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The Icky Mouse Club

Imagine a tail of woe. One wagging sadly as it comprises: hostile takeovers, riches beyond your wildest dreams, big business, poor management, SEC investigations and intellectual property rights. The lurid story behind Disney is far darker and more sordid than just a hostile bid proposed by Comcast yesterday morning. Perhaps it’s better to say that it’s impossible to find �copyright’ or �content’ issues sexy, however at the intersection of ownership and intellectual property lays the recumbent chanteusse of the Disney company.

“Dear Michael”

Comcast, the largest cable company in America, announced yesterday an “unsolicited” bid to take over Disney, with a tax-free stock swap offer to Disney shareholders — a corporate raid with the bravado and swagger of 1980s proportions, and a shrewd maneuver that you think Michael Eisner would approve of if it weren’t so … personal.

Disney’s grueling failures have only been recently rebutted by an early first quarter release that enjoys the success of movie and video revenues generated from Pirates of the Caribbean and Finding Nemo.

This hostile bid comes at a time when Eisner and Co. are enmeshed in another difficult fight already: spinning against another campaign set off around the acrimonious resignation by board members Roy E. Disney, nephew of Walt and Chairman of Disney’s feature animation division, and his fellow director and investment manager, Stanley Gold.

“I find this intolerable… Michael, I believe your conduct has resulted from my clear and unambiguous statements to you and the Board of Directors that after 19 years at the helm you are no longer the best person to run the Walt Disney Company. You had a very successful first 10-plus years at the Company in partnership with Frank Wells, for which I salute you. But, since Frank’s untimely death in 1994, the Company has lost its focus, its creative energy and its heritage.” — from Roy Disney’s resignation letter, courtesy of Slate.com
Disney’s sentiment was immediately underscored the following day by Stanley Gold’s resignation, where he offers: “It is clear to me that this Board is unwilling to tackle the difficult issues I believe this Company continues to face — management failures and accountability for those failures, operational deficiencies, imprudent capital allocations, the cannibalization of certain Company icons for short-term gain, the enormous loss of creative talent over the last years, the absence of succession planning and the lack of strategic focus.”— from Stanley Gold’s resignation letter. Courtesy of PR Newswire.

Both men think that Eisner’s stewardship reflects strongly in big losses for the company’s theme parks, ABC television, ESPN, broadcasting, etc. If the first quarter financials are correct, as prematurely released, most of these divisions, film included, have enjoyed a 5 — 6% increase over this same period last year. Though the market has corrected up that much over last year on its own.

In the most recent �Dear Michael Letter’, Brian L. Roberts, President and CEO of Comcast addresses their intent, “I am writing following our conversation earlier this week in which I proposed that we enter into discussions to merge Disney and Comcast to create a premier entertainment and communications company. It is unfortunate that you are not willing to do so. Given this, the only way for us to proceed is to make a public proposal directly to you and your Board.

“The combined company would be uniquely positioned to take advantage of an extraordinary collection of assets. Together, we would unite the country’s premier cable provider with Disney’s leading filmed entertainment, media networks and theme park properties.” — courtesy of U.S. Business news, Feb 11th.

Comcast is geared up for a fight as they only recently emerged on top of the domestic cable market after a heavy acquisition of AT&T Broadband in 2002. As the market netted out yesterday, The Comcast offer has fallen slightly below Disney market value. A counter-offer will likely follow. What has them, and Disney, concerned is that Disney is relatively open to hostile bids. Other media merger giants are likely to emerge in the bidding war including: News Corp., Viacom, Time Warner, Liberty Media, Microsoft and even possibly Disney itself with a write-in vote to evict Eisner and the current board.

It’s all about the content. For the last five years, cable has run past nearly 90% of the homes in America and the subscription rate has been flat at 60%. The way to push their business model forward is for Comcast to add content. Disney’s extensive library would provide a goldmine to Comcast’s cable and broadband needs. The combined company would be valued at $125 billion dollars.

In what is likely to be a very busy year for mergers and acquisitions, perhaps it is time again to ask should our major content creators, Disney, be allowed to be controlled and distributed solely by major content providers?

Dial M for Mouse

Unfortunately for the Disney, Its animated success has come to a quick halt — not marked merely by the departure of Roy E. Disney, their pre-tax loss of 74 million on Treasure Planet, or — say — the recent closure of its Animation Studios in Orlando. In January, Steve Jobs, chief and owner of Pixar Animation Studios (the privately held company that created Finding Nemo, Toy Story, Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc) sharply ended its contract talks, thus severing a lifeline to Disney. From 2000 through 2005, Pixar comprises approximately 45% of the operating income of Disney’s film studio — or 7% of Disney’s earnings per share.

“After 10 months of trying to strike a deal with Disney, we’re moving on. We’ve had a great run together — one of the most successful in Hollywood history — and it’s a shame that Disney won’t be participating in Pixar’s future successes.” — Steve Jobs, as reported by the PR Newswire.

