Category Archives: Walt Disney

Moana: A Call To Adventure. A Call for Healing.

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I just got back from seeing Moana. I am so blown away by the power and timeliness of this film that I find it difficult to put into words exactly what what I want to say about it. What can I say: I had tears rolling down my face for much of it. It speaks so deeply to what is crying out to be healed today. Two thumbs way up.

My Disney studies mythie partner in crime, Priscilla Hobbs. has already done a lovely discussion of Joseph Campbell’s theories related to this film. I completely agree with everything she said about it. This is Campbell’s hero’s journey through and through, and with Ron Clements and John Musker at the helm, it’s no surprise. You can read Priscilla’s take on it  — here.

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Here’s the story: Moana is the daughter of a chieftain, which technically makes her a princess, kinda, but already sets her up as a different kind of princess, much like Merida. She is in line to become the leader of her people, and again, much like Merida, her family expects her to assume a safe path set out in front of her. At first, she thinks she will take the place her family has set out for her. But she keeps hearing the call of the sea, and the stories of her grandmother beacon her further toward it.

As she assumes the role of leader, a natural disaster begins to develop. The coconut are failing and the fish have disappeared. The island is dying. The people look to their leader, Moana, who looks to her father. In his fear and desire to protect her, he suggests she continue with the conventional ways of doing things. Moana, frustrated, reaches out to her mother. She insists that her father just doesn’t understand her. Her mother replies that he does understand her because he WAS her. She tells Moana about a time when her father went on an adventure of his own and lost a friend in the process. He is afraid that he will lose her too.

Eventually, Moana reaches for an even deeper connection to her family’s woman wisdom. Her grandmother tells her the stories about the ancient chiefs and how they were voyagers. At one time, the people were in harmony with the ocean, and the gods continued to bless them with islands to explore. This all ended when Maui — the shapeshifter, the trickster — stole the heart from Te Fiti. This is a familiar story, much like Prometheus stealing fire to give to the humans in Greek myth. During this process, Maui encounters the lava monster Te Ka. He loses his fish hook, the source of his power and since then, the island of Te Fiti has been cursed.

Moana sets off on a quest to return the heart to Te Fiti, finding and befriending Maui in the process (BRILLIANTLY voiced by the legendary Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson).

The film’s themes are clear, and they are ones that Disney has explored in many and varied ways — ecological concerns have become central to Disney films. From live action movies such as Maleficent and The Jungle Book to Disney’s recent string of nature films, it’s become clear that Disney artists are deeply concerned about the state of our ecology. In fact, I’ve always understood the animal sidekicks of the Disney princesses as a reminder that humanity’s heart beats in time with the animal realm. I love that this film calls it out.

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About Maui: The trickster exists in every mythic tradition. Tricksters are complex and basically impossible to define, other than to say that they shape shift. They lie. They destroy things. The reverse human standards. They laugh (mostly at us). They piss us off. They also reveal things that have been buried and then the walk away, often leaving humanity to clean up their mess. Sure, tricksters are jerks, but they are also vital because they break things open that need to be broken and they often aid humanity in our search for knowledge. They insist that the gods share their wisdom with mortals. And they often suffer for it. Without tricksters, the quest for wisdom would never leave the shore.

It’s particularly important to note that Moana doesn’t have a villain in the traditional sense. There is no evil here, simply misunderstanding. Even the trickster isn’t evil, he is just sad, rejected, unloved, and a little misunderstood. And he isn’t just a trickster — he is also a warrior. That warrior part of him is thwarted by his role as a trickster.

Ultimately Moana, another incarnation of Disney’s archetypal maiden, steps forward in bravery, love and acceptance, heals the island, and saves her people. She helps both Maui and the lava monster remember who they are, and in doing so, she becomes a catalyst for healing. She returns balance to the ocean.

This film is a mythic respite of hope in a dark moment when American culture is overrun by the most destructive aspects of both the trickster archetype and the warrior. To me, it feels like a clear calling out of conventional images of masculinity — a come to Jesus moment if you will — as well as a calling out of patriarchal heroism. It reminds us that we can heal, if we want to, but to do that the gentlest among us need to rise up, take the trickster by the ear, and tell him that it’s time to journey across the mighty sea and return the heart he has stolen.

In some ways, Moana is a new kind of Disney heroine, but she is also one that is in line with who Disney heroines have always been — healers who love their families, their people, and especially their fathers. Young women of strength and power who listen to the voice of their elders and do what needs to be done. This film resonates with me a on a deep level. I love it. Thanks Disney!

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Filed under Depth Psychology, Disney/Pixar, Joseph Campbell, Movie Reviews, Walt Disney

Off to the Highlands: Pixar’s Brave and the Allure of Scotland to the American Imagination

Hello dear readers!

