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Whitley, David. The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation.

Whitley, David. The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2008. 154 pp. ISBN 978-0-7546-6085-9. $65.00.

Doing Disney has always been dangerous. For decades at regional, national, and even international academic conferences, the mere mention of "Disney" provoked either laughter or outrage. The laughter arose not from the appreciation of humor in Disney films but rather from the dismissal of the idea that the "House of the Mouse," that entertainment empire created to reinforce the middlebrow dreams of suburban Americans, was worthy of any attention. The outrage arose from postmodern theorists who saw the Disney canon representing and reinforcing the racist, sexist, and classist values that provided the ideological support for the Cold War and the conservative revolution of the late twentieth century.

But the times they are a-changin'. Recent developments in film studies, popular culture, and children's literature have encouraged new interest in the Disney films, resulting in a major reexamination of them, especially the animated features. Disney's feature-length animated films, often dismissed in the US but admired around the world by such film innovators as Sergei Eisenstein and Hayao Miyazaki, are now recognized as a unique American genre deserving of serious study. In fact, Disney studies, focusing primarily on the feature-length animated films, is now an accepted part of film studies.

David Whitley's recent study, The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation, part of the Ashgate Studies in Childhood, 1700 to the Present series, is an insightful and intelligent reading of ten major Disney animated films from an environmentalist perspective. The book is divided into three sections--"Fairy Tale Adaptations," "The North American Wilderness," and "Tropical Environments"--and in his examinations of Snow White, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Bambi, Pocahontas, Brother Bear, The Jungle Book, Tarzan, The Lion King, and Finding Nemo, Whitley analyzes the various representations of "wild nature" in Disney's films as part of the changing attitudes of Western culture to the environment. In his introduction, he insightfully observes that the Disney animated features are essentially emotional rather than intellectual, and in their representation of "the realm of nature rendered vulnerable by human action within a particular historical conjuncture," they draw on and popularize the characteristically American traditions established by Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Anselm Adams (12).

In framing his reading of these films, Whitley observes that Disney "fixed an aesthetic style that was intrinsically bound up with conservatism, consensus, and conciliation" (not an unusual style for a mid-twentieth-century entertainment company), that Disney drew on pre-existing narrative forms for his films, and that these films represent and reflect the changing attitudes of American culture to nature (65). He also establishes the importance of the pastoral ideal, placing human beings in ideal relationship with the natural world, as an essential element of both American environmental thought and the Disney aesthetic.

Whitley begins his analysis of specific films with a discussion of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), "the benchmark against which subsequent achievements may be judged" (19). Whitley argues that Snow White is a traditional pastoral, a genre that domesticates wild nature and emphasizes a lyric sympathy between human beings and nature. In his analysis, Whitley argues that Snow White celebrates the domestication of nature and the establishment of conventional middle-class order and provides an analysis of the two most famous scenes from the film to support his assertion. As anyone who has seen Snow White knows, the flight from the huntsman into the forest at night is one of the most dramatic, horrific, and emotionally charged scenes ever filmed. It is, quite literally, a descent into hell and madness, as the forest comes alive threatening to devour Snow White. Then, at the heart of the darkness, dawn comes, and Snow White discovers the house of the Seven Dwarves and immediately begins cleaning and dusting with the creatures of the forest as willing helpers. Domesticity triumphs over chaos, as it should in this conventional version of the pastoral.

Whitley's analysis of Snow White may be the most significant section of his study, as it places one of the most influential of American films within a particular historical context as well as an evolving critical perspective. Throughout the rest of his study, Whitley examines the major Disney animation features to chart the changing attitudes of the American public about the relationship between nature and humanity, building on the well-established film studies premise that popular films always reflect the cultural consensus of the time the film was produced.

In his second chapter, Whitley examines The Little Mermaid (1989) and Beauty and the Beast (1991), observing that both films in their narratives' assertions of the necessity of uniting the natural and the human represent the growing public awareness of and concern about environmental issues. While observing that both films seemingly celebrate both feminism and environmentalism, Whitley notes that both films send conflicting messages. In The Little Mermaid, the celebration of the beauty of the undersea world is undercut by Ariel's rejection of a life under the sea for a marriage with the fish-eating landlubbers. In essence, Ariel rejects nature for civilization. In a similar decision in Beauty and the Beast, Belle falls in love with the Beast, the embodiment of wild nature, only to transform him into a handsome prince, the embodiment of patriarchal culture.

Whitley's discussion of Bambi (1942) is also insightful. He notes, as have a number of other perceptive critics, that Bambi is essentially a version of the myth of the Garden of Eden in which innocence is corrupted but eventually triumphs as it transforms itself into experience. His original insight, however, is to link Bambi visually and thematically with the nature photography of John Muir and the establishment of the conservation movement and the development of Yosemite National Park. In Bambi, Whitley argues, Disney entered into the public conversation about the conservation movement. Because of the release of the film shortly after Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States into the Second World War, conservation and the relationship between nature and human culture no longer were issues at or near the top of the public interest, and, as a result, the film failed to generate the popular or critical interest that Disney hoped for. It wasn't until the post-war re-release of the film that Bambi achieved the iconic status it holds to this day.

In the final section of his study, "Tropical Environments," Whitley explores The Jungle Book (1967), The Lion King (1994), Tarzan (1999), and Finding Nemo (2003). He suggests that the setting of these films in tropical, exotic, or distanced locations allows the films to use the traditional form of the character-driven comic adventure to explore conflicting ideologies of the wilderness and human co-option of nature in developing nations that has become a major concern of environmentalists. Especially interesting here is his discussion of the impact of the positioning of the human within wild nature and the resulting disruptions that follow.

The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation is an intelligent, carefully researched, and well-written analysis of a genre that is just beginning to receive the critical study that it deserves. Whitley's close reading of Disney's animation masterpiece, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, is the most impressive part of his study, and his theoretical framework that combines environmental criticism, film history, and aesthetics is useful for the understanding of the other films included in his work. Whitley has written a study that will be useful for any student of Disney animation.
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Author:Holte, Jim
Publication:Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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