The �buzz’ is that after a strong showing with entertainment and family values in successes at Pixar and with triumphant new life at Apple Computers, that Jobs is making a bid as Eisner’s heir to the Disney throne. The lack of an obvious successor had been a major point of contention with Messrs. Disney and Gold.

The Dow of Pooh

On January 21st, Disney lost its appeal in Federal Court to recapture rights to “Winnie-the-Pooh.” In a case set for this March, the Slesinger family, which licensed the rights to A.A. Milne’s Pooh characters in the 1930s, contends that Disney owes them hundreds of millions of dollars for failure to make payment on commercial usages of the characters including royalties based on gross sales. The Slesinger family attorney Johnie Cochran said, “Hopefully Disney is done delaying and is ready to go to trial.”

Pooh is the most profitable of all of Disney character franchises, eclipsing Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy combined. It is estimated that Pooh property is worth between $3 to $6 billion to Disney. The Slesinger family is asking for $700 million, compensatory damages and the right to terminate all future rights to Disney.

M — I — C …� you real soon …K — E — Y

Perhaps its best to say that Copyright law isn’t a difficult topic: It’s an impossible topic. It is that invisible little �c’ that is the arbiter of your media.

Walt Disney was no saint. The artists that worked for him were under strict contractual obligations that all works were property of Disney. He also took most of the credit for the creative achievements. Shrewd Businessman.

Most of the Disney characters were created in the 1920s. Steamboat Willie, the debut vehicle for Mickey appeared in 1928. Disney lobbied congress in 1998, the (Sonny Bono) Copyright Term Extension Act, so that Corporate works created or published prior to 1978 continue to be held privately for the life of the creator plus 95 years. Per CTEA, individual rights prior to 1978 are life plus 75 years.

This was changed because many of the early Disney films would have entered into the public domain… right now. At present, Disney’s property is covered until 2019. CTEA was put into law in 1998. There has been no attempt to justify this 20 year extension. Coincidentally, for the year 1997-98, Disney made 6.3 million dollars in political campaign contributions.

The issue seems to be, as was addressed by the case �Eldred v. Ashcroft’, as to whether or not Congress has the right, under the Constitution’s Copyright Clause, to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Key here are the phrases limited Times and Progress.

“Seen in this light, the CTEA cannot survive. Because already existing works cannot be created anew, extension of subsisting copyrights does not promote progress. Congress is not empowered merely to provide copyright holders with an additional boon — that is not progress, but corporate welfare.” — Chris Sprigman, Council to the Antitrust Group in Washington DC. For more on this please read his article.

As Sprigman continues to illustrate, the public domain is necessary for the arts to flourish. Leonard Bernstein’s �Westside Story’ would not exist without Shakespeare’s �Romeo and Juliet’ which would not exist without Arthur Brooke’s poem �Romeus and Juliet’.

“Dead Men Tell No Tales.” —Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland.

“A vista into a world of wondrous ideas signifying man’s achievement. A step into the future with predictions of constructive things to come. Tomorrow offers new frontiers in science, adventure and ideals: the atomic age, the challenge of outer-space, and the hope for a peaceful and unified world.” — Walt Disney inaugurating Tomorrow land, c.1967.

Two men, one mouse. Last week, John Hench passed away. Who, you may ask? Martin Sklar, vice president and principal chief executive of Walt Disney Imagineering has to say, ”He was a supreme designer. He had an exquisite aesthetic sense. He was the essence of the Disney Brand itself.”

John Hench was a career Disney artist and the official portrait painter of Mickey Mouse. His career began with Fantasia, continuing through many film projects and on to creating much for the Disney resorts and theme parks around the world. Space Mountain was his design. He oversaw the creation of Disney World, the addition of the Epcot Center and Tokyo Disneyland. Hench also won an Academy Award for special effects in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

At the park, He was often mistaken for Walt. Sometimes in Walt’s company.

I still can’t help but be saddened that we haven’t heard more of this man that his peers consider “the essence of the Disney Brand itself.”

Epilogue

There are Mouse drawings in my past. Still my mother proudly displays a batik I made of Mickey when I was five. Conveniently, I keep forgetting, an offer made to me in the late 1980s to help start-up Disney Interactive, their gaming company. I have no outright hostility towards the Mousers. A great number of people I started with, at Art Center College of Design, got funneled into that program.

It amazes many that Eisner’s grip on Disney seems to tighten after twenty years at the helm and no chosen successor. In 2003, the Securities Exchange Commission began investigating whether Disney failed to disclose payments made by the company to directors and their families. That year too, Eisner awarded himself a 25% increase to his annual bonus, a total of $6.25 million.

My libertarian friends will make a firm footing on the grounds of the Freedom of Speech and the right for intellectual property to be shared to promote the arts. Yet, copyright is as old as our Union itself. At present, There is a greater and greater trend in intellectual property for rights to be owned by larger conglomerates. It is wise to remember that it’s not in the public interest to get rich — only in the private interest.

