Get a Horse!, a delightful six-minute cartoon that played theatrically with Disney’s 3-D hit Frozen in 2013 and also appears on the DVD of that film, pays homage to Walt Disney’s earliest Mickey Mouse shorts like Steamboat Willie and Plane Crazy (both 1928). Thus it symbolically links the first well-known Disney animated successes with the company’s contemporary hit. And its style limns a narrative of animation’s Technological Progress, a version of history much beloved at Disney and elsewhere: Mickey and his pals go out for a hayride in 2-D black and white hand-drawn images, and their subsequent chase and fight with Pegleg Pete eventually bursts through the small screen into larger-screen 3-D color computer animation.
Whereas the three documentaries discussed above are aimed at smaller but possibly influential audiences of Disney fans, Get a Horse! reached a much larger audience with its wide theatrical “piggyback” release, a practice Disney has used before with its animated features, which are often less than ninety minutes. Many of those in the mass audience, however, had no context for what they were seeing. Fans and aficionados, on the other hand, some of whom are aspiring animators, could develop some usually uncritical context online. This smaller audience could be socially rewarded for sharing its insider knowledge as context, a documentary supplement to its anarchic fun. They could tell their friends and acquaintances that Walt Disney himself recorded the voice of Mickey Mouse in more than a hundred cartoons beginning in 1928. And the high, squeaky voice of early Mickey is here reconstructed by painstakingly selecting, rerecording and assembling fragments of Disney’s voice into Mickey’s new dialogue.[open endnotes in new window]
Two of the urban legends about Walt Disney maintain that he had himself cryogenically frozen so he could be resurrected by a more advanced future medical science, and also that he made several short films just before his death to be viewed every five years by his employees as instructions for the direction of the company. Certainly these rumors suggest symptomatic anxiety over his death and its implications for his company’s future. But as Sammond argues, they also testify to
At this historical moment when the increasingly diversified conglomerate, now lacking direction from Walt’s descendants, may be losing its mythical family identity, what could be more apposite than a technological resurrection, only superficially secular, which brings back the literal voice of the man himself, realizing and sharing his founding fantasy with the world?
The documentary element in Get a Horse! is available and interesting only to a minority with special knowledge. Saving Mr. Banks, on the other hand, uses the nonfiction mode as guarantor of the truth of its fiction, its version of history, more prominently in its closing credit sequence. In those credits: “The producers wish to acknowledge the work of Valerie Lawson, author of 'Mary Poppins, She Wrote—The Life of P.L. Travers.’” Lawson tells us that all of Travers’ script conferences with Disney’s writers were recorded. Saving Mr. Banks presents Travers as insisting on the recordings, making them a central part of its narrative, both painful and funny; then the closing credit sequence provides a big close-up of the early-sixties model reel-to-reel tape recorder we have just seen in the film. But this time we hear not the voice of Emma Thompson playing Travers, but the voice of the real P.L. Travers lecturing Da Gradi and the Sherman Brothers in 1961. It is as if The Walt Disney Company were addressing us directly through the film: This is a true story, and we’ve got the tapes to prove it! But as we will see, the film’s 1961 story (its present) is anchored less in any documentary authenticity than in an evanescent “gut feeling” of documentary truthiness as guarantor for a film in which the conventions of classical narrative form and genre (melodrama, the musical) contend with the demands of Disney corporate self-promotion.
Characteristics of Disney and its products: commodification
Let’s summarize the arguments made so far about The Walt Disney Company, and develop their implications further in order to understand some conditions of possibility for the corporation’s representation of Walt Disney and itself in Saving Mr. Banks.
The Walt Disney Company has built an entertainment and media empire on appeals to largely white, middle class and culturally conservative consumers with stories, characters and products about idealized nuclear families: parents, children and pets. Since the late twenties, the company has built the public figure of “Walt Disney” into a simulacrum of itself—model parent, empathetic family-entertainment creator, and paternal boss. That is, although the public image of “Walt Disney” is largely a product of the private corporation itself, that image also acts as the external referent, authenticator and justifier for the systematized functions of the corporation that produces it.
However, Disney’s target audience has always been more racially and sexually diverse; the family dynamics of Disney consumers are more various, contradictory and nuanced than the characters and families in Disney stories. And as the corporation has grown and its consumers multiplied, the constructed image of “Walt Disney” as simulacrum for the company and its imagined audience has aged, has become less and less credible as it moves more firmly into the past. From the thirties to today, this image has receded from model father and parental identification figure to uncle, grandfather, and now great-grandfather, of whom those now living have little or no memory. As the real children of Walt and Roy O. Disney have themselves passed on, and their children have gone their own ways, so the imagined family of Disney consumers constructed by the corporation’s products has, since the eighties, been forced to expand, even while maintaining conventional standards of white beauty and patriarchy. It’s clearly time for a remodeling of Walt’s image, for him to be played by Tom Hanks, a new simulacrum for managing change.
