23 August 2011
...while he also named a number of former employees who had organized a labor strike as "Communists" - signified the culmination of a long-standing relationship of collaboration between the Walt Disney Company and the American government.2
Disney told the committee that he felt the best strategy for safeguarding "all of the good, free causes in this country, all of the liberalisms that really are American" would be to uncover the "un-American" labor activists who had infiltrated the motion picture industry and had propagated their Communist "ideologies," which in turn were directly responsible for activities such as the 1941 strike at the Disney studio in Burbank, California.3
Meanwhile, other reasons cited for the strike, such as the company’s "arbitrary and manipulative pay structure" and the illegal firing of union activists working with the Screen Cartoonists’ Guild, were simply ignored.4
According to Walt Disney in 1941, individuals such as the labor organizers who had "called my plant a sweatshop" needed to be "smoked out and shown up for what they are" in order to "keep the American labor unions clean" and to preserve "good, solid Americans" from "the taint of communism." 5
Disney’s justification of the state’s use of repressive force in order to secure American freedom may not sound quite so unfamiliar today, following the events of September 11, 2001.
Since 9/11, several reports have emerged exposing a U.S. government that used illegal wiretapping with impunity, lied about the reasons for invading Iraq in 2003, sanctioned the torture of alleged terrorists, and imprisoned so-called enemy combatants - including children - denying them basic legal rights such as the right to a fair trial.6
Indeed, state repression and patriotic
correctness at their most extreme became the normal state of affairs in a
post-9/11 world characterized by domestic surveillance, the erosion of civil
liberties, and an ideological and military campaign waged against the threat
of "terrorism" that involved the construction of a vast secret and illegal
apparatus of violence.
Disney’s history of making alliances with state power is not surprising, given its corporate interest in reaching large audiences and perpetuating dominant cultural forms, but not since its production of several films for the U.S. military during World War II has Disney participated in the dissemination of such overt political propaganda.
While the Walt Disney Company’s patriotic fervor during World War II has generated little critical response over the years, Disney’s productions since 9/11 have been more controversial, yet few critics have gone so far as to argue that the messages produced by The Path to 9/11 and The Incredibles do not support the status quo as much as they present a reactionary politics, which not only justifies U.S. military power abroad but also suggests deeply authoritarian ideas and practices are the best way to secure the ongoing domination of American cultural identity at home.
Both films solicit their viewers’ support and appear to occupy solid (and therefore unquestionable) moral ground by taking a critical stance that positions the lone protagonists outside repressive cultures dominated by mindless bureaucracies.
The films ultimately sacrifice an understanding of the systemic causes of war and violence in favor of blaming individuals who exhibit pathological behaviors that go far beyond character flaws or mere cowardice.
Of course, the demonization of the other and the
representation of individuals who challenge institutional stagnancy as
heroic are not new to those familiar with discourses of hyperindividualism,
competitiveness, and jingoistic nationalism in the dominant media in the
United States, but the justification of violence as the primary means to
achieve these goals has not been asserted so boldly as before, except
perhaps if one considers the history of Disney films.
He was, however, at the forefront of a movement to recognize a "new aspect of the use of films in war": training industrial workers and soldiers.8
Some historians try to account for Disney’s participation in generating military propaganda by claiming that the studios were "taken over by the military as part of the war effort" 9 on December 8, 1941.
But Richard Shale has meticulously documented Disney’s much earlier attempts to court contracts with the aircraft industry, the U.S. Council of National Defense, and Canadian military supporters.10
Indeed, despite a "popular (and frequently quoted) misconception" that the relationship between Disney Studios and the U.S. military was "unexpected or unsolicited," Shale observes an explicit shift in Disney’s focus from "entertainment values to teaching values" that occurred before Disney acquired his first U.S. military contracts in December 1941.11
For instance, in 1940 Disney approached the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation with the idea of generating a training film on flush riveting.
