In Praise of Walt Disney

Let us now praise Walt Disney. I mean that in all earnestness. The man was a genius.

I don’t mean his art or animation—though, of course, that is praiseworthy enough, and worth another post just to examine it, by someone much better qualified than myself. What I praise here are his stories. More particularly, the original Walt Disney fairy tales.

Yes, they are sanitized. Yes, they are sickly sweet. Yes, they perpetuate myths of female helplessness. Yes, they have covert and not-so-covert tones of S&M sex. But they have all those things in a logical plot, which, considering the original material, is not just a feat of greatness, but a genuine miracle.

Consider, for instance, an early rendition of Little Red Riding Hood. I’m not sure I can record it all here, but it involves a duck, a road of needles versus a road of pins (Red has to choose one: she chooses the road of pins, which—somehow—proves the intrinsic weakness of her character), a river and a long, winding pathway through the forest, both to and from Grandmother’s house. You half expect the wolf to have given up in boredom before she’s even partly there. The ending—after a long, winding chase through the woods that involves the duck—is facilitated by the old fairy tale standby, deus ex machina, which magically produces a gallant woodsman to cut the wolf open and sew rocks into his belly in order to drown him—as though being dissected isn’t enough. Oh, and there’s also a second wolf that hangs around on the roof of Grandmother’s house, taunting them.

You almost long for the simplicity of a brutal murder and devouring.

It’s like that for all fairy tales. People make life-altering decisions based on whether their shoes will hold water or not. Hares’ reluctant brides ride around on their husbands’ fluffy white tails (kinky sex is, of course, nothing new in fairy tales). Villains are turned aside by obvious lies. Brothers appear out of nowhere purely in order to rescue their sisters in distress, only to vanish once more. Queens’ adopted daughters disappear for no reason, never to appear in the story again. Stories wander vaguely to a halt. Sausages speak.

When you consider that—the material Disney had to work with—the fact that he managed to arrange these stories into feature films with beginnings, middles, and ends is nothing short of superhuman. Disney films have a lot of issues—I’m not arguing with that—but at least they make sense. Characters base their decisions on logic, or for at least partially explored psychological reasons. Villains—and heroines—get distinct personalities and have defined goals. Extraneous characters are removed. The plot follows a logical order, and one event leads, reasonably enough, to another. Deus ex machina is minimized. The story is comprehensible.

Disney had a lot of groundwork laid for him, of course: the works of Hans Christian Andersen and the Grimm brothers did a lot to clean up fairy tales. They had to; there’s no way an oral story will make sense when put to print verbatim. But Disney filled out the characters, gave them backstories, and gave the villains comprehensible reasons for their villainy (quite often, in original fairy tales, there’s no reason for the villain’s actions beyond appetite or a vague evil). In short, Disney made fairy tales both interesting and accessible—all wrapped in some amazing animation.

So consider this, the next time you feel tempted to sneer: you could be forced to watch an animated rendition of Little Red Riding Hood in its original format. It would probably turn you off movies for good.