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Disneyland: A Reader

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Reconceptualizing Disney: Suspended Animation and the Uncanny (final)

There is a fairly widespread rumor that Walt’s body is on ice somewhere, waiting to be revived cryogenically when medical science becomes capable of healing his fatal affliction. Whether or not this is true, it is hard to believe that among the 1,700 robots at the theme parks, there are not Audio-Animatronic versions of Disney, strategically placed at each theme park to greet guests and tell them his version of Disney history (Wasko 25).

Walt Disney Studios, the 51 acre complex in Burbank, California, was built in 1938 following the successful release of the company’s first feature-length cell animation Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Within the first months of its
release, Snow White set an attendance record grossing $8.5 million in box office sales around the USA (Wasko 14). Given the film’s initial success, the corporation rereleased it in 1952, 1958, and 1967, reaping additional profits of $50 million in total (Wasko 30). Snow White was accompanied by a large-scale merchandising campaign beginning in 1936 that “granted over 70 licenses to various companies to produce a wide range of items, including clothing, food, toys, books, phonograph records and sheet music” (Wasko 14). Sold both prior and after the release of Snow White, these early commodified Disney animation products included “Snow white radios produced by Emerson, Snow White-print corsets, Snow White sliced bread, and Snow White treasure chests for all the Snow White toys” (Wasko 14). With the opening of Disneyland in the 1950s, these synergistic business strategies were effectively extended into the park’s attractions themed after the company’s animated characters and films. The park not only served as an innovative promotional strategy for existing and forthcoming Disney productions, but also as an American cultural landmark that strengthened its brand known today. As Janet Wasko describes, “the parks also gave Disney the opportunity to expand on Classic Disney themes and to emphasize and promote American values, or at least those that Disney believed in. Furthermore, Disneyland was designed to recycle existing Disney stories and characters in another commodified form” (Wasko 155). As one of the largest corporations worldwide, the cultural phenomenon of Disney is packaged as the ultimate vision of American values predicated on the manufacturing of “universal” fantasies for all ages.

Years after his death, Walt’s authorial signature, vehement attention to detail and the widespread urban legend that his body had been cryogenically preserved in the park, contribute to the construction of the man’s omnipresence as a contemporary myth and cultural phenomenon. Walt's control over all areas of the animation process and stringent business strategies trace back to the growth of the studio in the 1940s that led to labour disputes over the exploitative working conditions and insufficient screen credits for its animators (Wasko 16). Today, the extension of The Copyright Protection Act implemented in 1998, notoriously known as “The Mickey Mouse Act”, continues to demonstrate the company’s need for authorial control over its intellectual property. Regulatory measures are also extended in the spatial configuration of Disney's theme parks landscaping and rides including “preprogrammed shows” that transport visitors “through prearranged, unchangeable views, and carefully planned sounds and movements” (Wasko 166). Disneyland's “cast members” have also been trained to follow specific protocols including “Disney terminology” so as to prevent any form of disruptive activities and safeguard a coherent and predictable experience for visitors (Wasko 168). 

The mythical construction of ‘Disney’ as a hybrid of man, empire, and park is conceptualized in what Seán J. Harrington eloquently describes as an “alchemical homunculus” (13). The ‘homunculus’serves as an analogical framework for the “functional artifice” in the Disney apparatus in its blending of man and cartoon (13). This analogy also helps to illustrate the fetishistic organization of ‘Walt’ tied to “addictification, narcissism and perversion” (14) in the way he gets mythologised; ‘Walt’ the man is not only a fetishist but is also fetishized in the commodification of his image as cultural product.