And in the spring of 1941, with Canada already engaged in war, Disney convinced the commissioner of the National Film Board of Canada, John Grierson, that animated films were better positioned as teaching tools than documentary films because of their "capacity for simplifying the presentation of pedagogical problems."12
Grierson then bought the Canadian rights to Four
Methods of Flush Riveting and commissioned Disney to produce an
instructional film that taught soldiers how to use an antitank rifle and
four short films that encouraged Canadians to purchase war savings
With material collected on the trip, Disney proceeded to generate two feature films, Saludos Amigos (1943) and The Three Caballeros (1945), both intended to celebrate Latin American culture while accentuating its similarities with North American culture (and downplaying or ignoring issues like national politics and poverty).14
Born out of U.S. fear of a Nazi alliance with countries like Argentina, the films aimed to,
Yet, in making The Three Caballeros palatable to white Middle America and American imperialism less threatening to southerners, Disney more often than not caricatures Latin American culture as a voluptuous, exotic female who is fleeing the attentions of a libidinous, but comically ineffectual Donald Duck.16
There is little doubt that a relationship
between Disney Studios and the U.S. government had been fully cemented by
1943, when 94 percent of the footage produced by Disney was under government
The studio also produced a number of anti-Nazi short films, including,
...two of which were nominated for Academy Awards.
In these shorts, Hitler is depicted as waging a mind-control campaign over the German people based on the manipulation of emotions such as anger, love, fear, sympathy, pride, and hate, while also occasionally employing force, regimentation, depravation, and false rewards.
Of course, the success of the films’ efforts to expose Nazi propaganda overwhelmingly relies on the use of comic devices, caricatures, and stereotypes to make Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito seem irrational and absurd.
Demonizing the enemy, according to Disney historian Leonard Maltin, "relieves aggression."18
This claim, suggesting that the films function to disperse rather than focus emotional energy, clearly sidesteps the multiple ways in which the films, much like the propaganda they critique, attempt to shape their audience’s emotional responses, such as when Donald Duck, clad in starred-and-striped pajamas, croons to the Statue of Liberty,
Most significant about the techniques used by these Disney shorts is how they embody animation’s capacity to draw clear, simple lines and present a selective representation of an otherwise complex reality.
Through the use of comedy and comedic violence, in particular, Disney films are often released from the expectation that they might be attempting to do more than entertain. Viewers wooed by animation’s unique capacity to create novel images through exaggeration, distortion, and aesthetic style are easily absorbed into an imaginary world that quite deliberately focuses their eyes on a constructed reality to the exclusion of other possibilities.
The value of the anti-Nazi short films for today’s audiences lies in their obvious attempt to win the hearts and minds of American viewers through clever visual and ideological manipulation, while ironically issuing repeated warnings to viewers not to allow emotion to short-circuit their critical faculties.
A historical perspective on the subject matter
sets in relief how Disney’s critique of propaganda using the medium of
animation inevitably ventures into the realm of propaganda itself.
The film, based in part on a book written by Major Alexander P. De Seversky, advocates the development of airplane and weapons technology as the means to win the war against the Axis powers.
We are told the airplane will not only,
Dramatic music punctuates scenes that explore new models of airplanes with increased bombing potential.
The United States as the "arsenal of democracy" is represented as a giant heart comprising factories that pump "war supplies" through "the arteries of our transport lines over distances that actually girdle the globe."
This organic, humanizing image of "the great industrial heart of America" contrasts with the mechanical image of a spoked wheel used to represent the Nazi war industries, which are also vividly portrayed in dark reds and blacks suggestive of a hellish inferno. Japan is represented as a deadly, black octopus extending its "greedy tentacles" over its "stolen empire."
We are told of the necessity for U.S. long-range bombers to strike at "the heart and vitals of the beast."
With the lethal combination of the "superior" American,
At the same time, the film announces that "scientific bombing" will enable a "minimum investment in human lives," an oddly ambiguous use of language suggestive of two possible meanings in the context in which it appears:
Indeed, the film’s climax consists of a montage of exploding bombs among Japanese cities and factories, which begin curiously unpopulated and end utterly annihilated.
At the pinnacle of the climactic violence, the
screen resolves into an image of a bald eagle descending upon and crushing
the land-ridden octopus, which then dissolves into a dark cloud of smoke
rising above Japan as "America the Beautiful" plays in the background.
For a contemporary viewer who has the benefit of hindsight, the unquestioned propaganda offered by Victory through Air Power leaves one with the eerie feeling that the perspective being shaped by the film would not only fail to question the use of technology such as the atomic bomb but even wholeheartedly celebrate it as the quickest and most effective way to win the war.
