The long shadow of The Mouse

Joel van der Veen
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Picture, if you will, the hero Robin Hood, the outlaw famous for robbing the rich to give to the poor.

What does he look like? Do you imagine him as a gallant young man, dressed in green and followed loyally by his band of Merry Men?

Or, like me, do you picture him as an anthropomorphic cartoon fox, accompanied by a bear, a badger, and a singing rooster with Roger Miller’s voice?

It would be hard to overestimate the heavy influence the Walt Disney Company has had on our collective imagination over the last 90 years or so.

If you need another example, picture the fairy tale princess Snow White, and I’ll eat my hat if the image that comes to mind is anything other than her depiction in Disney’s version of the story.

Today marks 75 years since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs went into general release. Disney’s first full-length animated feature, it had its formal premiere in December 1937 and was released across North America on Feb. 4, 1938.

It’s hard to imagine for a movie that has grossed $416 million in theatres, not counting home video releases, but back then, industry spectators doubted that the project could succeed.

The movie was labeled “Disney’s Folly”; at that point, the fledgling studio had yet to prove it was capable of a film of that magnitude, and Disney was forced to mortgage his house to finance it.

Because the concept was new at the time, Disney and his staff could set the rules themselves. They incorporated technological advances like the multiplane animation camera, which added a new dimension of depth and realism to their work.

Stories abound of the creative touches that emerged during production. Richard Schickel’s The Disney Version, released shortly after Walt Disney’s death in 1966, tells how animators struggled to make Snow White’s facial features appear lifelike, when company secretaries suggested applying actual makeup to animation cels.

The animators were skeptical that they could replicate the same makeup pattern on  multiple cels, but the secretaries told them they managed to do it on their own faces each day.

Disney had the last laugh when the finished film became an unparalleled success in animation. A lifetime later, it remains a childhood staple.

As the studio grew in stature, its reach was extended. Films now represent a mere fraction of the company’s business, and many have decried the massive influence of the modern-day Walt Disney Company.

“In essence, Disney’s machine was designed to shatter the two most valuable things about childhood — its secrets and its silences — thus forcing everyone to share the same formative dreams,” Schickel wrote.  

“It has placed a Mickey Mouse hat on every little developing personality in America. As capitalism, it is a work of genius; as culture, it is mostly a horror.”

Blunt words, indeed. In one sense, Schickel is essentially describing how mass media works; today we are surrounded by a homogenized culture that’s often not conducive to sparking an active imagination.

Disney receives particular criticism since its products are targeted at children. But parents know they can usually depend on Disney for family-friendly entertainment. Can the company be blamed for finding a successful model and sticking with it?

When I become a father some day, Lord willing, I’m sure my children will want to see Disney movies, and I won’t go out of my way to prevent that.

But I will try to strike a balance — yes, some Disney, but also a little of this, a bit of that, and as often as possible, just their own imagination.

Joel van der Veen can be reached at 691-1256.

Organizations: Walt Disney Company

Geographic location: North America, America

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