Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Disney's Magic Kingdom

The Orwellian dystopia of Toy Story 3 is the latest in a long line of films by Pixar/Disney and Twentieth Century Fox with a strong moral message. From the environmentalism of the Ice Age franchise through to Wall-E’s critique of human decadence and excessive consumerism there has been a growing trend for animated allegories which progressively challenge the status quo. It seems odd that Disney – inextricably associated with the American establishment – could produce such radical fables. What next – a posthumous Noble Peace Prize for Walt Disney?

Of course much of Hollywood’s output remains conservative. Films such as The Incredibles and Finding Nemo reinforce ideas of the ‘nuclear family’ whilst Ratatouille’s notion that a genius can come from any walk of life converges with the traditional ‘American dream’. But it still seems strange that Hollywood can take an environmentalist and anti-consumerist stance. After all, without consumerism Hollywood ceases to exist.

I may have missed the subtle parables of my childhood Disney films – Robin Hood, The Jungle Book, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast – but they seemed more simple. They were about Kings, Queens and Princesses. There was always a straightforward fight between good and evil. Nowadays, knowing what ‘good’ is isn’t quite so simple. Toy Story 3 echoes Animal Farm by suggesting that a totalitarian police state is wrong. Who could disagree with that? But is the ‘freedom’ of American democracy really much better? It’s a compelling if skewed message.

Stark parallels can be drawn with Hollywood’s treatment of Native American Indians. The old Westerns were quite simple – they were about good versus evil. Cowboys were good and ‘Indians’ were evil. Everyone knew Native Americans were backwards. They had been demonised and ghettoised for decades and the hegemonic rise of ‘American’ culture relied on their marginalisation. Yet once they were crushed, Native Americans underwent a remarkable resurrection and Hollywood gave them a makeover. Since Dances with Wolves you can barely go through a whole film without a wise old Indian philosophising and counselling a disillusioned white man. Why? Because Native American culture is no longer a threat – it has been disarmed and romanticised.

It’s a similar situation with Hollywood today. In many ways Disney remains reactionary and conservative, but where it does take a ‘progressive’ stance it is not because of altruism, it is a response to changed circumstance. In the same way that trans-national corporations adopt environmental policies, they do so because of public pressure and international consensus. Corporations must be seen to care about the environment – but all they care about is profit margins.

Ultimately, whatever message Disney gives – whether they give one at all – they do so to make money. They’re ‘family films’ so why shouldn’t they be about family? And why not try to encourage people to care a little more about the environment, even when Hollywood represents the height of capitalist decadence? In the end, who cares? What else are you going to watch on a Sunday afternoon?

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