The mouse that ate Western civilisation

They don't just want your children. In Disney's rapid and spectacular progress to a world brand it has become to entertainment what McDonald's is to fast food - and infantilised adults across the globe
One of the longest-running and most popular TV programmes in Britain during the single-channelled, black-and-white Fifties was a panel game entitled What's My Line? Into the BBC's Lime Grove studios in west London would troop once a week three or four guests whose trades or professions had to be guessed ("Could you perform this service on me?" - cue gales of studio laughter) by a resident quartet of panellists. Even way back then, however, celebrity was enhaloed by its own unique prestige, and the most eagerly awaited part of the evening was the self-styled "Celebrity Spot". The panellists put on masks, a notability was invited by chairman Eamonn Andrews to sign in and the idea was to figure out his or her identity.

Just the sight of these celebrities entering the studio would provoke a spontaneous round of applause. But I recall one guest, a man in his late middle age, with the silver-frosted temples, circumflex-shaped moustache and complacently affluent demeanour of a small-town banker from the American Midwest, whose entrance was accompanied by a sulkily baffled silence. It was only after he had scribbled his signature on the What's My Line? blackboard that there arose a quite tremendous burst of cheering. It was Walt Disney.

What must now strike the under-thirties generation as weird is less the fact that, 40 years ago, this world-famous film-maker was not yet a household face than that there really once was a person named Walt Disney. Nowadays the word "Disney" resonates in the collective imagination as a corporation, a culture, an ideology, an industry, a philosophy, a trademark... but a man? It would be like discovering that there had actually once existed a Mr Coca and a Mr Pepsi.

Even weirder, from our millennial vantage point, is the idea that Walt was not only a living individual, but also an artist, one of the 20th century's supreme inventors of forms, whose early shorts, of an often amazingly subversive rudery and violence, were championed by such unlikely admirers as Einstein and Eisenstein.

Weirdest of all, perhaps, is that the Disney of those halcyon years, before his faintly ramshackle cottage industry ballooned into the tentacularly ubiquitous operation it is now, could also be described as an artisan - an artisan of genius. The earliest of his feature-length cartoons, Snow White, Dumbo, Pinocchio and Bambi, masterpieces all, were constructed cel by exquisite cel, image by image, like the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Taking years to complete, they cost a fortune; nor was it by any means a foregone conclusion that so massive an investment in time and money would be recouped.

So it would be a mistake to measure the artistry of Disney by the slick synthetics of The Lion King or Pocahontas or the new Mulan. The computer- generated creatures of these cartoons bear precisely the same relation to the painstakingly hand-crafted denizens of the works cited above as the animatronics of Disney's theme parks do to real animals.

The thing about Disney is that he used to be exceptional, a treat reserved for extra-special occasions, champagne for kids. Hard as it is to credit now, with a new one opening annually, a full-length Disney cartoon was, for the infants of my generation, a major event, anticipated for months, even years, ahead, read about, fantasised about, endlessly pawed over afterwards. It would generally be released at Christmas - and, in a sense, it was better than Christmas, as Christmas came but once a year but a Disney film came but once every two or three years.

Then I grew up - and, I like to believe, I grew out of Disney. But an odd thing happened. The world had grown into Disney. Think of confectionery - I mean the sort of ordinary, humble sweets stocked by newsagents. Just as there exist what could be regarded as "grown-up" sweets (coffee creams, for example, or chocolate liqueurs) and other varieties specifically targeted at children (dolly mixtures, jelly babies, etc), so, when I was a child, there were Disney movies and there were grown-up movies. Yes, it's true, the grown-ups who accompanied us to the Disneys enjoyed them nearly as much as we did. They were meticulously detailed, excitingly plotted, vividly characterised and boasted soundtrack scores so catchy that some of their best-known theme songs have endured to this day as popular standards - "Whistle While You Work" from Snow White, "When You Wish Upon a Star" from Pinocchio. Yet, as everybody realised, they were basically children's sweets, and it would have been as inconceivable for a grown-up of that era to think of going to see one unaccompanied by an infant as it would have been to buy dolly mixtures for his or her own consumption.

Now, apparently, we all prefer dolly mixtures. Not only is Mulan a perfectly acceptable option for anybody wanting to catch a movie and confronted by a typical multiplex menu, but it's probably the case that the vast majority of other movies on offer have also been contaminated by the infantilising Disney ethos. The old cant phrase, beloved of publicists, about a movie being "a treat for all children from six to 60" must now be read absolutely literally, for that's exactly how the contemporary (American) cinema views its potential audience - as children, however old.

How did it happen? How did it happen that, these days, watching a movie is closer to the experience of being whizzed round a theme-park ride than to reading a novel or watching a play or listening to an opera? How did it happen that the cinema, the century's quintessential art form, has been permitted to degenerate into candy, and not just candy but candy floss, forgotten as soon as consumed, disintegrating into sugary nothingness even as one consumes it?

