Wednesday, January 05, 2005


1-2-05. The Disney Empire

It’s impossible for a reflective person to have unmixed feelings about Disneyland. I admit I have fun there, or else I wouldn’t have gone enough to memorize where the bathrooms are. I went with a 14-year-old cousin last year, an often surly, too-cool-for-school teen, and watched in amazement as the lingering traces of girlhood in her came to the forefront for the day. She eagerly posed for photo ops with all of the characters we encountered. Even when I go with grown ups, it’s kind of fun to play kid for a day, and you have to admire the massive and clever effort at amusing you put up by the theme park makers.

But Disneyland has its dark side. They are good – almost too good – at crowd control, and you can never escape the feeling that inside Mickey’s flabby white glove is an iron fist. Michael Harrington, the late elder statesman of American Democratic Socialism, wrote an interesting article called “To The Disney Station,” about Walt Disney’s desire to create a corporate utopia – essentially, when he found he could not subject local government in Anaheim to his total and obsessive control, he bought the site for Disneyworld and created his own corporate municipality.

And then of course there was (is!) that endless fin-du-siecle corporate soap opera, “Eisner and Ovitz.”

I like to think about parallels between Disney and the Roman empire. Ancient Rome absorbed and appropriated the cultures it conquered. Roman legions made Greece a vassal state, and Rome took on Hellenic culture. Local gods of conquered people were routinely added to the pantheon of Roman gods.

Disney has done the same thing with cartoon characters. Winnie-the-Pooh seemed awfully popular, and rather than engage in a competitive Mickey versus Winnie struggle to the death, Disney simply acquired the Pooh and added it to the stable of cartoon stars.

And of course, Disney somehow acquired the rights to Roger Rabbit and made it “Mickey’s Toon Town.” Toon Town was the creation of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Steven Speilbergs satirical homage to cartoons, which parodied characters like Mickey as well as Hollywood moguls behind him. So Mickey’s Toon Town stands a great – and highly post-modern – example of conquest by acquisition.

Do you think Disney ever tried to take over Bugs Bunny and Chuck Jones Studios? I can imagine an intense, behind-the-scenes struggle spanning the 1960s’ in which Disney perhaps attempted tihs ultimate conquest. Was there a final apocalyptic battle that, like the Roman legions’ disastrous defeat by the Germanic tribesmen at Teutoburg Forest , marked the outer boundary of the Disney Empire? Chuck Jones as Walt Disney’s Hermann?

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