In the late nineteen forties, WED Enterprises began developing animal and human Audio-Animatronics that eventually appeared in Disneyland’s attractions and rides serving to extend Walt’s fantasy of control into the park. Walt’s fascination with the technology was sparked in 1949 after purchasing a bird automaton in New Orleans. Mechanical engineer Roger Broggie and art director Ken Anderson were enlisted to “translate the principles of the bird’s movements to human models” (Telotte 121) and the venture quickly became Walt’s “pet project”. Early iterations of these robotic figures first made their appearance at the New York World’s Fair in 1964-5 in exhibits sponsored by major corporations including General Electric, Pepsi-Cola and Ford (Bryman 10). Historical discourses often cite automatons and lifeless dolls (whether animatronics, robotics or waxwork figures) as “an invention of the uncanny” in the way they border absence and presence, and how psychoanalyst Ernst Jentsch describes as “doubts [as to] whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate” (Marynowsky 482). As Harrington notes “[t]he robots represented Walt’s last attempt to fuse the animated and the live, to make dreams and fantasies that one step closer to being realised” (207). The uncanniness of mechanical automatons and still-objects in the rides can be traced back to Disney’s earlier forays in  rotoscoping which seeks to transpose human and life-like qualities into animated images. In Disney’s first feature length cell animation Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) a live actress’ movements were shot on film and then pictorially rendered in the animation. The effectiveness of this technique in Snow White has been criticised for failing to render what it hoped to achieve aesthetically and further diminished the depth of the protagonist’s character. This project will consider the animatronics and spatial configurations in Fantasyland dark rides Snow White’s Scary Adventures and It’s a Small World and the ways they embody Disney’s failed attempts to extend his fantasy of control into the real world. As Umberto Eco describes “[a]n allegory of the consumer society, a place of absolute iconism, Disneyland is a place of total passivity. Its visitors must agree to behave like its robots” (166). The consumptive organisation of visitors and the manner in which animatronics appear in the rides will brought into conversation with an analysis of a contemporary installation called Hibernator: Prince of the Petrified Forest (2007) and its reconstruction of Disney’s mediated space and the way it correlates with Harrington’s ‘homunculus’ analogy introduced earlier.

Home to Sleeping Beauty’s landmark castle and child-friendly gentle rides, Fantasyland is prided as Walt Disney’s favorite place in the world dedicated to “imagination, hopes and dreams”. Opened in 1955 in Anaheim, California, alongside Disney’s Adventureland, Frontierland and Tomorrowland, Fantasyland is themed after the company’s iconic animated fairy tales, featuring rides including Snow White’s Scary Adventures, Alice in Wonderland’s Mad Tea Party, Pinocchio’s Daring Journey, and It’s a Small World. On its opening day, Walt Disney described Fantasyland’s dedication: “In this timeless land of enchantment, the age of chivalry, magic and make-believe are reborn and fairy tales come true. Fantasyland is dedicated to the young and the young at heart, to those who believe that when you wish upon a star your dreams do come true.” Since Fantasyland is organised around Disney’s cleaned up adaptations of childhood fairy tales and imagination, any form of adult debauchery is strictly prohibited. A plethora of websites dedicated to the darkest legends of Disney, unofficial park guides, and various other media produced by self-proclaimed Disney cynics are based on the principle of artifice produced in the magic of Disney. In Real Snow White (2009) Finnish artist Pilvi Takala documented her experience when she showed up at Disneyland Paris dressed up as Snow White and was denied entry. Takala was approached by security guards who explained to her that adults in full costumes are banned from the park as they could potentially degrade the image of Disney’s characters should they behave inappropriately. While signing autographs and posing for photo-ops, Takala was escorted to a nearby toilet where she was asked to change into other garments if she wished to enter the park. As she explains, “[t]he Disney slogan "Dreams Come True" of course means dreams produced exclusively by Disney. Anything even slightly out of control immediately evokes fear of the real, possibly dark and perverse dreams coming true. The fantasy of the innocent Snow White doing something bad is so obviously real” (Takala). As Takala demonstrates, Disneyland is designed to produce a specific version of fantasy and can be seen as a site that both encourages yet denies pleasure in its precise construction and artifice. 

