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Do we need Disney?

Cute characters, cheesy tunes ... the Mouse has been keeping children happy for decades. Now at least 16 million parents want their kids protected. Jonathan Glancey asks ...
Dumbo. Lady. Goofy. The Tramp. Baloo the Bear. Pongo, Perdita and all those cutesy-pie Disney Dalmatians. Don't you just love them? Up to a point. Millions of us have hissed at Cruella de Ville, at the Wicked Witch in Snow White, and 101 other Hollywood cartoon baddies dreamt up by Uncle Walt and his team (of a thousand); but, when was Disney, the corporation that makes the cartoons, ever cute? The Disney Corporation is one of the world's most successful companies, and among the most litigious - "don't mess with the Mouse" is the word on the boulevard in California. Mickey Mouse, that is, the elephant-eared rodent who remains figurehead of this extraordinary American success story 69 years after his first appearance, with Minnie, in Plane Crazy, a silent short that accompanied Hollywood's first talkie - The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson.

Don't mess with the Mouse, sure; yet this summer, there are 16 million Bible-thumping Southern Baptists out to break the Mouse's neck unless he can mend his ways.

Last month, the Southern Baptist Convention voted at its annual conference in New Orleans to boycott Disney products and theme-parks because the company has been "disparaging Christian values". Disney? Yes, Disney. The company may manufacture cutesy characters in cutesy films, but to the Baptists, the plot is more sinister. They are angered that the company, based in Orange County, California, and Orange County, Florida, has extended health benefits to companions of homosexual employees and, by its own admission, has staged gay and lesbian events at its world-famous theme- parks. Through its subsidiary Miramax Films, it has distributed films such as Priest (about an active and gay member of the Catholic clergy) and Kids (featuring under-age sex between consenting teenagers). "We're through with the Mouse until the company cleans up its act," says a spokesman for the powerful right-wing sect.

This criticism is not necessarily felt by all Southern Baptists: moderates broke away from the self-righteous majority five years ago. And it is unlikely that Americans across the federal republic will have much sympathy with them.

Even so, many Americans have taken against the Mouse over the past few weeks. Their reasons are not entirely dissimilar to those of intolerant Christian fundamentalists. The main one is Disney's 34th and latest full- length cartoon feature - The Hunchback of Notre Dame, released here last week. Not only is the film seen as a travesty of Victor Hugo's original story, but The Hunchback stands accused of working overhard to help sell film-related products (goats and gargoyles among hunchbacks and winsome heroines) to gullible children and, worse than this, of being together "too dark and intense", of harbouring "homosexual undertones" and of "fetishist hunger" (whatever that is).

The homosexual undertones come principally from the all-singing, all- dancing gargoyle chums of lovable Quasimodo when they warble "A Guy Like You" (nudge, nudge) and Quasi himself sings "Out There", a song that shares a title with one by a US gay advocacy group. If these connections strain credulity, then what about the truly nationwide fuss over Esmerelda's bust? Apparently, Esmerelda is the first Disney heroine to sport a prominent cleavage. The green-eyed dusky beauty with big hair, the would-be love of Quasimodo, is voiced by that siren of the screen Demi Moore. She has already been designed as a provocation to all right-thinking southern fundamentalists who have looked into her cleavage and found themselves frothing at the mouth.

Such criticisms would not be so important were it not for the fact that Disney has such a profound grip on the American - and therefore the Western - way of life. We all know the films and many of us have visited Disneyland or what was Euro-Disney and is now Disneyworld Paris. The first film we ever saw at the cinema was probably a Disney. This spring, Disney teamed up in a 10-year deal with McDonald's to promote its products and theme parks through 18,700 burger restaurants in 93 countries. Last month, the first 350 families began moving into Celebration, Florida, a Utopian community designed by the men and women who bring you the wonderful world of Disney. Yes, folks, sane (well, questionably sane) apple-pie families have put down good money to live full-time in a Disney theme park. Choose from Classical, Coastal, Colonial Revival, French Mediterranean or Victorian homes and settle back in your sofas to watch life go by Mickey Mouse-style.

