- The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation: From Snow White to WALL-Eby David Whitley
David Whitley originally published the first edition of The Idea of Nature in Disney Animationin 2008, and in 2012 he republished it with a revised introduction, an additional chapter, and a conclusion to the updated edition. Among the futile twenty-first-century endeavors to salvage the Disney industry’s reputation from continual sharp ideological and aesthetic critiques—I am thinking here of such simplistic apologetic studies as Mark Pinsky’s The Gospel According to Disney: Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust(2004), Douglas Brode’s Multiculturalism and the Mouse: Race and Sex in Disney Entertainment(2005), and Amy Davis’s Good Girls and Wicked Witches: Women in Disney’s Feature Animation(2006)—Whitley’s study, which is sympathetic to the Disney Company, is to be taken more seriously because it is a judicious and sophisticated study of the ecological aspects of the Disney animated feature films from 1937 to the present.
Whitley’s book is divided into four parts: “Fairy Tale Adaptations,” “The North American Wilderness,” “Tropical Environments,” and “New Developments.” And the films that he examines in close readings are Snow [End Page 368] White, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Bambi, Pocahontas, Brother Bear, The Jungle Book, Tarzan, The Lion King, Finding Nemo, and WALL-E. The chapters are organized chronologically in phases: the first is the period in which Walt Disney presided over the films (1937–1966); the second is 1984–2005, when Michael Eisner played a major role in determining the Disney Company’s themes in animated feature productions; and the third, 2006 to the present, is when the Disney Company bought Pixar and John Lasseter assumed responsibility for the major feature animations of the Disney/Pixar corporation. Whitley asserts that “it is clear that both Walt Disney and Michael Eisner saw themselves as having a sustained and strong commitment to wild nature and the environment, whatever line one takes on gaps between professed ideals and corporate practices” (13).
Given the positive depiction of nature and animals in most of the Disney animated films, Whitley selects some of the prominent animated films based on well-known fairy tales, animal tales, and adventure books to explore carefully how the Disney artists created enchanted archetypes that reveal the tensions between humans and the environment. Whitley states:
My central proposition is that there exists, within the whole oeuvre of Disney and Disney-Pixar animated features, a rich tradition of films that are engaged with the question of how we relate to and understand the natural world of which we are ourselves a part. Implicit within this proposition is the view that we have been insufficiently aware of the strengths of this tradition hitherto, and that it should be seen as an emotional and aesthetic resource that may help draw the young towards the kinds of connection, understanding and debate that are vital if we are to come through our current environmental crisis and to learn from it.(161)
This proposition underlies Whitley’s approach to all the films that he studies in his book and leads him to bring out some vital features of the films that, indeed, reveal a sensitive and somewhat sentimental and idealistic portrayal of nature, animals, and even manufactured objects.
This is all well and good, and many of Whitley’s observations about the ecological aspects of Disney’s animated films are insightful and just. Yet it is Whitley’s emphatic focus on how the positive portrayal of nature and animals compensates for the other failings in the Disney animated films that diminishes many of his general observations about the importance of enchantment and wonder in influencing viewers of the films—and not just children but adults as well.
For instance, in his discussion of Snow White, he remarks that “Snow White, like Thoreau, undertakes a journey of self-discovery into the wilderness, learning to become more self reliant” (12). Aside from the fact that the [End Page 369...