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ENTRY DETAILS
ARCHIVE ID 1824 FILED UNDER Critique
PUBLISHED ON Feb.12.2004 BY E. Tage Larsen
WITH COMMENTS
Comments
Kiran Max Weber’s comment is:

Damn you Eric! You beat me to it and it's oh so much better. You are crazy...

On Feb.12.2004 at 11:10 AM
Sarah B.’s comment is:

The artists that worked for him were under strict contractual obligations that all works were property of Disney.

It's true.. it's true.. I worked there in the fall of 98... I did the Walt Disney World College Program, and learned a lot.

I had the rare opportunity, as a merchandise cast member, to help with some designs for the t-shirts that the high school/etc teams could purchase/would get from particpating at a sporting event at the Wide World of Sports. I was 'not allowed' to even considered them my work, and they were not to be taken (the art work/files) off property. I never saw it in writing, but I do have to say that September 6, 1998, I initialed "my-life-away" - for at least the next 4 months. They really do take 'control' of you.

Besides that - I fell into the "magic" of it all, and I cant say I had an awful time, actually the opposite.. I made some wonderful friendships as well as an abundance of skills.

All this news, this post, I like to pretend really isnt happening - it is frustrating to me. And much of it I was unaware of...

Great post Eric!

On Feb.12.2004 at 11:39 AM
Greg’s comment is:

As a former Disney employee (read: castmember) on the WDW College Program, I can totally sympathize with Roy E.'s and Stanley Gold's problem. I think Eisner has bad ideas. He is a businessman, and as we all know there aren't many creative businessmen (not to say that there are none, Walt was certainly an exception). But removing, one by one, all the creative people (or groups) around you because they tell you your ideas are bad is not the way to do business and stay successful. Some people can be marketing geniouses, but never understand what makes someone laugh/cry/love.

Severe, severe props for mentioning John Hench. He will be missed.

On Feb.12.2004 at 11:55 AM
Hrant’s comment is:

I used to do work for Disney, before they tightened their belts bigtime. I appreciated the pay (as a contractor - employees aren't treated as well), but there's only one way to describe virtually all of the people there: happy zombies. I remember when they came out with Disney Paint, it was such a happy happy event for everybody in any department - including the one I worked with, which had nothing to do with paint. When I made an off comment about the paint I realized that it didn't even cross their minds that I wasn't joking. And don't get me started about the motivational manifesto in the lunch room - shivers down my back. "Always be a Brand Embassador, on work or off!" was the most haunting.

hhp

On Feb.12.2004 at 12:24 PM
eric’s comment is:

correction: my mother reports, "...only you were 3 1/2 when you made the batik......not 5."

On Feb.12.2004 at 12:44 PM
eric’s comment is:

Roy E. Disney on "Brand Awareness"

"A few years ago, I was asked to make a presentation to a large group of young Consumer Products folks. It was conceived as a sort of pep talk, with a bit of Disney history and something about the future. At the time, I was becoming more and more concerned about the growing use, within the Disney culture, of the word "brand" in reference to the characters who were-and still are-the foundation of our identity as a company and as a cultural force.

So I thought to comment on that phenomenon...partly as a warning about what was already happening to us as a result of the constant pressure to "sell, sell, sell," no matter the quality. "

The rest of his essay on morality in marketing can be found here.

...

also, on a sad note: the AP wire announced this morning, ""A Walt Disney World employee was accidentally killed by a parade float Tuesday in the Magic Kingdom area of the theme park."

On Feb.12.2004 at 01:07 PM
Hrant’s comment is:

Collateral damage. :-/

BTW, I tried to find that Onion article about the family having a miserable time at Disneyworld because of the draconian rules and anaconda lines, but couldn't.

hhp

On Feb.12.2004 at 01:15 PM
Brady’s comment is:

Holy shnikies, Eric! What a post! Good work.

When I found out about the "Sonny Bono Law" it was after the fact. I was like so many Americans who knew nothing about the CTEA. It took curiosity on my part to stumble upon the issue. This is another one of those issues that are so important to the progress of this country, yet the importance is lost in the quagmire of more "sensational" political controversies.

I read Chris Sprigman's article then and while it is a legal commentary on the Law, it is quit a good read.

I feel I have neither the time nor the energy to comment in a manner befitting Eric's post. So, I would like to repost my comment on the http://www.underconsideration.com/speakup/archives/001689.html#001689" target="_blank"> Beg, Borrow and Steal discussion.

"It's ironic that The Walt Disney Company was the instigator in the creation of the "Copyright Term Extension Act" (CTEA).

Disney has made its fortune using works by the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, Lewis Carroll and others before and under the previous copyright laws that it wants to change to inordinately, further protect its own creations."

On Feb.12.2004 at 01:53 PM
justin’s comment is:

lots of insight and research into this article. thanks for sharing the knowledge eric.

++++++++++

i am in agreement with gregs comments regarding businessmen and creativemen. i think there certainly needs to be a balance of the two. and in my mind, steve jobs has the balance of business and design and feel he will only continue to suceed.

hopefully eisner will lay down his pride and material greed for a bit and realize the value and importance of true creative: disney's roots.