This is just the beginning. As folk move into Celebration, so Disney is opening more and more shops selling Pocahontases and Esmereldas to kids and parents, across the world. In New York, Disney has invested heavily in formerly sex-fuelled 42nd Street, transforming its red-light district into fairyland. Disney has snapped up the street's old New Amsterdam Theatre, where The Ziegfeld Follies and Al Jolson once performed, and are turning it into a Disney theatre, where Esmerelda, brought to life, will perform in place of strippers, while encouraging more people to buy more Disney goodies. Or baddies, if you adopt the Southern Baptist line.

Meanwhile, there are those who fear that the all-pervading influence of Disney is in danger of bringing the state and the business corporation into too close an alliance. This process began 30 years ago when Disney bought Childcraft, educational toy makers, who supplied schools across the land with their products, and continued through the Nineties when the corporation started sponsoring the official national "Teacher of the Year" award.

As if Disney had not insinuated itself deep enough into the American and international psyche, it now also owns such wide-ranging and popular interests as Women's Wear Weekly, the fashion magazine and ESPN, a sports TV channel received in 135 countries. As they say in California, in 1996, this Mouse is one mother of a rodent.

Disney did slip into a state of relative inactivity after the death of Walt in 1965; it was not until 1989 when The Little Mermaid was a hit that the Mouse roared again. This Little Mermaid was described by the famous children's author, Maurice Sendak, as being a travesty of Hans Christian Andersen's original story. Clearly, not much has changed in the way the Mouse has worked his magic over the past seven years. While storylines might be criticised and sexual connotations, imaginary or otherwise, pounced on, what is certain is that the wonderful world of Disney is wonderful once more. The Little Mermaid, and Michael Eisner, the Disney boss who has inherited Walt's outsized cartoon ears, has spawned the likes of The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and Pocahontas, all of which have turned greenbacks into gold at the box office. The soundtrack to The Lion King was Disney's first number one in the LP charts since Mary Poppins which was going back some way. In the summer of 1996, Disney might have hit a patch of controversy, but it is the biggest entertainment company in the world and one of the 30 US stocks on which the Dow Jones index is based.

Like its new trading partner, McDonald's, which has also been attacked by protest groups, Disney appears to be unstoppable. Do we need it? If you are a hard-pressed single parent trying to find something your squawking sprogs will settle down to watch, then yes, yes - give us any number of reels of The Lion King and The Jungle Book. As for the rest of us, of course, we don't need Disney. In fact, we need Disney and the Mouse as much as we need Ronald McDonald and his horrific hamburgers.

Reason not the need; we are - well, most of us - suckers for a good tune - "I'm the king of the swingers/ the jungle VIP", "When I see an elephant fly", "Some day my prince will come", and, by Jiminy, "When you wish upon a star") - as we are suckers for winsome and, ahem, bosomy heroines, clean- shaven, lantern-jawed heroes who might have sprung straight(ish) from the gym and animals that waltz, perform deeds of derring-do and speak jive. Damn his silly voice and stupid ears, but Pinocchio and The Jungle Book are great, and I cried when Dumbo's mother was stolen away from her lovable flying infant.

How, though, we wrestle with these saccharine-sweet cartoon characters. They are schmaltzy, sentimental and silly; they are patronising, provocative (well, Esmerelda is, if you listen to Southern Baptists) and perverse (if you insist on reading meanings into otherwise innocent lyrics sung by Quasimodo and his gargoyle buddies). The Mouse knows all too well how to manipulate our emotions. Dumbo. The Lady. Goofy. The Tramp. Baloo the Bear, Pongo, Perdita and all those cutesy-pie Dalmatians. Don't you, along with 16 million Southern Baptists, just love to hate them?

What do you think?

Every Monday you can give the Do We Need...? subject of the week the come- on-down or the thumbs-down. Send your verdict on Disney, in no more than 100 words, to Do We Need...?, Section Two, the Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, or fax 0171-293 2182 no later than Friday morning.