The Emperor's Old Groove: Decolonizing Disney's Magic Kingdom. Edited by Brenda Ayres. New York: Peter Lang, 2003. 203 pp.
The last decade has seen a proliferation of critical collections focused on the Disney empire, signaling, perhaps, that Western culture's defensive loveaffair with the Disney product is finally on the wane. Brenda Ayres's collection is firmly in the tradition set by Bell, Haas, and Sells's From Mouse to Mermaid (1995) or Eric Smoodins Disney Discourse (1994): a reasonably eclectic collection of essays on various aspects of Disney's film and corporate culture. Inevitably, the tendency for any critical collection to swing wildly between poles of discourse, theory, and quality is exaggerated by the breadth of Disney's cultural artifact and by the often widely differing critical backgrounds from which critics of Disney hail.
Ayres's collection finds some kind of focus by stating its intention to be "a series of close readings of individual animated films. ... a close, careful look at the very heart of Disney" (3). It thus offers more concentrated textual concerns than do Bell et al, who include live action films from Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures, or Smoodin's collection, which includes considerable analysis of the theme parks. The focus on animation is productive, underlining the extent to which it is the animated icons which define Disney to its consumers, and the animated films which define the ideological and cultural construction of the familiar images. At the same time, the limitation leads to a certain smoothing of theme, suggested by the collection's section topics-Family, Women, Culture, Literature, History. While certain essays stand out, the overall effect of both the sectioning and the bulk of the essays is a faint but persistent sense of déjà vu; despite the disparity of critical approaches, they at times echo not only each other, but the general themes and insights of earlier collections. Disney scholarship, it would seem, is moving towards some kind of canonical consensus; The Emperor's Old Groove is exactly that.
The sense of an accepted canon of Disney insight is strengthened in the collection by the degree to which individual essays take for granted the scholarly historicity of their approach. "Disneyfication" has apparently become an accepted critical term, used straight-faced and without explanation. Few essays offer any contextualization of Disney as cultural monolith, launching in many cases into an analysis of cultural imperialism or problematical ideology in a particular film, without pausing to define in any depth the terms in which the monolith constructs itself. The effect is curiously unbalanced: the essays on the whole do not acknowledge, other than in passing, the essential tension between Disney's popularity as innocent, family entertainment and the ideological minefield which underpins that smug surface. Ayres's Acknowledgments and Epilogue bookend the essays with a slightly shamefaced admission of pleasure in the Disney product, but none of the essays address this issue in any depth. …