Recently, I read a blog review of Frozen that claimed the film was cute, but lacking a bit in originality. This was not the first time that I’ve seen a reviewer talk about Disney fairy tales in this way. I’m not gonna lie. It kind of irritates me each time I see the argument. For some reason, people completely misunderstand creativity. Being creative does not mean being wholly original. As TS Eliot suggests in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” the creative person enters into a conversation that has been ongoing since the advent of artistic expression. The entire reason to create art is for the soul to speak into that conversation. But Disney has done something besides create art for almost 100 years now. It has created a mythology, and mythology, though a vehicle for art, is not itself art.
Disney is Mythology?: Wait, Say What Now?!
First let’s define mythology. This word that the “parlance of our times” refers to as “fiction” or a “lie” comes from the Greek language. It is constructed of two terms: mythos (muthos) which simply means story and logos which means words, but can be further understood as language…the structural make up through which mythos is conveyed.
Whew…that was heavy and theoretical. Putting it more simply, a mythology is group of stories that belong to a tradition. There! That was simple and to the point. So, has Disney created a mythology? Yes they have. Each one of their stories have the hallmarks of the Disney tradition…they belong to Disney and to all of us who resonate with their message. Dude, I’m not going to bore you with all of the details of Joseph Campbell’s four functions of mythology, but Disney’s stories do in fact: 1). create awe; 2). order the cosmos or explain why things are the way the are; 3). create and promote social/behavioral norms; and 4). provide vehicles for rituals through which we travel from birth to death.
So, what is Disney’s myth? Many of you would argue that Disney’s central myth is capitalism…and you wouldn’t be wrong. Walt himself was very proud of his own capitalist leanings. But, this is hardly the end of their myth. Director, animator, and producer Don Hahn (The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast fame to name a few) told me himself at the 2011 D23 Expo in Anaheim that you can’t really take The Walt Disney Company as anything other than a capitalist entity that is out to make profit. However, and these are his words, “those of us who are artists working for the company intuit something deeper…something archetypal and meaningful.” Exactly, Disney is creating a mythology…a RECOGNIZABLE tradition through which their stories come to us.
And, if that is the case, then the argument that Disney’s fairy tales are full of derivative motifs and images becomes a shallow reading of them. I will give people the argument (if they really need it) that Disney fairy tale characters do have a similar look and that these films have similar and recognizable motifs in imagery and song . Yes they do. But if you focus on that, you miss a broader point. The reason that they share those things is that they are all part of an actual mythic tradition…and I believe that we have been living without consciousness of mythology for so long that we don’t understand what that means. Sadly, we often don’t recognize it when we see it. It means that motifs continue to return, kaleidoscopically, to further convey a tradition’s myths (Disney fairy tales) through a tradition’s ritual (going to the movies/parks).
The better question is not are Disney’s fairy tales derivative, but why do they continue to traverse the same mythic atmosphere? Well, frankly, that is a topic for another blog, so I’ll give it to you in a nice, neat package. They do it because their mythic role in our world is to tell a particular story in a particular way. What’s the story? The story is that magic does in fact exist, but that perhaps we do not call magic by its real name–LOVE. In short, the myth of Disney fairy tales is that love exists and that love transforms.
So focused is this message that Disney has created an entire “logos” for their “mythos.” And, though again this is a topic for another blog, I believe with all my heart that this myth is indispensable to humanity.