Part IV of “Rethinking Disney” has two chapters- one about Winnie the Pooh, and one about The Animal Kingdom theme park in Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Neither of these chapters grabbed my attention. (I’ve never been into Winnie the Pooh, as a child or now, and I’ve never set foot in the Animal Kingdom section of Disney World.) Still, I thought that the notion of Disney taking something and making it wholly theirs was interesting.
Not being a fan of Pooh Bear, I was surprised to learn that the franchise was so big. I had no idea that he was the company’s highest grossing character. In typical pessimistic fashion though, the chapter’s author Aaron Taylor bemoans the fact that Disney seems to be trying very hard to make Pooh completely theirs, and are shutting out E.H. Shepard’s original artwork. By having a “Classic Pooh” line, that does seem like exactly what they’re doing—making artwork that is similar to Shepard’s drawings, but is “superior” in some way.
On one hand, I think Disney has every right to do what they want with the “Pooh” franchise. They own the copyright. If they wanted (and if Pooh wasn’t loved so much by consumers and audience members) they could rework everything in some crazy, drastic way, and make it into a science-fiction action film. They would never do that, though. But as long as they own the rights, they can do whatever they want with the characters.
On the other hand, though, as an artist and writer myself, I know I would be very upset if one of my creations was bastardized by some large corporation I’d sold the rights to. I completely sympathize with Shepard’s heirs for denouncing one of the films. And when the Classic Pooh line looks so similar to Shepard’s own work, it makes complete sense to be angry.
But Taylor makes it very clear: “Who owns Winnie the Pooh? The answer inevitably remains ‘Disney’” (191). I don’t necessarily agree with Disney. Their paranoid and aggressive control of all things under their trademark has often confused me. But yes. Pooh is theirs. They company has been very successful in taking it and appropriating it to fit under the Disney logo. And by having a Classic Pooh line, they succeed in making every aspect of the franchise appear to be theirs. I’m certain many people have mistaken Shepard’s drawings for a Classic Pooh illustration. And that’s the “magic of Disney”: they’re like the Borg from “Star Trek”, taking over and infiltrating until something is entirely their own.
The second chapter about The Animal Kingdom also made some interesting points. Mostly, I thought it was interesting how the Imagineers thought that the actual safari was too “theme-park like”, and so in designing The Animal Kingdom, they had to go above and beyond the reality, because the reality wasn’t enough. And like it says, visitors to the park won’t know the difference, because very few of them have been to Africa or Asia. What they know is Discovery Channel, and the park looks just like that.
When I read the description of the Pocahontas and her Forest Friends show, I kept wondering what would happen if one of the live animals used decided not to cooperate. As trained as they are, sometimes animals just don’t want to behave. They might be feeling sick, or something in the audience might be scaring them, or any other number of things might go wrong. I wonder if the actress/handler playing Pocahontas has things prepared in case something unscripted happens. In many ways, Disney is all about predictability. You know something Disney is going to be safe for kids, as well as high quality. But anything with animals is extremely unpredictable.
But, again, like with Pooh, Disney is making “The Animal Kingdom” their own. The fake villages and wilderness scenes, the contrived “plots” of all the rides…. This is not the real world, the real Africa, the real Asia… this is Disney’s world. And while you can’t copyright a continent, a village, or an animal, all of these become Disney’s within the park walls. Unlike with “Pooh” though, I don’t mind it so much here. Disney does market itself to children predominantly, and it is safer, cheaper, and more convenient to take your children to Orlando for a week than to the actual jungle. I think it’s just all in good fun. Perhaps the park even inspires some people to want to save up for a trip to the real places, and educate themselves further about certain issues. I don’t think the park has to be entirely a replacement or improvement on the real savanna or jungle. Many people treat it that way, but it can also be a gateway to more learning and exploring outside of the park.