On Feb.12.2004 at 01:53 PM
eric’s comment is:

Thank you all for your very kind posts. I'd been addressing this and other property rights issues for a while. Personally, I'm mostly interested in the Pooh discussion and the dividing line on public domain.

I'd set up an interview with a friend of mine who is an attorney at the US Patent and Trademark office but felt that when the Comcast thing "went"... i had to sort of follow. Who wants to read about Disney in March?

If time allows, I may try to approach a more general view on copyright issues in the future --as it's a Neolithic and quarrelsome topic. I suppose this is all a way of saying that i certainly had seen Brady’s comments and Darrel's thread and hoped to give more greater acknowledgement before everything sort of changed. ;)

On Feb.12.2004 at 02:08 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

Wow. Good post. If you're interested in the power of Disney, this is a good, quick read:

Team Rodent : How Disney Devours the World

On Feb.12.2004 at 05:09 PM
marian’s comment is:

I have to say that I have always abhorred everything Disney. The term "Disneyfication" is one I, and others use to indicate a general pillaging of culture, and hypnotizing with "cute" to distract from personality, history or truth.

I consider the Disney aesthetic to be at once freakish and bland, and the mere sight of a Disney character makes my stomach flop.

Their appropriation of others' work, as Brady noted, is irksome to me--but none so irksome as Pooh. "Winnie the Pooh" as written by AA Milne and as illustrated by Ernest Shephard are beloved childhood characters to me, and Disney's rape of those characters causes me personal pain.

I'm disgusted by their heavy-handed tactics over copyright, I'm sickened by the reported zombification of their employees (as read in various articles over the years), I am revolted by their cultural doomsdsay machine that gobbles up everything in sight and spits it back out as big-eyed horrors with dollar-sign highlights in their eyes.

Disney, Michael Eisner, and the whole damned lot of them can go to hell and take their fucking mouse with them for all I care.

On Feb.12.2004 at 05:57 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Maybe we should plan a Speak Up gathering at DisneyLand/World… what do you think Marian?

On Feb.12.2004 at 06:12 PM
marian’s comment is:

Yeah, sure. I'll come as:

On Feb.12.2004 at 08:54 PM
Jason’s comment is:

A rodent by any other name.

On Feb.12.2004 at 10:16 PM
Greg’s comment is:

I can comment first hand on the "zombification" of Disney employees - every last one has to go through a training program called "Traditions," which is essentially a brain-washing class. People laugh when I say this, but all of the people I went through the class with came out so excited about the opportunity to hock ice cream or the chance to clean up trash in the theme parks, that I can only figure it was brain-washing. Your next question is, "how did you manage not to get brain-washed too?" I was sick that day, so I think that it only half took. I truly did enjoy the College Program, for the people I met and the chance to go to DW for free for about 6 months, but the job sucked most times.

On to other topics, however... Did anyone here stop to wonder just exactly why they hate disney and the mouse and all the other crap that has been mentioned above? Their brand name has come to represent crass commercialism... and how did that happen? Eisner and his ilk (it took more than one man to bring down a brand) have made bad executive decisions. Hence the article, and the chance to disney bash.

I have this argument with all my artist friends, at least once a month if not more. Why is it bad because it's popular? In our own attempts to be "cool" and holier-than-thou, don't we tend to reject things that are popular, even if they actually have intrinsic value?

On Feb.13.2004 at 08:44 AM
Darrel’s comment is:

Why is it bad because it's popular?

Disney (and, to be fair, a lot of large media companies) are bad for many more traits than just being popular.

Though I do agree with your comment. It's an interesting one. The artist selling out is always a bad thing, unless you're the artist that is selling out. ;o)

On Feb.13.2004 at 09:35 AM
eric’s comment is:

Greg, my issue isn’t with the Disney mantra per se, but with Eisner and his toadies. In part per the Animation division. They’ve outsourced their creativity to Pixar because it was cheaper. Actually, they’ve outsourced a lot of production because of costs. One of the reasons Jobs severed the relationship was because Disney has the rights to make sequels of the Pixar movies. Jobs thought it would severely cripple the Pixar cache to have Toy Story VII made without any creative control.

Disney has approximately 30 Animation stories in production and none of them sound very winsome. Lilo and Stitch was the last successful in-house work they created and from a financial pov it didn’t do thunderously well. I haven’t seen it so I can’t comment on the story.

I’ve been to Disneyland a number of times in the last few years and none of the new rides have that “total” follow-through and magic that the older ones have. Both Roger Rabbit and Indiana Jones feel exactly the same to me. Their California Adventures park is fun from a classical perspective but not specifically Disney.

