David Whitley on The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation

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The Idea of Nature in Disney AnimationThe Idea of Nature in Disney Animation by David Whitley has been chosen by our editors as having played a significant part in the building and reputation of our Literary Studies list. The following is a guest blog post by the author, reflecting on his motivations for publishing his book and the experiences he’s had with it since its publication.

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I was delighted to be asked by Ashgate to contribute a few reflections on The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation, even though – as may soon become apparent in this piece – I may well be the world’s most inexperienced blogger. There’s a pressure to keep moving forward all the time in academic life – producing new perspectives and keeping up with developments in your area – so that the opportunity to reflect back on a book that occupied a lot of time and energy over a significant period in my life (and even changed my outlook on many things in the end) is really welcome.

So – looking back, what was it all about? The idea behind the book was really quite simple – in some ways simple-minded, even. Like many other people in our uncertain times, I’d become preoccupied with trying to understand how our relationship to the natural world was changing and what kinds of positive response we might be able to make to what was widely viewed as an impending environmental crisis. As an academic whose field was literary and film studies, with a particular orientation towards children’s literature, I was especially interested in the kinds of stories and images we produce to make sense of our complex relationship to nature. Watching Disney films with my own kids over a number of years, I realized (this is perhaps what Simpson’s argot would describe as a ‘Doh!’ moment) that these movies had been centrally preoccupied with animals and nature from the time Disney started making feature length animations in 1937. Millions of children all over the world watched these movies repeatedly as they were growing up. So the Disney tradition constituted one of the most significant cultural repositories of imagery and stories connecting children to nature in the world. A great project for a book, in other words, trying to make sense of this connection and the different ways it had been developed in the history of Disney’s filmmaking.

So that was the simple bit – and, to be honest, when I thought about it, I was amazed no one had written a book-length study on such an important topic from this perspective before. The complication lay in that word ‘connecting’ children to the natural world, though. Most of the academic writing that existed on this topic (which was surprisingly limited, actually – most critics choosing to take Disney to task on issues of race and gender, rather than environment) critiqued the films on the premise that their effect on children was to disconnect them from, rather than connect them to, the natural world. The images of nature that Disney offered were considered to be sanitized, sentimental and cute, peddling a false and potentially damaging view of nature to vulnerable young minds.

There was a certain stringency and deconstructive force in adopting this kind of stance, but, the more I thought about it, the more one-sided this also seemed to be. Where Disney criticism focused on images of nature it tended either to read through the animals figured in the films immediately – seeing them as thinly veiled ciphers for human types that embodied culturally conservative agendas – or to upbraid the filmmakers for making the animals too cute and anthropomorphic. This seemed to me to be only half the story, though. So I came up with an alternative kind of strategy for reading the films, which I suppose you could say is close to what the anthropologists call ‘thick description’. In other words I tried to take the surface detail seriously – without being naïve about the distinctive lens through which nature was seen in the movies – taking account of the degree to which the animals retained elements of their ‘animalness’ in the films, and teasing out the implications of this in relation to a wider range of ideas about the environment that seemed relevant. What I hoped to do was to open up the films in some fresh ways and to see what their potential might be for speaking to some of the most important issues facing us in the 20th and 21st centuries, particularly as seen from perspectives to which a child audience could relate.

I don’t know how successful this was but the first edition of the book got generally appreciative reviews, as well as stirring a degree of skepticism and debate in the media. Ursula Heise, whose important work has both challenged and moved forward my own thinking on the idea of a global environmental imaginary, was kind enough to say that the book had opened up sophisticated ways of thinking about popular animation’s potential, which she was developing further herself. In 2012 Ashgate wanted to publish a paperback edition, and this gave me the opportunity to update it with a new chapter on WALL*E, which I think has significantly extended the scope of the book’s arguments.

What has become apparent to me since the second edition was published is that there are a lot of unexplored perspectives in this area that a number of scholars now seem to be working on. My book focused on images of wild nature in Disney, as a way of cutting a potentially huge topic down to size.  I now have a PhD student who is working very interestingly on images of urban environments in popular animated films. Her work problematizes a number of the issues I was trying to address from a quite different perspective. Consideration of the various ways we are entangled with the natural world in our urban environments is now being explored by cultural geographers and in important strands of new nature writing too, of course.

Quite a few significant Disney films also focus on domesticated animals or pets, as opposed to wild animals. A number of writers have written very insightfully about the problematic role pet animals play in contemporary society and there are some fine analyses of both Disney and Pixar films on this theme in Zoe Jaques’ recent book on children’s literature and the posthuman. Clearly there is an enormous amount of vital new thinking going on currently in the areas of animal studies, theories of place and environment, and ecocriticism more generally. The usefulness of considering these in relation to the Disney-Pixar traditions is that the issues come into focus in the context of narratives that engage and fascinate so many children and young people worldwide. I suspect this will continue to be a richly significant vein for scholars to explore, and I’m pleased to have been able to make a small contribution to the ensuing debates.

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About the Author: David Whitley is Lecturer in English in the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, UK.

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