07 November 2012

Why Disney Creeps Me Out: A story of love & hate.

No matter what you feel about Disney and Lucasfilms,
You can't deny that this is an adorable pic.
Photo (c) 2010 Marcio Disney Blog*
I heart Disney. I just want to say that first and foremost. I grew up on Disney cartoons during its epic Renaissance period. I know the words to many of the songs from the films (at one point I owned all the soundtracks), and like many a girl in the world, I wanted to be a Disney princess in one way or the other. (My favorite princess was Aurora followed by Jasmine; the princess I actually wanted to be was a non-Princess...Esmeralda. She's pretty sexy and badass!) Half of my Barbie dolls were Disney dolls. And I remember watching the Lion King in the movie theatre five times with my brother and sister. And my senior year in high school, I was lucky enough to travel to Disneyland with the marching band (my first and only time to go there). 

Although Disney's shaped my childhood, it still has an active presence in my adult life as well. For crying out loud, my artwork can't stop looking somewhat like a Disney cartoon. Some of my favorite TV shows are on ABC. And because Disney's purchased so many things, I also have to admit that some of the movies I've enjoyed lately have been a Disney film.

With that said, I've been wanting to write something about my feelings for Disney for quite some time, ever since I started watching Once Upon a Time on ABC last year. But I didn't know how to segway into it.

Well, Star Wars has helped me out with this, so here I go on a rant as to why Disney has really started to bother me. The company just plain gives me the skeeves.  

...This isn't really news anymore: George Lucas sold Lucasfilms, and therefore the Star Wars franchise to Disney for $4 billion dollars, most of which he will reportedly donate to charity. The bigger news: Star Wars Episode VII comes out in 2015. BAM! 

I've never been a Star Wars uber-fan. Well...maybe at one point in my life, but it was so long ago I've forgotten what it feels like.

We were late bloomers when it came to Star Wars in my household. We didn't watch the films (A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi) until we were like 12 or 13. I distinctly remember someone in school staring at me like I kicked Jesus in the face when I asked him, "What is Star Wars?" Well, my brother and I soon dove right into it, courtesy of USA network (back in the day, they'd freaking marathon those movies. We recorded them off the TV--what's a VCR you ask?--and then we'd watch the tapes OVER AND OVER). After seeing all three movies, we got really into it. I know at one point I actually knew how to play the Star Wars card game; my brother read all of the licensed tie-in novels so through him I knew stuff like Han Solo and Princess Leia's twins (Jaina and Jacen) and other bits of trivia.  

We bought the Vanity Fair magazine when they premiered photos from The Phantom Menace well before the movie was released. And then my friends and I, the day the movie came out, wore our hair in Princess Leia buns to school that day. It also happened to be picture day (for clubs and choir) so if you can get your hands on a Mansfield Senior yearbook you can see my weird hair in a couple photos. And I don't remember where in the chronology this happened, but my brother and I did see the "remastered" versions of Episodes IV-VI when Lucas released them.  I also at one point played Star Wars video games like Rogue Squadron. Remember that one, anybody?

This was so fun to play, back in the day.
Rogue Squadron game cover
(c) 1998 LucasArts.*
Ok, I guess at one point I actually was a mega-fan. But like many people (and probably with the help of Episodes I-III) Star Wars stopped being one thing and became another--to me, a joke. 

Even before Lucas and Disney made their huge announcement I cringed whenever I heard anything about the franchise. The thing is, I don't care what Disney does to it. It just doesn't matter to me anymore.

So what matters to me? The idea behind the purchase of the franchise. 

Spencer Kornhaber of The Atlantic wrote an excellent article about Disney's acquisition of the franchise. He specifically addresses the reactions many fans are having, but assures us that "Star Wars Will Survive Whatever Horrible Thing Disney Does to It." I agree!

Comic by Endless Origami
(cc) via Nerd Approved
Yet I can't help but feel like Disney is a cultural hijacker, and that's what freaks me out.

 Kornhaber wrote this in the article, and it touched a nerve with me big-time (emphasis in the article my own):

"[...] Disney's acquisition of Star Wars confirms something that's been true about the series for a while now. It's left the realm of specific-to-its-time pop-culture product and become something bigger and, yes, better: a folk tale. Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces led Lucas to write a story that was inherently mythical, and the way that story has spread and endured proves just how well he succeeded. [...] 'Folklore' by typical definition refers to a story that belongs to everyone and no one; seemingly authorless, it's passed from person to person until it suffuses a culture's very fabric. When adults screen Return of the Jedi in their living room for their nieces and nephews who then doodle Ewoks on their homework, that's the old idea of folk transmission at work. But Disney has made its fortune in large part from actually owning folk culture, from the kind it created in-house—Mickey and Minnie—to the kind its acquired through purchase, like the Marvel superheroes. The other big part of its business has come from profiting off folklore it doesn't actually own, like the Grimms' tales, by updating it for modern times and marketing it in modern ways." 
--(c) October 30,2012 TheAtlantic.com

Here's the thing though: Disney doesn't seem to be happy with the idea of not owning folklore. 

The end of the Kornhaber quote of course refers to almost all of Disney's animated films--the source material either comes from folklore, fairy tales, or the occasional classic novel. 

As a writer of dark fantasy, who absolutely adores folklore and fairy tales, I'm torn with my feelings for Disney because of what they've done to these stories. Fairy tales were always dark and scary, once upon a time. Disney took that away from them...ask horror writers and fantasy writers and they'll roll their eyes (justifiably so) and say Disney "bowdlerized" the stories (I agree). And although I still like these Disney products, you can't say that Sleeping Beauty and Disney's Sleeping Beauty is the same story. Not by a longshot.

