I typically shy away from books and essays that critique Walt Disney and his films. There are several reasons for this. We don’t need to kill our heroes. Walt was a product of his times. It’s easier to critique and tear down things than it is to create them. However, the biggest reason is that too many of these types of essays contain inaccuracies and falsehoods that come from someone not being an expert in Disney knowledge and/or doing sloppy research. It’s insane how many “educated” people believe Walt’s frozen head lies in a secret lair under Disneyland. It’s hurtful how many people say he was racist or anti-Semitic when those who worked with him deny those allegations. Sometimes, it’s just ridiculous the interpretations that people come up with for Disney films.
With this in mind, it may be surprising (because it certainly is to me) to find that I’ve been reading “From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture” (1995) and “Diversity in Disney Films: Critical Essays on Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Sexuality and Disability” (2013) (affiliate links). These collections contain the same types of inaccuracies engendered by the nature of the work, including attributing movies to Disney that he wasn’t responsible for and citing unreliable sources because they present the dark side of the man behind the mouse. However, what I have found for the most part is something fascinating, especially in context of the current era. I’m enjoying the new perspectives, even when I don’t agree with them and they have certain inaccuracies.
These essays don’t reveal the irrefutable truth of any one movie or of the Disney Company as a whole. Instead they reveal that art is what you bring to it, and Disney films can be interpreted in many different ways. Someone can use a feminist film theory, psychological film theory, or any other theory and view the film through that lens. This allows them to “decode” what the film seems to be saying about whatever subject they are focused on.
Disney Films and Storytelling
More importantly, using so many theories reveal the power of Disney’s storytelling. Academics discuss and write books about these films 70 to 90 years after their release date. People are still watching these films, falling in love with them, reassessing them, and loving or hating them after they’ve become more jaded or wiser, depending on who you talk to. Wat Disney is purported to have said, “We just make great pictures and let the professors tell us what they mean.” Whether or not it’s true, we do know that academic study of Walt can bring a fresh perspective without spoiling the movie experience for those with an open mind. You don’t have to accept the opinion, but it’s interesting to step outside of your own experiences and see how one or two researchers see the Disney films you love.
Get a copy of my own collected (not terribly academic) essays on Disney films and the company: “Penguinate! The Disney Company” at Amazon.