I wrote this paper to encourage critical interpretation and general skepticism towards the media which we are exposed to on a daily basis. Our children are subjected to powerful ideas that shape their outlook on life from a young age. By shedding light on the ways in which media seeks to exert control on its viewers, hopefully we can be more mindful of what we choose to consume.
The Interaction between Science and Magic in Disney Productions
How do we distinguish the real from the imaginary in television programs? With subjective reinterpretation and rhetoric in the mass media so prevalent, this question becomes more difficult to answer. No corporation has been as successful as Disney in blurring the lines between scientific concepts and imagined magical themes[i]. Walt Disney was one of the first pioneers to push hard science in an entertaining way to mass audiences[ii]. Science became more accepted through magic largely because of his innovative efforts. This paper seeks to argue that magic can be a powerful tool to demonstrate science for easy consumption and reinforcement and science can formulate the basis for the use of magic. In definitive terms, magic is the manipulation of basic elements through animism for a desired goal and is based on the supernatural while science can be defined by its material constituent based on facts of nature rather than obscure concepts. Walt Disney himself was known to have considered himself “an entertainer who dealt with factual material”[iii]. The paper will specifically cover the interaction of science and magic by Disney for the aim of mass control and reinforcement through exaggeration of scientific themes, the mixing of the real the imaginary to achieve the desired narrative and using rhetoric and popular media to strengthen scientific concepts.
The History of Use of Magic in Science
Before the Victorian Era, science was confounded to scientists in laboratories and most people did not have readily have access to this knowledge[iv]. It was also in the form of hard facts found in textbooks and science reviews away from mainstream discourse and pop culture(Secord 2002, 1648-1649). However, soon enough a man named John Henry Pepper began to reshape and redefine the way science was presented through his showcase of live experiments on theatre[v]. He put on a combination of “laboratory science” and “theatrical spectacle” to provide entertainment[vi]. The masses saw his rapid succession of experiments on stage similar to a way a magician does his tricks(Secord 2002, 1648-1649). This demonstrates the fine line that is often associated between magic and science. The presentation of novel scientific concepts to the ignorant eye serves the same purpose as magic – seen as almost supernatural due to the unexplained nature of its mechanisms. With public interest growing, Pepper began to showcase a realistic ghost display through optical projections used in the Christmas special “Charles Dickens Haunted Man” and then later appropriated by Disney in the “Haunted Mansion” ride(Secord 2002, 1648-1649). The famous “Ghost Show” by Pepper was another attempt at exploiting the mass interest at the time for spirits alchemy and magic for the benefit of science as a whole(Secord 2002, 1648-1649). While his intentions were to use magic to benefit science, Disney’s vision was to use science to advance magic and add more depth and dimension to the productions[vii].
The first sci-fi productions in the nineteen hundreds like Captain Video (1949-55) and Space Patrol (1950-55) also drew upon scientific themes. However, in contrast to Pepper’s work, they were designed with a specific narrative and were based upon real world themes[viii]. The fear of increasing use of technology evoked a lack of sense of control in the masses and by structuring these fears in these programs, the illusion of control was heightened and people’s anxieties surrounding the future of technology were slightly diminished(Izard 1967, 36-41). Disney relied on the help of rocket and space scientists as consultants and commentators on Disneyland’s Television series, “Man in Space”[ix]. Disney also sought to increase the control in this area and was able to infuse science into its animations in a gradual fashion[x]. They employed this same method for their nature series “True Life Adventure” and were successfully able to gain credibility and trust of their viewers(Izard 1967, 36-41). Even provocative and avoidable concepts such as death, which is a purely natural phenomenon that evokes anxieties in many, were monopolized with the use of magic in the production of the famous 1929 “Skeleton Dance”[xi]. This short dance features spooky skeletons coming out of their graves at night to do a silly dance[xii]. Disney was able to shape the discourse on death in the public and to change the way death is perceived by manipulation of real elements into unrealistic forms in order to create distance between the audience and the anxiety provoking factor at hand[xiii]. However, with trust in mass productions comes a massive opportunity at control and exhibiting power. From this power, the animations received wide approval and quickly, Disney became the hub for limitless imagination.
