Disney Is a Language. Do We Still Speak It?

President Dwight D. Eisenhower once praised Walt Disney for his “genius as a creator of folklore.” When Disney died in 1966, the line made it into his obituary, evidence of its accuracy. Folklore, defined broadly, is an oral tradition that stretches across generations. It tells people who they are, how they got here and how they should live in the future. The company Disney created appointed itself keeper of these traditions for Americans, spinning up fresh tales and (more often) deftly repackaging old ones to appeal to a new century.

It started with Mickey Mouse, but as his company turns 100, Disney’s legacy — advanced in hundreds of films and shorts and shows, mass-produced tie-in merchandise, marvelous technical advancements, gargantuan theme parks around the world — was the production of a modern shared language, a set of reference points instantly recognizable to almost everyone, and an encouragement to dream out loud about a utopian future. Walt Disney was a man who gazed backward and forward: speaking at the opening of Disneyland in 1955, he proclaimed: “Here age relives fond memories of the past, and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future.” But what happens when that promise is broken and the reference points are siloed? When his company struggles at the box office like a regular studio and faces cultural headwinds like any artist?

Walt Disney at the opening of Disneyland, extolling the hope of a brighter tomorrow.Credit…USC Libraries/Corbis, via Getty Images

Disney told stories of folk heroes (Davy Crockett, Paul Bunyan), princes and princesses, and even, occasionally, a mouse, all while leading the pack on ever-shifting technologies. (He was, among other things, the first major movie producer to make a TV show.) A sense of optimism ruled Disney’s ethos, built on homemade mythologies. The lessons of his stories were simple, uplifting and distinctly American: believe in yourself, believe in your dreams, don’t let anyone make you feel bad for being you, be your own hero and, most of all, don’t be afraid to wish upon a star. Fairy tales and legends are often disquieting, but once cast in a Disney light they became soft and sweet, their darker and less comforting lessons re-engineered to fit the Disney ideal. It was a distinctly postwar vision of the world.

And we ate it up, and we exported it, and we wanted to be part of it, too. “One of the most astounding exhibitions of popular devotion came in the wake of Mr. Disney’s films about Davy Crockett,” Disney’s obituary explained, referring to a live-action 1950s shows about the frontiersman. “In a matter of months, youngsters all over the country who would balk at wearing a hat in winter were adorned in coonskin caps in midsummer.”

The coonskin caps were a harbinger of things to come. Halloween would be dominated by princesses and mermaids. Bedsheets and pajamas would be printed with lions and mopey donkeys. Adults would plan weddings at a magical kingdom in Florida. Audiences around the world would join in the legends. Once-closed countries like China would eventually open their doors, leading the company — aware that success in this new market meant fast-tracking children’s introduction to Mickey, Ariel and Buzz Lightyear — to open English-language schools using their characters and stories as the teaching tools. History would show that Eisenhower was onto something when he referred to Disney as a creator, not just a reteller, of folklore.

Buddy Ebsen, left, and Fess Parker in “Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier.” Sales of coonskin caps shot up because of the character.Credit…Disney, via Everett Collection

WHEN I WAS A TWEEN, the studio was on one of its most remarkable hot streaks. Beginning with “The Little Mermaid” in 1989 and ending with “Tarzan” and “Mulan” a decade later, Disney animators turned out runaway hit after hit, pleasing critics and audiences with movies like “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King” and “Aladdin.” For ’90s kids, each new release was a major life event. In the years before “Shrek” and “Minions,” Disney owned mainstream animation, and so you and your friends talked about seeing “the new Disney movie,” and everyone knew what you meant.

It’s probably no accident that the end of the hot streak coincided with the start of the evangelical boycott of the company, led by the right-wing American Family Association, Focus on the Family and the Southern Baptist Convention. They were protesting the company’s decision to extend benefits to employees’ same-sex partners and to allow outside groups to host “Gay Days” at theme parks. Hyperion, the publishing company owned by Disney, had published books like “Heather Has Two Mommies,” and Ellen DeGeneres, whose sitcom aired on the Disney subsidiary ABC, had come out as gay. The boycott lasted for eight years, less effective than the company’s opponents might have hoped (a poll found only about 30 percent of the Baptist organization’s members even observed it). But now the studio was part of the culture wars, a fracturing along ideological lines that would redraw American public life in new ways.

Kids in theaters couldn’t see it at the time, but that moment was the end of something we’d barely had time to know: a monoculture, an era of brand clarity for the Mouse. In 2006, faced with another household-name studio generating new legends, Disney acquired Pixar. In 2009, scarcely a year after Iron Man made his debut, the company added Marvel Entertainment to its slate. Three years later, Lucasfilm and thus “Star Wars” joined the family. Then, in a herculean move, Disney bought 20th Century Fox — one of the other old, grand studios in Hollywood — and redubbed it 20th Century Studios. What counts as “the new Disney movie” in this context?

Of course, all these new franchises meant great things for the company’s coffers. But the 21st century brought changes that would fundamentally reshape Disney’s place in American culture, as well as its ability to make new generation-spanning myths. The monoculture largely fractured, thanks to the internet, streaming and the digital era. On the web, the already deep culture-war divides grew sharper and more entrenched. The ideal that Disney promoted — a world where “people can come together,” as the chief executive at the time, Bob Chapek, said in 2022 — seemed more out of reach than ever. “My opinion is that, when someone walks down Main Street and comes in the gates of our parks, they put their differences aside and look at what they have as a shared belief — a shared belief of Disney magic, hopes, dreams and imagination,” Chapek explained. Which sounds, at this point, a lot like a wish on a star.