This show isn't about fairy tales. It's about Disney Tales.
Once Upon a Time Logo (c) ABC Studios 2011-2012*
Oh, wait! My mistake. Disney wants you to know that there is only one Sleeping Beauty. Just one. If you need a reminder, tune in every Sunday to ABC and check out the series Once Upon a Time.

That show, although enjoyable and even dark at times (I watch it mostly for Lana Parilla and Robert Carlyle), pisses me off in nearly every episode because I can't go ten minutes into it without feeling like the show is propaganda. 

Here's the official premise which I've taken directly from the official website for the show:

"This is Fairy Tale Land. It's filled with magic, monsters and all of the characters we all know from stories growing up. It's real, and so are the people in it. But unlike the 'happily ever after' you may have heard about, their stories continued, and The Evil Queen cast a Dark Curse over the land....

This is Storybrooke. It's a quiet, little, New England town filled with people who go about their everyday lives with no idea who they really are. The Queen's Curse has trapped them here and placed her in near-complete control. They have no real memories and no real hope.

Once Upon A Time is, at its core, a story about hope."

--2011-2012 ABC.com

Once Upon a Time is a story about how the Disney company hopes the only fairy tales and folklore you remember are the ones they've hijacked, repurposed, and resold.  To them, folklore can only be something that Disney owns, and nothing else.

Fairy Tale Land isn't the actual land of fairy tales. The description of the show is a blatant lie. Because in fairy tale land, places like "a far-off kingdom" exists, but not places like Agrabah, which is referenced in the first season of Once Upon a Time

Agrabah is from Disney's Aladdin, by the way. 

Fairy tale land can have an evil witch place a sleeping curse on a young princess, but if that witch is named Maleficent (who appeared in the first season), you've walked out of a fairy tale and into a freaking cartoon. 

The Seven Dwarves in this series have names. Guess which ones? They even whistle "Hi Ho" in one of the episodes!! 

And JIMINY CRICKET is a character. WTF!! Carlo Collodi may have had a talking cricket in Pinocchio,  but Jiminy Cricket is a 100% Disney creation. 

There's no getting around this.

If Disney produced a version of a fairy tale in any way, shape or form, the Disney version automatically replaces the original in the series. Other fairy tales have popped up over the seasons, like King Midas and Hansel and Gretel...those characters bear a closer resemblance to the originals just because Disney hadn't worked them into a feature film or product of some kind yet.

But it's a free-for all at this point. First season mentioned the Lady of the Lake. Then Lancelot showed up this season. WHAT? Lancelot came from a combination of legend, a tiny piece of reality, medieval histories, and epic poems that celebrated courtly love. King Arthur isn't exactly a fairy tale. Why are Arthurian characters popping up here?  

Peter Pan's Captain Hook has appeared on the show. As well as Alice in Wonderland's Mad Hatter. For Halloween, they introduced Victor Frankenstein. As in,  Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.  Really?

The episode that introduced Mulan in the second season understandably ruffled feathers because she's not a fairy tale character. Hua Mulan is an important cultural figure to China; she may be the stuff of legends, but as I pointed out with King Arthur, legends are partially based off of truth and history. By having Mulan serve as a military escort for Prince Phillip and Princess Aurora from Sleeping Beauty, you've taken a mythical heroine and reduced her value to a fairy tale escort (which just sounds wrong). 

Basically, Once Upon A Time is saying that the only characters who exist in Fairy Tale Land are, in fact, Disney characters. We all know that Disney movies have been adaptations of fairy tales, and Disney actually still referred to these as "retellings" or "reimaginings." Which means there's some acknowledgement, however tiny, of something that came before.

But through Once Upon a Time, Disney is actually coming right out and saying, "The only real Fairy tales are our fairy tales. We are the keepers of Fairy Tale Land. Not history or culture or society. Our way, and no other way." It makes my blood boil.

And when non-fairy tale characters enter the fray, it just signals to me that anything is up for grabs and Disney wants to grab it. If these characters end up in Once Upon A Time's Fairy Tale Land, which is to say, Disney Land, then it's not a long shot to say Disney will seamlessly work in any fairy tale, folklore, or literary classic to solidify its position as a cultural superpower. 

So first: fairy tales. Next: literary classics. Then: legends, myths, and heroes. Disney owns Pixar, the Muppets, Marvel Comics, and now Lucasfilm (and apparently Hasbro is up next), and although they don't own Studio Ghibli, they release the films in the US and use their own stupid actors and celebrities to voice the characters. How long will it be before these franchises and cultural phenomena get the Once Upon a Time treatment?  How long will it be before Disney decides that the only version that exists is the Disney version--will they try to make us forget what came before?


I know this is a pretty extreme reaction to have. It's not extreme enough for me to boycott Disney, because Disney owns a lot of the things I love, and I can't deny that they also make great things that I love dearly.

If my books ever become successful enough in the future, and Disney calls me up and says, "We'd like to make The Name and the Key into a feature film," it would be very hard for me to tell them no, but I would. Because if Disney continues to send a message that the only cultural and folk experience is the  Disney experience, then we have a huge problem. 

Personal reactions aside, I have to ask, What do you guys think about Disney purchasing Lucasfilm? How do you feel about Disney's treatment of folklore and fairy tales? What do you think we'll see from Disney in the future? 

May 13, 2013:  Disney has done it again with cultural hijacking! Disney actually tried to register Dia de los Muertos as a trademark. You know, an important religious and spiritual Mexican holiday. Luckily, thanks to a BUNCH of public outcry and a completely awesome Change.org petition, Disney realized that it wasn't a good idea. Really?

As far as Star Wars news goes, yes, they closed LucasArts, yes, they are having EA Games do all the Star Wars games now, yes, the Expanded Universe is in trouble and the Clone Wars is cancelled, and they're going to release one Star Wars movie every year. EVERY YEAR?!?! That's just...gross.