MYTHIC PROPORTIONS Success: Like Midas, everything Disney touches turns to gold. And Disney touches everything

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In Greek mythology, Zeus was king of the gods, Apollo was god of the sun, and Disneyocles was god of Entertainment.

Every year, Disneyocles would descend Mount Olympus bearing gifts of high art -- usually on VHS tape. The ancient roads to the Acropolis would be closed for the Parades marking each release. Gifts from Disneyocles would be discounted with any drive-through purchase at Olive King. And the god of Entertainment (and his stockholders) said this was good.

One day, during a break in the Peloponnesian Wars, Hercules was at his health club doing 20 sets of ab crunches, when Disneyocles descended upon him.

"Hey, get off me! What's your problem, pal?" Hercules said.

But Disneyocles said unto Herc: "You should be in the movies." And so it was.

Disneyocles divined that "Hercules" should be rolled out to mortals on a summer's day, before the change of moons but definitely after the Spartans had released "The Lost World."

Thus, the stage was set for Disneyocles' 35th animated classic. And summoning his herculean marketing strength, the god of Entertainment declared "Hercules" (and its promotional tie-ins) would slay "The Lion King," "The Little Mermaid" and the disappointing "Hunchback."

F: And the mortals checked their wallets in anticipation.

It's no myth. We all know Disney's "Hercules" opens Friday in every nook and cranny of our nation. The $70 million, 86-minute movie is critically acclaimed -- possibly a "comeback" movie for Disney, as ridiculous as that sounds. "Hunchback of Notre Dame" grossed only $100 million in the United States, compared Disney's "The Lion King" ($312.8 million) and "Aladdin" ($217 million).

But parents don't need the newspaper to tell them Disney is out of the gate again. Their children informed them of the release date, and of Disney's production schedule for the next few years -- "The Little Mermaid" to be re-released late this year, and so on.

Everyone can follow along: "Hercules" is in the theaters, meaning "Hunchback" has been out on video, meaning McDonald's will offer "Hercules" toys with kiddie meals, meaning Burger King still might have a few "Hunchback" toys lying around, meaning, as we speak, Disney animators are a third into the next Disney movie.

This can only mean "Hercules" will be promoted at Disney's theme parks, on Disney's Daily Blast (its subscription Internet service), the Disney Channel, Disney Stores, ESPN and ABC, also owned by Disney. Baseball's Anaheim Angels and hockey's Mighty Ducks might soon trade their uniforms for "Hercules"-style tunics.

We are surrounded and at Mickey's merry mercy.

"Disney has become a nation-state," says Henry Giroux at Pennsylvania State University. Social commentator and student of pop culture, Giroux has analyzed Disney movies and reported nationally on what he calls the "Disneyification" of America.

Disney movies are not just entertainment. "It's the same message: consumerism. It's not simply about childhood innocence, it's about the commercializing of children," Giroux argues. Ironically, "what we see in these movies is the disappearance of childhood."

Giroux is not the first college professor (nor the last) to criticize Disney for what he calls its 1950s' portrayals of minorities and women. In real life, Southern Baptists are boycotting Disney for "Gay Days" at its theme parks, offering health benefits to partners of gay employees, and signing off on the outing of TV's "Ellen" on ABC. But in Disney movies, the old stereotypes are alive and well and beautifully animated, Giroux says.

Why does Scar, the scheming lion in "Lion King," have a British accent, while the marauding hyenas sound like working-class blacks? Giroux asks. Who could blame Arab-Americans for criticizing "Aladdin" for its depiction of Arabs as thieving, unshaven hustlers?

Seen any blacks portrayed in Disney films? One presumably gay character -- Gov. Ratcliffe's assistant in "Pocahontas" -- is a cowardly, sniveling florist. And the women in Disney movies ... don't get the Penn State man started.