Snow White’s Scary Adventures is based on Disney’s adaption of The Brothers Grimm 1812 fairy tale, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that tells the story of an innocent young woman, Snow White, who hides in a cottage with seven dwarf miners after being threatened by her jealous stepmother. The wicked queen disguises herself as an old witch and tempts Snow White to eat a poison apple that will leave her spell-bound in a death-like sleep until she is kissed by the prince who brings her back to life. As Jack Zipes suggests, the image of cleanliness in Disney’s sobered version of Grimm’s fairy tale carefully rendered in pastel colours and sharp lines is “not a vehicle to explore the deeper implications of the narrative and its history” instead “it is a vehicle to display what [Disney] can do as an animator with the latest technological and artistic developments in the industry… Disney always wanted to do something new and unique just as long as he had absolute control” (39). In Snow White’s Scary Adventures, visitors board the vehicles in pairs with each cart featuring a dwarf’s name resembling the customized beds in the animated film. The carts enter the seven dwarfs’ home, first navigating the living room and then entering a hallway that leads into the sombre stairway featuring Snow White’s statue. To the immediate right appear the animatronics of the seven dwarfs dancing and singing “The Silly Song”. The candlelit space suddenly darkens as visitors encounter the Queen and enter the Dwarf’s Mine with the jovial sounds of “Heigh Ho”. The gates open to reveal the Queen-as-Witch in the mirror to the right, who reappears at the left while brewing up the potion, and twice more behind a closed door and atop the hill. The vehicle moves through a forest featuring the two vultures, a skeleton and demonic statues, and abruptly escapes to the ride’s end where a warmly lit fairy tale book reads “And they lived happily ever after”. As mentioned earlier, the rotoscope technique used in the animated film primarily for the protagonist was criticised for rendering Snow White with less depth, leaving an awkward residual aesthetic:

The result is a hyper-realised image of a girl-shaped entity with pink skin and large eyes. The contrast between realism and the artificiality of her character becomes all the more evident when she is put in an antagonistic situation, where strong emotions, such as fear or anger, would seem to be the natural reaction. Her two-dimensional reactions to every situation expose her as an image of goodliness, with little depth of character. (Harrington 77).

The awkward rotoscoping aesthetic famously parodied in The Simpson’s opening couch gag as “a noble experiment that failed”, extends into the ride wherein the fully imagined animated creations including the witch, seven dwarfs, animals, landscape, and objects assume more active embodiments as animatronic-automatons than Snow White who remains still. While the ride was purposely reconstructed to include the protagonist’s appearance, she only appears once and is the only character who does not have audio-animatronic functions. 

As indicated in its slogan, It’s a Small World is supposedly “the happiest cruise that ever sailed around the world”
that allows you to “watch animated dolls and animals from around the world sing and dance in their native costumes…that will leave you whistling” (Wasko 63). The ride
first appeared at the 1964 New York World’s Fair for its two year run as part of the Pepsi/UNICEF pavilion before it was rebuilt in Disney’s Fantasyland. Originally titled Children of the World and then renamed after The Sherman Brothers song "It's a Small World (After All)", this dark ride was modeled alongside Ford’s Magic Skyway, Illinois’ Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and General Electric’s The Carousel of Progress (Telotte 123). J.P. Telotte describes the new levels of technical expertise of these exhibits and argues that “the real advantage that the Audio-Animatronic creations offered was not simply their mechanical efficiency or even the uncanny appeal that inevitably attached to such robotic figures”, instead, he suggests “it was the implication of their rather ghostly habitation” (123). Originally sponsored by Bank of America, this lengthy dark ride is a hypnotic fantasy of a world picture, where nations and various cultures across the globe are simulated in a cartoonish space inhabited by animatronic children, animals and plant-life that maintain Fantasyland’s interests in “the child’s reception of objects” (Project on Disney 89). The cynicism embedded in contemporary and popularized critical discourses on Disney and It’s a Small World as negotiated in homages and parodies (see Duff Gardens) point to the discomforting suspense of the ghostly animatronics and musical accompaniment that strike an uncanny resemblance to the eerie treatment of haunted porcelain dolls in horror films. As visitors move through the cruise ride the accompanying music “It’s a Small World (After All)” gradually blends with the sights and sounds of different cultures and geographical regions. It’s a Small World ends with a farewell including large postcards from “around the world” to indicate its “worldly” experience. As Wasko points out “[w]hile “it’s a small world” is a common theme in discussions of globalization, it also represents a core philosophy of the Walt Disney Company in its quest to constantly expand the Disney universe” (Wasko 63). The company continues to attract global audiences at Disneyland and generates world-wide revenues for its consumer products and distribution of motion pictures. The ride evokes what Shelton Waldrep describes in relation to Disneyland as “a nationless space (the future) where companies replace countries, or a memory of or desire for travel to a country whose image is already so encrusted with fictionalization as to be no more real than a film or legend. Borders are replaced with a temporal stage between the eventual capitalist takeover of the world and the pseudoreality of current late capitalism.” (Waldrep 85). The colonial fantasies and narratives around which Disneyland is built, can be traced back to the company’s earlier television and film productions and involvement at world fairs and expositions. Similar to these earlier mediations of space and cultures, the park’s attractions are organised around “adventure, empire and encounter with the “Other”, whether in human form or symbolized through frontiers of nature, science or geography” (Nooshin 239). As Laudan Nooshin describes, while Fantasyland is “ostensibly the least concerned with narratives of adventure and conquest which dominate the other three [lands]…there is much to connect Small World with such narratives” (240). The attempt to organise and represent all global nations and effectively manufacture cultures for entertainment, echoes “Disney's tendency to remake local histories and geographies by erasing non-Western identities and replacing them with Western motivations” (Warren 116).

