The Case of the Disney Version

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Editor: Tom Burns
From: Children's Literature Review(Vol. 143. )
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,244 words

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[(essay date 2003) In the following essay, Clark charts how critical opinions, both literary and culturally, have evolved since Disney's origins in the 1930s.]

How have Americans responded to children's literature during the last century and a half? How have we constructed childhood? These questions have guided my study of reception. The most revealing works were published before the middle of the twentieth century. More recent works have not usually generated the kind of history that strikingly illuminates the cultural construction of children's literature, nor do they register a remarkable shift in consciousness in our imagination of childhood. One exception is a set of works that we would not normally consider literature but that nonetheless has strong ties to children's literature.

For perhaps another shift in the cultural construction of childhood is now taking place. Perhaps what's occurring is a shift away from literature to more visual media, especially the mass media--as signaled by the fact that the Oz of most people's imaginations is not L. Frank Baum's but Victor Fleming's, not the "real" Oz, from the perspective of literary folk, but the one done with the celluloid wizardry of smoke and mirrors. I turn now to someone whose work has been highly contested, at least by the literati, in the second half of the twentieth century. Someone who wreaks havoc with the "original" words of a story, disrupts what some have seen as an original purity (yet thereby reminds us that a pure point of origin is illusory). Someone who disliked adapting Wonderland, he subsequently reflected, since he felt more constrained by Carroll's fixed words than by the more malleable versions of fairy tales. (Though he'd hankered after Alice, dallied with her, for decades: in the 1920s he produced a series of fifty-six Alice comedies; in 1933 he discussed an adaptation of Wonderland with Mary Pickford; in 1936 he produced a short cartoon called Thru the Mirror, inspired by Through the Looking-Glass; in 1945 he announced a film version of Wonderland featuring Ginger Rogers; in 1950 he called his television debut One Hour in Wonderland.)1

I mean, of course, Walt Disney.

It's a surprise for a baby boomer like me to realize the esteem in which Disney was held in the 1930s, so low has his esteem now fallen among intellectuals. It's not just that, as Eric Smoodin suggests, Disney's Mickey Mouse cartoon shorts were likely to be paired with serious, even classic, feature films in the 1930s--treated as if they too were classics.2 Nor that Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford were fans of Mickey Mouse; FDR, of the Three Little Pigs; Mussolini, of Donald Duck.3 Nor that "Mickey Mouse" was the password for Allied Supreme Headquarters in Europe on D Day.4 But, as Leonard Maltin notes, Disney was both popular with millions and "the darling of America's intelligentsia."5

In the 1930s the philosopher Mortimer Adler, architect of the Great Books program, claimed that Disney's work "reaches greatness, a degree of perfection...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420091206