Indeed, it is precisely the film’s unflinching support of the development of bigger and better bombing technology, from small hand-dropped bombs to ten-ton delayed-action bombs and armor-piercing bomb rockets, that might seem most disturbing given the devastating effects of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the postwar escalation of arms development during the Cold War and the ongoing expansion of the military-industrial complex in the United States.20
But Walt Disney did not just support the development of larger weapons; he was a firm supporter of what might be called the atomic age and made the classic 1956 propaganda film Our Friend the Atom, which was also produced as a book and appeared as an atomic submarine ride in the Tomorrowland section of Disney’s Magic Kingdom.
In this instance, as Mark Langer points out, Our Friend the Atom was designed to "counter opposition to the military use of atomic weaponry."21
The Magic Kingdom became an outpost for leading young people and adults to believe that an,
Disney played a formidable role in convincing every school child that atomic energy was central not merely to winning the Cold War but also to preparing them for a future that would be dominated by the United States and its use of new energy sources, which incidentally could be instrumental in elevating the United States to the position of the world’s preeminent military power.
Mouse power easily and
readily made the shift to celebrating atomic power and militarism while
enlarging Disney’s role as a major purveyor of propaganda.
This often neglected reality underlying Disney’s origins as a cultural entertainment icon should make us all the more careful to heed Janet Wasko’s warning that Disney encodes preferred readings of both its animated films and its own brand image to such an extent that,
Attuned to Disney’s willingness to assume an overt pedagogical role during World War II, several critics of a more recent Disney film, Aladdin (1992), noted that the timing of the film’s production and release coincided with U.S. military efforts in the Persian Gulf war.
According to Christiane Staninger, Aladdin is,
Dianne Sachko Macleod takes this critique a step further, suggesting a link between Disney’s,
Macleod notes that regardless of the filmmakers’ intentions, the film had the general effect of "privileging the American myths of freedom and innocence at a time of nationalist fervor."26
Other connections between the film and the first Iraq war are not especially subtle: in addition to locating Aladdin in the fictional city of "Agrabah," it makes the villainous Grand Vizier Jafar look like a combination of Saddam Hussein and the Ayatollah Khomeini, while the two young heroes, Aladdin and Jasmine, not only look American - Disney animators made it publicly known that Aladdin was modeled after Tom Cruise 27 - but also, as Brenda Ayres suggests, display their heroism by,
While it is impossible to discern the actual motives of the Disney animators, it is equally impossible to ignore the cultural context in which the American public viewed Aladdin.
At the time of the film’s release, the dominant media were aggressively promoting similar images of liberation from barbaric traditions in order to justify the United States’,
How Disney’s decision in May 2004 to block its Miramax division from distributing Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 might qualify as a nonpolitical gesture is uncertain.
At the time, a senior executive stated that,
Not only were a number of Disney’s top executives known to be campaign contributors to the George W. Bush administration,31 but then CEO Michael Eisner was reported to have said that any criticism of the Bush administration might,
Miramax arranged privately to buy Moore’s film and
distribute it independently, and in 2005, the founders of Miramax, Harvey
and Bob Weinstein, did not renew their contracts with Disney.33
A $40 million miniseries titled The Path to 9/11, originally touted as a docudrama "based on the 9/11 Commission Report" and later as the "official true story," constituted a blatant political move on the part of Disney/ABC.34
In addition, Scholastic, Inc., the educational
distribution partner for Disney/ABC, sent one hundred thousand letters to
high school teachers across the United States encouraging them to use The
Path to 9/11 in the classroom curriculum and directing them to online study
The Path to 9/11, directed by evangelical Christian filmmaker David Cunningham,37 depicted members of the Bill Clinton administration as totally incompetent, having repeatedly ignored opportunities to capture Osama bin Laden and overlooked warnings of an incipient attack before September 11, 2001.
When prescreened to a select number of film reviewers before it aired on television, the miniseries was received with skepticism and outrage, not merely from Democrats and Clinton supporters.
Robert Cressey, a top counterterrorism official to both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, argued that a scene depicting the Clinton administration’s refusal to pursue bin Laden was,
Nearly one hundred thousand readers of the online journal Think Progress sent protest letters to Robert Iger, president and CEO of the Walt Disney Company, stating that the film inaccurately,
According to Tom Shales, writing for the Washington Post, the miniseries qualified as an "assault on truth."40
A group of academic historians led by Arthur M. Schlesinger sent a letter to ABC calling for the network to,
The film presents a number of clichéd stereotypes of "big government" and bureaucratic incompetence, depicting paper-pushing officials as woefully indecisive at crucial moments, primarily because they are too self-interested to put their necks on the line.