Harrington’s ‘homunculus’ is organized around its fetishistic function as “the primary unit of consumption” that engages viewers in a regressive relationship with the Disney utopia. He proposes that the perverse simplification of the “archetypical consumer” is posited within the structuring principle of “animism”, which “separates paternal authority and the uncanny, and projects these poles onto different figures, enabling an externalised polarisation of psychical elements” (214). What becomes central to the subject/consumer’s regressive gratification is how they get “pathologized by its artificial prosthesis” and engage in addictification and jouissance (216). Drawing on Lacan’s emphasis, Harrington describes the term jouissance as “gratification that exists beyond the pleasure principle (the boundary established by the paternal metaphor); where pleasure becomes painful” (17). This paradoxical pleasure is fundamentally transgressive and is predicated on the perverse organisation of consumption. While Harrington applies this analogy primarily to the consumption of Disney films, his theoretical formulation can be extended in the mediation of space in the park.

Hibernator:Prince of the Petrified Forest (2007) is a contemporary animation and alternate reality environment by London Fieldworks collective Bruce Gilchrist and Jo Joelson that both inspires and serves to illustrate the conceptual framework and composition of Harrington’s ‘homunculus’ in The Disney Fetish (2014) (14). The work integrates a solar-activated animatronic hybrid of Walt and his characters (Bambi and Thumper) into a computer generated post-apocalyptic animation. Over a period of seven weeks, Beaconsfield Gallery in London doubled as an animation studio and installation, wherein the public could spatially navigate the collective’s episodic developments of the AR animation Prince of the Petrified Forest. London Fieldworks is “particularly interested in interrogating ideas around the authenticity of mediated experience, especially experience of place, while exploring the site-specific nature of cognition through poetic applications of technology” (Marsching 254). Hibernator is “part of a trilogy of works exploring themes of suspended animation, technology, fantasy and death” (Marsching 254) which can serve to illustrate the textual configuration of alienation and space in Fantasyland, derived from Disney’s fetishization of control.  

Hibernator, as a site-specific animation studio and post-apocalyptic AR film, aims to envision the darkest depths of the Disney myth tied to fantasy, incarceration, and death. The cryogenic myth that surrounds the man’s premature death to cancer is the starting point for this London Fieldworks piece, which is interested in exploring life processes and consciousness. After awakening from hibernation, the Walt chimera named Hexer, navigates the not-so-idyllic forest of his perversions while a psychedelic voiceover narrated by American musician and cartoonist Peter Blegvad states:

It’s over, no more fairy tales. This is not a dream, something out there is giving up the ghost. Something out there is over.

