Both beauty and beast, Disney owns America The Mouse King

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Wake up, sleepy heads! Time to shed those Mickey Mouse sheets, that Mickey Mouse nightshirt, and grab the Mickey Mouse soap. Everybody neat and pretty? Then on with the show!

Put on the $100 Mickey Mouse tea kettle and check the newspaper. Looks like Disney has its eye on the CBS network. Hmm, the house the mouse built plans to join three Baby Bells to deliver movies-on-demand and home shopping to 50 million customers. And clever Disney will pull "The Lion King" until late November, just in time to snag another pride of acolytes during the holiday movie rush.

It's a small world after all. The small, wonderful world of Walt Disney. More than a mind-boggling exercise in popular culture, Disney is a popular cult that's everywhere you turn.

The die was cast when Mickey Mouse was born, Nov. 18, 1928. He came of age with baby boomers' parents, who cemented their middle-class status as they bought coon-skin hats for the kids or took them to Disneyland, that gloriously sanitary and safe precursor to the indoor mall. The boomers responded in kind, faithfully watching the "Wonderful World of Color" on television and every Disney feature film. For a while, there was silence.

In the mid-1980s, under company head Michael D. Eisner and the recently deposed Jeffrey Katzenberg, the Disney dream machine went full tilt once again, manufacturing the mythical -- and pricey -- aura of childhood.

"Disney to me is everything good," gushes Jeff Watson over the Internet. A Canadian whose firsthand experience of the United States consists of seven trips to Walt Disney World and Disneyland, and one visit to Las Vegas, Mr. Watson says, "It's not perfect, but it strives to bring happiness to many people, including shareholders. It is the combination of make-believe and real-life commerce that enthralls me. . . . To me it's like a religion. They take my money but at least you're getting something for it."

This from a 20-something comptroller for a home building firm, an MBA candidate who plays golf and hikes in the mountains surrounding his Edmonton home. In other words, a normal, nice guy married to a woman who happens to share his passion for all things Disney.

Once, it was the ultimate insult to be likened to Mickey Mouse. Now, it appears to be the ultimate compliment. Untold millions seek to identify with this universal icon for personal and financial gain. In June, 20,000 lesbians and gay men rallied in Orlando for "Gay Day at Disney." In a "Dream Express" campaign, Japan Airlines will paint Disney characters on three jets flying domestic routes. And Microsoft is launching a line of children's games featuring Mickey Mouse and friends.

We all want to be like Annette, Bobby and Cubby, charter members of the club that's made for you and me: Mickey Mouse!

It is only natural to identify with the chipper rodent, says Dave Smith, archivist for the Disney company. "We see something of ourselves in Mickey Mouse," he says. "He's trying to make a go in a world that wasn't always favorable to him. A lot of us want to do the same thing."

"We can't understand American culture without understanding Disney," says Margaret King, a Philadelphia-based Disney scholar and consultant for its controversial theme park, Disney's America near Manassas, Va. "He's an energizer, the one who puts everything into code. He communicates it all like a shaman or the priest."

The pantheon of Disney characters and their foibles comprise our nation's "mythopoeia, the way in which we tell stories," says Larry Mintz, a popular culture specialist at the University of Maryland College Park who has studied Disney attractions at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va. "Mickey Mouse is a part [of that]. So is 'Aladdin,' 'The Lion King' and so will be Disney's America if they ever build it."

'Mickey and me'

As our foremost storyteller, Disney has insinuated itself into every aspect of our lives, from meticulously engineered public spaces like Disneyland to the bedroom. Promotional material for a line of licensed Disney apparel purrs: "What a week. A quiet night at home sounds perfect. The hottest video rental, some popcorn and a warm, snugly Mickey Unlimited nightshirt. Ah, just Mickey and me."

With the Disney Channel, Disney stores, Disney art and cartoon cel galleries, an educational materials division, video sales, Team Mickey, Mickey Unlimited, M.Mouse (an upscale clothing line for adults), Disney promotions and fast-food giveaways and countless other commercial outlets, the Disney company has invaded every conceivable business sector. At the Magic Empire's high end, it is patron to acclaimed architects such as postmodernists Michael Graves and Robert A.M. Stern.

Disney has even subsumed other consummately American pastimes: The Broadway musical "Beauty and the Beast" is a routine sell-out, and the Disney company's leasing and planned restoration of the historic New Amsterdam Theater under Mr. Stern's guidance has been called the catalyst for reviving New York's midtown theater district. (Disney folks are also exploring the possibility of building a "megastore" nearby.) Life imitated fantasy when the Mighty Ducks professional ice hockey team hatched from the Disney film of the same name. And if negotiations between Disney and the Baltimore Orioles are indeed continuing, the birds may one day take on the Seven Dwarfs at a shiny new spring training camp in Orlando.