Disney’s business model is built on quickly readable modular units of familiar personality traits, song and narrative fragments, and highly conventionalized visual elements of color, design and movement. Designed for reproduction and easy adaptation to a number of commercial and industrial contexts—indeed to destroy and remake those contexts—these standardized and highly commodified constructs are combined into animated and live action films or other media products, sold as merchandise, or made into built environments (theme parks, resorts, cruise ships) where the modules become three dimensional fantasy “themes” in which you can move, eat, play, live and consume.
The commodity modules must all function as both appealing products on their own and also as advertisements for other Disney products: cross-promotion, reciprocal advertising and media convergence, combined with careful attention to quality of products and services, generate a magical synthesis. They have created an aura around the Disney brand much more valuable than that of competing brands like Universal or Dreamworks, and updated in recent years through its institutional and marketing association with Apple. The larger self-referential Disney universe excludes elements from outside in the same way the theme parks exclude outside buildings or other sights and sounds that would break the fantasy illusion. The distinctive Disney brand must be constantly built, maintained, protected and extended. Steve Jobs helped remodel the Walt Disney Company because he understood that brand, combined with a distinctive quality of products and services, is a form of capital. He
Saving Mr. Banks is the kind of brand deposit or investment likely to continue to pay cultural dividends for many years.
If you’ve seen Disney’s Mary Poppins or Saving Mr. Banks, think of “Chim-chim-inee, chim-chim-inee, chim-chim cheree,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” or “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” If you’ve encountered “Let It Go,” the quasi-feminist “power ballad” from Disney’s Frozen (2013), you may remember the song’s soaring musical phrase that has snagged an edge of your memory’s network. Likewise, a narrative hook in a written or visual story is an early action, mystery, engaging setting or character that pulls the reader or spectator through the textual experience by hooking readers’ attention, efficiently subordinating form and style, space and time to narrative, making the story more consumable. (“I couldn’t stop reading/watching/listening.”) Commercial film and media makers, game and theme park designers work to orchestrate narrative and formal elements into spatial and temporal hooks that facilitate their own decontextualization, are easily resold in other venues, and beckon us in distraction back to the cherished ride or game or movie again. For Disney and other entertainment companies, virality can be a sign of success for their modal commodity-hooks.
While the narrative, visual and musical hooks are perhaps less obvious in a film like Saving Mr. Banks, targeted as it seems to be primarily to adults rather than to children and teenagers, there are still plenty of them. The film is full of lively songs-in-process, seeing Disneyland with Walt himself in 1961, and the world premiere of Mary Poppins at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in 1964. Lacking virtually any evocation of the very different, less commodifiable charms of P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins books, Saving Mr. Banks is much more likely to take you to the newly-reissued 50th Anniversary Edition of Disney’s Mary Poppins or another Disney product than it is to any of Travers’ books. And reciprocally, Disney’s new Mary Poppins DVD bears scarcely a mention of P.L. Travers’ work, though it carries a promotional special feature, “Becoming Mr. Sherman,” including a “fun and musical-filled afternoon” with Dick Sherman, the surviving Sherman brother, and Jason Schwartzman, who plays him in Saving Mr. Banks. It also has “heartwarming, revealing stories about the making of this beloved musical,” Sherman’s reminiscences about working with Walt and a “sneak peek” at the new film, thus leading us back to that biggest of all making-of movies, and completing the ritualized cycle of mutual back-patting among Disney commodities.
As we will see, Saving Mr. Banks will lead us away from Pamela Travers and toward Walt Disney in many more ways than just its invocation of Disney’s Mary Poppins film. Saving Mr. Banks is virtually a narrative argument for Walt’s contention to her that he understood Mary Poppins better than she did. Within the commercial universe of standardized culture-units that his company built and that he lived in, he was right.
History of Disney: synergy and convergence
I don’t wish to leave the impression that the many parts of The Walt Disney Company work together in smooth capitalist synergy like the apparently smoothly operating parts of one of its successful films or the soothingly ludic environments created for maximum consumption by the theme parks. In fact, much of the corporation’s history concerns its often unsuccessful struggles to make the conglomerate’s parts work together, struggles that continue to this day and that constitute a dominant theme in the biographical, business and critical literature on Disney.
