It’s amazing that the blog got this far without a Disney post, but here we go.
Frank Thomas. Ollie Johnston. As long as I live, I will never forget those two men, nor their book “Too Funny For Words: Disney’s Greatest Sight Gags.” Equal parts academic and humorous, the book analyzes the different forms of humor in Disney cartoons, often utilizing personal examples (the authors worked for the company for decades). It was certainly an… unorthodox reading choice for a six year old, but it quickly became a favorite. I had always loved the movies, the way kids do, but this was the first time that I was able to see them as complex, artistic, psychological undertakings. Studying the studio’s history and the “making-of” featurettes offered early lessons in art, in storytelling, in history and economics and perseverance. It was the first time that I was invited to investigate the inner workings of a system – indeed, to revel in the magic of creation itself.
This was why visiting the Walt Disney Family Museum was a crucial part of the itinerary, and despite my misadventures (this was the place that I was trying to get to during my fateful bumble through San Francisco), it was well worth it. Here was that history and how-it-works spirit writ large, with the added joy of seeing those artifacts in real life. Looking at the scratchy pencil drawings that would eventually become a world-famous rodent (and spawn an empire) didn’t take away from the films. Quite the opposite; once again, I was struck by the technical mastery and constant experimentation that has driven the studio from the very beginning. The chronological walk-through proved valuable as well, a tangible reminder of just how diverse the canon is. Disney has gotten a reputation for churning out tropes, and rightfully so; there are certain elements – the princesses, the brightness, the almost unbearable earnestness – that tend to form the backbone of the studio. But that viewpoint also ignores the finer nuances; the darkness, the creativity, the sheer variety of stories being told. In the 1940s section alone, I could stand next to an animation cel from a heart-wrenching movie about a flying circus elephant and glimpse footage set to classical music to my left and high-energy live-action/animation hybrid travelogues about Latin America to my right. Walt’s curiosity was boundless, and while he didn’t always hit the mark, his application of it was unparalleled. And nowhere does this come into play more than in the kingdom he built in Anaheim, a physical manifestation of these dreams.
Poorly kept secret about me: I love dioramas. I can spend hours staring at the little details, burning the entire miniature world into my memory. So when I came across the massive Disneyland display at the end of the museum, I promptly lost my mind. To wit: I took more pictures of that than just about anything on this trip – including some of the greatest natural wonders on Earth. But by god, those tiny balloon carts are important. At any rate, the display took a really interesting approach. Rather than capturing a particular moment in the park’s history, its creators opted to showcase some of the most beloved attractions and designs through the decades – a sort of ageless entity, bound together by its mythology. Thus, we have Lincoln rhapsodizing behind dueling dinos, pirates drunkenly taking aim at mansions full of ghosts, children on flights and toads on wild rides.
It was a mecca for a nerd like me, but also a genuinely impressive work, and one that captured the passion and spirit of the place. The only thing better would be going to the actual park….
It had to be done.
Disneyland is not a perfect place. It is overpriced, and overstimulating, and sometimes unbelievably cheesy. But it is also, in my opinion, one of the most interesting places in the world – and, if you’re willing to get into the spirit of it, one of the most charming as well. It’s a hodgepodge of hyper-immersive environments, a cultural microcosm, an intensely ambitious and ever-evolving art project. I love the fact that you might, on any given day there, rub shoulders with celebrities, vacationing families, hardcore trivia buffs, and Buddhist monks. I love its simultaneous commitment to nostalgia and progress, the fact that top-of-the-line holograms and visibly creaky robots from the 1960s can exist side by side. And, of course, I love the constant opportunities to learn. The rides and shows are generally pretty excellent, but it’s equally fun (at least for yours truly) to explore the craftsmanship involved in every detail. Even the time spent in line can be delightful, if you take the time to look at the set-pieces scattered around.
At the end of the day, Disney is in the business of world-building with all the creativity and complications that such a mission entails. Whether on the screen, the stage, the page, or the street, the company is forever striving to invite its audience into its universes – not just as observers, but often as informed participants. And it is this gift that, at the end of the day, will always make Disney important to me. It is not above criticism, nor outgrowth, but as my very first friend and teacher, it has proven invaluable.