The Lion and the Unicorn 24.1 (2000) 97-109
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"All That Is Solid Melts into the Air":
The Winds of Change and Other Analogues of Colonialism in Disney's Mary Poppins
Brian E. Szumsky
In an article entitled "Walt Disney: Art and Politics in the American Century," Steven Watts writes of Walt Disney's early reputation as one of "avante-garde artist," and "modernist" who opposed Victorian constructions of reality by both "blurring the line between animation and reality" and by supplanting Victorian "reason and judgment with impulse" (qtd. in "Avante" 134). Today, some of these same arguments are used to vilify the megacorporation Disney and its various enterprises. Consider Disney versus Virginia in the "third battle" of Manassas in which Disney scrapped plans to build an American History theme park near the site of a Civil War battlefield. Their decision was forced by the determined opposition of a coalition of historians and wealthy landowners who worried about "traffic jams, pollution" and the subsequent ruin of their "quiet countryside" (Solomon 46). Further, critics like Scott Schaffer argue that Disney distorts real history for the sake of commercial gain. On Disney's use of "localized stories" (international folk tales to histories), Schaffer states that rather than faithful retellings, what occurs is merely a reinscribing of these stories with a typically American value system for use as a "discourse about America's place in the world order" (para. 20). Robert Gooding-Williams's article on The Lion King begins with a discussion on the difference between entertainment value and ideological content as a way to deconstruct the film's ostensible multicultural message and reveal rather stereotypical assumptions about class and racial demarcations. More recently, even though the film Mulan purports to represent a "90's" image of the female, the title character is praised and accepted for her conformity to the male standard not the female. This representation of [End Page 97] history and its cultures, then, or, for our purposes, "disrepresentation," has become a battleground both intellectually and "in the trenches" so to speak, between Disney and its critics.
A discussion about analogues of colonialism in Disney's Mary Poppins must take note of the film's historical site, that is, late Victorian England, and its quasi-historical materials. The film does not purport to show England as it really was at the turn of the century but rather as a stylized, Broadway-stage version. The fact that the film is a musical, combining "live action" with animation, exemplifies this "blurring" of history and fantasy discussed earlier. By using its patented mix of live action and animation, Disney created a fantasy to overlay historical realities (much as the critics charged in the Disney-Virginia episode). At first glance, entertainment value does seem to have triumphed over serious ideological or historical content. However, ideological content bubbles to the surface. The dialectic is not, to be sure, Disney's; nonetheless, the materials that the Disney screenwriters appropriated from the novels of P. L. Travers have the characteristic spirit of late-Victorian and Edwardian critiques or reassessments of various preconceptions of status-quo Victorian society. Travers, born in 1906, would have imbibed some of these attitudes in her childhood, in particular, through her love of fairy tales and myth. Briefly, the Victorian fairy tale, which her generation was heir to, is noted for its social conscience and its "strong women characters" (Zipes xix)--both of which figure into the materials of Mary Poppins.
Though Travers is generally considered a "traditionalist" writer and a social conservative, Patricia Demers points out that "part of her [Travers's] subversive activity is to question accepted ideas" (11). However, this questioning is usually not a search for explicit answers. Travers herself is not a storyteller in the traditional sense, meaning that she does not incorporate explicit moral lessons into her works. She lauds the notion of indirect teaching, saying, "everything I do is by hint and suggestion" (Burness 136). Likewise her creation...