Disjointed images

Not everyone is as enchanted with the world that Walt built. In "Vinyl Leaves: Walt Disney World and America," anthropologist and author Stephen M. Fjellman calls Disney World "the epicenter of decontextualization." This is a place where Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain robots transcend historical chronology to exchange chit chat, and where the "Jungle Cruise in Adventureland connects the Congo River of the Zambezi, the Amazon, and the Irrawaddy without a break."

Disney World's pastiche of attractions is a vivid microcosm of the postmodern world at large, a world of disjointed images and soundbites that make little sense, Dr. Fjellman says.

Disney's trademark is innocence, says Elizabeth Bell, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Florida and co-editor of a book of essays with the working title: "Doing Disney: Critical Dialogues on Film, Gender, and Culture."

It is a faux innocence, betrayed by what we pay for it, Dr. Bell says. When purveyed by a conglomerate worth $4.7 billion, innocence "is a wonderful kind of mask. It literally lets us close our eyes to what we are seeing and paying for," she says.

Furthermore, "Disney has colonized our pleasures so thoroughly, no longer recognize them as produced, manipulated and constructed by Disney," she says. "He's put Mickey Mouse ears on every child in America. That shuts down other possible ways of imagining and playing."

Take, for example, Towson, a Disneyana hotbed. The Disney Store in Towson Town Center is usually crammed with families browsing to the tune of Disney soundtracks. On a recent afternoon, as a promo for "The Lion King" blares in God-like tones, "He was born to rule," kids boo-hoo, whine, exclaim in delight and nag their parents for this and that. Across the street, at Towson Commons, "The Lion King" is showing. Leaving the theater, a child asks his father, "When is this going to be on tape?" And in the lobby, the Lion King Boutique is doing a swift business in $44 Simba cookie jars, coloring books and key rings.

Debate is on

Now that Disney plans to take on American history with a Virginia theme park, academics and intellectuals -- pro and con -- are having a field day.

In an essay originally written for the New York Times, William Styron, author of "The Confessions of Nat Turner," intones: "At Disney's Virginia park, the slave experience would permit visitors a shudder of horror before they turned away, smug and self-exculpatory, from a world that may be dead but has not really been laid to rest."

Others, even critics such as Dr. Fjellman, respond that history is always a subjective matter, and that the Disney version of slavery would not be any more insidious or inaccurate than that of other interpreters, whether Gore Vidal or Shelby Foote.

Dr. Mintz of the University of Maryland contends that Disney's presence will not necessarily make the Manassas Battlefield irrelevant. But if it did, it is because battlefields are "very boring" places," he says. "We can talk about hallowed ground until we turn green, but look at the hokey stuff at Gettysburg, the ridiculous monuments, the ridiculous dioramas with lights blinking all over the place." The bottom line, Dr. Mintz says, is property values. Possibly, "the whole region is a sacred place," he says, "if you're raising polo ponies."

Even those who lack the bemused equanimity of Dr. Mintz revel in Disney's brand of top-of-the-line fantasy. That's the beauty and the beast of it.

"I'm enormously critical," Dr. Fjellman says. "I wrote the book as a jeremiad. But I keep pointing out I could spend the rest of my life there -- if I had enough money."

Disney's king of the marketing jungle

Synergy = wretched excess = $$$$$$$.

It is a brilliant marketing equation perfected by the Walt Disney Co.

Disney's "The Lion King" is expected to become the most profitable film in Hollywood history, not because of its box office receipts, but because of its advertising and merchandising blitz.

In case you haven't been to a mall lately, here's a sampling of "The Lion King" items:

* The hardcover book version, "Disney's 'The Lion King,' " is holding steady on the New York Times best seller list -- cost: $6.98

* The movie's soundtrack is the top-selling album according to Rolling Stone magazine's Billboard charts -- $15.98

Girls can walk in Nala's shoes, appointed with African-esque designs in vibrant pastels -- $11.99

* "Lion King" boxers -- for Dad, of course -- $15

* Sorry, Burger King ran out of these give-away action figures, during the fast-food chain's largest promotional program to date.

* Head back to grade school with your choice of book bag, lunch box, pencil box or coloring book -- from $2.19 to $9.99

* Your cubs can dine on "The Lion King" dinnerware -- $16

* Before heading to bed, turn on the battery-powered toothbrush -- $9.99

Sweet dreams.

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