Clinton, for example, is represented as not wanting to issue orders for military action against al-Qaeda because he’s too worried about the effect such decisions might have on the polls, that is, when he is not caught up in dealing with the fallout from the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
In one scene, General Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the Afghan Northern Alliance, which waits for U.S. approval to go after bin Laden, asks in a scornful tone,
Individuals working on the ground who buck procedure and orders from their superiors are, by contrast, willing to "take the heat."
So, apparently, is George W. Bush, whose decisiveness in giving a strike-down order to the military after the 9/11 attacks really functions as the climax of the whole miniseries. One could imagine Bush political supporters cheering as this scene unfolded: finally, they could rest assured that there was a real man in Washington.
Meanwhile, several FBI and U.S. customs agents recognize the nature of the "new kind of war" being waged against America, and their appeals to racial profiling and domestic spying appear justified in the film.
For example, in a brief dialogue, one FBI agent states,
Heroic individuals such as O’Neil are willing to bypass "red tape" and stand in stark contrast to,
And that is not all.
The film contrasts the coolness of John O’Neil’s astute judgments with the irrationality of emotionally overwrought women, such as the ambassador to Yemen, Barbara Bodine (Patricia Heaton), and the fanatic zeal of the terrorists.
In fact, many of the characters who represent terrorists such as Mohamed Atta (Martin Brody) and Ramzi Yousef (Nabil Elouahabi) share the same intense stare, bristly mustache, and swarthy skin exhibited by Hitler in Disney’s World War II propaganda films.
While it might be possible for a viewer to overlook insipid dialogue, fallacious logic, melodrama, and weak narrative structure, it is virtually impossible to ignore the film’s use of racist and sexist stereotypes to lend legitimacy to all the standard bogeys of extreme right-wing ideology. And, most importantly, there remains the film’s utterly deceptive self-presentation as a historically accurate depiction of events.
Even lead actor Harvey Keitel told a CNN interviewer prior to the airing of the miniseries,
In response to the controversy surrounding The Path to 9/11, Scholastic, Inc., announced that its online study guide did not meet the company’s "high standards for dealing with controversial issues" and would be replaced with new materials that would focus more on media literacy and critical thinking.44
ABC also responded to protests by broadcasting disclaimers about the miniseries’s "fictionalized" representation while airing a minimally reedited version on September 10 and 11, 2006. But ABC’s rather inexplicable decision to air the broadcast without commercials - entailing a loss of $40 million45 - fostered an illusion of the film’s closer proximity to real life, if not also conveying the impression that it was a public service announcement.
Most significantly, the broadcast that aired on the second night was framed by a strategic interruption - George W. Bush’s Address to the Nation - prompting one journalist to note the "thematic synchronicity," as the president’s speech called for ongoing support for the war on terror.46
It is difficult to deny the political synergy suggested by the combination of the rightwing The Path to 9/11 and Bush’s speech - synergy being a profit-driven marketing strategy by no means unfamiliar to a mega-corporation like Disney 47 - as Bush appealed to Americans to recognize the ongoing threat of terrorism and the necessity of preemptive action as the only way to safeguard,
When placed in the context of the film, Bush’s success could be measured in terms of how the post9/11 decisions made by his government succeeded where Clinton’s administration apparently had failed.
Furthermore, the timely juxtaposition allowed the film to gain a greater veneer of authenticity from the speech’s presentation of topical and really existing political concerns, while the film in turn provided credible images and points of reference for listeners trying to engage the highly rhetorical, often self-referential use of language characteristic of Bush’s speech.
Additionally, the blurring of fact and
fiction embodied by the film lent to the speech the mythic or symbolic power
generated by extended narrative, and the grandeur of the presidential
address added authority to the film.
The film was cleverer,
however, in the way it indicated the supposed gaps in the system and
advocated taking a hard line, but offered no concrete alternatives. In doing
so, the film left it to Bush to emerge as the ultimate hero, opening up a
space for a timely description of the measures instituted since 9/11:
to the hard work of our law enforcement and intelligence professionals, we
have broken up terrorist cells in our midst and saved American lives.49
Difficult questions - such as the extent to which freedom should be limited in order to be secured or the kinds of sacrifices entailed by "national security" - were simply ignored in favor of the message that Americans must do whatever it takes to defeat the "enemy."