The company built early success with merchandising and cross-promotion, which helped pay for its expensive move to feature animation. Walt’s interest in theme parks, urban design and live action films from the late thirties on was spurred by the expense and unreliable box-office returns of feature animation as well as the 1941 cartoonists’ strike against the studio. An argument raged for decades, both inside and outside Disney, over whether feature animation was not only part of the company’s public identity but the key source of new characters and other commodified module-hooks necessary to sell more merchandise and advertising time on television and to create new attractions for repeat business at the theme parks. Top Disney executives from Walt to the present have failed to resolve this argument, to provide a consistent flow of new material from animated or live action features (or other sources) so as to keep the biggest profit centers, merchandising, television and theme parks, humming with new product and cash for growth.
Finally, after the spectacular gilded-age battles among top owner-managers Roy E. Disney, Ron Miller, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Eisner and others, Robert Iger, allied with Steve Jobs, produced or expanded a tentative compromise, reducing the company’s strategic risk and providing multiple sources of new branded personality-commodities. They did this by purchasing Pixar in 2006, the Marvel stable of characters and stories in 2009, and the Star Wars franchise with Lucasfilm in 2012. CGI technology aided this compromise for many by blurring the boundaries between animation and live action in big studio films, and the families that were Disney’s core audience assumed new forms and colors. Thus the extension of the Disney brand to include Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars and other intellectual property prompted more questions about whether Disney in the new century meant anything except an increasingly vague commitment to an increasingly fractured family market, a brand devoted above all to managing diversity, surveilling and controlling its customers, and extracting maximum loyalty and cash from children of all ages.
In this context, then, Saving Mr. Banks resembles other Disney products. As Alan Bryman has argued,
Thus there’s a common impression that the panoply of family fun and magic, so perfectly planned and controlled, also has other less obvious functions in that planning and control. Just as people may become aware, pleasurably or not, of some of the myriad ways in which they are being controlled in the theme parks, resorts or cruise ships, Saving Mr. Banks and other Disney films, more than other Hollywood products, often create the impression that there is something else going on here besides an entertaining experience, that corporate agendas are being fulfilled, that a sales pitch and an argument is also being made. By now Disney’s nearly century-long brand-building may be precision-tuned and pervasive, but its functionality, its systemic efficiency, also emerges more frequently into visibility, producing a cynicism which may accompany consumerist pleasures. Several reviews of Saving Mr. Banks reference this quality:
It’s hard for a movie to be just a movie when it also has to be a commercial for other Disney products.
Private control, public resistance
All of this suggests that The Walt Disney Company—as its private power has grown, as it has reached into more and more aspects of everyday life around the world—has increasingly come into conflict with changing public priorities and values. These conflicts range from particular communities and local governments opposing new Disney developments in their locations to long-running public criticism, largely unanswered, of pervasive racism, sexism, and naturalization and idealization of rigid social hierarchies in many Disney films. And the corporation’s imperative to control its public image increasingly conflicts with competing public interests, since it necessarily involves trying to control publics, turning them into atomized consumers.
Since the late thirties the company has become known for Disneyfication, its systematic transformation of every story or other property it acquires, no matter how original or unconventional, into something superficial, formulaic and sanitized. But in more recent decades the theme parks have become the most socially and institutionally influential part of the growing Disney empire. This influence is perhaps best described as Disneyization (in parallel with McDonaldization, after the fast food chain), the spatial and social extension of Disneyfication. Disneyization includes
These practices have been adopted by private and public institutions far from the Disney entertainment universe, including those with significant public missions such as airports, museums, zoos, and urban planning generally. Disneyization is a key dimension of the increasing privatization of these and other public institutions.
Many multinational corporations aspire to control their public image and their publics as effectively as does Disney. But Disney’s distinctive brand has increasingly been unable to avoid well-publicized contradictions within its often rapacious corporate behavior. And the press and public sometimes enjoys a good story about the Mouse House’s bad behavior almost as much as it does Disney’s own products. That a corporate conglomerate would try to present itself as not only clean and efficient, but also just as innocent, naïve and childlike as its paradigmatic founder and consumer are supposed to be, invites the 80% of Disney’s customers who are not children, plus the rest of us, to engage in some demystification even if we enjoy Disney experiences. So by now there are myriad historical reports detailing the growing contradictions between Disney’s relentlessly cultivated family-values image and its sociopathic determination to maximize shareholder value, a determination and zeal seldom matched among U.S. corporations and often reported with the barely-concealed glee of someone bursting a child’s balloon.
There is an extensive popular and academic literature on this subject, and a full exploration of the topic is beyond the scope of this essay, so here I’ll just summarize a sample of this private corporation’s numerous clashes with changing public values and institutions. These problems generate a fuller, less flattering and more contradictory context than Disney can control, and while most of them are not directly about Saving Mr. Banks, they do cast the film and other Disney products in a very different light than the familiar Disneyfied one.