Recently, I’ve begun reading the Outlander series (and watching it on TV–its epic…just go read/watch it). This has gotten my thoughts up again about notions of Scottish-ness in the American mythic imagination. The following are some musings that I gave as a paper at a Film and Myth conference in Milwaukee, Wi. back in 2012. It’s a long post. More of an essay than a blog proper. Enjoy!

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Pixar continues to dazzle fans. They are experts in the ability to fuse technology with powerful story. This makes their presence in The Walt Disney Company key to this generation’s renewal of Disney myths. From the animation of America’s favorite toys, to our love affair with cars, Pixar reinterprets American identity from a point of view that is aware of both history and myth. Disney is, arguably, America’s most powerful and influential private sector myth-making enterprise. In the years since their 2006 merger with Disney, Pixar has become the most powerful purveyor of the mythic voice in The Walt Disney Company’s ethos.

Their films reveal—as all myths do—the complexes and collective archetypal base of a culture’s psyche. They craft identity, as folklorist Alan Dundes suggests, they tell stories of how things come to be. They are also specific. They equate a sense of belonging. They are the stories that people tell to say—these are the stories that belong to us. To me, one of the most fascinating aspects of the American mythopoetic process—played out in Disney/Pixar’s animated films—is an insistence that because of the diverse social and ethnic background of Americans, the world’s myths ARE America’s myths.

Typically, Pixar has shied away from an appropriation of myths and fairy tales from other cultures, preferring to keep their storytelling safely situated within a specifically American context. With few notable exceptions (Finding Nemo and Ratatouille for example), their fantasies are American fantasies—toys from American toy companies, uniquely American superheroes, a road trip down America’s “Main Street Highway,” and little girls chasing a place that is “like America, but south.” This stands in contrast to the films of The Walt Disney Animation Studio that has generally chosen to reinterpret myths, legends and, most notably, fairy tales from abroad. Pixar’s latest film Brave breaks this pattern. It traverses the fertile ground of Disney fairy tale with an original story, which I’d argue is loosely inspired by Robert San Souci’s Brave Margaret tale. It is set in medieval Scotland, a time a couple of centuries before the legendary and mythic era of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. As an animated film, Brave, is a caricature of myth. It is, however, also a fairy tale.

Although the debate over the primacy of myth over fairy tales is ongoing, I prefer to think of them as complimentary mediums that work in contrasting relationship to each other. In The Feminine in Fairy Tales, Jungian disciple Marie Louise von Franz suggests, “Fairy tales…migrate and cannot be linked up with a national collective consciousness. They rather contain a tremendous amount of compensatory material and usually contradict or compensate collective conscious ideas” (8). If myths are the stories that tell us who we are, fairy tales are the stories that tell us what in the unconscious unites humanity. Fairy tales are purely archetypal, which is why national identity is not central to the genre. Fairy tales are easily appropriated and re-told in any cultural milieu.

This might be why Americans are so quick to meld myth and fairy tale. American myths are often poly-cultural—a key feature of diasporic culture. This is also why it is difficult to define American mythology. This appropriation of fairy tale has created a style of storytelling that is comforting to Americans and mythically potent globally. Brave is an example of archetypal motifs explored through culturalized specificity. It is Scotland through American mythic fairy tale—a Scottish virgin goddess wrapped in an American princess story. The hows and whys of the American archetypal Scot is the focus of the following musings.

From Disney’s live action Rob Roy: The Highland Rogue to Randall Wallace’s screenplay for Braveheart, Scottish characters in American film often represent courage, dogged adherence to individual freedom, and the claim to one’s own fate or destiny. Scotland is a country from which many Americans claim heritage even if, perhaps, it is only an imagined or ideological heritage.

In America, myth-makers often develop their identity through a balance of ideology—land of the free and home of the Brave—and the creation of cultural/national inheritance rather than cultural/national history. Colonialists to the core, it is not simply land and power that we inhabit. Americans are also colonizers of stories. Ideologically speaking, American culture prizes the uniqueness of each perspective. It suggests that what unites us as Americans is our quest for liberty, and that liberty requires that the story of each “clans-member” be heard and respected. This notion of liberty requires Americans to adopt a certain amount of psychological malleability. It is an ideology that—in its best forms—opens the imagination to possibilities for every level of reinvention.

So why Scotland? Why the Scots? What has made this tiny country, which continues to be annexed by Britain and has landmass about the size of the state of Maine so integral to American identity? I would suggest that it is for two central reasons: first-a heritage of political ideology amenable to American myth, and the impact the thinkers of Scotland had on the American Revolution. Second is the cultural appropriation partnership between Scotland and America. The Scots seem to participate in the American appropriation of their mythic cultural heritage, and indeed they often relish the image of “Auld Scotland” and the rugged, indomitable Scot as inextricable from America’s mythic notions of autonomy, freedom, and heroism. It feeds into their sense of their own identity. These mythic images exist in a state of flux, and as well shall see, they provide a backdrop for the exploration of Disney/Pixar’s penultimate girl power princess—Merida, who may be understood as a reiteration of Disney/Pixar’s anima complex—an image of the divine feminine in a generally male dominated studio.

