A friend of mine on Facebook made the comment that if your favorite Disney movie in childhood was Hercules, as an adult you were either gay or a polytheist. (In their case, they are both.) The first time I saw this, it was merely funny; the third or fourth time Facebook showed it to me, a depth charge went off in my brain.
The question of one’s favorite childhood Disney movie is a frequent one in online memes and conversation. Is your heroine Ariel or Mulan? Do you favor The Emperor’s New Groove or The Lion King? Are you an outlier whose favorite was something by Dreamworks, such as Anastasia or The Road to El Dorado?
I don’t have a favorite childhood Disney movie. This is not solely because my father was of the opinion that Disney was evil and the original fairy tales were far superior to Walt’s bowdlerized versions. It’s not that I didn’t see any Disney movies, even. My Aunt Margaret took me to see Sleeping Beauty when I was four or five. I have a vague memory of seeing the one movie that Disney will never re-release or remake, Song of the South, and being so upset by it that I began sobbing hysterically and we had to leave the theater. I think I saw Bedknobs & Broomsticks in the cinema, and learned about the Magical Defense of Britain before I ever read what Gerald Gardner wrote about it. I saw the delightful short features based on the Pooh books of A.A. Milne on television, on The Wonderful World of Disney. And my dad and I went to see The Black Hole in 1979 and promptly pronounced it the worst movie we had ever seen, an opinion to which I hold to this day.
But my childhood took place during the dark ages of Disney, between the glorious animated features like Snow White and Dumbo and before the new golden age of the 1990s, when Disney began releasing their classics on video and making new films that children born in the ’80s and ’90s would think of as classics and childhood favorites. It took place before the VCR. How can I explain the difference it made to my imagination that gathering around the tv to watch the sole annual broadcast of The Wizard of Oz? Or the sole broadcast of A Charlie Brown Christmas and those other Rankin-Bass animations that dotted the month of December? It was more similar to the way our ancestors gathered by the fire in winter to hear stories that were not permitted to be told at other seasons of the year than to our present bingeing of streaming content.
The dominant force in my childhood imagination was not Disney. Disney was not ubiquitous. The dominant forces in my childhood imagination were books: Mary Poppins, The Black Cauldron, Grimm’s fairy tales and Andersen’s, Narnia and the Lord of the Rings. The words of the writers, not cinematic versions. My idea of animation, of cartoons, came neither from Disney nor anime, but from Warner Brothers, from the Bugs Bunny cartoons that were rerun on television every Saturday morning, with their sly humor and references to opera. They made my father laugh as much as me, with a breathless tenor giggle, because he’d seen them in movie theaters when he was a kid, played before the main feature.
I saw the original Star Wars trilogy in the cinema, as a child and then a teenager (and remember vividly that my mother couldn’t believe Han Solo and Indiana Jones were the same actor). My sense of science fiction, however, had already been formed by Star Trek, the original series, watched in reruns on a big black and white console tv. My parents had quite different tastes in fiction, and my interests were different from theirs, but all three of us would sit down and watch a Star Trek rerun or any other science fiction drama. I think I probably saw every sci fi show that aired in the 70s: Space 1999, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and, thanks to PBS and independent stations, classic Doctor Who, with Tom Baker as the Doctor. I am grateful to have lived before the era of grimdark sci fi and seen shows that were hopeful about humanity’s future among the stars.
My childhood imagination was a wild place, more like a secret garden than a theme park or a playground. Yes, it was sheltered and cultivated; my mother actually had some regard for movie ratings, and I didn’t see Jaws until I was an adult. But it was also unplanned, haphazard, open to multiple influences, teachers, librarians, grown-ups at my church, as well as my parents. My parents wouldn’t take me to an R-rated movie, but they put no such restrictions on my reading, and I read both adult-level books on comparative religion and racy novels stolen from the bookshelf behind their bed. Science fiction, fantasy, books, television, cartoons, hymns and the Bible and mythology, all planted their influences in my mind. When I think about that, and then I think about how whether you take your child to see a Marvel movie, let them watch The Little Mermaid on video, or take them to see the next Pixar film, it’s all the same thing… I see monoculture. I see minds like endless fields of soybeans or corn, planted with one thing, heaped with fertilizers as the natural fertility of the land is sapped by year after year of the same crap. I see wasteland.
I think I’ll close the gates and sow some new seeds in my garden. I don’t want any of the genetically modified stuff that only lets you grow that variety of the plant forever more.