Mouse Morality: The Rhetoric of Disney Animated Film – Annalee R. Ward

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This study forms an ambitious attempt to combine a variety of complex analytical frameworks with a new rhetorical critical model for examining the morality of popular film. It makes for a dense and sometimes frustrating read, but Annalee Ward’s self-aware willingness to acknowledge both the boundaries of her research and the difficulty of much of its theoretical apparatus is engaging. Ward summons an impressive, provocative array of cultural theorists to substantiate her key argument: that Disney animated features transmit mixed moral messages to children, and must be therefore approached with caution as value-transmitters.

The selection of films itself is somewhat arbitrary, based on an under-formulated chronology. A broader spectrum of films across different decades might have yielded richer results. The rather pedestrian chapter structure of film-by-film analysis suggests that a thematic approach, such as chapters on music, imagery, and myth, might have been more powerful. Ward is also more perceptive on some films than others: she has much more to say about Pocahontas, with its problematic treatment of the colonial encounter, than about Hercules, a puzzling combination of Greek mythology and American celebrity culture. Ward’s relation of Aristotelian theory to Hercules is also less successful than her useful application of the Confucian heritage in the chapter on Mulan. Her discussion of Biblical references in The Lion King and Hercules is fascinating and original–one of the book’s highlights.

Though it is no doubt incredibly difficult to get hold of Disney film stills, the lack of illustration is a weakness. At times it borders on inexcusable, as in a lengthy discussion of Pocahontas’s physical charms, when we must take for granted the assertion that she has an ‘unrealistic figure,’ which ‘reveals a male fantasy.’ The suggestion that Pocahontas is a ‘male fantasy’ also foregrounds the key problem of determining audience in a study such as this. Though it is at times asserted that the audience is young children, there is an elision between the target audience and the actual audience, with no statistical analysis to determine the latter. Another problem rests on the summoning of film critics’ responses to the films. Though sporadically useful, it is also rather lazy to simply accumulate and list a range of responses to each film, pro and con. At points like these, Mouse Morality reads like an unaltered doctoral thesis.

Ward seems to find Disney’s assumption of a pedagogical role suspect, yet nevertheless expects Disney at other points to assume exactly that role, and she critiques it for sending out mixed moral messages. For example, she claims that ‘teaching children to think for themselves is valuable, but to teach that concept without also teaching respect and obedience for authority could lead to problems.’ The root of Ward’s concern about Disney’s influence on young minds is that it is a commercially driven organization, and one that provides entertainment rather than instruction, but she herself appears to have a mixed attitude to the corporation’s undeniably massive global influence.

Though no-one could claim that this book is under-researched, David Marshall’s full-length studies on celebrity and Richard Finkelstein’s important recent essay, ‘Disney Cites Shakespeare’, in Christy Desmet and Robert Sawyer’s 1999 book Shakespeare and Appropriation, would be useful additions to the bibliography, respectively relevant to Ward’s treatment of celebrity in Hercules and her critique of pedagogy and the problem of Disney’s literary adaptation.

Generally Ward adopts an admirably measured tone towards the dissemination of Disney’s moral messages. The implicit messages of Disney’s animated films, lampooned with such merciless efficiency in the South Park movie, are here granted a more generous and scholarly reading, one which acknowledges their beneficial power as well as the necessity of combining children’s enjoyment of them with alternative value systems at home and school.

– Emma French