To begin with the historical roots of an American interpretation of the archetypal Scot, it would be safe to suggest that the Scottish people as an ethnic group are central to America’s ideological and political identity. In their book, The Scottish Invention of America: Democracy and Human Rights—The History of Liberty and Freedom from the Ancient Celts to the New Millenium, Alexander Leslie Klieforth and Robert John Munro note that the root of America’s political and ideological relationship with Scotland traces back to the Declaration of Arbroath Abby—signed in 1320—in which the leaders of Scotland issued their declaration of independence from England: “it is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honors that we are fighting, but for freedom—for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself” (5). This is ideological liberty and a genesis of civil rights in fourteenth century  over four hundred and fifty years before the American Declaration of Independence was conceived. Skip ahead about five hundred years, and the 18th century, saw many referring to Edinburgh as “the Athens of the North”. Scottish philosophy influenced thinkers such as John Locke and Thomas Paine, who in turn predicated the American Revolution.

In the American colonies, Scottish philosophy became so entwined with American patriotism that “King George allegedly called The American Revolution a ‘Presbyterian war’” (5), complicated though this relationship with the Scots happened to be.

The Scotch-Irish Intelligentsia: By the 19th century, the Scotch-Irish or Ulster-Scots represented an image of “Scottishness” which rose to such high prominence that in 1891 a speaker “declared that the synonym for the Scotch-Irish ‘race’ lay in the phrases ‘national freedom, general education, and sound scriptural faith’” (Scazs, 9). By April of 1954, The William and Mary Quarterly had an entire issue dedicated to the links between Scotland and America. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries the Scotch-Irish or Ulster-Scots remained a symbol American affluence.

So what is it that has allowed American filmmakers the narrative leeway to present medieval Scottish characters the way they are often presented today? How did America’s sense of Scottish identity turn from Scotch-Irish Presbyterians to Mel Gibson as William Wallace to Princess Merida and Queen Elinor? In contrast to history, myth allows for the presence of stories filled with sentiment, patriotism, nostalgia, and romance. American mythology in general and, Disney/Pixar storytelling in particular, tends to be deeply nostalgic—a term that is often used to argue against interpreting such stories as being mythic. The term “’nostalgia” comes from the Greek “nostos which means homecoming” and “algia which means severe pain, grief or distress.” Nostalgia as a homecoming of the mind is the crux of American myth. In his book simply titled Myth, Laurence Coupe suggests that it is our mythic expressions regarding home that carry the greatest potential for psychological healing. He writes, “Perhaps mythos, which has the power to release us from the limits of the given logos can restore us to oikos…” (214). In other words, stories have the power to release us from the limits of language and restore us to home.

To the extent that sentiment rules an unconscious drive for nostalgia, romance rules myth. This “romance” of Scottishness creates a longing for the re-creation of an archetypal Scotland of the mind. This romance begins in history, as it becomes a seminal aspect of the American myth of liberty. One might argue that this makes Hollywood—arguably the most potent maker of American myth—the natural choice for a continued dialectic between the mythic imagination and American cultural practices.

Enter what has been called “The Braveheart Effect.” In the last twenty years since Braveheart, practice has grown up around these notions of Scottishness. This includes American movements to reclaim clans-lands in Scotland, a revival of Highland Games/tartans, and perhaps the most powerful piece of the “Braveheart effect,” the image of the “warrior poet” This image has become a standard for masculinity among those engaged in contemporary Neo-Celtic culture.

In large part, it is because of these Hollywood images of that an interest in Neo-Pagan practice, a revival of a largely neglected tartan tradition, tattooing (common in ancient Celtic practice and forbidden for much of Christian history), an affection for the Thistle (Scotland’s national flower) and a revival of the tales of the “wee” folk, or the Scottish Will O’ The Wisps are all part of collective consciousness. The image of the highlander has eclipsed the image of the Scottish gentleman on the golf course, the seminarian, and perhaps even the rough and rugged Westward Ho pioneer.

Team DunBroch—In fact, while crafting Brave, Disney/Pixar participated so deeply in this romance of Scotland that it registered the tartans of the realm of DunBroch with the Scottish National Tartan Registry. By doing this, Brave speaks to the impact the “Braveheart effect” has on the concept of heritage building, creating a mirror image of Braveheart, which intentionally plays into the central Disney maxim for story: It’s gotta have heart.