Disney on a hot streak: Clockwise from top left, “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid,” “The Lion King” and “Mulan.”Credit…Disney, via Everett Collection

The thing about folklore is that it changes as the future unfolds. Each new generation faces challenges, and thus needs new ways of telling old stories. Disney, however, having retold stories as commercial product, is uniquely resistant to evolving its language. You can play in Disney’s sandbox — as long as you buy Disney’s authorized merchandise, go to its official parks and don’t color too far outside the lines. Copyright laws have been extended to protect the company’s intellectual property. If you run afoul of the rules — by, say, painting Mickey Mouse murals on the walls of your day care center — the company might sue you. Those limits to how fans are permitted to interact with the stories and characters they love preserves a rigid language dictated from the top down. But it also keeps those who want to speak the common language from participating in its evolution.

That kind of brand management, a policing of a company’s vocabulary, can mean great things for the bottom line. The expectations of the 21st century, however, demand something else. In this new age, the tools for remixing culture are easy to access, whether you are a big corporation or just a kid in your bedroom, and that’s important: In a world that prefers to create by remixing, we can all make our own versions of Disney’s myths. But the company, built on imagination — its research and development teams are commonly called the Imagineers — actively discourages sharing that innovation in the spaces today’s audiences know and love best.

Disney’s remarks at the opening of the first Disneyland, citing both nostalgia and the future, help clarify why Disney’s latest offerings feel like the gasps of a culture locked in a death spiral. The so-called live action remakes, laboriously faithful recreations of animated classics, have little to offer in the way of reinterpreting the folklore. They feel, true or not, like the product of stagnated imagination.

So does “Wish,” the studio’s more traditionally animated film from the creative team behind “Frozen” and its much less enjoyable sequel. “Wish” is explicitly designed to serve as Disney’s centennial tribute to itself: It features a character who’s turning 100 and is rife with references to everything from “Cinderella” and “Bambi” to “Zootopia” and the oddly huge number of goats that pop up in Disney films. “Wish” is a dismal watch, a stab at nostalgia that lacks any of the charm of its predecessors and without a single singable tune. It feels generic, as if generated by an A.I. trained on Disney’s catalog. Nothing you’d remember, nothing that would, or even could, shape your worldview.

DISNEY IS STILL THE MOST DOMINANT entertainment company in Hollywood, but it no longer seems invincible. Perhaps the move toward entertainment as “content,” an endless stream of stuff pushed down a set of tubes into your living room, is to blame. To understand the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe release, you have to have watched more than 30 films and a few full series; that’s not sustainable. Scarcity gives breathing room, allowing anticipation to grow and creativity to flourish.

These same factors have changed all of Hollywood — all, indeed, of the entertainment business. But for a while, Disney seemed above the fray. As Bob Iger, the Disney chief executive who departed in 2021 and then returned in 2022 noted last month in a DealBook interview, the studio dominated the box office for years, thanks to its formidable I.P.: the M.C.U., “Star Wars” stories, live-action remakes, Pixar sequels and “Avatar: The Way of Water” all raked in huge numbers.

“Moana” is one of the few recent Disney films to become a cultural touchpoint.Credit…Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Likewise, “Frozen” was the rare example of a recent Disney juggernaut.Credit…Disney

But there are business pitfalls to that kind of success, and this year’s relative flops for the studio — “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” “The Marvels,” “Wish” — underline that point. “We got to the point where if a film didn’t do a billion dollars in global box office, we were disappointed,” Iger said. “That’s an unbelievably high standard, and I think we have to get more realistic.”

For me, however, Disney’s tepid year raises questions more existential than financial. For a long time, with a few exceptions (“Frozen,” “Moana,” “Encanto”), Disney has furnished fewer ubiquitous cultural touchpoints than it once did. The glut of content, plus the many small screens offering enticing alternatives to big-screen entertainment, are cutting into the ability the studio once had to capture imagination across generations and borders and propose its own way of seeing the world.

Which may, of course, be inevitable. It’s probably not even worth lamenting, unless you’re a shareholder or a hard-core Disney fan. Plenty of the world was never represented in Disney stories. Plenty of its repackaging of history and legends and tall tales stripped out the unpleasant details and uncomfortable lessons. And its notions of hard work and believing in yourself as the sole keys to success read as a bit outdated to today’s savvy kids.

Disney isn’t an outlier in struggling to navigate the new world. All of Hollywood is paddling wildly to stay afloat, and the industry today will almost certainly look completely different in a few years.

But the specific challenges Disney faces are surprising for a company that prided itself for so long on being ahead of the curve. Walt Disney’s vision of youth savoring “the challenge and the promise of the future” is hard to locate in the reboots and prequels and origin stories and multi-episode side quests. Iger said in that interview that “we have to entertain first. It’s not about messages.” Yet the company he leads has always been about messages, handed down across generations in beloved stories. The question is whether Disney can ensure, anymore, that people are listening.

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