Sunday, January 2, 2011

One Man With A Candle

You wouldn’t expect people to be spending more money on fun, would you? The Great Recession is gone here in the U.S.A., but times are still tight. And it shows. According to USA Today, 2010 was one of the worst years in history for movie theater attendance. Movies? The one thing Americans are supposed to love? The thing that helped them get through the Great Depression? Uh-oh. With news like that, there’s no way any form of entertainment could prosper this year. Right?


I was flabbergasted when I found this article at CNN. Turns out Disneyland, and another theme park next to it, had so many people coming in over the holidays that they had to stop selling tickets.

Normally, I might laugh at the good ole Cable News Network. Around the time of trouble in the Ivory Coast, killing in the rest of the Middle East, and a spying accusation by Iran to the U.S.A., an amusement park craze doesn't seem newsworthy. At all. I can feel my lip curl in a smirk already.

But no. This is significant. In a nation where everyone seems to be tightening their belts still, Disneyland is still getting floods of customers. Floods! The film industry had to raise ticket prices to hide their dwindling attendance- and Disneyland had so much holiday attendance that they can’t handle it all. Something’s going on with that park, and whatever it is, it’s persuading thousands of Americans to flock to it and spend insanely (admission alone is $68 for one kid!).

Anything with that power deserves a look. And this Walt Disney fellow has been knocking on my mind's door for a while. Yes, let’s take a look. What’s the lure behind the Disney brand?

In 1901, a boy was born in Missouri. He liked to draw. He had a knack for it. After a stint with the Red Cross in World War One, he went to Hollywood. During the Depression he had a big break in animation. He made a feature-length cartoon about an old fairytale, and it was expensive, and it was risky, and it paid off. Success came after success, and soon Walt Disney was king of cartoons. He even made an amusement park in the 50s, and another (even bigger one), later on. He created a company that has only grown bigger since he left.

No, that doesn’t help. All I see there is the story of one more successful businessman. We Americans aren’t surprised to hear about such things. I don’t think of that when I think of Disney. I don’t even think of a man at all, usually, when I hear that. Break it down. Dis-ney. Sounds kinda Polish, or something Eastern European, when you think about it. Is that the first time you’ve ever thought of that?

It is for me. I’ll tell you what I think of when I hear Disney. I think of my childhood. Don’t you? I, like many, grew up watching all the classics. Cinderella. Sleeping Beauty. Peter Pan. The Lion King. Pinocchio. Toy Story. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (that was the old fairy tale mentioned above). Yeah, some of these are princess stories, and I am a man and proud to admit I want to watch them again.

Because there’s something about these movies that make them utterly unlike any other movie. You’ve probably read enough DVD covers and seen enough commercials to know people hype “the Disney magic”. Well, it’s true. Maybe Walt and his successors were just that good. Or perhaps their work was marketed so well they seem like they’re special. Either way, the magic is real. You don’t hear kids talk about Shrek or Bugs Bunny the same you hear them talk about Mickey Mouse. Or Snow White, or Simba, or all the other Disney heroes and heroines. They’re all on a whole different level. I’m sitting here typing these, and they’re all washing out my eyes, and bringing me back to when I was so tiny and innocent, sitting captive before a screen, eyes wide open as Jiminy Cricket croons in front of an open window.

I can feel it in my chest. No lies. Something is welling in my soul even as I type this. And I look all across the Disney empire. Look at those theme parks! Disneyland is still going handsomely, as we've seen. So many billions of dollars, and tons of wood, steel, plastic, and manpower… to create such a grand, overpowering illusion. It’s every kid’s dream. Go to a castle! See a princess! Pirates! Heroes! Villains! Just like Neverland. Look at the toys! I know I’ll never list all the action figures, plush dolls, and costumes that sprang around those stories, over all these years. Look at the music! I’m at a liberal arts college, and I have enough classmates who know and adore “Disney songs” to fill a choir.

Think of all that! I don’t know if you love this stuff, but darn it, I do! And there it is, right there. That feeling. Call it sentimental or deluded, but it will not fade without a fight. I’m going to use a clichĂ©, and it’s name is imagination. Disney was famed for that. And somehow, after all the corporate soullessness that brought us Hannah Montana, the Jonas Brothers, and all the hotels and bars at the theme parks (resorts, they call them now), that still captivates me.

I’m not the only one. I think at least one person who is reading this post right now can relate to this feeling I have. What I feel is contact with something extraordinary. There is a part of us that, for better or worse, loves fantasy. That part wants an adventure. To go into different and colorful lands, and see fairies, and kings, and monsters, and sorcery, and good and evil, and all those things we saw in Disney’s movies. He brought that escape to life better than anyone I can think of. And I look at his famous signature, or see those three circles that form Mickey’s head, and I feel it. I feel contact with that escape, with a pulsing, glorious land of magic. And dreams. Sweet, soaring dreams. Something disconnected from our dreary world in a way that sweeps away our woes and frailties, and makes us golden like babes once more.

That’s what drove those people to Disneyland over Christmas. That’s what takes us in, every time. And it can’t be what we want more than anything; that I see now. God has something waiting for us that will be so much better than Disney’s dreams, we could discard them for a dime. But so long as we recognize that, it is beautiful and it can be enjoyed. This is the nectar and ambrosia of the human soul on Earth. Enjoy it! Just don’t let it become something that it’s not. I saw some comments on that article ranting about how crowded and miserable the park was. Don't stake everything in a human institution.

The way it is, it could change your life if you let it. I truly believe that. And I would have no trouble believing that the Disney magic has a connection, somewhere, somehow, however slight or alluding, with the experience of God Himself. A promise of what is to come? I'll have to think about that.

In the meantime, I have just the song for you below this sentence. Have a magical 2011.


  1. I think part of it too is that Hollywood dished out some real stinkers this year. Most people don't want to go to a movie and leave feeling like, uhm, poop, and a lot of movies tried to do just that: dissing our faith, our country, and our politics. It's why 'feel-good' movies still rake in the cash. Especially during hard times, people don't want to feel reminded of that.

    BTW, I love/d Bugs Bunny. I didn't realize until I was older how many classical tunes I was exposed to watching Bugs Bunny. Small world, ain't it?

  2. Indeed. I have fond memories of watching Wile E. Coyote trying to catch the Roadrunner. I laughed so hard I fell off my couch.

    And about Hollywood, I don't watch a lot of what they release. But I've gotten the impression you're giving me now. They don't have the same heart that Disney could convey in his movies. Wait! Pixar's still on it. UP? Wall-E? Classics for our time.

    I can't think of any other rivals other than occasional success. And I can't help thinking it's because too many people have forgotten how to tell a good story. And I think that in turn is because too many people have lost touch with moral values.

    I hear talk about how when we go to the movies, we want to be thrilled, horrified, and all these other feelings. But what can we be thrilled or horrified at if we're too lazy to uphold tradition and morality? They had something of that when Disney took off in the 30's, I warrant. Come to think of it, that may have been one of the things that gave him that effect.