Walt Disney cartoons ‘contain secret messages on the environment’

A still from the Walt Disney film Bambi

Mark Henderson, Science Editor

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 criticized 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 criticized 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.

Walt Disney promoted a “folksy and homespun” relationship with nature, the influence of which can be seen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Bambiand Sleeping Beauty. These are pastoral films, in which the natural world is portrayed as an idyllic but vulnerable retreat from a threatening civilization.

During Eisner’s stewardship, Disney films became more complex, suggesting that people and nature can coexist if people come to respect wildlife and realize their place in the natural order. Dr Whitley said: “If you can accept their sentimentality, it becomes possible to see that these films are giving young audiences a cultural arena within which serious environmental issues can be rehearsed and explored.

“Popular art often does more than we think to shape our feelings and our ideas about certain themes. Disney may well be telling us more about the environment and the way we relate to it than we tend to accept.”

The movies could even reflect disputes about how nature is best conserved. Dr Whitley said that the rivalry between the carefree Baloo and the authoritative Bagheera in The Jungle Book, released in 1967, echoed contemporary disagreements between hippies and mainstream conservation groups.

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.”

Bambi (1942)
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.”

Cinderella (1950)
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 (1995)
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 civilizing effects of humans. The historically inaccurate reconciliation with the colonists implies that our rift with nature can be healed.”

Tarzan (1999)
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.”

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