It is hard to believe that the gross trivializations of the complex
issues surrounding terrorism and the war in Iraq in The Path to 9/11 and
Bush’s address could almost escape public protest only five years after the
horrifying events of September 11, 2001.
Students argued that,
Although a Disney spokesperson responded to the student protesters by calling them,
Although certainly admitting no
wrongdoing, Disney has uncharacteristically and tellingly opted not to sell
The Path to 9/11 on DVD - defying the expectations of both those who assumed
the company would try to recover the costs of making the miniseries and
vociferous right-wing groups who continue to support the film’s
representation of the events leading to 9/11.52
It is how Disney offers audiences not simply escape but also a mode of relating to the real conditions of their existence that makes Disney films such a long-lived and potent force in U.S. and global popular culture.
As Louis Marin suggests regarding the powerful cultural role of Disney theme parks, Disney represents both,
Importantly, Marin adds,
Marin’s framework is especially useful for understanding a film such as The Incredibles as mediating the,
In a post-9/11 world, Academy Award winner The Incredibles brings home the need not only to reclaim "superpower" identity as a quintessential American quality but also to recognize that American soil is not immune to the threat of violent attacks.
In response to the forces threatening America - internally, the weakening of superhero resolve in the face of excessive bureaucracy, public cynicism, and unthinking adherence to the law; externally, enemies whose infantile resentment at being "not super" results in a genocidal campaign against everything "super," even to the extent of terrorizing an innocent public - the PG-rated film sanctions violence as a means to establish a new brand of "law and order."
Although hearkening back to the nuclear family as the source of America’s security and strength, the film diverges from past narratives in its emphasis on a natural order in which authority and power belong in the hands of the few strong leaders left in America, while the rest of us must duly recognize our inevitable "mediocrity."
This overall message is especially disturbing in light of the events following 9/11, when the United States witnessed a growing authoritarianism throughout the larger culture.55
Some consequences of the American response to the tragic terrorist attacks have been a general tolerance for the use of preemptive violence and coercion, control of the media, the rise of repressive state power, an expanding militarization, and a thriving surveillance and security industry that is now even welcomed in public schools. And these are only some of the known consequences: many of the effects of the Bush administration’s policies are still coming to light.
In 2009, President Barack Obama ordered the release of top-secret Bush administration memos that sanctioned the CIA’s use of torture on terror suspects.
A year previous, New York Times reporter David Barstow wrote an exposé of "independent" military analysts who appeared on television networks to inform the public with their expert and objective impressions of the war in Iraq (many were retired army generals and had direct ties to corporations that were courting government military contracts).
It turned out the Pentagon was coaching the military analysts behind the scenes to put a favorable spin on the Bush administration’s "wartime performance," with the apparent collusion of U.S. media networks, including ABC, which failed to check for, or simply ignored, evident conflicts of interest.56
to calling into question the journalistic integrity of the media, the
scandal made it seem as if the Bush administration’s public relations
machine was taking its cues from corporations such as Disney by not only
launching a marketing campaign carefully tailored to uphold its public image
but also secretly controlling access to information and limiting public
discourse, all in order to sell a sense of security to the American people.
Disneyland is a useful space, apparently, to undertake surveillance, and Walt Disney offered the FBI,
Indeed, the development of a cordial relationship between Walt Disney and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover is now better understood not only in relation to Walt Disney’s fervent anticommunism but also in light of revelations that he may have served as,
Certainly, as Watts indicates, it is known that Disney was appointed a special FBI agent in part because of his desire to root out so-called communist agitators from the film industry.60
More recently, Eric Smoodin notes that the Disney corporation remains "interested in
constructing surveillance as entertainment," as suggested by the marketing
of products such as a Mickey Mouse doll with glow-in-the-dark eyes that
illuminate sleeping children for the benefit of parental scrutiny.61
However, most reviewers who observed an "edge of intellectual indignation"63 focused on the first thirty minutes of the film in which the main character, Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson), is forced to conceal his superhero identity as a consequence of public disaffection and a string of lawsuits (he is sued after rescuing a suicidal man named Sansweet who claimed Mr. Incredible had "ruined [his] death").
