Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The magic of Disney

I seem to be in a curmudgeonly mood, so now is as good a time as any to confess that I hate Disney.

I've seen very few Disney movies (intentionally, and I've never been to Disneyland or Disney World. Yet I hate Disney.

Of course, the contemporary American can't help being exposed to Disney. The movies, merchandise—lots of merchandise—and advertising are avoidable only if you live in a hermit's cave and can miss out on the highway billboards, shopping, television, radio, or the Internet 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Even then, they'd probably find you via direct mail.

Given my exposure level—minimal for someone who lives in a major urban area where advertising assaults the senses constantly—my antipathy toward all things Disney feels entirely natural. It's not something I've developed over time. What is it that I find so abhorrent?

Some of it is, of course, Disney's ubiquity and popularity. Far from being "magical," Disney is crassly commercial, catered to small children and to the parents who indulge them—and so ingrained in American culture that each generation passes on their love for what is essentially a mass commercial enterprise as though it were an unmatched, irreplaceable family heirloom.

There's more to my distaste, I suspect. When I think of Disney, the first words that come to mind are "conformity" and "control." Disney is as much part of the suburban American childhood experience as day-care, cars, and pumped-up self-esteem.

Most parents I've known have faced a moment when they think their head will explode if they have to watch The Little Mermaid one more time. Those with money will surely find themselves at Disney World in the near future. For a while, even athletes shilled for Disney, saying after winning a championship, "I'm going to Disney World!"

There's no doubt that something about the world of Disney appeals deeply to something in the American people. Perhaps it is that need for control. Beyond the character cuteness and cleverness and the carefully managed visitor experience lies a vise of control in which nothing is left to chance. It is the control of the alcoholic, who needs to be in charge and to keep reality at bay. The "magic" is not magic at all; it is control.

In this planned world, managed to the smallest detail, horrifying folk and fairy tales become watered-down, predictable, affirming stories of good and evil. They are just scary enough for a slight thrill of slight uncertainty and danger, but the handsome boy and the beautiful girl go on to live the American dream—invisibly, because Disney is about youth, not age. The villains suffer some form of punishment, but nothing like the punishment inflicted in real fairy tales. In one tale, the wicked woman is placed into a barrel of inward-facing spikes, which is rolled down a hill—a sort of rolling iron maiden that you won't find in a carefully sanitized Disney version.

Magic acts are based on control; the magician and assistant control the audience's perception of what they think they see. Disney is an elaborate magic act without equal. Small children don't see workers with plastic heads, and even jaded teens can become immersed in the more sophisticated rides and attractions. Giving up control means losing yourself in the magic—all of it an act, a pretense.

With Disney, the illusion, the appeal to the senses, and feeling of wonder are so complete that the critical brain is not engaged. Disney children grow into Disney adults who, not surprisingly, want to pass on that same feeling, which they remember as "magical," to their own children. No doubt Disney struggles to compete with all the sophisticated diversions that are available today, but its entertainment empire thrives.

People seem to go along with magic acts as long as the illusion is seamless. We don't really believe that a woman is being cut in two (and put back together) on stage. The better the illusion, however, and the more elusive the trickery, the more awed we are. "How does he do that?" Interestingly, there are always a few who seem disappointed when magic acts prove to be trickery. They say, "It's a trick! He didn't really saw the woman in half!" as though they think the act of illusion should be reality, as though they confuse the two.

That's the problem. Magic, not illusion, should be reality. Magic is something greater than ourselves, and therefore magic is spiritual. The parting of the Red Sea and the miracles of the New Testament are magic—great, inexplicable events that, whatever your beliefs, are recounted as though they had really happened, as though they were reality. Magic is real, magic is powerful, and magic is dangerous. Magic, no matter how benevolently used, even to feed the five thousand, is frightening because it is greater than ourselves, and we cannot understand it or its powers.

There's no room in our world left for magic. Our science has explained nearly everything, and we have faith that someday it will explain everything that remains uncertain. If someone parted a sea or brought the dead back to life, we would be determined to figure out the illusion or to find a rational explanation. We will not be satisfied until we prove that there is nothing greater than ourselves.

Disney is an illusion designed to prolong the illusion of childhood. But Disney is not magic. Instead of believing in the potential of magic and all its possibilities, we'd rather pay for a well-crafted facsimile because we are sure that that is all there is. Instead of seeking the magic—and power—of the imagination, we, like other animals, rely on stimulation of our senses. The popularity of the theme parks, the movies, and the products prove there must be a real thrill in this, and perhaps a yearning for more.

That "more" is magic, and it cannot be bought or sold—by Disney or anyone else.

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