Marian’s violent reaction yesterday got me wondering about their message. The �family value’/wholesomeness which is seems to be stuck in the 1950s doesn’t nauseate me like it does her. I don’t mind that they are holding on to that tradition. It doesn’t appeal to me as a consumer but I appreciate that somebody is sticking to their guns. So far as not liking their characters… don’t you think that’s a bit harsh M? they are just cartoons. I’m more of a Warner’s Bros. type of guy but there’s a place in my heart for Donald and Pluto.

On Feb.13.2004 at 11:07 AM
marian’s comment is:

Did anyone here stop to wonder just exactly why they hate disney

I did. I thought maybe I was trained to as a child by my British-Canadian mother as some form of anti-Americanism. But then I remembered that I went to see Fantasia when I was about 9, all full of excitement, and I hated it. I, alone among all my little friends, despised that movie. In particular, I remember heaping streams of scorn on their depiction of centaurs as cute, pink and blue. That did not fit with my "manly" interpretation of centaurs, as per the drawings in e.g. C.S. Lewis's Narnia trilogy.

To me, the Disney aesthetic is stripped of anything visceral. Great characters from wonderful stories are put through the machine and come out the other end ... eternally smiling, smoothly shaped, glowing pink, with wide vacant eyes ... all personality prepackaged into some kind of mold.

To me, everything about Disney is sinister. To me, there is very little difference between old Disney and new Disney. I know people who go on and on about the animation skills and the "art" of Disney. I can't see it.

Take Warner Bros. cartoons for instance. Those characters have so much more depth--they are often complex and unpredictable, their actions are often cruel, the plotlines refer to works of literature and art without bastardizing them. Disney is all sugary nice, WB is funny and cruel. I've always had a slightly mean sense of humour, and I've always revolted against fake, condescending sweetness. (For this reason I also loathe the work of Norman Rockwell.)

On Feb.13.2004 at 11:27 AM
marian’s comment is:

Eric, you and I were writing at the same time.

don’t you think that’s a bit harsh M? they are just cartoons.

No they're not. They're an extremely influencial media/culture machine.

I really can't get into it with a great deal of authority beyond my feelings for the characters, which are based on aesthetics and on childhood memories. I have actually seen very little of actual Disney movies. A couple when I was a kid, snippets from ads seen on TV, and bits here and there when I'm over at a friend's house and their kids are glued to e.g. the Lion King. BUT, my understanding is that they continue to perpetrate acts of extreme historical inaccuracy and dubious racial stereotyping. I'm sorry, I can't back that up with anything concrete.

Also, as a slap in my own face, I have to say that I don't actually hate everything Disney. I loved ... yes loved Roger Rabbit. I also throroughly enjoyed Toy Story when I saw it on a plane minus the sound.

And I also want to take back what I said about there not being any difference to me between old and new Disney. There's a Very Old Disney (Steamboat Willie, and the dawn of MM, Pluto et al.) which are just sortof old cartoons, and I have nothing against them; there's Golden Disney -- of the Fantasia, Bambi, Snow White era, which I despise; and there's 2 New Disneys -- the evolution of Snow White, as seen in the modern-day flat animations, which I also despise; and what I consider, perhaps incorrectly, as Disney-funded other projects such as the Pixar productions and Roger Rabbit, which I'm quite open-minded about. (There's also the vast history of Disney live-action, which oddly, to me, doesn't count ... it seems to be largely immune from the Disneyfication factor).

And then there's DisneyWorld which I wouldn't set foot in, unless I could go dressed up as Mickey Rat.

On Feb.13.2004 at 11:46 AM
Brian Warren’s comment is:

Marian -

I agree. I'm recently realizing how sick it makes me to see stuff that's "cute for cute's sake". It's a load of sentimental bull. It seems like there's no reason to think anymore, as long as you can say "aw that's cute".

It's like those sit-coms where it's only funny because people are acting like their one-dimensional character.

I'm beginning to shudder when I hear people say something like "that's cute".

Charatcter humor just doesn't do it for me anymore. The reason I like the Pixar films is there's at least a change and conflict, and a more interesting sort of humor. It's refreshing to see something animated that's not just glossy, candy-coated sentimentality.

On Feb.13.2004 at 12:01 PM
eric’s comment is:

well, my memories of Bambi and Dumbo are more than just glossy, candy-coated sentimentality. I seem to remember comedy and conflict in both.

But then we're adults and not the target audience.

That doesn't wipe away the appreciation for rough and tumble of Bugs and Daffy when i was young (ok, and now,) but is it anything more than just aesthetic choice? is it wrong to indulge children with a such a sweet fantasy? …ah, but then I’m a romantic.

...and i don't know if you've ever seen a Norman Rockwell painting in person, M, but it might make you change your opinion of him as an artist. they're incredibly painted.

On Feb.13.2004 at 12:37 PM
marian’s comment is:

Also, eric, sorry, I didn't mean to sidetrack your original intent. I guess my sentiment was "evil bastard at the head of evil corporation." You seemed to be pointing a finger at Eisner for corrupting something essentially good and formerly pure. So, you see, I don't share that view.

On Feb.13.2004 at 12:42 PM
eric’s comment is:

pure is a slanderous word! ;) i accept our differences. for now...