It seems to me that it all began with the notion of the theme park, in particular with the original Disneyland, erected in Anaheim, California, near Los Angeles, in 1955. Much has since been written about the internationally flourishing theme-park industry, and the term itself has become a metaphor for the world's growing preference for an antiseptic simulacrum of society, a society emancipated of its endemic afflictions of poverty, racism, unemployment, violence and dirt, as against the real, messy, uncontrollable thing. Yet what all such commentaries neglect is the importance of that key signifier of the theme-park experience, the ride.

Everybody likes rides - this is the fundamental tenet of the Disney catechism. Rides offer a visceral, sensual pleasure that makes no distinction between ages, intellects, genders or races. It's a pleasure that presupposes no foreknowledge, no mental cultivation, no skills of any kind. It offers no resistance, no friction. It's neither subtle nor elusive but instantaneous and universal. And the illusion of danger is so cunningly calibrated that, far from undermining our pleasure, it becomes one of its most indispensable ingredients. You can see for yourself if you visit one of the Disney theme parks. It would be hard to imagine any other public entertainment where the sheer euphoria of the experience is so visibly stamped on every face.

The trouble is that, for a certain mentality, the theme park ride has become the model, the paradigm, for all cultural pleasures. If a movie doesn't have you squealing with delight the way a theme-park ride does, if its meaning has to be gradually, effortfully, "drawn out", as they say of the fastidious flavours of haute cuisine, then, admit it, you're really just pretending to enjoy it. That, at least, is what more and more people believe, and that's why more and more movies are conceived as vicarious or, to employ a modish word, virtual theme-park rides (a recent specimen, Twister, even sounded like one).

Yes, but wait, some may retort, take precisely Mulan. Because it features a female protagonist resolved to liberate a space for herself in a male- dominated world, couldn't it be called a proto-feminist cartoon? And Pocahontas, after all, managed to address the hardly infantile issues of racism, colonialism and even genocide. Then there's Scorsese. And Coppola. And Tarantino. And Spielberg - well, maybe not the Spielberg of Jurassic Park, but let's not forget Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan. Surely not everything in Disney, and by extension in the modern Hollywood cinema, deserves to be so contemptuously dismissed as infantile.

The politicisation of the cartoon? The radicalisation of American mainstream movies? A lovely idea if it were true, but it isn't. Mulan and Pocahontas are just confirmation, if confirmation were needed, that "serious", "controversial" subject matter now has to be rendered instantly palatable, frictionless, resistance-free, masticated and diced into minuscule bite-sized (or soundbite- sized) chunks until it's pap for the toothless, just as McDonald's does everything but chew the food for you. Schindler's List? As one sceptical American critic put it, only Spielberg could have made a feelgood movie about the Holocaust. Saving Private Ryan? Squirting dollops of blood over the screen like a child smothering a Big Mac in ketchup can't disguise the fact - indeed, it simply underlines it - that, essentially, that is what it is, a Big Mac, a Big Steve, a real Spielburger. The blood, like the ketchup, is crucial. Without it, the movie wouldn't have any taste at all.

Actually, the fast-food analogy is even more apposite than that of the theme-park ride. Just as children tend to turn their noses up at anything but Big Macs and fishfingers, so grown-up audiences are increasingly fighting shy of any film - and there are few enough - with an authentic seriousness of purpose. Which in turn means that the function of critics is no longer that, as used to be true, of distinguishing between good cinema and bad cinema, but of distinguishing between good pap (Lethal Weapon) and bad pap (Godzilla). And the same audiences that would formerly have queued for Bergman, Bunuel, Bresson, Fellini, Visconti and Antonioni now make a beeline for the latest Bruce Willis or There's Something About Mary or Mulan. They're tired, they've had a stressful week, the Sokurov sounds grim, the Rivette lasts three hours, maybe Six Days, Seven Nights isn't as terrible as all that, anyhow it might be fun. As much fun as a theme- park ride, as a Big Mac.

I fear that the Disneyfication of the cinema is now irreversible. Think of a few of the massive commercial successes of the last decade: movies about children (Home Alone), about children in adults' bodies (Big), about "the inner child" lurking in all of us (virtually anything with Robin Williams), about babies (Look Who's Talking), about toys (Toy Story), about cute, cuddly animals (Babe) and now even about cute, cuddly insects (the forthcoming Antz). It used to seem an amusing anomaly of the language that the expression "adult movie" referred exclusively to pornography. One day, however, it may be no joke. It may be that a genuinely adult movie, should such a species manage to survive this insidious process of infantilisation, will literally be regarded as belonging to a new category of pornography - not of the body but of the mind.

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