II. Disney, Commodification of Style, and American Values

By Megan Parker

I. The Disney Formula

In Part I, the post-structuralist concept of the tissue of citations was explored, using John Kricfalusi’s Ren & Stimpy as an example within the world of animation. In addition to providing an explanation for the importance of the tissue of citations, he discusses animation “house styles”. The chronology outlined in The Importance Of Having A Lot Of Influences traces their history back to small animation studios in the 20’s and 30’s, describing a house style as being “the sum of all the artists that [happen] to be working there”  (Kricfalusi) which, over time, can evolve and amalgamate into larger groups. Arguably, the most popular out of all these “house styles” is the Disney style, which John K remarks is cultivated in the company’s animation divisions (Disney Animation Studios and Pixar), as well as the California College of the Arts, a college founded by Walt Disney himself (CalArts). Disney’s uniformity of artistic style has become not only a defining trait of the company, but a defining trait of corporate America and American values. Its prevalence as a successful global conglomerate has not only ensured massive profit and visibility, but its synonymity with animation itself, even though the moves that had made them so revolutionary in the past fall by the wayside in comparison to other animation companies. In Understanding Disney, Janet Wasko outlines this formula as “Classic Disney”:

“Although the Disney company has produced a wide range of entertainment products and even a variety of motion pictures, the company is still known for products based mostly on a specific formula that was established at the studio while Walt Disney was in charge and has changed little over the years. It is possible, therefore, to identify something called “Classic Disney,” which refers to the company’s animated films, cartoons, and some live- action films, plus the stable of characters which emerge from these productions, as well as the consistent set of themes and values that generally represent “Disney” to the general public and critical analysts.” (Wasko, 110)

Everything about classic Disney boiled down to formula. “The Classic Disney style came to be typified by light entertainment, punctuated with a good deal of music and humor which revolved mostly around physical gags and slapstick, relying heavily on anthropomorphized (human-like), neotenized (childlike) animal characters.” (Wasko, 111). This included its approach to character design: “Indeed, animators were told to “keep it cute” when it came to creating characters, as the description of each Disney character reveals. Perhaps not so incidentally, this also helped veil merchandise, as well as films.” (Wasko, 111). Preston Blair, an animator active at Disney in the 1930s, had even created a reference sheet for his instructional books that outlined in minute detail how to create a cute, appealing character. (Fig 5)  It is interesting to note that the language in the reference sheet not only limits diverse character design in its exemplar, but actively discourages it, instead seeking to stick to a pre-defined standard of ‘cuteness’: “High forehead is very important […] arms are short and never skinny.” (Blair)

Fig 5: Preston Blair’s reference sheet for “cute” characters.
Fig 5: Preston Blair’s reference sheet for “cute” characters.

The emerging prevalence of Classic Disney can be traced back to the era of 1933‘s The Three Little Pigs, based on the fairy tale of the same name. The short features protagonists that adhere to the standard of Preston Blair’s ‘cute’ formula, while exhibiting themes that would have provided a source of inspiration during the time of the Great Depression — though it is important to note that this film is not the only one that contributed to Disney’s snowballing popularity, it is arguably the first instance in which ‘Disney‘ became synonymous ‘American values’. The film’s featured song, “Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf”, became an optimistic rallying cry for the nation during its time of despair. Wasko observes critiques of the film’s appeal, noting that they had “[emphasized] the historical context of [the film’s] release […] claiming the pigs’ story had a strong impact on a Depression-weary American public, encouraging citizens to work hard and maintain an optimistic attitude.” (Wasko, 111-112) It’s also noted, by no coincidence, that the film’s popularity ensured it to be “enormously profitable, grossing $125,000 during its first year of release and “twice that before its run was finished.” In addition, a major merchandising campaign accompanied the film, with numerous items featuring the Big Bad Wolf and the pigs.” (Wasko, 112) Four years after Pigs, Disney went to create Snow White, which was not only a huge success, but again went on to solidify and reinforce American values. The film’s song “Whistle While You Work” is highly reminiscent of Pigs’ “Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf”, demonstrating an optimistic and encouraging attitude towards labour. Wasko goes on to quote Taxel in defining Disney’s relation to American values: “individualism, advancement through self help, strict adherence to the work ethic, and the supreme optimism in the possibility of the ultimate improvement of society through the progressive improvement in humankind.” (Wasko, 113) Indeed, this has been adhered to even in the most recent Disney films: In 2013‘s Frozen, the story revolves around the relationship between the royal sisters Anna and Elsa — Anna exhibits seemingly endless willpower and drive to help Elsa though her transition into self-acceptance, all while battling a brutal snowstorm (produced by Elsa’s ice-centric powers) that threatens their town. Elsa wishes to hide her powers, but ultimately accepts them and, consequently, her individuality. While showcasing American values, the characters act in accordance to a strict design formula, closely reminiscent of the appealing Preston Blair model: Elsa, Anna, and Rapunzel (the latter character being from a completely different Princess movie altogether) all feature eyes spaced low and far apart on the head, and a small nose and mouth (Fig 6).

Fig 6: From left to right, the characters Elsa, Anna, and Rapunzel showcase uniformity in facial characteristics.
Fig 6: From left to right, the characters Elsa, Anna, and Rapunzel showcase uniformity in facial characteristics.

Classic Disney, while a successful business venture for the company, has stuck to a formula which has challenged its artist’s creativity. Preferring to play it safe, its products have ended up financial triumphs, but at the cost of creative experimentation. “The concept that all cartoons have to follow one style and one form was started by Walt Disney, who in my opinion diverted the natural tendency of a young art form to develop in random and varied directions and find itself, to a stilted inbred medium that quickly went against everything the medium was naturally capable of,” John K writes in The Importance of Having A Lot of Influences. Wasko quotes Folklorist Jack Zipes: “Instead of using technology to enhance the communal aspects of narrative and bring about major changes in viewing stories to stir and animate viewers, he employed animators and technology to stop thinking about change, to return to his films, and to long nostalgically for neatly ordered patriarchal realms.” (Wasko, 126).

Works Cited

Blair, Preston. Cartoon Animation. Tustin, CA: W. Foster Pub., 1994. Print.

Kricfalusi, John. “The Importance Of Having A Lot Of Influences.” John K Stuff. N.p., 27 Sept. 2006. Web. 3 Mar. 2015. <http://johnkstuff.blogspot.ca/2006/09/importance-of-having-lot-of-influences.html >.

Wasko, Janet. “Chapter 5: Analyzing the World According to Disney.” Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2001. N. pag. Print.

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