Walt Disney: One man and his mouse... and how they blighted our world

As Philip Glass's opera 'The Perfect American' opens, David Thomson spells out the dark legacy of 'Uncle Walt'

What is a "perfect American"? Where might he be hiding? Is he a saint or a sinner? Can't he be both? In Philip Glass's new opera, the title is loaded with irony and foreboding, and it settles on a candidate you might not think of straight away. It's your Uncle Walt.

If you wanted to nominate the most influential Americans of the 20th century, you could begin with politicians and artists. But those choices misunderstand the country and the way it regards desire, and irrational desire, as human rights. Americans call that the pursuit of happiness. And feeling good about yourself depends on services, facilities, panaceas, and shopping. So you'd have to consider the group that made the automobile available; the gang that computerised us and developed the internet are candidates; you'd need to weigh the wide field of pharmaceuticals (everything from painkillers via the Pill to antidepressants); and you should recognise the culture of advertising which offers something but leaves you bitter because you can't afford it.

These are climatic forces driven by many people. Few of us could say who invented pharmaceuticals or advertising. In one area, though, a single person is so vital to what happened that Walt Disney may be the unmatched American of the 20th century, and almost certainly the guide to such figures in this new century. His name has become a noun – Disneyfication.

Americans sometimes hope their country is racially cleansed, green, educated and even "the greatest nation on Earth". But those are suspect titles, while Disneyfied is beyond dispute, or recovery. What you feel about that achievement is up to you.

But this year about 16 million people will go to Disneyland (opened in 1955), in Anaheim, California, at a ticket price that includes transport from your hotel of $145 per person ($10 off for children). They will queue for hours in hot sun to go on "rides". For $256 a person you can get four days at the Magic Kingdom in Florida – 17 million visitors a year go there to Disney World (opened in 1971). Euro Disney was launched in Paris in 1992, and draws more than 15 million visitors a year.

Walter Elias Disney (1901-66) was born in Chicago, to an Irish-Canadian father and a German-English mother. The name is believed to derive from the d'Isigny family who came to Britain with William the Conqueror. Walt drew comic strips and cartoons. He was good but less talented than Ub Iwerks who became his first employee, in 1919, and who seems to have invented Mickey and the Silly Symphonies but who broke away in 1930 because Walt wanted all the credit.

Walt's genius lay in the industrialisation of drawings so that they became animated or alive. Of course, this trick had been demonstrated already when still photographs were automated and turned into movies. But movies were from life, and it's easier to see now that Disney the movie-maker was a crucial innovator in the process that realised film need not be confined to life. It can be anything you want to imagine, a direct shot of fantasy. It is this very notion of happiness that we are pursuing, but hardly bother to define now that the pursuit has become an addiction.

Walt was not as amiable as that folksy name suggests. He worked other people as hard as he did himself, and was persevering to the point of ruthlessness. He was not exactly comfortable with Jews, blacks or organised labour. As for material, he preferred sentimentality, conservative values, happy endings, superficial characters, all under the guise of appealing to children. There were many other experimenting animators in film history and some who did greater work, but Walt saw that a succession of painstakingly drawn cels (or celluloid sheets) could turn into Snow White (1937), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941) or Bambi (1942). And the quality of the animation in, say, Bambi (the details of rain in the forest, the life of the fire) was more tender and exquisite than animation today with its more sophisticated tools. Artists drew Disney films in the way stonemasons achieved the ornate tracery in Gothic cathedrals.

Along the way, Walt encouraged an anthropomorphism that was never as "cute" as he wanted it to be. Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck were endearing novelties, as memorable as Laurel and Hardy or the Marx Brothers. But the more you see their films the more you appreciate that Oliver Hardy and Groucho Marx are archetypal solitaries, unhappy beings, no matter that everyone laughed at them.

Mickey and Donald dispelled anxiety with energy; they were playroom zombies or pet monsters, a way of insisting that nature was sweet and well-behaved. The problems that America and all of us have with nature today do battle with Disney's prettification and denial of true wildness. In the 1950s, Disney even won Oscars for "documentaries" in which wildlife was filmed, edited and musicalised to resemble animated figures. From that innocent folly, one can trace a line in which human figures suffer the same limiting effect, and nature as a whole is treated as a pet animal. That fallacy now finds us struggling with weather systems out of control, species facing extinction, and the prospect of synthetic humans developed as cel and cell life.

Is that taking Walt Disney too seriously? Is it spoiling the fun? Perhaps, but if American fun is coming to an end then that case is worth arguing. Disney died young; he was a chronic smoker knocked out by lung cancer. Contrary to rumour, he made no effort to ensure his own cryonic preservation. After his death, his organisation carried on. It had one of the most successful television shows in America: The Wonderful World of Disney was a hit on Sunday evenings throughout the 1960s and 1970s. In the end, Disney animation was surpassed by companies such as Pixar, but even Pixar did a deal for its work to be distributed by Disney. As a production house, Disney also made The Color of Money, Pretty Woman, What's Love Got To Do With It, Rushmore and many other live-action dramas that might have melted a frozen Walt.

The company is not as powerful as it was, but the merchandising it introduced was what prompted George Lucas to do the same with Star Wars. Every kid recognises the name Disney even if they don't know the history or grasp all the influences. But what is it to be a kid, and what did Disney do to childhood? One answer is that Disney's transformation of reality into a screened plaything is central to our children's apparent tendency to relate to the world through smaller and smaller screens, and seeming to care less about the implications of our realities. If we can't solve our problems, why bother to notice them? Thus Disney was a marker in the complex evolution that has sought to extend childhood and delay or evade maturity.

Such things are arguable – but are our children or young people ready for the process of argument? Do we not worship one-liner cuteness and cool attitude, essential elements in Disney's animated movies? All movies have contributed to that, but Disney had no equal in identifying the technologies which codified human nature, replacing it with lovable simplifications called Mickey, or Bambi, or Baloo. Did Disney understand these consequences? I don't think so. But even if he had, his business drive and his enthusiasm for technology would have outweighed them. The marriage of marketing efficiency, technological narrative and indulged childishness: that is the legacy of Walt.

'The Perfect American', nine performances from Saturday to 28 June, Coliseum, London WC2, eno.org

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