- The Emperor’s Old Groove: Decolonizing Disney’s Magic Kingdom
The last decade has seen a proliferation of critical collections focused on the Disney empire, signaling, perhaps, that Western culture's defensive love-affair with the Disney product is finally on the wane. Brenda Ayres's collection is firmly in the tradition set by Bell, Haas, and Sells's From Mouse to Mermaid (1995) or Eric Smoodin's Disney Discourse (1994): a reasonably eclectic collection of essays on various aspects of Disney's film and corporate culture. Inevitably, the tendency for any critical collection to swing wildly between poles of discourse, theory, and quality is exaggerated by the breadth of Disney's cultural artifact and by the often widely differing critical backgrounds from which critics of Disney hail.
Ayres's collection finds some kind of focus by stating its intention to be "a series of close readings of individual animated films. . . . a close, careful look at the very heart of Disney" (3). It thus offers more concentrated textual concerns than do Bell et al., who include live action films from Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures, or Smoodin's collection, which includes considerable analysis of the theme parks. The focus on animation is productive, underlining the extent to which it is the animated icons which define Disney to its consumers, and the animated films which define the ideological and cultural construction of the familiar images. At the same time, the limitation leads to a certain smoothing of theme, suggested by the collection's section topics—Family, Women, Culture, Literature, History. While certain essays stand out, the overall effect of both the sectioning and the bulk of the essays is a faint but [End Page 329] persistent sense of déjà vu; despite the disparity of critical approaches, they at times echo not only each other, but the general themes and insights of earlier collections. Disney scholarship, it would seem, is moving towards some kind of canonical consensus; The Emperor's Old Groove is exactly that.
The sense of an accepted canon of Disney insight is strengthened in the collection by the degree to which individual essays take for granted the scholarly historicity of their approach. "Disneyfication" has apparently become an accepted critical term, used straight-faced and without explanation. Few essays offer any contextualization of Disney as cultural monolith, launching in many cases into an analysis of cultural imperialism or problematical ideology in a particular film, without pausing to define in any depth the terms in which the monolith constructs itself. The effect is curiously unbalanced: the essays on the whole do not acknowledge, other than in passing, the essential tension between Disney's popularity as innocent, family entertainment and the ideological minefield which underpins that smug surface. Ayres's Acknowledgments and Epilogue bookend the essays with a slightly shamefaced admission of pleasure in the Disney product, but none of the essays address this issue in any depth. This ends up exaggerating the lack too often seen in Disney criticism, of engagement with the difficult, seductive, embarrassing problem of Disney's appeal, the pleasure it creates despite everything we can do to deny it. Since this tension between the critical and the popular is, to me, one of the most interesting aspects of reading Disney, explorations of specific films in the terms simply of gender issues or colonialism seem to me to be rather flat. Those essays which dealt with feminist criticism, in particular, were to me the most problematical, reiterating the same old tropes.
That said, many essays in the collection offer new insight or the succinct summation of previous critical trends. Brian E. Szumsky's sociopolitical reading of Mary Poppins is agile and entertaining, and offers fascinating comparisons with P. L. Travers's original text. Diane Sachko Macleod's exploration of Aladdin in the context of the Gulf War brings together existing strands of criticism to form a persuasive and coherent whole, while Sheng-mei Ma's "Mulan Disney" is a welcome treatment of a seldom-analyzed film, offering the most sustained treatment of Disney...