- The Disney Middle Ages: A Fairy-Tale and Fantasy Past ed. by Tison Pugh, Susan Aronstein
The Disney Middle Ages: A Fairy-Tale and Fantasy Past, a volume in the New Middle Ages series of criticism, is an uneven but overall thought-provoking collection of essays that examines the conjunction between Disney and medievalism from several angles. One major strength of the collection is that it does not concentrate wholly on the most expected angle, the Disney princess phenomenon. However, this strength is simultaneously a weakness, because the most problematic chapters here seem to be trying too hard to discuss anything but princesses, in the process shoehorning Disney’s properties into “medieval” topics that do not entirely fit them.
The book is divided into three theme-based sections. The first deals with the Disney theme parks, the second with a number of nonprincess films and their approaches to history, and the third with the figure of the Disney princess. Part I is the shortest, containing only three chapters, all quite strong. Stephen Yandell examines the layout and mapping of the theme parks in light of the properties of the Hereford T-O map. At times, the argument seems to be a stretch, but it is ultimately convincing in its discussion of how the maps function to create control out of chaos, writing a “perfect” story meant to obscure an imperfect world while simultaneously drawing attention to the “forbidden” areas of the park by obscuring their content. Yandell does, however, skim over certain issues—such as his Christ/Mickey Mouse parallel—that threaten to complicate his thesis. Martha Bayless’s “Disney’s Castles and the Work of the Medieval in the Magic Kingdom” is more complex in its approach, offering an exploration of the provenance of Disney’s castles by way of King Ludwig II of Bavaria’s fairy-tale castles while also illustrating the parallels between the physical function of the theme-park castle and the social function of the princess-as-cultural-regulator. Bayless does not take the easy route of outright condemning Disney’s approach, instead admitting that the celebration [End Page 122] of the possibilities of domestic spaces does not have to be negative. In the final essay in this section, Susan Aronstein looks at Disney’s parks through the idea of pilgrimage. She uses pilgrimage as a touchstone in a deeply interesting comparison of the original Disneyland to its current incarnation, where the impetus has shifted away from the construction of a social narrative meant to turn Americans into good citizens with clearly defined social roles and toward the glorification of consumerism by means of entertainment. Altogether, Part I holds together well.
Part II is much less successful. Of the five chapters here, three need substantial work, though their subject matter initially seems promising. Paul Sturtevant’s examination of how young British people perceive Disney’s portrayal of the Middle Ages and Kevin J. Harty’s look at Disney’s treatment of the Robin Hood legend have similar problems. Sturtevant presents strong data but derives from it only the pedestrian assertion that children are influenced by what they see in films, and Harty’s essay consists of little more than mildly analytical plot summary designed to argue simply that Disney tends to go the safe route. Erin Felicia Labbie’s chapter, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Animation and Alchemy in Disney’s Medievalism,” has the opposite problem; Labbie’s scattered comparison of how Disney uses “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in Fantasia (1940) and Fantasia 2000 (1999) ends up obscuring her ultimate point. The other two essays are stronger. Although Rob Gossedge’s “The Sword in the Stone: American Translatio and Disney’s Antimedievalism” is also rather scattered, Gossedge makes some telling points about the American relationship to the Arthur myth and includes an excellent close comparison of the film with T. H. White’s Sword in the Stone (1938). Part II ends on a high note with Amy Foster’s analysis of the Man in Space TV trilogy (launched...