On Feb.13.2004 at 12:50 PM
pk’s comment is:

su and i were discussing disney's historical revisionism the other night, and that led later to a discussion of their sovietization of their own history (i.e. it never happened if you make it disappear). there's a shocking amount of material disney created that was nothing more than cultural propaganda. su showed me some pieces ripped straight from the government's agenda during WW2...something about donald duck cast as the little fuhrer. and then a frightening cartoon showing a german boy's beginnings as a person and his indoctrination into the german war machine.

notice that song of the south is nowhere to be found in disney's back catalog. whatever happened to brer rabbit and the tarbaby? that's a rich part of my heritage as a southerner that may never surface again. culturally sensitive or not by today's standards, the stories were told and should be allowed to stand as a snapshot of their times.

also: disney's cinderella was wildly revised from the original grimm versions, not to mention even more lurid french versions. cinderella was understandably pissed off at the end of her story and basically had her stepfamily murdered. rock on, sister.

pocahontas never grew up and married a settler. she died an outsider with syphilis.

and mulan? was she real as well? i can only imagine what would might have happened if a young girl actually joined a medieval chinese army. rape? murder? you name it. disney will find a way to cover it up for the sake of their fairy tales mixed with the classic american dream.

good riddance to them and a hopeful change of direction, i say.

On Feb.13.2004 at 12:55 PM
Brian Warren’s comment is:

Good question - if we should let our children indulge in cute and/or candy-coated fantasies. It's a question I'm not sure how to answer.

Kids should be allowed to just have fun with something, but not at the expense of never giving them something to really chew on. Case in point would be the real story of Alice in Wonderland and the bastardized version that Disney put together.

Read the book to your child and they might not get it at first, but they might actually have to work to figure it out, little by little. Rather than just feeding them something we know they can swallow.

Someone mentioned Chronicles of Narnia - and that's a good example of writing that shoots just a tad high for kids - giving them something they can grasp but something for them to chew on too - not just cute stuff. There was dignity, not sentimentality.

Obviously I dont have kids yet, so this is my high-and-mighty thinking without having actually practiced this. My wife and I intend to have kids in the near future, and I'll certainly think hard before I toss a movie in for my kid to watch.

On Feb.13.2004 at 01:56 PM
marian’s comment is:

eric, we keep posting at the same time .. are you posting now? ... are you posting now?

and i don't know if you've ever seen a Norman Rockwell painting in person, M, but it might make you change your opinion of him as an artist. they're incredibly painted.

I never have, so I might, but the thought makes me squeamish.

Thanks pk, for the expurgated snippets. That whole issue (of whether things deemed racially/culturally objectionable by today's standards should be allowed to stand or not) would be worthy of a thread, for sure.

On Feb.13.2004 at 02:04 PM
Tan’s comment is:

First, great post as always big e. Second, I've missed you.

Thirdly -- I have to say that I buy into the Disney magic. Loved it as a kid -- not just the animation, but the movies like Escape to Witch Mountain, The Love Bug, Freaky Friday, and The Shaggy DA. Sunday was The Wonderful World of Disney night in my house.

As an adult, I still enjoy the animation features like The Lion King, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Lilo and Stitch, not to mention all of the Pixar stuff. It may not be pure Disney in its production, but it's clearly in the same spirit.

I personally hate the new crop of animation features from Dreamworks and competitors as of late. Antz, Shrek, Ice Age, and the new Sinbad are all pathetic imitators -- with derivative stories, poor characterizations, and gimmicky animation. They lack the sense of legacy and unique quality of what makes Disney.

As a parent of two young kids, Disney films and animation features are still a sure bet for me and my wife. They still have that certain magic with our kids. And we're by no means alone -- millions of parents would agree. We're not mindless drones who can't tell what's quality for our kids. On the contrary, we know what our kids love, and hate it when people over-intellectualize and criticize things just because it has mass appeal.

But I know it's not for everybody. Marian -- maybe it does represent what's fake about Americans. Maybe there are more genuinely progressive animation out there.

But I think there's room for both the Utopianesque world of Disney, as well as the fantastic allegories of CS Lewis and Sendak. A child's imagination has more than enough room for both. We have a ton of Disney DVDs in our house, as well as a large collection of classic children's literature. Our kids love it all.

It'd be a sad world indeed without Disney.

On Feb.14.2004 at 01:05 AM
eric’s comment is:

this from WSJ yesterday morning (sorry, was out of the office until today):

"It was a textbook example of the "Disney way" of doing business: a new movie that set off a fountain of spinoffs. There was a theme-park attraction, a series of Simon & Schuster books, a soundtrack album and a line of toys and childrens' clothing featuring the beloved heroine. To make sure kids knew about the movie, Disney script writers planted repeated references to it in the company's television shows.

No, this isn't the marketing plan for "Home on the Range," the new Walt Disney Co. animated movie that opens later this year. It's the strategy that the old Walt Disney Productions executed back in 1958 to launch its classic "Sleeping Beauty" the following year.