On November 21, 2010, the Los Angeles Times posted an article suggesting that The Walt Disney Company was closing the book on fairy tales for the present (despite the widely popular Once Upon A Time television series—I’m not sure they are done). In other words, the big wigs at Disney are saying that they will leave Brave, and Merida as their last animated last word on the fairy tale princess until, as Ed Catmull, Pixar fellow and president of Disney Animation Studio suggests, the time comes to reinterpret them again. You may be thinking, yes, yes, this makes sense…but why another princess? And why the Scottish woman?

In August of 2011, I attended the Disney 23 Expo where Disney luminary, Don Hahn, gave a presentation on creativity and its psychological importance. In his presentation, he spoke about C.G. Jung’s concept of the archetypes as the genesis of what we create. He argued that Disney artists, like any artist, intuit and respond to changes in archetypal energies. Beyond any argument (true as it may be) that Disney/Pixar is riding the girl power/archer trend, it is also responding to a deeply felt shift in the feminine aspects of America’s collective psyche. The characters in Brave are part of this feminist shift within the studio, a shift in the anima complex.

The choice of Scotland and Scottish women as a zenith of Disney/Pixar’s animated word on fairy tale women makes sense in regards to a mythic fascination with the archetypal Celtic woman. “The Braveheart effect’s” intensely masculinized image of Scottishness casts the spirited Celtic woman in a supporting, albeit unforgettable role (think Jessica Lange in Rob Roy). This, however, is an unacceptable and inaccurate portrayal of the ancient Celtic woman. Klieforth and Munro remind us that most scholars of ancient Celtic culture agree that women had a remarkably egalitarian role in their society. They fought in battle, were equal to men, and maintained civil rights and property before, during, and after their marriages. Even Julius Caesar, (himself full of distain for the Celtic people) was impressed by the power of the Celtic woman. In contemporary American culture, the image of the Celtic woman often evokes the persona of a woman who refuses to sacrifice position, consequence, community, or heart. Merida and Elinor re-envision the archetypal Celtic woman: a feminine balance and a temper to the prevalence of “The Braveheart effect.” These images remind contemporary neo-Celtic culture devotees that the ancient world was a place where women were prevalent and goddesses were powerful.

Merida’s Brave Feminist Heart ALL stories in the canon of The Walt Disney Company ultimately speak to transformative nature of love and the importance of familial bonds, and Brave is no exception. Despite the gags and spectacular visual effects, Brave is fundamentally the story of a virgin princess who celebrates her own power and comes to learn to balance it. So, who IS Merida? She is an adolescent woman feeling the ennui of being oppressed by an insistence that she become the kind of princess her mother expects her to be. She shuns the idea of marriage, insisting that she has the power to shoot for her own hand as she desperately seeks to maintain her own identity.

The oppression she feels from her mother is made ever more acute by the ineffectual, good-natured barbarism of her father, and the stupidity of the men in power around her—again mirroring the world of Braveheart. She rebels, spouting rhetoric that could have come directly from William Wallace himself, and in her effort to change her mother; she unwittingly sets out on a quest to change herself and all those around her. However, in order to fulfill her desire, she must, like the virgin goddesses of the ancient world, withdraw to wildness of the forest.

This virgin archetype, as explored in Brave, evokes the presence of the Greek archer/bear goddess Artemis and the Celtic bear/warrior goddess Artio. Pixar conflate the two—a fact clearly indicated by the original name of Brenda Chapman’s screenplay for Brave, which was The Bear and the Bow. Toby D. Griffen, professor of German at Southern Illinois University, suggests that a connection between these two may be possible, as they share an etymological origin over 6000 years old, which is further suggests is the root of this names that later became Celtic Goddess Artio, Roman Goddess Diana and the Greek Goddess Artemis. Merida draws from this ancient well, in which the virgin goddess represents independence, ferocity and nature’s balance.

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Greek myth heralds Artemis as an archer, the goddess of the hunt, and twin sister of the god Apollo. She is the daughter of the sky-god Zeus and a mortal woman, Leto. According to the myth, by the age of three Artemis had already asked her father to allow her to remain a virgin. Like Zeus, Merida’s father, King Fergus, takes pride in her skill as an archer. Also, like Artemis, Merida prizes her freedom and individuality among all else. In Pagan Meditations: The Worlds of Aphrodite, Artemis and Hestia, depth psychologist Ginette Paris suggest that one who wishes to honor Artemis must accept that they may “neither see nor possess her; there is a core in the mysteries of untouched nature and of femininity that must remain virgin…the girl, the virgin, the Amazon, the archer—untamable and undomesticable primitive femininity” (115).