“Disney understood that there were no borders between the personal/ ideological and the perceptual/political, and that all education was value- laden. For Disney, image was substance, and whoever controlled that image wielded both the power to affect views of the past and visions of the future.”[xiv]
Magic as Exaggeration on Science
One of the ways in which magic was able to become popular in Disney was through exaggeration. By drawing influence from the natural world, Disney was able to construct their own realities within these boundaries and then later could begin to diminish these boundaries as they wished. Disney began showing the “True Life Adventure” series which highlighted footage of animals in their habitat under a narrative and a musical script[xv]. This series was different than the regular wildlife series being shown at the time in that it portrayed animals in a dramatic manner with the help of the instrumentals and the narration described their behaviour from a humanistic perspective[xvi]. So with science as the basis of their work, creativity and imagination was used to provide more mass market appeal to this series. Disney was able to gain wide success as a result and this was the first step in humanizing animals into beings capable of “moral behaviour”[xvii]. Walt Disney states:
“Our intent is not formal education in the natural sciences. Our main purpose always is to bring interesting and delightful entertainment into the theatre. But here nature's wonderful house is entertainment-and this entertainment is informative. .. . We can learn a lot from nature in action. Each creature must earn his right to live and survive by his own efforts and the thing which in human relations we call moral behaviour.”[xviii]
Disney claims not to be an educator but to merely be a presenter of this new form of entertainment found in the natural world which happens to be informative. However, he dismissed the fact that the footage for the series took many edits and was manipulated into the intended narrative for the audience, with the obvious exclusion of some aspects of nature and science[xix].
Other forms of exaggeration of nature were seen in Disney full length movies like “Bambi”. This was Disney’s first production to mimic wildlife so intricately[xx]. The cartoonist who drew the characters in the film studied animal locomotion from watching animals in the wild and drew scenery of actual reserves[xxi]. Bambi, the main character in the film, who is depicted as a helpless fawn that is desperately trying to survive the threat of man, was drawn with features similar to a human infant to evoke human sympathy[xxii]. This anthropomorphization of animals in this manner lead to the increase of sympathetic attitudes towards wildlife[xxiii]. This exaggeration employed by the producers towards animal behaviour proved quite effective in reinforcing the idea that nature is a place of peace and harmony, and that the only conflict received in the wild is in the hands of men, who hunt ferociously and coldly[xxiv]. Disney was thus able to use his own magic touch on nature to advance his own agendas. This resulted in a powerful shift in discourse towards hunting and animal treatment in general.[xxv] Therefore, the power of exaggerating scientific content for the sake of entertainment can prove to be quite effective in targeting mass audience and promoting a specific agenda. It is a clear of example of how magic and science are integrated in children’s programs and their interaction is proven significant is creating a successful production.
“Imagineering” – Blurring the Line between the Real and the Imaginary
Disney has become the space for imagination to thrive[xxvi]. The use of magic in Disney productions adds not only an entertainment factor, but also contributes to ideas of escapism. The impact of its productions is not only limited to viewing through television screens and theatre, but also available for market consumption through merchandise and trips to Disney Land[xxvii]. Disney Land is a theme park where the public is invited to bring their fantasies to life and it works to conjure up images of Disney characters, music and pictures into the real world[xxviii]. People of all ages are invited to come to this place as a vacation and a break for the imagination to thrive. This “pilgrimage” to Disney Land is meant to revive one’s creativity and good memories, as though it is a ritual whereby returns into the world much happier and more satisfied[xxix]. Imagineering is a term referred to the blending of the engineering and imagination that Disney Land design and development arm is responsible for[xxx]. In order to produce a successful ride, the science which provides the mechanisms of the project must be combined with a creative background, which adds to the magical dimension of Disney’s work[xxxi].
Disney’s “World of Color and Mathmagicland” essentially attempts to combine the same elements of real and imaginary as an entertainment form. The series takes on a scientific or historic background by explaining the history of color in Television in a dynamic way[xxxii]. Walt Disney himself is first seen explaining the facts while manipulating objects around him in a magical way[xxxiii]. He then calls upon a cartoon character that plays a professor to continue explaining the concept of color mixing[xxxiv]. However, this character is not just a cartoon animal that does what an animal does; he is depicted as human like, at some points even eating steak with a fork and knife[xxxv]. So although the series is based on science, it uses magic to make its content easier to digest and to appeal to mass audiences, especially children. It mixes elements of the real and the imaginary to educate and to ultimately create almost a controlled new world with different laws of perception. Magic, in its most basic definition, is the manipulation of basic elements for a desired result and Disney certainly achieves this; all while keeping a firm grasp on the material world which the audience relates to. Walt Disney’s perception on life is a direct mirroring of what his productions try to achieve. He is known to have stated: “many of the things that seem impossible now will become reality tomorrow.”[xxxvi]
Influencing Mainstream Discourse of Science
As Disney productions become more popular, they gain increase credibility due to their multitude of years of experience producing Television programs. This credibility and their background in scientific education, however soft, have lead to the possession of a great amount of power in influencing mainstream discourse and shaping thought.[xxxvii] Disney has shown tremendous influence in ideas surrounding nature, history and people.[xxxviii] The movie “Bambi” has been able to generate mass disapproval for hunting animals and has as a result, restricted the sport of animal hunting as a whole.[xxxix] With regards to shaping history, many of the places recreated by Disney in their works have become widely known.[xl] The repeated presentation of these historical places through mediums which make reinforcing information easy has given power to these historical places to garner greater significance.[xli] With mass media appeal, Disney has the power to influence the way the public perceives certain destinations and how Americans, in particular, see themselves with regards to these places.[xlii] Main Street for example, was one of the place which after being highlighted through Disney, has been now associated with the American identity.[xliii] Also, it has attracted more tourists as a result and garnered more positive attention as a whole.[xliv] The interaction between magic and science is displayed in Disney’s ability to obscure perception of places through the use of magic and as a result, influencing history on the ground. Disney was also able to shape perception of people abroad through appropriating their culture in ethnocentric ways.[xlv] This offers a controlled view of the rest of the world and gives Disney the ability to shape discourse and meaning of other cultures and places. For example, the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disney Land, visitors have the opportunity to watch simple prototyped robots dance to represent each country around the world with music playing in the background.[xlvi] The music played is based in American culture and the moving dolls are similar is size and movement, giving the illusion of harmony and peace. This has the power to influence the perception of the American child to believe that the outside world is how Disney perceives it. Mass media outlets such as Disney can have the power of formation of “closure and public consensus on scientific controversies”.(Kirby 2003, 231-268) Therefore, blurring the line between magic and science can prove to be effective in efforts of mass control over public perception.