Before the film even opened, kids and adults paid 35 cents each to walk through a Sleeping Beauty attraction at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., where they were wowed by animated dioramas and trick photography. In those days, President Roy O. Disney bragged that "our diversified activities are related and tend to complement each other." He added: "Integration is the key word around here. We don't do anything in one line without giving a thought to its likely profitability in our other lines."

...

Disney went peaches and cream against a depression era verite that spawned: Warner Bros., Max Fleischer Studios, and later Tex Avery. Not a bad idea to distance yourself from your competitors. Not unlike the difference between, say... the Social Realists and the Surrealists.

I don't think it was so much a decision to capture history or tell a fairytale in an exact manner as it was to support idealism in fantasy story telling. The world can be a cruel place, why offer more cruelty?

re animation and politics i recommend a look at this:Animation at War

...

Tan: missed you too. All you had to do was click your mouse three times, Dorothy. ; )

On Feb.14.2004 at 11:26 AM
Teal’s comment is:

Wow, great article.

First, Intellectual Property Rights (IP) are one of the major issues facing world culture at this time. I am a hardware tech (as well as a novice designer) and can tell you that the issue is so powerful (or the powerful so like it) that it has been written into future hardware specifications.

As a child, I really liked Disney movies. As I became a teen, I got less satisfied, because I had more exposure to the original stories they borrowed from. As an adult ... I can enjoy something like Aladdin, which was well done. At the same time I am horrified at stories dressed up as another culture or time, but merely repeating US values. (I hesitate to say 'American' as certain other countries are also American.)

It is a bit disturbing to realise that Disney is colonizing everyone else's culture (including that of european heritage) and presenting their version as the truth of the matter. On the other hand, Shakespeare did the same thing. Though he didn't hand us cheerful candy to placate.

Though I loved Disney movies when younger, I wonder now if they are part of why I had such a 'rosy' picture of what life was supposed to be like. These days the rose petals are torn from my eyes, and the process is a bit unplesant. Perhaps if they had not been gently placed there at first, I would have been more aware of the world.

I wonder how much of Disney as a cultural phenomenom is one of turning the group away from an awareness of otherness and diversity, using supposed examples of such things as the tool. I also wonder how much damage is done by the stereotypes Disney uses. You will notice that all of the good characters are beautiful. Except for the helpful curmudgeons. And you will notice that bad characters are always drawn differently, so that even if they appear attractive, it is in a dangerous seductive way.

Not that such stereotypes are uncommon in stories. They seem to exist to some degree in most cultures. But of course, using imagery for such things, rather relying on imagination changes wether we can identify ourselves with the positive roles. I am reminded of a 'Little Rascals' episode where one of the children is complaining about ugly old Miss Crabtree. His adult friend is concerned, and so goes to confront the teacher (Miss Crabtree), and finds she is a beautiful (1920's version) young woman, and really quite kind.

While that was a bit of stereotype play, it also showed that one persons criteria may be different from another's. I think Disney movies tend to be very mono-viewpoint.

A few final comments:

PK, China has a strange set of expectations about women. While in some ways, they were very controlled, in others they participated in powerfully. And china has a heritage of strong, and even martial female characters in its stories/mythology. So making judgements about that subject is complicated.

Tan, I would disagree about Shrek. Besides the humour about Disney which is a major subtext of Shrek, it also has a story which you don't find often in Disney. Love who you are. Shrek is so cool because the 'fat chick' is the one who is the star. And she is not (most of the time) a shrinking wallflower. She exists as a seperate person. You don't see that much in modern fairy tales.

On Feb.15.2004 at 09:10 AM
Majida’s comment is:

Hi. Teal showed me this great article, and I have found the follow-up comments very interesting also.

I have raised two children into early adulthood. I am proud to say that they are both "think outside of the box" artists and social innovators. Two things that I did that I think facilitated this outcome were (1)I read aloud to them every night until they finished grade school, (2)They watched little TV and were taught how to view it critically.

As far as reading aloud, we had maybe two Disney books in our whole collection. The Disney stories were always rewritten and dumbed down, and I couldn't stand to read them. The kids wanted to have the books, or check the books out of the library, and from time to time I would accomodate them. But as I read them, I would point out the poor quality of the writing and what made it poor quality. Then we would compare it to the "real" story. For example, Winnie the Pooh is SUCH a bastardization of the original. We read the originals by A. A. Milne which have great vocabulary, dry wit, and understated drawings. My children and I would curl up on the bed, read Pooh, and laugh until we were sick. Because Milne loved words, and made words funny. We felt the same way about Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. The Disney books are pablum I wouldn't feed to a baby.

As time went on, I sought out books published prior to 1940 to read to the kids. The vocabularies were much more developed, and there was more food for thought. As Brian commented, I think is desirable to stretch kids in an entertaining way and give them something to "chew on."

Someone else mentioned Dumbo and Bambi. These two films were early big-time Disney. I think there was more to them.

