Dreams Come True

January 29, 2011
Glen Keane The Little Mermaid, 1989 Ariel and Flounder Concept art: gouache and black line (xerographic copy) on paper
Glen Keane The Little Mermaid, 1989 Ariel and Flounder Concept art: gouache and black line (xerographic copy) on paper

Was there ever a worse title for a show than Dreams Come True? It’s not just “cheesey”, to use a favourite expression of Tim Burton, it’s craven. In his role as a Hollywood über-director, Burton is still making films for Disney Studios but this is how he described his years as an in-house animation artist: “Remove part of your brain and become a zombie factory worker.”

“Dreams come true” is right in line with the Disney theme song: “When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are…” It’s the old American Dream, which seems to work better in some cases better than others. The Wall Street bankers who brought down the global economy are now enjoying their bonuses again, but many of the poor black victims of Hurricane Katrina will never get back to the same neighbourhoods.

The only place where dreams unfailingly come true is in the movies, which means that they are not true at all, merely figments of the imagination. I’m reminded of Jean Baudrillard’s quip that Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe the rest of America is real. I don’t want to sound anti-American because the United States is, without doubt, the artistic dynamo of the world, but in terms of popular culture it is depressing that after all these years we still accept American norms as universal.

Dreams Come True: The Art of Disney’s Classic Fairy Tales at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne may be a special for the school holidays, full of original artwork and clips from the movies, but it is not purely a kids’ show. It’s interesting to learn that with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Walt Disney “did not feel that children younger than seven or eight years of age should see the film at all.”

This was largely because of the scene in which Snow White wanders through a dark, scary forest, but it would take a lot more to scare the little darlings of today. Mirror. Mirror on the wall, what’s the scariest thing of all? Apart from the thought of Ricky Ponting coming back to captain the test side, it is the way today’s children are being drawn precipitately into adulthood while adults are regressing to the state of infancy.

Any movie or video game that doesn’t include quantities of murder, mayhem, rape, gore and pillaging, is viewed as pretty dull by an increasingly large proportion of the pre-pubescent population. Meanwhile, their parents are standing in a queue waiting for the next Harry Potter book, which is the most complex thing they will read this year. In a peculiar way this relates to the wave of moral panic that sees any image of a child as tantamount to child pornography. As children become more worldly we feel an exaggerated urge to protect them, but the first thing they may need protection from is the immaturity of their would-be protectors.

It’s fascinating to trace the progress of these tendencies via Disney movies. We tend to forget that the early Disney cartoons were so savage and startling that they were hailed as avant-garde cinema. By the time of the first piece in this show, The Three Little Pigs (1933), the anarchy had been toned down, but there was still a remarkable amount of black comedy. Think of the framed family photos in Practical Pig’s lounge room, where “Dad” is a string of sausages. The way the wolf’s trousers fall down when he huffs and puffs is classic slapstick.

With Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Disney embarked on his first full-length animated feature film, setting a standard that even today’s computer-assisted features struggle to achieve. The sumptuous beauty of the hand-painted sets, the vivacity of the characters, and the tunes – “Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it’s off to work we go!” – made this expensive project an instant smash.

From that point onwards Disney Studios was preoccupied with the question of how to repeat the Snow White formula with even more spectacular effects. In this exhibition we only see examples from films based on fairy tales, which excludes movies such as the extraordinary Fantasia (1940), along with Bambi (1942), Pinocchio (1940) and Peter Pan (1953).

The two big fairy tale movies that followed were Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959), which featured sets that were consummate works of art, designed by artists who had absorbed the Modernist ethos. These films had cute characters, catchy tunes, and – a Disney speciality – great transformation scenes. The idea began with the wicked queen in Snow White turning herself into an ugly old hag after drinking a magic potion. It continued with the fairy godmother’s extreme makeover of Cinderella, and reached a crescendo in Maleficent’s conversion into a dragon in Sleeping Beauty. Still to come were the transformations of Ariel, the Little Mermaid, and the moment when the Beast, of Beauty and the Beast, reverts to human form.

 

These metamorphoses are the visual highlights of the Disney films – the moment when good or evil is fully revealed, or the lead character’s dreams are realised. The breathtaking nature of these scenes is almost enough to make us forget the cosy morals behind every story. Taken in by the smoke and mirrors we accept the deeper meanings without qualm, but each film repays closer analysis.

The original fairy tales upon which these movies were based were often devoid of morals. The tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen are astonishingly brutal, with no guarantee that good will be rewarded and evil punished. In the Grimms’ version of The Frog Prince, the princess doesn’t kiss the importunate amphibian but throws him across the room. Andersen’s Little Mermaid doesn’t simply lose her voice, she has her tongue cut out. The original Jack, of Beanstalk fame, is nothing more than a greedy plunderer of other people’s property. The story of Beauty and the Beast was intended to help prepare young girls for arranged marriages with ugly old men.

The Disney films sanitise these cruel tales, inserting glib little maxims such as “Children have to be free to lead their own lives” – at the end of The Little Mermaid. But in creating simplistic parables of good and evil the producers have slipped in a huge amount of sly sexuality, and a vision of race, wealth and privilege that hardly requires a Marxist decoding. Tom Waits blew the whistle on the Dwarves’ life-style when he recorded a version of Hi Ho that made it sound as though there was nothing especially cheerful about spending all day working in the mines. Disney was going to sue, but he hadn’t changed any of the lyrics.

 

There are conspicuously few non-whites in the early Disney films. This has been quietly corrected over time, with The Princess and the Frog of 2009 being set down south in New Orleans and the Bayou. Despite being praised by Saint Oprah, the movie only managed to secure profits of about US$250 million – which counts as a flop in Hollywood. The look of the film was a tissue of black clichés, drawing on the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, jazz music and voodoo, but the story-line was business as usual. The heroine is always a glamour puss whose beauty and goodness entitles her to a life of luxury, after she has overcome the usual obstacles. These are not dreams likely to come true for non-glamorous viewers, but there is still no lack of empathy out there for screen princesses, especially the white variety, of which Rapunzel in Tangled (2010) represents a return to a tried-and-tested stereotype.

I hope it’s not a sign that I’m turning into Clive James, but as one progresses through this exhibition the cartoon heroines begin to seem increasingly sexualized. Snow White is the alluring virginal type, but Rapunzel is happy to go slumming with a dashing bandit. Belle in Beauty and the Beast spends the entire film grappling with a hairy, muscular brute that would not be out-of-place in the NRL. Anyone who believes that Bernini’s Saint Teresa in Ecstasy depicts the moment of female orgasm should take a look at the transformation scene in The Little Mermaid when Ariel gets her land legs. If Senator Conroy were informed about this show he’d be reaching for the big filter. There’s so much sex in these fairy tales that perhaps only children should be allowed to watch them.

Published for the Sydney Morning Herald, January 29, 2011

Dreams Come True: The Art of Disney’s Classic Fairy Tales
Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne
Until 26 April.


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