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Writer Paints Different Picture of Disneyland : Death, Decay and Danger Lurk Behind the Cuddly Facade in Magic (Shriek!) Kingdom

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For those who absent-mindedly may have let their subscriptions to Art Issues lapse, issues No. 4 and 5 published this summer carry a two-part psychological exploration of Disneyland that is easily worth the four bucks per copy.

It’s an “E” ticket of a tale in itself. Entitled “The Dark Side of Disneyland,” the article is written by Donald Britton, a poet and author who is also a copy editor for the magazine.

Art Issues is published seven times a year in Los Angeles and delves into all manner of art-world concerns through the writings of all manner of contributors, including artists such as Fred Fehlau, whose works are on display at Newport Harbor Art Museum, to Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs writing about “Community.”

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In the Disneyland article, Britton looks beyond the outer aspects of the “Happiest Place on Earth” and finds it to be a not-so-happy haunting ground. He even labels it “less an amusement park than a moving elegy for dead children. . . .”

“You don’t have to look hard to see that there is a dark, even somewhat sinister side to Disneyland which is as much a part of the total experience as its well-scrubbed optimism and unrelenting good cheer,” Britton writes in Part I.

“In counterpoint to its more obvious ‘sweetness and light’ aspects, throughout the park one finds evidence of a profoundly morbid preoccupation with death, violence and human decay.” Well, I know sometimes you have to wait and wait and wait to get on “Star Tours,” but really. . . .

“The fact is, Disneyland confronts us so frequently with images depicting death and its terrors that, though the images themselves are never really terrifying (except to small children), they are clearly crucial to what this particular ‘magic kingdom’ is all about.”

Britton doesn’t stop with the obvious bits of goofy ghoulishness found at the Haunted Mansion. (“You can’t help wondering,” Britton asks, “why are they going to all this effort to make human death out as a corny, unreal joke?”) Perhaps because people wouldn’t buy tickets if they were showing us the real thing?

He finds the crossed-out census figures on the signpost at the Frontierland entrance to Thunder Mountain Railroad equally foreboding: “Why is it necessary for a roller-coaster ride to go to the trouble, even in this mild and indirect way, to create the impression that the experience may kill you?”

It is important for us to realize, Britton says, “that fairy tales (and other similarly structured narratives throughout the park) are the materials Disneyland uses to express what might be called its ‘ cartoon sensibility. ‘“ Eh? How’s that again? “It is a sensibility predicated first and foremost on the infinite elasticity of pictorial space as embodied in cartoon animation.” Hey, I knew that.

“Indeed,” Britton continues, “the generative principle at work in Disneyland is not the fairy tale at all but the cartoon--or more precisely, the attempt to translate into three dimensions the exhilarating ductility of time and space that can be approximated in cartoon illusionism.” This guy must have done great on essay tests. On the other hand, you start to get the feeling that in the reality department, Britton may be a few units short.

The purpose of his journey into the heart of Walt-ness is to provoke “a deepened and more complex response to Disneyland, and especially an appreciation for what makes Disneyland uniquely Disneyland: the willful and poignantly perverse effort to make life into a cartoon.”

Part I is largely an analysis of “Snow White’s Scary Adventures,” which Britton finds to be “the quintessential Disneyland ride (because) its core conflict is the primary energizing drama of Disneyland itself: the threat to youth and beauty by old age and death.” If that’s so, Disneyland is hardly the sole villain. Take a look at prime-time TV, the movies, advertising.

Part II is even harsher. We learn that part and parcel of most Fantasyland rides are “narratives (that) encourage us to fear . . . adults because they want nothing less than to annihilate us and, by extension, to annihilate the whole timeless world of childhood.” In that case, I’d say kids under 12 should get in free.

The key question addressed in the second installment is “Why is the museum-like shrine to Walt Disney on Main Street USA at Disneyland paired with an audioanimatronic resurrection of the most famous assassination victim in American history (“Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln”)?” I give up--maybe the room was empty?

Britton’s answer, which comes several psychoanalysis-laden paragraphs later, is that “Disney wanted to be forever identified . . . as a manufacturer of marvels, a beneficent ruler-magician in whose ‘kingdom’ death holds no sway.”

Well, I think Britton is all wet, and I have my own analysis to prove it.

In reality, Disneyland is a thinly veiled tribute to Marxist-socialist ideals and a condemnation of Western capitalism.

Take the Haunted Mansion. What is a mansion but a temple where capitalist robber-barons wallow in their ill-gotten gains? Yet this one is vacant and decrepit, its ostentatiousness shrouded in cobwebs and dust. The subliminal message is clear: The amassing of personal wealth is, literally, a dead-end. Upon entry, when the doors creak shut in the tiny, windowless room that stretches, a voice advises all who enter that the real trick is “to find a way out"--a warning on the intractability of the capitalist system.

Furthermore. . . .

Had enough? It’s obvious that there are so many symbols scattered throughout Disneyland that, like the Bible, you can pretty much skip over the main message and support any position you want if you just look in the right place. It all depends on the attitude you carry in.

And Britton’s mind-set about the Magic Kingdom can be found in one throwaway sentence buried in his penetrating tract on the Snow White ride: “The strongest memory I have of my first visit to Disneyland at age 6 is the unmitigated terror I experienced in the Snow White ride.”

So that’s it.

A tyke was spooked by the Evil Queen and has been carrying around a grudge for, what, 15 to 20 years? Heck, if the ride was that bad, he should have just asked for his money back.


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