I did take my son and daughter to Disney films. I think both of them saw Bambi at age 2 for their first movies. My son was highly inspired by 101 Dalmations and Little Mermaid -- doing creative projects, acting them out, and singing the songs for weeks. My daughter was obsessed with the angst in Dumbo. I remember really being excited by Sleeping Beauty as a child. But Disney was only part of their mix of cinematic entertainment.

I don't think kids just need to see and obsess on children's cartoons. My son saw Dances with Wolves at the age of five and loved it too. Plus as soon as they could read well enough, I took them to subtitled films. That is how you really give children more of a worldview.

As for learning to watch TV with the critical mind engaged -- I think in this day and age that is one of the most important things you can teach a child. With so few media barons these days owning so many of the news outlets, it is paramount that we teach the next generation how to watch what they see with a critical eye. Advertising is the place to start with this. As young children, my kids never watched commercial TV unless I was sitting with them. That way we could discuss the manipulations during the commercial breaks. Thank goodness for PBS! Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers were friends I could leave them alone with and get something done for me.

I know all of this is not specifically about Disney. But I think it all ties together because Disney is part of that culture that seeks to capture the minds of children and begin to brainwash them as to how they see the world.

It is harder work to raise thinking critical children. And in some ways they are not as superficially happy as the ones who don't question consensus reality. And it definitely not as safe to raise people who think outside of the box -- or don't accept consensus reality as the only reality. But the world certainly needs these types of people.

On Feb.15.2004 at 10:37 AM
Steven’s comment is:

I had experience working with Disney when I worked for Berkeley Systems in the early 90s. They did a Disney screen saver and I was involved with creating the packaging and other printed materials, as well as helped with capturing and cleaning up artwork from video.

I remember there was some sort of conflict with the box cover artwork between what the Berkeley Systems's execs wanted and what the Disney people allowed. (There are strict rules for each character.) I hid the secret pleasure of seeing these young, puffed-up software execs just being squashed by Disney, who, in effect, just shut down the whole forward momentum of the project (package design, data sheets, manual covers, ads, software animation sequences, etc.) by not approving anything until they got what they wanted on the box cover. Eventually, the execs capitulated to everything that Disney wanted.

And one of the many CS managers I had at Macromedia was from Disney. As others have mentioned, he too had this creepy smile "mask" he would constantly use. After a while , though, I could tell the difference between the two fairly easily. But I have to say, that guy was the most politically conniving and manipulative person, I've ever had the misfortune of working with. Just unbelievable!

In regards to Disney artwork, while doing the box design at BSI, I had a chance to study the evolution of each character's appearance over the years. What you notice is how, by the sixties onward, the characters really become anthropomorphized with pink skin and modern styled clothing. And all new representations must continue to have these gentrified, humanistic qualities.

I think Disney has now become soooo hygenic and repressive of cultural vitality that it's no wonder that a lot of their recent offerings are duds. They've lost their relevancy to the real world and its complexities.

BTW, I like the older Disney stuff: pre-50s.

On Feb.15.2004 at 11:28 PM
Hrant’s comment is:

You just reminded me of another "Disney moment" I once had: I was subcontracted by one department to do a project for another department. The confusion and scapegoating got so bad that whenever I asked anybody from either department the simplest question by email, they would write back with "Can you please call me?" Basically nothing could be allowed to be in writing, because then there would be proof of who's head was up who's ass.

hhp

On Feb.17.2004 at 09:20 PM
Sarah B.’s comment is:

In the news today...

I do not know if he is trying to "redeem" himself or what the deal is.. but I guess that Disney/Eisner is now in talks to buy the Muppets again... which went dry 10 years ago after Henson's death.

I know there is a HUGE fan base there...

Article

On Feb.19.2004 at 09:08 AM
Steven’s comment is:

Sarah, I see at just another attempt to buy creativity, and gain market share, rather than have it come from within the company itself.

On Feb.19.2004 at 10:55 PM
eric’s comment is:

i wish that i could take the muppet sale as a significant loss in disney hands but the Hensen family sold the property to a large German conglomerate a few years ago... only to buy it back on the cheap. i think the workshop has done some very good work but clearly their hearts aren't in taking long term stewardship of so many beloved characthers.

The Muppet attraction at Disney's California theme park is done very very well and it seems like a good marriage.

On Feb.21.2004 at 11:24 AM
eric’s comment is:

March 3rd:

Eisner Steps Down as Disney Chairman

Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

After Walt Disney Co. shareholders delivered a powerful rebuke of top management, Michael Eisner Wednesday night agreed to step down as chairman of the entertainment giant he has led for nearly 20 years.

But Mr. Eisner will remain as chief executive as Disney tries to ride out the twin threats of a shareholder revolt and an unsolicited acquisition offer from Comcast Corp.

On Mar.04.2004 at 09:08 AM
Hrant’s comment is:

Great - two pigs instead of one.

hhp

On Mar.04.2004 at 11:39 AM