Monday, 1 February 2010

Is Disney strongest in its film texts rather than its merchandising?

“Disney in the 1930s, the cottage animation industry produced films of classical nature, interested in unity, closure and practices of realist representation. Monopoly capitalism was the impetus behind a certain modernist impulse, an auteurist attempt to self-consciously produce art that critiques classical representation.”
Harry Benshoff (Animation Journal, 1992)

The Disney Corporation is debatably one of the largest producers of merchandise in the entertainment world and one that has developed with changing generations. Benshoff explains that “[it] is not difficult to argue that Disney is the most recognisable name in animation, throughout both America and the world. The company has maximised its consumer appeal by careful production and marketing strategies that have developed in various stages throughout the past seventy years: from a small cottage industry in the 1920s and 1930s, through monopoly capitalism in the 1950s, to the world-wide corporate conglomerate that is Disney today.”

The popularity of Disney is though, I believe, a consequence of the narrative and characterisation rather than merchandising. The production of new films is on the back of the financing from current merchandising but its success relies on the appeal of the text. In this paper I want to show the strength of this text referencing the animation film Snow White (1937).

One possible suggestion for the popularity of Walt Disney films since the 1930’s is their dominant narratives. Concealed within these narratives are authoritative morals and ethics, consciously included by Disney to engage with its younger and innocent target audience. The importance of folk tales helps to structure the films’ narrative. Disney’s consistent engagement with the fairy tale consequently produces an almost universal appeal for audiences (historically and contemporary). The folk tale narrative is, arguably, the most easily identifiable and commonly read literature throughout the world. One may assert that Disney’s Snow White effectively utilises this classical folk tale narrative in order to establish a strong connection with its audience. Furthermore, through an analysis of Snow White’s narrative ideologies, allegorical representation, audience identification, and references to American cultural values, it may be possible to suggest that Disney’s films are more influential to children through their storytelling rather than their corporate merchandising.

According to Eric Smoodin, Disney has “been and always will be unproblematically ‘conservative’”. Conservative in the sense that Snow White simply centres around a melodramatic linear narrative. Disney purposefully employs a reasonably easy, and adaptable, storyline to simply help its young audience understand the structure of the film. The protagonist Snow White is recognised as the main character, the heroine who must complete objectives by confronting difficult obstacles in her escape from the controlling Queen, our antagonist. The Queen is represented as the imposing force against Snow White whose objective is to create these obstacles. Although designed to follow the passage of Snow White, the narrative presents the audience with the journeys of both characters in order for a conflicting finale.

The character’s narrative oppositions could arguably accentuate Disney’s theme of duality. Snow White’s two main opposing characters are obvious in terms of narrative structure but are also evident within Disney’s visual representation. In relation to their character personalities, Snow White and the Queen are morally polarised, deliberately placed at the opposite ends of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ spectrum. Dorothy L. Hurley article on Disney’s self-image supports this observation and asserts “since [Snow White,] Disney productions have become the dominant source of children's intertextual knowledge of fairy tales, particularly in relation to visual and imaginary images. However, Disney's productions of the fairy tales not only deviate a great deal from the source texts in relation to plot and characterization, they also manifest rampant use of the symbolism of white for goodness and black for evil or danger.”

One may suggest that Snow White’s young age plays a significant part in Disney’s ability to engage with its younger audience. Uncertain of her actual age, from her first introduction on screen, although in a position of domestication, she appears innocent and carefree as she playfully sings scrubbing the courtyard of her stepmother’s palace. Snow White’s reaction to the Prince when he first meets her could be read as a child’s reaction to a stranger as when she appears she is scared of him and hides away, despite his efforts to reassure Snow White that he means her no harm. It is interesting that the second, and last, introduction of the Prince presents his significant role within the narrative when affectionately representing “Love’s First Kiss”. The Prince is initially seen as an outsider but ultimately is represented as the saviour.

One could suggest that, in terms of Snow White’s childlike tendencies, her journey may, arguably, act as a ‘coming-of-age’ metaphor: from her playful manner in the courtyard (a child); her “purification and regeneration” in the forest (a teenager); her maternal quality to the seven dwarfs (a mother); finally to her future together with the Prince (love/marriage). Furthermore, this suggestion could be supported by Whitley’s observation that “Snow White’s ‘saccharine sweetness’ is taken to disarm young viewers from perceiving her role as exemplar of a stifling mid-century ideal of female conformity.”

Another possible suggestion is that Snow White also references the religion of Christianity. It could be argued that the poisoned apple made by the Queen for Snow White could be seen to symbolise the Story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Additionally, after the Prince has awoken Snow White they both set off into the distance towards a castle-like exterior. An interpretation of this castle may be that it consciously represents Disney’s own ‘Magical Castle’ image, perhaps a bold self-recognition on its first feature-length animation. Alternatively, this castle may otherwise be seen as a Heavenly imagery to Christianity’s belief of ‘The Kingdom of Heaven’. However, if this interpretation was to be further analysed the ending, and entire narrative, of Snow White may be deeply scrutinised. Is Disney pandering to a religious, conservative American community/audience? In relation to merchandising, Disney’s Magical Castle is used as its universal trademark. The castle has even been turned into a full-sized attraction at its global Disneyland and Disney World Resorts. This could be seen as symbolic in selling the dream of a magical kingdom to children. Disneyland has perhaps becomes part of an idealised world in which Disney is selling its own version of the American Dream.

In conclusion, as primary evidence, in my old school an art project on narrative was given to a group of 14-15 year olds; they had to illustrate scenes from their favourite books or poems. Roughly about 75% of the class illustrated Disney’s versions of stories. They had no knowledge of the original stories, authors or background. Jungle Book (1967) for them was only Disney and Disney’s interpretation of character. They did not know of or had never read Rudyard Kipling or imagined that the stories had been illustrated before. It is not the merchandising that has influenced these students but the over-exposure at a young age to the work of Disney.

It does seem that most of the texts, although derived from fairytales and disguised through the use of animals with human characteristics, promote American values and the American culture. The merchandising seems secondary in relation to the appetite for coveting the American Dream after the Second World War and during the 1950s. The merchandising is huge of course especially if you include the parks but surely these only survive because of the strength of the characters and stories. I think Disney is unique in the sense that it is not about a film or series of films but an entire production, unlike Pokémon (1999) in Japan where the merchandising was huge but the text unknown and forgotten. Disney is about stories and films that have lasted generations. The stories and characters are timeless and the merchandising has been developed to cater for a changing generation. I don’t think that’s true of something like Star Wars (1977) which in time will seem dated in its technology and texts.

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