In her retreat to the safety of the Artemesian wild, Merida entreats the help of an archetypal fairy tale witch, as she carelessly plots to change her mother—though unaware what that change will entail. Beyond her abilities as an archer, it is Merida’s “indomesticable” spirit—her ferocity and her fearlessness—that connect her to Artemis. But in a twist on the myths of Artemis, Merida’s transformation, her loyalty and protection for her mother even after she is responsible for transforming her into a bear teaches her that her actions effect more than herself. This is accomplished by use of a fairy tale embedded in the narrative.

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By contrast, the ancient Celtic goddess Artio is also depicted as being connected to the bear. She is a bear totem first and an archer second. There is nothing fiercer in nature than a mother bear protecting her cub. Furthermore, fewer animals hibernate in such an intensely unique way as the bear. The bear goddess protects nature’s balance. She offers a sense that this balance does not require the hand of humanity to sustain it. In Brave, queen Elinor becomes an unwitting image of the bear goddess. Her transformation awakens her primal need to protect her daughter—to give her the unfettered space she deserves. As a bear, she begins to understand Merida’s Artemisian nature, as the highly cultured Elinor begins to lose her human self in her animal self. Merida, the archer with the wild ginger hair is clearly influenced by Artemis, and her mother, queen Elinor, is a symbol of control and duty.

Their relationship is a fascinating twist on the archetype of the Disney princess and on virgin goddess mythology. The early Disney princesses were almost passively communal—Snow White and the dwarves, Sleeping Beauty and the fairies, etc…Since Beauty and the Beast’s Belle, however, this archetypal image has changed dramatically. In preparing for this presentation, I read many reviews of this film. Several reviewers (even Ebert) suggest that Merida is too boyish for a Disney/Pixar princess. Some also suggest that she is, perhaps, a template for new lesbian princess. These critiques, while interesting, effortlessly miss the point of the archetypal images explored in Brave. In dwelling on cultural gender roles and Merida’s sexuality, one misses the archetypal power of Merida’s virginity—that is, a woman who belongs only to herself, and is not a pawn in the sexual games of men. That is, women in relationship to each other, and to the balance of the feminine and the masculine within them both. This film presents Merida as an antithesis to this traditional passivity. In choosing to transform Elinor into the bear, Disney/Pixar reinterprets the nurturing balance of nature as the companion of the virgin, rather than the virgin herself.

In order to break the spell that has turned her mother into a bear, Merida and Elinor must, “mend the bond torn by pride,” an epitaph given to them by the witch. MEND seems to be the focus of this piece. Julie Fowlis’ song, Into the Open Air gets at this message of mending. It plays while Merida and her mother are on their quest to break the spell. “I try to speak to you everyday but each word we spoke, the wind blew away. Could these walls come crumbling down? I want to feel my feet on the ground. And leave behind this prison we share. Step into the open air.” As they begin to listen to each other, they begin to break the spell.

This is consistent with Disney/Pixar’s overarching mythic message. As Douglas Brode suggests in his book, From Walt to Woodstock: How Disney Created Counterculture, “America, in Disney’s broad view, is not liberal or conservative, progressive or traditional, Democrat or Republican. The genius of the system resided in a symbiotic relationship of each complementary opposition–an ever-shifting balance between rugged individualism and commitment to community.” The women in Brave suggest that perhaps the American archetype of Scottishness has become TOO insistently individualistic, too obsessively masculinized. Perhaps Pixar is responding to a cultural need for community building as opposed to rugged-individualism or factionalism. Perhaps it responds to an American weariness with an individualism that precludes community. Either way, this film suggests that balance IS American, Feminist, and EMPOWERING. And perhaps Pixar, whose culture is notably cooperative, is uniquely suited to this type of narrative.

Ultimately, Brave is a love song to the wild, virgin goddess’s role in psychological balance. It advocates that she be respected. However, because it is a Disney/Pixar story, it also advocates for the importance of community and companionship. Brave suggests that dependence and independence are not mutually exclusive, and that weaving these together might require the touch of particularly clan-orientated archetypal women. This is why Scotland…why the Scot…why the Celtic woman. It is precisely because of the American associations with neo-Celticism and the archetypal freedom fighting Scot that this story is possible, and that it is effective.

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Filed under Depth Psychology, Disney/Pixar, Essays, Fairy Tales, Movie Reviews, Walt Disney

Disney and Mythology: Recycled Fairy Tale Motifs? Derivative Stories?

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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.

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Filed under Disney/Pixar, Disneyland, Fairy Tales, Joseph Campbell, Myth, Walt Disney

Oz: The Great And Powerful and Re-Myth-ing the Origin Story

ImageApproximately ten months ago or so, my dear friend Bonnie and I spoke with some intuitives at our local mythie bookstore. One of the individuals with whom I spoke told me that he felt that I was in the middle of re-crafting my own origin stories. Of all the things we talked about that day that was the one thing that really stuck with me.

