The Righteousness of Self-Centred Royals: The World According to Disney Animation
Artz, Lee, Critical Arts
The startling success of Disney animation prompts the perspective for this essay, which explores both a political-economic and cultural studies approach. Understanding Disney animation helps clarify the intimate relationship between ideology and socio-economic practice, (Ricker, 1996; Wasko, 2001). Investigating the construction, content, and persuasive efficacy of animated Disney films reveals that Disney consistently and intentionally selects themes in its commodities-as-animated features that promote an ideology useful to Disney and capitalist society, but at odds with democratic, creative communities. Of course, valid arguments may be made that audiences construct their own varied meanings, often in contradiction to those intended by the producer, but this essay is concerned primarily with the content of the messages constructed and distributed from the entertainment producer, because of Disney's standing in popular culture. Moreover, because social groups use "mass-mediated "words and images" to create and sustain social relations" (Ricker, 1996, p. 42), in a society ostensibly committed to democracy, it is particularly unsettling to find that Disney's animated features simultaneously soften and distribute messages of class hierarchy and anti-social hyper-individualism.
Much has been written about the power and influence of the Disney Corporation (Dorfman & Mattelart, 1975; Maltin, 1980; Mosley, 1985; Schickel, 1968; Smoodin, 1994; Wasko, 2001). With enterprises in film, video, theme parks, cable and network television, cruise ships, toys, clothing and other consumer products, Disney leads in the construction and promotion of the United States' popular culture. Yet, despite its position as global media giant--second only to Time-Warner-AOL--its sordid past as Cold War propagandist (Kanfer, 1997, p. 153) and union-buster (Wasko, 2001, pp. 90-98), and its current exploitation of sweatshop workers (e.g., $1/day for Haitian Disney employees), Disney maintains the Mickeyesque-aura of Uncle Walt and wholesome family entertainment. Indeed, Disney now serves as America's moral educator (Real, 1977; Ward, 1996). Dominating market power in entertainment, mitigated by avuncular representation, adheres to Disney in large part due to its primary production art form: the animated feature. In addition, although Fox (with Ice Age ) and DreamWorks (formed by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen in 1992 with the goal of outdoing Disney animation [Kanfer, 1997, p. 223] have begun offering their own feature animations (e.g., The Prince of Egypt  and Spirit ), neither has achieved the popularity or box-office success of Disney.
Animation is central to Disney's economic strength and cultural influence. In the last 10 years, Disney has sold more than $2 billion worth of toys based on characters from animated films and cartoons. Pegged to animated characters from Mickey to Pocahontas, Disney theme parks have more visitors yearly than 54 national parks combined. Using profits from its animated feature films, Disney acquired the American Broadcasting Corporation television network [ABC], dozens of AM radio stations, and cable holdings such as the sports network, ESPN, the History Channel, and Arts & Entertainment [A&E], among others. Disney cartoon cable channels air animated spin-offs such as Aladdin, Timon and Pumba, and the Jungle Cubs. Disney produces films other than animation with Miramax and Touchstone--studios devoted to finding the 18 to 35 years demographic. But thus far, such efforts pale in comparison to the economic success of cartoon features: Seven of the top 10 selling videos in the world are Disney animations, including Aladdin (1992), Tarzan (1999), Beauty and the Beast (1991), and Pocahontas (1995). The Lion King (1994) alone has grossed over $1 billion, including merchandising and video sales. Disney has also mastered digitised animation--an industrialised technology for creating animated images with less labor--finding receptive audiences for its Pixar productions (e. …