The Nation : Disney Shapes Cultural Id Through Parks and Movies

Steven D. Stark, who has written for the Atlantic Monthly, is a commentator for National Public Radio and CNN

Last week, the headlines about the Walt Disney Co. focused on Chairman Michael D. Eisner's recovery from emergency quadruple-heart- bypass surgery and a possible fight over who might become president. This business news, however, is obscuring a more fundamental cultural point about Disney that affects us all. When it comes to the productions of this company, there is this odd dichotomy in American culture: The movies can't win enough praise, while the theme parks often arouse so much antagonism they can become a source of congressional inquiry.

It's happened again this summer as "The Lion King"--riding the usual wave of adulation--is dominating the box office. But Disney's planned Civil War-era theme park near Bull Run in Virginia has seemingly aroused the ire of half the nation's professional critics and many historians. The problem, of course, is that the two aren't really distinguishable in the way the critics suggest. In fact, the theme park is only a pale reflection of the process of transfiguration that Disney performs in its films.

Moreover, what Disney does to history is pretty much what it does to myth--or thinly disguised Shakespeare in the case of "The Lion King"--and the two are inextricably linked as "an image in the public mind," as Walt Disney himself once said.

All these issues about the "Disneyfication" of America we were hearing before Eisner's illness, and will hear again, make for nice Op-Ed columns, but were really decided decades ago--as anyone who ever owned a coonskin cap must know.

All writers and producers plunder their mythic and historical sources--Shakespeare had Plutarch and the War of the Roses--and the Disney assemblage is no exception. It's just that Disney's writers have often been so successful that they've virtually wiped out the collective memory of the originals. Thanks to Disney, there probably isn't a child in America who realizes that in the "fairy tale" version of "Snow White," the dwarfs had no names or little personality; that nothing like Jiminy Cricket appeared in Collodi's "Pinocchio;" that there are no helpful mice in the original "Cinderella," or that the Mary Poppins of literary fame wasn't such a softie.

Forty years ago, a few critics had a field day pointing out that the real Davy Crockett "would bear any hardship to escape a routine day's work;" couldn't have shot 105 bears in nine months because he "couldn't count that high," and "was never king of anything except maybe the Tennessee Tall Tales and Bourbon Samplers' Assn." These criticisms so hit the mark that Disney shied away from further plundering the past--so future generations never learned how Johnny Tremain, the Swamp Fox, Texas John Slaughter and Zorro were four of the more pivotal figures in U.S. history.

Yet, despite a few dissenting voices, the objections to Disney's cinematic permutations have almost always been muted in a chorus of praise. Not so the theme parks--and the Virginia proposal is no exception. Historian David McCullough, for example, joined by colleagues such as Shelby Foote and Arthur J. Schlesinger Jr., branded the project "an attempt to create synthetic history by destroying real history."

No one denies that what Disney movies do to myth or history, the theme parks try to accomplish in more tangible ways. Thus a walking, talking Abraham Lincoln greets you in the Disney Hall of Presidents, just as a utopian "Main Street" supposedly transports visitors back to the turn of the century of Walt's youth. To do that to the issues surrounding the Civil War--in close proximity to the actual battlefields--is what so disturbs many of the project's opponents.

No doubt theme parks are proliferating. Led by Disney World, the revenue for such parks domestically is now higher than movie box-office figures. The irony, of course, is that theme parks do a far less successful job of paving over the past than the films do. An air of commercial fantasy pervades these places. Because one is always reminded that these are amusement parks, it's impossible to suspend a sense of disbelief.

Presented without the benefit of much narrative, these attractions are selling a physical experience--which means they inevitably stumble over their own technology to deliver a version of history or myth that never quite manages to stick with the visitor. After all, what changed the way children thought about the winning of the West was the Davy Crockett TV series, not the Mike Fink boat ride in Frontierland. And no congressional committee ever dared lay a glove on that.

So the historians and critics have picked the wrong target. As Hollywood has always known, film is far more powerful than other media. Because movies and TV shows seem so real, screen audiences have always had trouble distinguishing what's true from what's fiction--no matter how hard they try to retain their equilibrium. It's a testament to the power of these cinematic images that even a cartoon can seem so authentic that it reshapes our impressions of Africa, animals or, if it chooses, the War Between the States. Do more people remember actual accounts of the Battle of Antietam or Scarlett's escape from Atlanta?

Because they are tangible and seem somewhat plebeian, theme parks are easier targets than movies. Yet, the real threats to a collective memory grounded in truth are lurking indoors, projected in the dark. In the long run, the Davy Crocketts of the world--and, yes, even the Simbas--have far greater power to skew that common reality than any ride at Disneyland. Even if they do build the next park a few miles from Bull Run.*

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