With "average citizens" now proclaiming they want "average heroes," Mr. Incredible; his superhero wife, Elastigirl/Helen (Holly Hunter); and their children become the middle-of-the-road Parr family, trying to maintain a normal suburban lifestyle by suppressing their superpowers in what one reviewer suggests is a "suspicious society that’s decidedly below-Parr."64
As suggested by a Boston Globe film review, Bob Parr’s cubicle office job as a claims adjuster at Insuricare is designed to evoke identification with the "middle-age blues felt by audience members."65
But many reviewers, in choosing to highlight the film’s critique of suburban conformity and corporate greed, misread or overlook the film’s central message, which does not elicit identification on the part of a mere newspaper journalist or academician: in fact, normal people who wrongly identify with superheroes and devalue their worth are society’s worst threat.
The film’s villain, Buddy aka Syndrome (Jason Lee), begins as Mr. Incredible’s "number one fan" but then transgresses the boundary between admiration and emulation. Conflict arises when Buddy asserts that his rocket boot technology enables him "to be super" without being born with superpowers.
When rejected by Mr. Incredible, who prefers to "work alone," Buddy turns the pathological injury into villainy with an ideological goal: to provide the technology,
The connections between Buddy and the dominant media’s portrayal of international terrorists are multiple: his fixation on demolishing a superpower, his development of high-tech weaponry, his narcissistic rage, his ideological purpose, and, what resonates most clearly, his plan to gain power over a fearful public by launching a plane at Manhattan.
At one point, Buddy even tells Mr. Incredible,
Given the film’s resounding judgment of Buddy/Syndrome - he is shredded by a jet turbine while attempting to kidnap the Parr baby - it is difficult to understand how the film’s message could be interpreted, as one reviewer suggests, as empowering viewers to recognize the,
Even if one were to extend an allegorical reading of
The Incredibles to argue that all Americans are super, it would not be
possible to elide the film’s clear validation of a social hierarchy along
Dash wins his father’s admiration, but the thought of a graduation ceremony for fourth-graders leads Mr. Incredible to burst out,
Later in the film, Elastigirl reassures daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell),
As A.O. Scott astutely recognizes in a New York Times review, the movie argues,
Being "super" in such a framework does not mean being smart or being virtuous; it simply means possessing innate power.
The highly advanced modern society produces
mediocrity because its ethics (a belief in social justice and equality)
counter the effects of natural selection by nullifying Darwinian fitness as
the condition for survival.
At no point during The Incredibles’ "eardrum-bashing, metal-crunching action sludge" and its self-referential mockery of "monologuing" does the film suggest that reasoning, discussion, or any other form of peaceful resolution might be pursued instead of violence. More in keeping, however, with Disney conventions than Rand’s philosophy is the film’s conflation of the pursuit of individualism with the protection of the nuclear family.
One reviewer cleverly summarizes the film’s main theme as "the family that slays together stays together."69
In this way, the white, nuclear, middle-class family becomes the ethical referent for a bombproof collectivity:
The result is that the film brings,
But the American nation drawn by the film is imaged as one
that neither shies away from use of force nor requires any justification for
its display of blatant chauvinism when confronted by others.
The elaborate security compounds of Syndrome’s island and the home of fashion designer Edna Mode (Brad Bird) are suped up with the latest high-tech gadgetry, the exhilarating navigation of which bears a close resemblance to video game playing, particularly in the medium of computer-generated animation.
And even if the filmmakers’ intended to parody gated homes à la Hollywood Hills in their representation of Edna Mode’s mansion, the cumulative message makes security and surveillance systems seem not only unthreatening but also quite normal - at least as familiar as, say, the presence of gates and cameras at Walt Disney World.
In fact, Syndrome’s island has a developed monorail system, which implies a double reference both to the James Bond movie Dr. No (1962) and to Disney World itself.
Referentiality seems to come full circle as The Incredibles’ island imitates Bond films that likely drew on the model of Disney theme parks in portraying the villain’s lair.
For instance, Bond’s antagonist in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) "inhabits a politically autonomous island that features an amusement park funhouse,"71 an allusion that betrays cultural anxiety about a rigidly controlled theme park environment governed by an autocrat who deliberately toys with defenseless people’s perceptions and plays upon their fears.