Back. Go back. Do you remember the time that you lost it? In 1938, there at the place where the powerlines crossed… There it was that you tasted the fruit of the poison cactus. It was in the desert, east of Los Angeles that you raised the devil inside. (Prince of the Petrified Forest)

Walt Disney Studios is referenced here as the place of origins and a location that manifested the man’s “devil inside”. In his hybrid reincarnation as man and cartoon characters Bambi and Thumper, Disney moves through a nightmarish
wasteland where he is reminded of his mother who died the same year the studio opened in 1938, his greed, colonial fantasies, wartime involvement, animated characters and Kachina dolls. As Hexer moves through the space, cut-outs of iconic characters Ursula, Thumper, Bambi, Mickey, Minnie, and Goofy appear alongside a masked Native American statue. The narrator refreshes Hexer’s memories of these heydays:

You built a merchandizing operation out of your cartoon characters. Hexer had some ideas of his own. Lil Kachina, remember that item? It was ‘61 when you first saw the blueprint of the masked “speak my past life” doll. String-pulled activated. A tape looped inside the hollow plastic chest. (Prince of the Petrified Forest)

Hibernator can be seen as a spatial conceptualization of Harrington’s analogy (and of Fantasyland) in the way that it reintroduces Walt-as-chimera into a mediated space of radical alienation and strips utopian visions to lay bare perversions within the fantasy. The augmented reality environment incorporates shots from Walt’s point of view as he moves through the various channels. This space mimics the ambience of a dark ride wherein waterfalls, power surges and atmospheric sounds overlap with the chimera’s heavy electronic breathing as he navigates the forest. This axis of consumption is extended into its tripartite site-specific installation that combines screening, production and performance. Visitors navigate a dark labyrinthine screening space with a series of designated portals in the lower gallery wired to the animation studio upstairs where the artists work on the weekly episodes of Prince of the Petrified Forest. The Walt chimera was displayed on a synthetic green podium in the upper gallery space where visitors could observe its solar-powered facial movements designed to conceptually mimic natural hibernation patterns in its sporadic activations. These slight facial expressions are unnervingly Walt-like and were constructed in collaboration
with specialists in prosthetics and robotics. The main difference between the uncanniness of this animatronic and the ones in Disney’s rides, is that it enters the “uncanny valley” in its hyperreal aesthetics. Introduced in 1970 by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, the uncanny valley is a hypothesis suggesting that robots with increasingly humanlike prosthetics induce negative responses in humans since their likeness borders absence. The concept builds on the Freudian uncanny which “derives its terror not from something externally alien or unknown but – on the contrary – for something strangely familiar which defeats our efforts to separate ourselves from it” (Liu 229). As Wade Marynowsky suggests, whether or not automatons in contemporary art could “help us to understand the nature of the uncanny” (482) is a productive question to pose in light of their normalization in digital media. While the uncanny valley has received criticism by roboticist and former Imagineer David Hanson for its limitations as a concept today, it still seems suitable to classify Hibernator within its hypothesis, as it renders the reincarnated Walt unpleasantly familiar and disturbingly inert.

Hibernator is organized around the principle of a “work-in-progress” in its suspended display of animation production. When describing the piece, London Fieldworks artists emphasize its aims to comment on the functional artifice of Disney’s image in the way it gets constructed through myth. Since ‘the magic of Disney’ is fed into the company’s animation studio workshops, behind-the-scenes bonus home viewing materials and access to highly constructed “unchartered” areas of the park, the commentary produced in this artwork is perhaps problematized in its “behind-the-scenes” principle which fails to acknowledge its own indulgence into the narcissism it aims to deconstruct; that of artistic processes and mastery. In addition, the inclusion of and public access to the animation studio and the weekly episodic AR developments require viewers to engage in returned visits in order to see the finished product and effectively ascribes consumption patterns. It is unclear whether the temporal and performative elements of “artistic creation” in this work are purposely sardonic or merely indulgent, but its thematic exercise in fantasy, technology and perversion remains compelling in its negotiation of suspended animation/human hibernation and its diffusion of life processes that factor into the construction of the Disney myth.

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