Monday, December 15, 2014

Walt Disney: A Monument Waiting To Be Built

I wasn't a very big fan of Rudyard Kipling. I don't know why. I remember reading his Jungle Book in Grade III. For some reason, that story stuck with my classmates. It didn't with me. Perhaps this was because I was a bit of a prig at that age, but to me, the story of Mowgli and his antics seemed at odds with the India I had read about. 

As I aged and matured, I still held onto this view, to the point where Kipling appeared to me as one of the world's most patronising writers. It wasn't only his Jungle Book of course. There was Kim and there was "The Man Who Would Be King". There was politics involved in his stories, and to me they just pointed at what he described with these words: "The White Man's Burden".

But that's another story. For another time.

There was a period when cartoons, not books, made my childhood. I didn't take to Kipling, Christian Anderson, or Lewis Carroll at once. Their stories needed something more than just words and chapters to grab me. I know not many will disagree with me here, but at a time when our teachers were struggling to make us put two words together, we needed something more than life. Something larger than life.

We needed pictures.

I remember the first time I saw Disney's Jungle Book. If Kipling's story seemed at odds with the India I had read up on, Disney's version of it seemed worlds away from anything I'd ever dare to identify that country with. There was jazz, there were (pointless) subplots, there were talking monkeys and elephants and bears that spoke a very "British" English. Nothing seemed "Indian" here, except for the settings.

But I loved it. And with that, I began my love affair with the man behind it, Walt Disney.

He needs no introduction, no biographer. Like the best artists, he wasn't just part of what he drew. He was what he drew. Simple as that. He disgusted us with his villains and uplifted us with his heroes. It was a black and white world he drew for us, filled with princes and princesses and witches who threatened them. It was black and white alright, and unashamedly so. We took to it. At once.

I grew up with his princess stories at a time when boys my age despised anything and everything "girly". I did too, but that didn't hinder me from enjoying it whenever Prince Charming (for almost no prince in Disney's world had any other name) kissed and brought Snow White and Aurora back to life.

Yes, there was something with Disney, something more than what met my eye. It took some time for me to realise that for all his optimistic, feel-good endings, there was a child waiting to age and mature in him. There were times, in his films, when the adult in him seemed to dominate the story, if only for a little while. To me, this was illustrated best in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, when in that dreadful, nail-bitingly suspenseful moment the Evil Queen transformed into a hag. The thin line between childhood and real life almost blurred, even if that transformation was "magical".

Disney had his other side. He had a personal life. We didn't want to know it. And we didn't care even if we did. It didn't matter to us, for instance, that he was a supporter of McCarthyism, an anti-communist movement that put countless filmmakers, scriptwriters, and actors in Hollywood out of jobs, for the simple reason that they were (thought to be) sympathetic with Russia. Yes, Russia. This was during the Cold War. Russia was the enemy.

Still, he never let us down. He continued to enchant us. He made childhood for what it was. He made us realise some things. Timeless things. Like the love of a mother, and the sadness that cannot be erased when she is taken away (yes, I cried when Bambi's mother was shot, as did everyone else). Or the eternalness of childhood, which continues no matter what (which is how I "read" Peter Pan). There were many things Disney taught us. It took some time to get them all in. We were small, after all.

Everybody has his or her Disney favourites. I had mine: One Hundred and One Dalmatians. In here, more than any of his previous cartoons, there was a funky, almost jazzy rhythm, in a story I identified with immediately. Maybe this was because of its villain, Cruella de Vil, the best and most hateful I ever came across in a cartoon. That film began a new decade and era for Disney. He would never be the same again.

Legacies continue and are continued even if legends pass away. The best tribute icons can pay to themselves is their last, before-dying act. Disney was no exception. To me, no better "work" could have summed up the man in death as did The Jungle Book. When Mowgli meets that Indian girl by a well and finally decides to go away to the human world, when Baloo and Bagheera look on, the former sad and the latter happy, everything Disney painted and brought to life, every story that stuck with us, every ending that lifted us, seemed to be there. We rejoiced at it, but saddened when realising that this was Disney's last.

It's been 48 years. Nearly half a century. Much has happened. His legacy continues despite them all. It's true that for a long while after his death, his films suffered a little. Inevitable, considering that the brains behind them had, in effect, died. It took some time to regain what he had left behind. 20 years, to be exact.

Today, the "Disney factor" has gone out a little. Competitors have come up. 3D and animation have taken centre stage, and a hoard of cartoons and films, from every corner of the world, continues to seduce the child in us. But from among them all, we can pick out one name, one icon, that continues to reside in you and me. He is Bambi slipping across a frozen lake, Pinocchio searching for his father and conscience, Peter Pan refusing to grow up, and Mowgli leaving behind his past and entering a new world.

He is Walt Disney. One name for children and childhood. And a monument waiting to be built.

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, December 14 2014