The Bond films were tapping into a darker side of the Disney-designed spaces, also noted by M. Keith Booker, who writes,
Yet, the lush tropical island in The Incredibles works less to expose the dark side of a totally regulated world than to associate it with exotic thrills and gamelike suspense as the superheroes infiltrate Syndrome’s compound - a brilliant advertisement for a family adventure at Walt Disney World, if there ever was one.
More disturbing is the recognition that as dominant culture in the United States accepts the expansion of a security-military-surveillance-intelligence complex, negotiating such altered environments can be reduced to slapstick comedy (when, for instance, Elastigirl finds herself stretched between two security doors and must fight against a number of armed guards).
entirely harmless, the island environment also represents the ideal locale
for the Incredible children to rise to the challenge of a real danger -
their mother tells them that unlike "the bad guys" on "Saturday morning
cartoons... these guys will kill you" - and to engage the enemy in a
display of family loyalty and heroic exceptionalism.
Indeed, the only imaginable way the "slightly fascist" Incredibles could be labeled a "family-friendly film,"74 as one critic claims, is if one assumes the "super" refrain throughout the film is an oblique reference to American superiority and supremacy, such that viewers are included as part of one big national family, a family that has recently demonstrated its mettle on the world stage by waging wars against Afghanistan and Iraq.
Indeed, Mr. Incredible repeatedly argues for an ethic of intervention and pushes aside anyone who poses an obstacle to action.
Those individuals who wish to prevent superheroes from acting are fundamentally weak: people who claim their right to noninterference, politicians who cravenly seek public approval, lawyers who succumb to financial pressures, teachers who suppress any challenges to their authority, and employers who expect blind obedience to corporate policy.
Interventionism is legitimated when Bob/Mr. Incredible helps an elderly woman with her insurance claim, only to face his irate boss, who indicates that Bob’s loyalties must be redirected to one specific purpose:
While the diminutive Mr. Huph (Wallace Shawn) launches into a speech about the necessity for the "little cogs" in the company machine to "mesh together," Mr. Incredible is prevented from saving a man in the street who is being mugged.
The film deserves credit for extending a clichéd critique of office work as crushing of individual creativity to a representation of greed and corruption plaguing private corporations charged with providing public services. Unfortunately, the only solution to the social ills of exploitation and dehumanization proffered by the film is to put one’s faith in the individuals who have the power to subjugate a clear and unambiguous enemy, in other words, a militaristic version of the old adage "Father knows best."
Before we join the throngs of enthusiastic reviewers who laud the film for its exposure of corporate abuses of power, it should be understood that the film is as much invested in showing how postindustrial capitalism - and liberal democracy even more so - elevates the weak manipulators above the authentic strongmen.
Instead of presenting a viable solution to the ravages of neoliberal economics on social democracy, The Incredibles offers only one reactionary alternative devised in the realm of fantasy:
The huge, hard-bodied Mr. Incredible is ready to rescue America from the city slicker, ladies’ man softness of the postwar era.
(Admittedly, this superhero for a "post-feminist" generation has
an exceedingly competent female sidekick/wife, but one who tellingly
possesses the complementary superhero power of extreme malleability).
What makes The Incredibles appear to be superheroes is the same quality that apparently made George W. Bush seem presidential: the ability to act free from the paralyzing effects of thoughtful consideration.
This orientation toward decisive action in the film becomes an end in itself since, as Jeremy Heilman points out,
According to George Soros, the events of 9/11 renewed a "distorted view" of American supremacy that,
If American patriotism reached a fever pitch in the aftermath of 9/11, then The Incredibles clearly tapped into a desire to assert U.S. preeminence on the world stage. Indeed, all the superheroes are American, and the only non-American with any power is a villainous French mime named Bomb Voyage.
The overall message of the film, as Hastings Dunn points out, is a perennial neoconservative theme:
The only response offered by the film to a society supposedly weakened by a misguided egalitarianism and the post–Cold War softening of American resolve is to minimize institutional and legal controls while letting unrestrained power achieve its deserved place of domination.
