Deconstructing Disney

In Preston Sturges’s film Sullivan’s Travels (1941), convicts get a break from the woes of the Depression and chain-gang life at a screening of the Walt Disney cartoon “Playful Pluto.” Now, just in time for the current economic crisis, comes Disney’s first traditional animated feature in five years, The Princess and the Frog, due in theaters at the end of this year. With a New Orleans setting—and jazz-loving alligators, Cajun fireflies, and voodoo priestesses—the film promises to heal whatever post-Katrina wounds The Curious Case of Benjamin Button neglected. The following five books, meanwhile, are for the more cynical and knowing among us—for those who find the ubiquity of the Disney empire as inescapable as the flypaper that besets Mickey’s dog in “Playful Pluto.” But their perspectives on the man and his movies, while oftentimes critical, are not dismissive. These works treat their subject with all the gravity cartoons deserve.

The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney by Richard Schickel

The Disney Version was published in 1968, two years after Walt Disney had died (and, presumably, had been placed inside a cryonic chamber). In the preface to the biography’s third edition, Schickel writes that he is “not a radical by nature—certainly not in the careless sense that the term was used in the sixties”—and that he “never thought of The Disney Version as a radical critique of the man or the institution he ruled so obsessively.” Nevertheless, it is the book’s somewhat subversive take on a cultural icon that has given it its longevity. Although ultimately limited by Schickel’s “great man” historiographical approach, the book remains a provocative interpretation—and dismantling—of Disney’s mystique.

Eisenstein on Disney edited by Jay Leyda, translated by Alan Upchurch

Originally intended for inclusion in Method, Eisenstein’s unfinished theoretical masterwork, this collection of musings on Disney’s Silly Symphonies is disjointed and excursive, closer in structure to the Soviet filmmaker’s memoirs (published in English in 1995 as Beyond the Stars) than to his earlier manifestos and declarations. It is hard to understand how the Eisenstein of Strike and Battleship Potemkin—the Eisenstein of “art is conflict”—could pen a paean to Disney, one so similar to Preston Sturges’s, no less. “The triumphant proletariat of a future America will erect no monument to Disney as a fighter either in their hearts, or on street squares,” Eisenstein muses. “But everyone will recall him with warm gratitude for those instants of respite amid the torrential, desperate struggle for life and existence which he gave to the viewer in the troubled years of the social paradise of democratic America.”

How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart

Dorfman and Mattelart’s Marxist analysis of Donald Duck comics could easily be read as just another polemic that takes pop-cultural detritus too seriously: “The misery of the Third World is packaged and canned to liberate the masters who produce it and consume it. Then, it is thrown-up to the poor as the only food they know. Reading Disney is like having one’s own exploited condition rammed with honey down one’s throat.” But the book was first published in 1971 in Chile as Para Leer al Pato Donald, two years before the ascendancy of Pinochet and the specter of September 11, 1973, thus lending their work an urgency that similar treatises lack: “Let us find out just how much of Donald Duck remains at all levels of Chilean society. As long as he strolls with his smiling countenance so innocently about the streets of our country, as long as Donald is power and our collective representative, the bourgeoisie and imperialism can sleep in peace.”

Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-Garde by Esther Leslie

Leslie, a Benjamin scholar and Lukács translator, takes Disney as a locus that a number of diverse writers, philosophers, and artists, including Eisenstein, Leni Riefenstahl, and members of the Frankfurt School, have circled. Benjamin, for instance, treated Mickey Mouse fondly in early versions of his most famous essay (available in the collection The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media), whereas Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment views Disney’s creations as necessarily fascist (“Donald Duck in the cartoons and the unfortunate in real life get their thrashing so that the audience can learn to take their own punishment”). Siegfried Kracauer cannot stomach the lessons of Dumbo (“instead of flying with his mother to an unknown paradise, Dumbo ends up as the highly paid star for the same circus director who beat his mother”).

The American Animated Cartoon: A Critical Anthology edited by Gerald Peary and Danny Peary

Included in this long-out-of-print collection of essays, musings, and interviews is director William C. DeMille’s satiric—but nevertheless perplexing—take on the respective merits of Mickey Mouse and Popeye the Sailor. His conclusion: “The Mickey Mousians of today will be the New Dealers of tomorrow, whereas the Popeyesians will breed a race of Fascists.” But the real prize is Disney’s 1947 HUAC testimony:

H. A. Smith: Can you name any other individuals that were active at the time of the strike that you believe in your opinion are Communists?

Walt Disney: Well, I feel that there is one artist in my plant, that came in there, he came in about 1938, and he sort of stayed in the background, he wasn’t too active, but he was the real brains of this, and I believe he is a Communist. His name is David Hilberman.

H. A. Smith: How is it spelled?

Walt Disney: H-i-l-b-e-r-m-a-n, I believe. I looked into his record and I found that, number 1, that he had no religion and, number 2, that he had spent considerable time at the Moscow Art Theatre studying art direction, or something.

Hannah Frank is a graduate student in film studies at the University of Iowa and an editor at large of Triple Canopy.