Walt Disney films such as Bambi, The Jungle Book and Pocahontas have played an important role in educating the public about the environment, a new book by a University of Cambridge academic has claimed. The stories of animated Disney characters, from Snow White in 1937 to the clownfish Nemo in 2003, have built “a critical awareness of contested environmental issues”, according to David Whitley, a lecturer in English.
While Disney movies are often regarded as little more than escapism, and have even been criticised as bland populism, many feature messages about conservation and the relationship between people and the natural world that have proved to be highly influential, Dr Whitley said.
His book, The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation, argues that the films’ cute animals have systematically encouraged generations of children to ally themselves with the natural world and protect it. Dr Whitley singled out Bambi, which was released in 1942, as particularly influential, saying that many green activists had credited it as the inspiration that first made them interested in environmental issues.
He said: “Disney films have often been criticised as inauthentic and pandering to popular taste rather than developing the animation medium in a more thought-provoking way. “In fact, these films have taught us variously about having a fundamental respect for nature. Some of them, such as Bambi, inspired conservation awareness and laid the emotional groundwork for environmental activism. “For decades Disney films have been providing children with potent fantasies, enabling them to explore how they relate to the natural world.”
The book, published by Ashgate, concentrates on two periods in the Walt Disney Company’s history – between 1937 and 1967, when Walt Disney was in charge, and between 1984 and 2005, when Michael Eisner was chief executive. Both moguls “saw themselves as having a sustained and strong commitment to wild nature and the environment”, but in subtly different ways, Dr Whitley said...
How animation brought green issues to life
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
The jealous Queen arranges for the death of Snow White who escapes to the forest and befriends dwarfs and woodland creatures.
The message “The forest’s pastoral setting gives viewers a sense of the integrity and separateness of nature from the world of humans, which is shown as oppressively unbalanced. Snow White is also a role model, showing how humans can protect nature and even bring order to it.”
The plot follows Bambi through his friendships with Thumper the rabbit and Flower the skunk, the death of his mother at the hands of hunters and his ascent to prince of the forest.
The message “A classic example of the use of animated detail to represent the idyllic realm of nature rendered vulnerable by human incursions. The film is credited with having influenced a generation of conservationists.”
Under the thumb of her cruel stepmother and stepsisters, Cinderella’s only friends are animals. After attending the royal ball, the mice help the Prince to find her.
The message “Cinderella’s relationship with an extensive subculture of friendly animals demonstrates that she is wholesome and good. The animals help to subvert the authority of a repressive, self-regarding human culture cut off from nature and represented by the ugly sisters.”
The Jungle Book (1967)
Ten years after he was found by Bagheera, the panther, it is decided that Mowgli, a feral child, should return to the world of human beings to escape Shere Khan, the tiger.
The message “Mowgli demonstrates not just a desire to protect the animal kingdom but to become part of it. The film introduced young viewers to some of the competing theories about the consumption of natural resources.”
The Little Mermaid (1989)
Ariel, the mermaid princess, longs to be part of the human world. She falls in love with Prince Eric and temporarily becomes a human being.
The message “This suggests a fundamental division between humans and the natural world that can, at least partially, be overcome. The film persuades viewers that the human and natural worlds are comparable and equivalent.”
Pocahontas, a Native American, falls in love with John Smith, an English settler. She shows him that her people have an intimate and spiritual relationship with nature.
The message “Pocahontas’s decision to stay among her own tribe teaches that the natural world is not there to be harnessed by the civilising effects of humans. The historically inaccurate reconciliation with the colonists implies that our rift with nature can be healed.”
Tarzan is raised by gorillas. A group of humans arrive, including Jane, who falls in love with Tarzan after he rescues her. Tarzan saves the gorillas from Clayton, a hunter who wants to capture them.
The message: “The human impact on the environment is seen at its destructive worst in the form of Clayton’s efforts to exploit the natural world for commercial gain.”
Finding Nemo (2003)
Nemo, a clownfish, is embarrassed by his overprotective father, Marlin. He is captured and taken to Sydney.
The message: “The theme of letting go of one’s protective anxieties accepts the dangerous aspect of nature, but we are encouraged to tolerate freedom with all the precariousness that entails.”
♠ Posted by Emmanuel in Environment at 3/26/2008 01:10:00 AMFile this one under "academics with too much free time on their hands." The Times of London has written a feature on author David Whitley's The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation which purports that Disney has long carried the green message to young children. I am exceedingly skeptical about this: as you will read below, most of the Disney films mentioned below do not have an overtly environmental message compared to, say, Dr. Seuss's The Lorax. Now that was a cartoon with a strong warning about the perils of over-industrialization. When I was a tiny tot, The Lorax scared the bejesus out of me. However, the same cannot be said for the Disney movies mentioned here, methinks. Your mileage may vary. All I can say is "yeah sure, and Harry Potter is really about subprime mortgages":