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  • The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation
  • Kathy Merlock Jackson (bio)
The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation. By David Whitley. Burlington, VT, and Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 2008.

Given the important role that nature plays in Disney animation, it is surprising that it has taken so long for a book like this to appear. Walt Disney, who spent formative years of his childhood on a farm in Marceline, Missouri, was always drawn to nature, and from the very beginning of his animation career his films reflected rural life rather than the city. Some of his best known and most loved films, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Bambi, take place in nature, and even after Walt Disney's death in 1966 his studio perpetuated the nature theme in a later generation of popular films, including The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and Pocahontas. In The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation, David Whitley asserts that Disney's greatest contribution to animation was his commercial and artistic strides in the feature animated film, and Whitley limits his analysis to "wild nature" movies: those examples that "focus centrally on wild creatures or natural environments" [End Page 93] (1). He divides the films into three categories—Fairy Tale Adaptations, The North American Wilderness, and Tropical Environments—and explores the ways in which pastoral, wild, and exotic settings function in them and reflect cultural sensibilities regarding the environmental movement.

Nature in the Disney canon takes many forms. Disney's fairy tales use nature imagery for emotional appeal. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, for example, features animal helpers that suggest a sympathetic nature. Snow White herself is characterized by her depiction amid plants, trees, and flowers, while the Queen, associated with death, hovers around rocks and dead trees. In a key scene in the film, Snow White takes a frightening journey through the forest, which signifies her initiation. Later, the film spends a great deal of time using animals in a collaborative, ritualistic way to cleanse and eradicate dirt from the dwarfs' dusty cottage. Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty utilize animals in similar roles—as domestic helpers, props for showing human emotion, or facilitators trying to bring lovers together. Later fairy-tale films, made during the Michael Eisner period, suggest ways to escape an undersea natural world, as in The Little Mermaid, and humanize nature, as in Beauty and the Beast.

Disney's wilderness films also summon nature for emotional effect, perhaps none more so than Bambi, whose style of realism actually disturbed some viewers. In an excellent reading of this conservation film, Whitley compares Bambi to the story of Eden, a vision of a perfect world characterized by comedy and nature. He also suggests an association between Bambi and Yosemite National Park, a key site in the conservation movement. In particular, he addresses the fire in Bambi and its connection to the controversy regarding forest fire practices and the death of Bambi's mother and hunting issues.

Late in his career, Disney did not address the theme of wild nature in his animated features, with the exception of his last animated feature, The Jungle Book, although he did oversee a series of nature documentaries. However, when Michael Eisner, who co-founded the Environmental Media Association, became chief executive of the Disney Studio, nature and the environment once again became central themes, as evidenced in films such as The Lion King, Tarzan, and Dinosaur. Whitley discusses the criticisms associated with these films, especially a tendency to turn wild animals into pets, and shows how the films reflect the conservation concerns of the day.

Whitley provides close textual analysis of some of the Disney Studio's most important films, noting that "[w]e perceive the world in these films through the eyes of creatures in all domains of the animal hierarchy, from ants and fish to extinct species of dinosaur to the familiar repertoire of mammals with more obvious human affinities" (119). The environmental issues these films raise continue to dominate the social agenda.

The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation, which includes a useful bibliography of film and nature sources, needs a stronger conclusion and better...


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pp. 93-95
Launched on MUSE
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