Faith, hope and pixie dust

Entertainment | Disney profits by returning to its roots

Issue: "Signs and wonders," Jan. 26, 2008

New hits. New management. New profits, doubling in the third quarter of 2007 from one year before. And old, family-friendly values. A decade ago Southern Baptists declared a Disney boycott for its "anti-Christian and anti-family direction." Now, the House of Mouse is back-and the turnaround story is worth telling.

Walt Disney, of course, created the modern multi-platform structure of modern popular culture. In the 1950s, he transformed his two-dimensional body of cartoon stories and characters into a three-dimensional physical place, Disneyland, a safe, clean "theme park" that allowed families to enter Disney narratives-and shop for Disney merchandise.

What Disney himself termed "total merchandising" delighted millions while ensuring that Disney's company, for the first time in its history, would become profitable. The "empire of dreams" continued to expand from there with other theme parks opening in Florida, and later in France and Asia.

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Disney's death in 1966 caused the company to coast on its past creativity. The magic didn't return in strength until Michael Eisner and new management arrived in the 1980s, with Jeffrey Katzenberg reviving animated features (such as The Little Mermaid). But the success of this neoclassical era came alongside a foray into adult-themed films by the company's other film divisions, such as Miramax. Conservative audiences couldn't understand why family-friendly Disney was producing R-rated films.

When Katzenberg left in 1994 and took his genius for classic animated stories with him, Eisner sought out Pixar, the new company with computer-animated features such as Toy Story and Finding Nemo produced by John Lasseter, a former Disney employee fired years before. Pixar chairman and Apple Inc. founder Steve Jobs did not want to work with Eisner, who increasingly seemed a hindrance to Disney's continued success. Eisner resigned in 2005; with movie profits down, Disney shuttered its traditional hand-drawn animation unit.

Headed now by Robert Iger, Disney was able to negotiate with Jobs: Disney absorbed Pixar in 2006 and former exile Lasseter became Chief Creative Officer of both Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, as well as the Principal Creative Adviser at Walt Disney Imagineering, the division that designs and builds the company's theme parks.

Dick Cook, head of Walt Disney studios, returned the production emphasis to its center in whole-family films, which Pixar had proved could still work; Disney reduced its production of R-rated features. The Pixar hit juggernaut rolled on with last year's high-grossing Ratatouille; its feature for 2008 is a cute-little-robot adventure, WALL-E. Lasseter reopened the two-dimensional animated unit and the company is producing a new animated feature, The Princess and the Frog, for 2009.

The best indicator of Disney's latter-day revival is the recent Enchanted, the princess-out-of-water movie musical that shows the company can kid its fairy tales without becoming snarky. The triumvirate of Iger, Cook, and Lasseter is sprinkling what author Mark Pinsky called, in his book of the same title, the "gospel according to Disney . . . faith, hope and pixie dust."

For families eager for rare all-ages entertainment, the Disney brand's renewal-plus the ascendance of Walden Media and others-means more upbeat alternatives to an often cynical, crass, and family-splintering popular culture. Still, no one should confuse the Disney gospel of totally merchandised quality entertainment with the real thing.

-Alex Wainer is a professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University


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