In conclusion, the influence of Disney on public perception and discourse on science and fact is greater seen with the use of magic. Magic can be at times used to demonstrate science and give illusions to control to the audience and ultimately to the producers. Disney uses its popularity, rhetoric and exaggeration of its messages to reach wide appeal and relies on the interaction of magic and science to do so. Magic allows for scientific fact to be easily consumed for the masses and yet is able to grant its user the ability to literally trick the audiences into perceiving a particular outcome, usually reinforced and motivated by some agenda at the hands of manipulator.
1. Ralph S. Izard, "Walt Disney: Master of Laughter and Learning," Peabody Journal of Education 45, no. 1 (Jul., 1967): 36-41, http://www.jstor.org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/stable/1491447.; Ralph H. Lutts, "The Trouble with Bambi: Walt Disney's Bambi and the American Vision of Nature," Forest & Conservation History 36, no. 4 (Oct., 1992): 160-171, http://www.jstor.org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/stable/3983677.
4. J. A. Secord, "Quick and Magical Shaper of Science," Science 297, no. 5587 (Sep. 6, 2002): 1648-1649, http://www.jstor.org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/stable/3832306.
11. J. P. Telotte, "Animating Space: Disney, Science, and Empowerment," Science Fiction Studies 35, no. 1 (Mar., 2008): 48-59, http://www.jstor.org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/stable/25475105.
17. Gary Laderman, "The Disney Way of Death," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 68, no. 1 (Mar., 2000): 27-46, http://www.jstor.org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/stable/1465709.
[xx]. Richard Francaviglia, "History After Disney: The Significance of "Imagineered" Historical Places," The Public Historian 17, no. 4 (Autumn, 1995): 69-74, http://www.jstor.org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/stable/3378386.
32. Francaviglia, History After Disney: The Significance of "Imagineered" Historical Places, 69-74.; Alexander Moore, "Walt Disney World: Bounded Ritual Space and the Playful Pilgrimage Center," Anthropological Quarterly 53, no. 4 (Oct., 1980): 207-218, http://www.jstor.org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/stable/3318104.
43. David A. Kirby, "Science Consultants, Fictional Films, and Scientific Practice," Social Studies of Science 33, no. 2 (Apr., 2003): 231-268, http://www.jstor.org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/stable/3183078.
44. Laderman, The Disney Way of Death, 27-46.; Lutts, The Trouble with Bambi: Walt Disney's Bambi and the American Vision of Nature, 160-171.; Francaviglia, History After Disney: The Significance of "Imagineered" Historical Places, 69-74.; Telotte, Animating Space: Disney, Science, and Empowerment, 48-59.
Francaviglia, Richard. "History After Disney: The Significance of "Imagineered" Historical Places." The Public Historian 17, no. 4 (Autumn, 1995): 69-74.
Izard, Ralph S. "Walt Disney: Master of Laughter and Learning." Peabody Journal of Education 45, no. 1 (Jul., 1967): 36-41.
Kirby, David A. "Science Consultants, Fictional Films, and Scientific Practice." Social Studies of Science 33, no. 2 (Apr., 2003): 231-268.
Laderman, Gary. "The Disney Way of Death." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 68, no. 1 (Mar., 2000): 27-46.
Lutts, Ralph H. "The Trouble with Bambi: Walt Disney's Bambi and the American Vision of Nature." Forest & Conservation History 36, no. 4 (Oct., 1992): 160-171.
Moore, Alexander. "Walt Disney World: Bounded Ritual Space and the Playful Pilgrimage Center." Anthropological Quarterly 53, no. 4 (Oct., 1980): 207-218.
Secord, J. A. "Quick and Magical Shaper of Science." Science 297, no. 5587 (Sep. 6, 2002): 1648-1649.
Telotte, J. P. "Animating Space: Disney, Science, and Empowerment." Science Fiction Studies 35, no. 1 (Mar., 2008): 48-59.