What is a Disney film? Over the years “Disney” has become a kind of shorthand for a particular, cloying sentimentality and vacuous wholesomeness. In fact Uncle Walt’s surname has become an adjective, and not a good one either. When cultural commentators refer to the Disneyization or Disneyfication of society they are not describing an increase in musical numbers, Technicolor spectacle and good old-fashioned decency, but rather an increased corporatism under the guise of good old-fashioned decency, utilising musical numbers and Technicolor spectacle to brainwash children into archaic gender roles and a passive acceptance of the capitalist machine. From Dorfman and Mattelart’s seminal How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic (1971), Henry Giroux’s The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence (1999), to Annalee R. Ward’s Mouse Morality: The Rhetoric of Disney Animated Film (2002) the Disney corporation and its output have been the subject of much criticism. Meanwhile, Walt Disney himself has become something of urban legend, no longer a kindly Uncle but a racist despot whose head has been preserved in cryogenic suspension. As Jean Baudrillard ( in America, 1989: page 48) put it:
The whole Walt Disney philosophy eats out of your hand with these pretty little sentimental creatures in grey fur coats. For my own part, I believe that behind these smiling eyes there lurks a cold, ferocious beast fearfully stalking us.
All of which is good fun, to be sure and undeniably some of Disney’s output is deeply problematic (Song of the South being perhaps the most egregious example) but still others are widely accepted masterpieces of animation (Dumbo, Bambi, The Lion King). The purpose of this post however is not to sort ‘good’ Disney from ‘bad’. Instead, I want to highlight a brief period in Disney’s history (roughly 1979-1985) when, by a combination of accident and design, some truly odd films emerged from the studio. Films that trouble Disney’s reputation for harmless, child-like fun.
Of course, we might argue that this reputation was already false. After all, Disney have never shied away from parental death, which serves as a narrative driver in both Bambi and the Lion King, for example. Meanwhile, Dumbo, Fantasia and Snow White all feature famously nightmarish sequences. But these are all still fundamentally children’s films; their terrors are real, but fleeting, little islands of horror in a sea of hi-jinx and catchy tunes. What interests us here are those few films made between 1979 and 1985 that explore unfamiliar genre territory for Disney: sci-fi and horror. Incidentally, while this post is about live-action features, Disney’s dark period also saw the release of The Black Cauldron (1985), the first Disney animated film to ever receive a PG rating. The Black Cauldron is still considered one of Disney’s biggest box-office failures; reaction was so negative that Disney did not distribute it on video for more than ten years after it was released. The live-action features that comprise the ‘Dark Disney’ mini-cycle proved equally problematic for Disney and its audiences because, as Rohan Berry puts it, these films represented an,
awkward collision between traditional Disney family entertainment and a more ambiguous conception of childhood, laced with horror, mystery and more challenging philosophical concerns.
In other words, these films, marred by troubled productions and middling box-office came to close to revealing the “cold, ferocious beast” that Baudrillard saw lurking behind Disney’s smiling eyes. Continue reading