For "supers" to dictate the common good once again, The Incredibles concludes,
It is difficult to
imagine a more resounding dismissal of democratic processes than this final
assertion, suggesting less the need for political accountability and public
participation than the need for emboldened leaders whose decisive action
should be divorced from the values and constraints imposed by the mediocre
Audiences are meant to appreciate the fact that if in a fit of rage Mr. Incredible destroys a car, or another human being for that matter, then it is simply a natural expression of his innate "super" identity and not something that requires moral assessment. Or, worse yet, it is something that can only be considered as intrinsically good.
By appealing to the view that "might is right," the film fails to open up the possibility that values and ethics are constituted by various social mechanisms and material relations of power. Instead, the tautological rationale suggests that being "right" is simply entailed by being "super," such that the imperative to conquer the enemy who threatens one’s way of life remains not only above question but also without any negative consequences (after all, the enemy is not "super" like us).
of innate American benevolence is implied by a reading of The Incredibles as
a national allegory. At stake in this concept of America as a superpower is
the belief that its leaders and the entire populace are incorruptible and
therefore exemplify absolute goodness.78
The appeal to innocence often enables animated Disney films to fly below a critical radar.
probably does so, despite its authoritarian overtones, because of the
historical and cultural context in which it was received. After the tragic
events of 9/11, Americans sought an opportunity to envision themselves as
proactive agents of history rather than its passive victims and as part of a
community with strong leadership that could instill hope for security and
redemption in a world that seemed hostile to such desires.
At stake is the way in which Disney films garner the cultural power to influence how people think not simply through their particular mode of representation but also through shaping the knowledge and subjectivities of their viewers in order to valorize some identities while disabling others.
Film watching involves more than entertainment; it is an experience that reproduces the basic conditions of learning. To understand Disney films, we need to understand how Disney culture influences public understandings of history, national coherence, and popular values in ways that often conceal injustice, dissent, and the possibility of democratic renewal.
While the retro style and clever allusiveness of The Incredibles appeal to what is aesthetically pleasing about America’s past, there is no acknowledgment of an underlying totalitarian ethos driving, for instance, U.S. military and imperial expansion during the Cold War.
Although weakling institutions and individuals hinder all things "super," Mr. Incredible, as an exemplary cultural icon, enables the reconstruction of American history purged of its seamy side, not least of all through an appeal to nostalgia, stylized consumption, and a reinvigorated patriotism. Moreover, The Incredibles’ comic representation of 1950s suburban mediocrity does little to challenge the prevailing discourses of patriarchy, class, and sexism.
In fact, the film pays tribute to the consumerism, patriarchy, and family values associated with 1950s sitcoms by suggesting that the failing of such a family orientation lies not in its oppressive control but in how settling into a mundane reality and accepting the onset of complacency sap its inherent magisterial vitality.
Taking what it considers best from that era,
the film revitalizes conservative ideology for a new generation of
video-gaming kids, sexing up the suburban doldrums with designer superhero
garb and high-tech stunts that substitute spectacle for critical engagement.
The Path to 9/11’s claim to portray historical events objectively in the form of a documentary-style ABC miniseries drew some public resistance, whereas the animated Disney film whose very representation defies objectivity drew virtually none.
messages of The Incredibles are no less persuasive for being more fantastic.
the conservative influence of Disney films - a conservatism that manifests
with unprecedented boldness in The Incredibles - should not entail avoiding
them, suppressing them, or complacently accepting their cultural ascendancy.
It should involve making explicit how and what we learn from the very
political messages being taught by Disney films, rather than accepting them
at face value or dismissing their existence altogether.
For this reason, a nuanced criticism of Disney films would not assume that they inherently disempower the audience but would instead view such cultural encounters as opportunities that can empower children and adults by creating the conditions that give people control over the production and types of knowledge and values arising from their experiences as cultural consumers.
Being resisted here is the attitude that turns Disney’s native utopianism into an excuse to adopt a stance that willfully overlooks the risks incurred by allowing a multinational corporation to escape any critical scrutiny as it reproduces dominant forms of identity, authorizes particular forms of history, and validates,
Nothing could be more dystopian in its consequences than the abdication of our responsibility to be critical and thoughtful of the ways the U.S. media represents America to itself and others.
Disney should not be allowed to dictate, limit, and monopolize the
only current and future possibilities imaginable for an increasingly global
culture that must be able to imagine a better life - a life built upon the
precepts of compassion and justice rather than American-centered images of
power, nostalgia, insularity, and world domination.