Origin stories? Genesis myths? Immediately, I asked a bunch of questions like: What does that mean? To exactly what kind of stories in my personal life might that speak? And, most importantly for this blog, how does this obsession with origin stories make its way into my personal myths? How are the myth-makers that I gravitate toward retelling their own origin stories?

Ever since this discussion, I am becoming more aware of the ways that I am drawn to people retelling their own genesis. I have become especially aware of the way that Disney has been in the process of doing so of late.

And why not? Speaking of our myths, noted philosopher, author and professor Sam Keen reminds us that “We need to reinvent them from time to time…The stories we tell of ourselves determine who we become, who we are, what we believe” (Your Mythic Journey qtd in Once and Future Myths: The Power of Ancient Stories in Our Lives, Phil Cousineau, 7). There is a reason that origin myths are meant to be reenacted cyclically.

Perhaps this insight is particularly poignant right now—at the beginning of this year’s Passover and Holy Week remembrances. We respect (at least ideologically) the ritualizing of the origin stories of the religious traditions of all Americans. Origin myths are meant to be a living part of the calendar, and so they are in their own ways in our secular culture as well. We celebrate Independence Day each year, Election Day every four years, President’s Day every year and so on.

Many of these have a basis in history, but what of our imaginal origin stories? What about the origin stories that come about as a natural outpouring of fantasy? I am convinced that these origin stories are also reinvented on a cyclical basis as well.

From the work of the D23 to the heightened presence of the archives to the re-mything of the “golden age” of Los Angeles at Disney California Adventure in Disneyland Resort to Diane Disney’s Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco to a renewed interest in Oswald and Mickey Mouse cartoons spurned on by the success of the first Epic Mickey game, a renewed interest in origin stories seems to be everywhere in Disney’s storytelling at present.

Disney’s relationship with the Oz books dates back to the early days of Disney feature film animation. As early as the 1930’s, Walt Disney sought to acquire the rights to re-mythologize Baum’s books in film. Perhaps, as a Midwesterner (a Missourian/Kansas City-man) himself, Walt Disney felt particularly drawn (pun intended) to the Kansas landscape of Dorothy Gale and her family.

By 1954, he had acquired the rights to eleven of the books. By 1958, he had acquired the rights to all twelve of the books, but he was never quite ready to work them into film. Time, tide and technology never quite crossed for Walt and Oz.

In 1985, Disney released Return to Oz, which, although it became a bit of a cult classic among Gen X and Y’ers, has little else to recommend it. Now, all these years later, in 2013, The Walt Disney Company has finally decided to release a feature film version of an Oz story—Oz: The Great and Powerful.

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Why? This film is itself an effort to re-mythologize the genesis and importance of the film industry itself and Disney’s role in it (as well, perhaps, as Disney’s favorite medium within film, animation/computers and technology ala Pixar).

Let’s look at it:

This film is what is known as a prequel. It tells the story of how the “wizard” makes his way to Oz. Loosely inspired by Frank L. Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, as well as the iconic 1939 classic film The Wizard of Oz (originally released by Samuel Goldwyn, then bought by MGM, and now owned by Warner Bros.) this film draws on an iconic well of imagery—the black and white opening sequence, the tornado, an eye-popping candy-colored technologically wondrous Oz, the soft muted pastel pink of Glinda (The Good Witch of the South), Theodora (The Wicked Witch of the West)—her green skin and her black witchy garb complete with hat, flying primates, the look of the Emerald City and the Yellow Brick Road.

It tells the story of how the “wizard” (James Franco) makes his way to Oz and is unwittingly used by one bad witch (Evanora of the East, Rachel Weisz) to turn another witch wicked (Theodora of the West–Mila Kunis) before becoming using his abilities to become the savior of Oz. The “wizard,” aided by Glinda (the Good of the South–Michelle Williams) , is convinced to mobilize the people of Oz, and fights back against the wicked witches.

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There is, however, one problem—the wizard is not actually a wizard, in the conventional definition of the word. He is a charlatan and a con man. More importantly, he is an illusionist. He is a carnival performer, a kind of inspiration for the late great Johnny Carson’s “Carnac the Magnificent.” Oz is what is known as the archetypal trickster. As such, he is a master at sleight of hand, shapeshfting, lies, and illusions.

This trickster, however, really isn’t that clever. His illusions are easy to see through. It is clear that he yearns for greatness, but it is just as clear that that greatness eludes him. While on his journey through the land that bears his name, he begins to realize that, as Glinda says, he may not be the wizard they were expecting, but he is the wizard that has appeared. His affection for the people of Oz leads him to use his skill as an illusionist to convince the witches of the power he does not actually have. And, it works. In the end, the wizard defeats the witches through sheer illusion and sleight of hand. He fuses his hermetic abilities with the Tinkers’ (Imagineers perhaps?) ability to use technology. He creates a living, breathing illusion.