"Have you seen the trailer for 'Hercules'? The woman looks anorexic!" Giroux says. "It's the Disneyification of heroin chic! Disney undermines the notion of cultural democracy by creating a cultural monolith."

At Buena Vista Home Video in Burbank, callers on hold listen to Michael Bolton exhaling a tune from "Hercules." Marketing vice president Tania Moloney then picks up. She says Disney does not have a monopoly on what children watch. "Families have many, many choices of what they want their children exposed to."

And people can choose not to buy each and every video. Her kids, she says, are perfectly happy just to watch "Lion King" and "Pocahontas" over and over again. As Moloney says, Disney movies "have great repeatability."

Giroux's kids also love "The Lion King." Over and over again.

Simple beginnings

Ah, the old days -- in the time before Disney World, EPCOT, Happy Meals, Euro Disney, Michael Eisner, "Beauty and the Beast" on Broadway, Robin Williams' Genie and "Toy Story." Sure, Mickey had been a cash mouse, so to speak, for generations, but surely there was a time when kids could experience Disney fun without such relentless multilevel promotions.

In the 1960s, for instance, they had "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color," with the man himself introducing the 7: 30 p.m. Sunday shows. Tinkerbell splashed wonderful colors on TV screens as the whole family watched "Salty, the Hijacked Seal," "Stub, Best Cow Dog in the West" or "Lefty, the Ding-a-Ling Linx." Not a gargoyle or magic carpet in the bunch ... or a memorable scene.

And, don't forget Davy Crockett. Fess Parker was Davy Crockett and his trademark coonskin cap was among Disney's first hit merchandise, but it didn't come with a small order of fries.

Remember when it was a huge deal to see a movie in a theater? Some kids asked their parents to take them to see "Mary Poppins." Twice. Julie Andrews floating down with her umbrella. Spoonful of sugar, etc. Now, of course, kids have seen "Beauty and the Beast" dozens of times. Be our guest, etc.

Back to Walt. In those early shows, viewers caught glimpses of his sole theme park -- Disneyland in California. A whole place of Disney characters and rides! Mickey Mouse loping around and hugging kids! And an E ticket got you into the Haunted Mansion.

Disneyland begat Florida's Disney World in 1971, and the other side of America descended on Disney's latest commercial baby. Disney World begot EPCOT, movie theme parks, more resorts, Celebration -- the new utopian Disney community -- and, coming in 1998, Disney's Animal Kingdom, which will feature, get this, real animals.

"It's hard to see the end in sight," says history professor Steven Watts at the University of Missouri. "I halfway expect Disney to form a political party."

Watts has made a career out of studying Disney's effect on American culture. His "The Magic Kingdom: The American Way of Life" (Houghton-Mifflin) is due out in November. Watts has mixed feelings about Disney's success. He admires the studio's output and the "pretty good stuff" in its recent movies. But he can't help point out that a place like Disney World used to be separate from society, a "magical" place to escape from reality.

There is no separation now, he says. "It's become Disney World in the real generic sense."

Watts just returned from Poland, where, to the best of our knowledge, no Disney theme park yet exists. Still, the first image he saw off the plane in Krakow were kids wearing Mickey Mouse and Lion King T-shirts.

So, what does Disney think of all of this? A clue might be found in its only formal response to the boycott business. It stated simply that the company is "proud that the Disney brand creates more family entertainment of every kind than anyone else in the world," and that it only plans to do more.

Headed for success

"The bottom line is there's a lot of harmful trash out there for kids ... like some of these video games. Nothing but blood and gore," Watts says. "The Disney stuff, all in all, is still kind of interesting."

Kind of?

Professor, you know and we know "Hercules" will be colossal. The movie will be fun for the whole family. It will put Michael Bolton back on pop music's map. It will inspire a new generation of students to study Greek mythology. Well, perhaps not. But this is the absolute truth: "Hercules" will be out on video, probably next year.

And the god of Entertainment will be happy.

Pub Date: 6/25/97

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