Posted by Ann Donahue, Senior Editor, Literary Studies
According to a delicious urban legend, Walt Disney’s frozen body is buried under the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Disneyland, where it awaits a cure for the cancer that caused his death on December 15, 1966. Perhaps this is a morose twist on Sleeping Beauty or an instance of wish-fulfillment from the unconscious of someone traumatized by the death of Bambi’s mother. Whatever its origins, I like to think it speaks to Disney’s influence on the imaginations of twentieth-century children and their parents.
If you grew up in North America and are a person of a certain age, you probably watched the original incarnation of The Wonderful World of Disney.
If you are a person whose favorite children’s books were about talking animals (Talking Animals in British Children’s Fiction, 1786–1914), Bambi may have been your favorite movie. As the judiciously spaced re-releases show, children continue to respond to the film’s brilliant animation and the opportunity it affords them to enjoy the pleasures of anthropomorphism. They are likely unaware that some groups disapprove of Bambi’s invitation to identify with forest creatures.
For evidence of ongoing adult worries about what they perceive to be the movie’s untoward “pro-animal” message, see Proposition 109, put forward this fall by Jerry Weiers of the Arizona legislature, who wants, according to the East Valley Tribune, “to protect the rights of hunters from people who watch too many Disney movies” (Prop 109 Would Protect Hunting Laws from Bambi Lovers). Anxiety about the film’s effect on children and adults is also in evidence in a 1998 address by then Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, who found it necessary to counter the influence of Bambi by explaining that wildfires are a beneficial part of the “circle of life” (Fight Fire with Fire).
Even if you don’t share their particular concerns, Jerry Weiers and Bruce Babbitt may be onto something. The enduring power of Disney movies about “wild nature” to persuade and inspire is the topic of David Whitley’s The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation, published in Ashgate Studies in Childhood. Whitley suggests that Disney films about the natural world had such a strong effect on their child viewers that they played a role in the modern-day environmental movement that began in the 1960s. Years after Uncle Walt’s death, the Disney industry continues to produce films like Pocahontas and Finding Nemo that, regardless of their ideological bias, contribute to children’s awareness of contested environmental issues.
Walt Disney’s own unease with the problems of cities is treated in Steve Mannheim’s Disney and the Quest for Community, which examines Disney’s original conception of the “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow” or EPCOT.
When I volunteered at the first recycling center in my tiny Vermont town, I had no idea I was part of a generation inspired by the Disney Studio’s depictions of nature and community. I thought I just wanted to hang out with my friends and, well, save the environment.