So, what does this have to do with Disney, the film industry, and origin myths? Simply put, this film suggests that like “the wizard,” filmmakers are both con artists and wizards. As myth-ie tricksters, filmmakers shepherd their audiences through to experiences that turn tin cans into walking, talking allies, convince them that they are in imminent danger from mechanical sharks, to create magical portals to mythic worlds using digital pixels, and simply entrance them will spectacle, color and delight.

Oz: The Great And Powerful is an origin myth crafted specifically to remind the audience of the importance of imagination, illusion, and storytelling. It makes sense that Disney chose to tell it through one of the most iconic and replete mythic systems ever to be touched by the film industry. It is intended to remind the audience why the kinds of things Disney is always up to (putting on a show, telling a story, ritualizing magical locales, and entertaining through illusionist sleight of hand) are powerful and central to psychic health. In that way, this film (for all its shortcomings…of which there are many…) works.

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Mary Blair: Disney’s Animating Anima

Mary Blair–The lady of flair. Her name is familiar to many of us who are Disney fans. Recently, the Walt Disney Family Museum posted a blog about a new Mary Blair shrine available at the museum. She was one of Walt’s favorite artists, and one of the elite few chosen for the now fabled good neighbor trip to South America in 1941. Blair was the only WOMAN chosen for this trip (not to mention the FIRST woman to receive the distinction of Disney legend). She was an image of tranquility who met each one of Walt Disney’s challenges with the soulful eye of a poet and the joy of a child. Her quiet genius was captured during the 10th anniversary show when Disney and Blair presented early plans for It’s a Small World. But who was this amazing woman who remained content to contribute concepts, while staying in the background as a source inspiration for Disney fans fascinated by the esoteric?

She was born Mary Robinson on October 21, 1911 in Oklahoma. A naturally gifted artist, she was honored with a scholarship to the Chouinard Art Institute (which eventually became CalArts under Disney’s tutelage). After completing her course at Chouinard, Mary began to seek employment in the precarious environment that was the depression era art world  (not unlike our contemporary moment, ironically). She married fellow artist, Lee Blair, and soon began to work in the animation business.

In 1941, she went to South America, becoming part the Walt and El Grupo entourage. It was during this time that her style began to truly take its shape. Blair was fascinated by the bright colors and the physicality of South American folk art. Her work began to more closely resemble the dolls she saw carried by the children of Brazil, Peru and Argentina. This look became a part of what is now considered the iconic Disney look. It offers a different kind of caricature which, instead of providing a cynical outlook on culture, offers Blair’s special brand of innocence.

Walt Disney continued to be impressed by Blair’s work. Although she was not gifted in the technical aspects of animation per se, he considered her one of his most valuable artists. He loved her whimsical style, and continued to find ways to use her extraordinary talents.

Blair was entrusted with the concept art Disney commissioned for the animated features that are the crux of what has often been called the first Disney renaissance: Cinderella, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, and her artistic voice was colored by a fascination with the contemporary craftsman style of the mid-century era she helped shape.

 Her surrealist eye was a valuable asset to the Disney Studio and offered something about which few studios could boast; a feminine perspective. One might even suggest that Blair was Disney’s vehicle for positive anima (the feminine aspect of soul). She infused a much needed sweetness into an environment that was often oppressively possessed by the not so positive energy of the animus (the masculine aspect of soul).

Women at the Disney studio have generally been relegated to the ink and paint room, the stenograph, costuming and the duties of wife and mother. Sadly, this condition still continues. Even the brilliance of Pixar lacks the feminine as a physically iconic presence. Lasseter, Keane, Doctor, Bird, Stanton, Baxter, Hahn…they are all men. But women are present. They are everywhere in the background of Disney’s pantheon, doing much of the quiet, drudgery necessary in order to make the magic happen. 

Mary Blair, however, broke through the barrier of whatever version of sexism existed at the Disney studio. She did this through the power of her art, not by the kind of studio maneuvering that got animators like Art Babbitt fired, or by the kind of posturing that later garnered Michael Eisner the position of CEO of the Walt Disney Company. Blair simply did what she did best, presented the world as she saw it, in all its color and life. And Disney noticed.

Not only did he notice, he chose her to be one of the first female imagineers, handing her the project that would become the most iconic of her career. In 1964, Walt Disney was commissioned by Pepsi-Cola to build an exhibit for the upcoming New York World’s Fair sponsored by UNICEF. The exhibit was to be a gift to the children of the world.  Although the attraction’s song, penned by veteran songwriters (Walt’s boys), the Sherman Brothers, is notoriously infectious in the way that it tends to drive patrons crazy, it reflects Blair’s unique ability to combine silliness with social statement.

