of Ubermensch troopers.

What the Whitney’s film series made clear was just how in synch with America the Disney studios once were. Running through the films is a strain of domestic utopianism based on traditional, heart-affirmed values. By advancing these values through a fanciful depiction of the easy, “natural” intimacy of animals, Disney was able to capitalize on an emotional excessiveness that would have been unimaginable in live action films. Popular taste has always had a craving for sentiment, and the core of Disney’s genius lay in knowing how to whip great globs of the stuff into addictive cultural entreés for the American family. That there were so few recorded stomachaches until the studio began its slide from grace in the ’60s is a remarkable achievement.

Richard Flood