The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation (review)
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Reviewed by
David Whitley. The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2008.

The whole Walt Disney philosophy eats out of your hand with these pretty little sentimental creatures in grey fur coats. For my own part, I believe that behind these smiling eyes there lurks a cold, ferocious beast fearfully stalking us.

(Baudrillard 48)

As the force of Baudrillard’s comment suggests, the relationship between Disney and the natural world is problematic at best. The Disney Corporation relies heavily on a suggested symbiosis between nature and humanity in which wide-eyed animals and cheerily countenanced humans interact in an array of sugar-coated encounters. Alongside the now iconic fairy-tale castle, the statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse that stands in the central plaza of the Magic Kingdom park (as well as in the Disney parks of California, Paris, and Tokyo) has become something of an icon for the infamous connection between a man and a mouse. Simply entitled “Partners,” the statue depicts, on the one hand, the unity of these two beings joined together in an equal partnership. Yet on the other, the statue insists that onlookers recognize Mickey as an anthropomorphised animal—his [End Page 409] bubbly cartoon shape, shorts, and oversized shoes placing him resolutely in the realm of the human. That the construction of Disney’s imaginary empire, in terms of the Disney World park alone, required the draining and transformation of over forty-seven square miles of swampland (roughly the size of San Francisco) does little to enhance the company’s reputation with ecologists and nature lovers. As an economic giant that, according to Henry Giroux’s provocatively titled The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence (1999), will do almost anything to protect its image as a company with pixie-dust at its heart, ecocritical concerns may seem a long way from Disney’s central vision. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that critics have been outspoken in locating the problems implicit in the Disney dream. From Dorfman and Mattelart’s How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic (1971) to Annalee Ward’s Mouse Morality: The Rhetoric of Disney Animated Film (2002), Disney and “Disneyfication” have been subject to a great deal of academic derision.

With these concerns in mind, David Whitley’s recent work The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation is operating in something of a fraught field. From his opening line, the author attempts to stay the tide of criticism characteristic of Disney studies by offering “a fresh look at Disney animated films” (1). Focusing primarily on some of the best-loved classics from the Disney pantheon—such as Snow White, Bambi, and The Little Mermaid—Whitley recognizes that although such anthropomorphising animations are clearly “deliberate attempts to court and cultivate sentiment” and are “often taken to be signs of the inauthentic in Disney’s aesthetic” (2), it is acutely necessary to rethink underlying assumptions about the role of such sentimentalizing in what is effectively one of the most prevalent media for communicating ideas about nature to young audiences. In the context of a twenty-first century environmental agenda that wishes to impart a vision of the interdependency of humans and animals in an ecosystem, Whitley argues that profound acts of human feeling, rather than simply being suggestive of a cutesy relationship with animals, can alter our understanding and affiliation with the natural world. In this way, Disney animated films offer, what Whitley terms, a “relatively safe sphere within which crucial issues could be rehearsed and . . . explored” (3).

The book is organized into three parts of two chapters each. In the first section, on fairy-tale adaptation, Whitley asserts that Disney’s decision to extend the motif of sympathy between natural and human characters, beyond what is common in traditional versions of such tales, is particularly distinctive. For example, in Snow White (1937) the young princess’s sojourn in the forest cottage portrays a connection between human and [End Page 410] animal in more than a simply sentimental or tokenistic way. The film’s rare combination of nonspeaking animals, realistically rendered in terms of movement and species diversity...


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