The boat ride she developed became the voice for Disneyland’s guiding ethos, not to mention a call for peace in the world. It is the outward projection of Disney’s anima; a wish for a utopian understanding of unity in diversity ala Mary (Our Lady of Flair) Blair.

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Crafting the Icon: Television Builds the Park

Walt Disney was constantly fascinated by the process of finding new and technologically progressive mediums to use in the promotion of his products. He often used these new technologies as springboards for new projects. Television is one of the mediums that Walt Disney plunged the company into whole-heartedly. It captured his fancy almost as utterly as animation and film. His long cherished dream of creating an interactive park where fans could interact with the myths of his studio seemed out of reach for him just decades before. That is until he moved into the realm of television. Suddenly it seemed possibly to reach into the homes of his fans and encourage them to try his newest products. It was the intimacy of television that struck Disney. Through it, he was able to fuse his love of education and entertainment with his charismatic personality and unaffected charm. At the project’s inception, he was reticent to be the face of this new forum, but once he committed to it, it became clear that he was the perfect choice to host the series.

Disney used the structure of the Disneyland series to creates an icon, while simultaneously placing viewers there. But, the Disneyland television show did much more than that. It created an axis mundi, a holy mountain, a temple.

Disney knew that the success of his park would hinge on memory. People might venture to the park out of curiosity, but they would return because of the memories they created while they were there. He knew that he had to find a way to affect the kind of memories one makes on trip a sacred spot, and, if he wanted to have a profitable first year, he needed to do this before the park opened. Television was the perfect medium for this project.

The Disneyland television series had the unique ability to relate the storytelling canon to their myths and tp create an airtight association between the stories and characters the audience had grown to love, and the place—Disneyland—where they would be found in the physical realm. Without television, the results may have eventually proved the same, but it would probably not have happened in time to turn a profit and save the fledgling, not to mention deeply in debt, Walter Elias Disney (WED) Enterprises…aka…Walt and the Imagineers.

In order to hype the audience up and make them yearn for what he was about to offer, he went to television. To whet America’s appetite for what was about to come, the show built its built its structure around the structure of the park like the “cardinal points of the compass” (Frontierland, Adventureland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland). The earliest shows combined tv movies, theatrically released films, animated shorts, full length animation, true-life adventures WITH tours/progress reports of Disneyland the place. The show’s key intention to create a single cohesive narrative for the park.

The Disneyland show suggests, somewhat subtly, that all of these stories belong at Disneyland, In fact, more than any other film studio/purveyer of popular culture, Disney truly embraces the re-visioning of mythology. In true storyteller fashion, the Disney studio never ceases to produce new and innovative versions of archetypal stories. In his seminal essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” poet T.S. Eliot reminds us that we do not create in a vacuum. We are heirs to the mythic tradition of humanity. Myths are grand stories that tell stories about identities and, as folklorist Alan Dundes suggests, myths tell, in narrative form, how things became the way they are. And, Like other mythic systems, Disney is in the buisness of crafting identity.
Disney wisely recognized that memory would be the vital ingredient necessary for the park’s success. Memory, identity and mythology are inextricably linked. We craft our identity through our ability to identify with stories, with each other, with the memories we share. The phrase, “do you remember where you were when…happened” is a consistent phrase in our society. We get, implicitly, how important it is that we remember where we were when Kennedy was shot, when the astronauts landed on the moon, when the Berlin Wall came crashing down, or where we were the fateful morning we witnessed the twin towers burn. The events themselves are archetypal and iconic. It is impossible not to mention inexhaustible, to explain how and why they are powerful. But, we know they are. Experiencing these kinds of powerful moments binds people together. It crafts myth and identity.

And, beginning in the age of television, events are brought directly into our homes. Suddenly, crafting myth is possible through a small box in the middle of the living room. Suddenly, mass culture is possible. Suddenly, it is not necessary to have actually been there for an event to have its all-important, identity making effect. And, its effective because television fuses photographic images and sound. Suddenly, just witnessing it from one’s living room creates the same kind of emotionally sealing experience as the actual act of being there.

THAT is how television built the park. Through the Disneyland television show, Disney continued working the long-standing Hollywood tradition of making illusion seem real. The show created a whole relationship between the audience and a place that didn’t even exist yet. And it did it so seamlessly that by the time the park was actually there, the psychological bonding was complete. The patron didn’t even question the temple’s iconic nature. It felt as though it had always been there…as temples always do. On some level, this is how all containers for ritualistic experience work. Disney’s use of television just cuts out the middleman.

And, truly, it is more than BRILLIANT…it’s magic!

The very first episode: The Disneyland Story

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Filed under Disneyland, Reflections on the Dissertation Process, Walt Disney