Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Fantasy land

A visit on Good Friday to the Arc de Triomphe inevitably dredged up old memories of scratchy newsreel footage of Nazi soldiers goose-stepping down the Champs Elysées. And that inevitably raised the question: could it happen again? Would France roll over again under the advance of another highly disciplined megalomaniac foreign power? A visit earlier in the week, just a short train ride to the east, confirmed that it already had. As I stood there surveying the rows of U.S. flags waving above Main Street and the hordes of Europeans milling heedlessly below on eerily litter-free pavement, I marveled at how easily the foreign invader had been welcomed. Yes, I had finally made it to Disneyland Paris (DLP).

Conventional wisdom has it that Europe is increasingly going its own way (as distinct from America’s) as the Cold War recedes into history and that this process has only been accelerated by differences over the invasion of Iraq and heavy-handed Bush administration foreign policy. And maybe this is true. Although, if opinion polls are to be believed, France is mere weeks away from electing a new president (Nicolas Sarkozy) whose thinking many political elitists dismiss as too “Anglo-Saxon” and who is seen as fairly pro-American. But politics aside, American culture shows no signs of being eschewed from the European heartland. It is, of course, a mathematical impossibility that every single European family with children could have been at DLP during the spring school break last week to celebrate the resort’s 15th(!) anniversary, but it certainly seemed like it. Every European language (as well as quite a few Asian ones) could be heard among the crowds, and it was strange to see them all embracing so fervently the American myths and legends celebrated so unabashedly at the theme park. This starts with the idealized Victorian era American Main Street, which greets arrivals at the park and invites them to spend endless sums of cash in souvenir shops, and continues with mythologized recreations of the American frontier and a South that Huck Finn would be comfortable in. The sense of irony is further heightened by the celebration of European fairy tales that were exported to American and then brought back again.

The miracle of Disneyland Paris (and of the Disneyland franchise in general) is that it expects people to pay good money to stand for hours in queues, for a few minutes of excitement at the end—and then leave happy about it! But there they were: French, English, Spanish, German, Italian and other people standing for more than an hour for nothing more than a chance to stand next to (if you are a small child, you should stop reading now) an employee in a Mickey or Minnie Mouse costume and have a picture taken. Even European adolescents, who should have been off somewhere sulking or acting alienated, could be seen shamelessly smiling and waving when their turn came up. What is the magic about this place?

Main Street USA – version française
Main Street USA (version française) with the château of the Belle au Bois Dormante in the background

My attitude toward Walt Disney—and the business and creative empire he created—has evolved over the years. As a child, I saw him as “Uncle Walt,” the kindly old man on TV every week, whose very name conjured up magic on television, at the movies and (when, after years of pleading, you could finally get your father to bring you and your brother) the most wonderful theme park in the universe. His very name seemed to have an enchanted glow about it. In my rebellious young adult phase, Disney seemed more sinister. There was something vaguely fascistic about the way Disneyland was kept so neat and tidy and security people appeared immediately out of nowhere if you strayed off the official paths. And the movies, seen with post-adolescent revisionism, seemed somehow inauthentic in their wholesomeness and, indeed, politically incorrect in the way they borrowing and sanitized older stories.

But, as a grownup, I mainly see Disney as an incredible genius. He was, in many ways, the Bill Gates of his day. Both men found ways to take something people had come to expect to get for free (in Gates’s case, pubic domain software; in Disney’s, fairy tales) and find a way to turn them into private property and make money on them—jealously guarding their own proprietary versions. And, in the process, they each generated a financial empire. There was a time when anything with Mickey Mouse on it was not cool if you were, say, over the age of 12. But no more. Disney’s licensed characters have been around long enough that they have retro pop culture cred. As can be attested by shop after shop in the Disney theme parks and the Disney Village and the Disney hotels. Just when you think there can’t be a single additional Disney shop, there are four or five more around the next corner—with another corner lurking just beyond.

While on the journey to France, I came across a newspaper article that reported the Disney company is pulling back from its expansion into areas of entertainment beyond the family market. After Walt’s passing, his heirs decided that the company needed to modernize, and so began forays into more “adult” entertainment with divisions like Touchstone and the Weinsteins’ Miramax. The pullback seems smart to me. Not that I think that all people should be forced to watch entertainment suitable for families, but the most valuable asset that Disney has is its brand. The Disney name means something, and it makes little business sense to squander that. Besides, it’s not as though G and PG movies are necessarily unprofitable. A quick glance at the biggest grossing flicks of all time will find more in those categories than, say, Quentin Tarantino’s movies or the Miramax-produced Priest, which certainly had its audience but didn’t help Disney with brand clarity.

I suppose a man like Walt Disney, who did so much to re-package and re-sell American myths, would inevitably have a certain amount of mythology about himself. And that would make him a tempting target for de-mythologizers. One such person would be author and media critic Neal Gabler, who published a biography late last year called Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. (Is it a coincidence that the title echoes Leni Riefensthal?) Among Gabler’s points: As an artist, Disney personally peaked creatively in 1937 with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. As a pusher of technical boundaries, he had more staying power. A mere dozen years passed between the first cartoon to use synchronized sound (Steamboat Willie, introducing Mickey Mouse) and Fantasia. On a personal level, Gabler shows Disney to have been cold, distant and impenetrable. A workaholic that nobody really got to know, he was apparently not quite the kindly and avuncular man we knew from television. As if that doesn’t go far enough in dashing our myths of Disney the man, the slavishly thorough Gabler concludes with a description of his plot at Forest Lawn. That’s right, one more myth punctured. Walt Disney didn’t have his body frozen after all.

-S.L., 12 April 2007

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