Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Mouse Machine: Disney and Technology
J. P. Telotte. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, June 2008. Cloth: ISBN 9780252033278, $60.00; paper: ISBN 9780252075407, $20.00. 232 pages.
Review by A. Bowdoin Van Riper, Southern Polytechnic State University, Georgia
Complex machines are rarely evident in the imagined worlds of Walt Disney films. Disney productions are more likely to be set in the past than the present, more likely to take place in the countryside than in the city, and more likely to have the look and feel of the backward-looking Old World rather than the forward-looking New World. From early feature-film triumphs like Pinocchio (1940) and Bambi (1942) through The Jungle Book (1967; the last Disney film supervised by Walt himself) through the renaissance that produced Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994), Disney’s feature films have lacked strong technological elements. Other Disney projects—the Mickey Mouse Club, made-for-television films like Davy Crockett, theatrical shorts like the True-Life Adventures, and most sections of the theme parks—reinforce the idea that Disney’s vision is rooted in a non-technological, or at least minimally technological, world. At the Magic Kingdom theme parks, the artificial past of Fantasyland, Frontierland and Main Street USA overshadow Tomorrowland, and the high-tech pavilions at the front of EPCOT are balanced by the traditionalist national displays at the rear.
Disney’s elaborate simulations of idealized low-tech worlds are facilitated, however, by sophisticated technologies deployed behind the camera and behind the scenes. Disney has been at the forefront of innovations in sound, in photography, in robotics, in computer animation, and in the use of new media such as broadcast television, cable television, and the worldwide web. It is that story—the story of the Disney’s fascination with and astute deployment of technology—that J. P. Telotte sets out to tell in The Mouse Machine.The structure of the book is one of essentially self-contained chapters, loosely but coherently harnessed together in the service of the argument that Disney has consistently exploited cutting-edge technology in crafting and marketing its entertainments. The first three chapters convincingly show that the studio was, from its inception, an “early adopter” of new technologies like synchronized sound (in early Mickey Mouse shorts), stereophonic surround sound (in Fantasia), three-strip Technicolor film (in cartoon shorts in the Silly Symphonies series, and later Snow White), and the multi-plane camera, which permitted the illusion of depth in animated movies. Three subsequent chapters treat Disney’s adoption of Cinemascope in the 1950s and its early involvement with television and theme parks. Each of these chapters is a mosaic of business history, film analysis, and exploration of the uses of technology in the business of filmmaking, with discussions of the history of animation added for context. The final substantive chapter explores Disney’s acquisition of pioneering computer-animation company Pixar in the late 1990s. It is a testament to the power of Telotte’s argument that, upon reaching that final chapter, the reader is prepared to see the Pixar deal not as a radical break with Disney traditions but as a natural extension of them.
At 189 pages, plus notes and a comprehensive bibliography, this is a slender volume with a single, clearly defined purpose of advancing its thesis. Readers who come to it expecting an exhaustively detailed narrative will likely leave disappointed. Telotte’s discussion of how technology is depicted in Disney productions is limited to in-depth analyses of a few projects: notably the “Man in Space” trilogy of episodes (1955-57) from the Disneyland television series, and the feature films 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), The Black Hole (1979), and Tron (1982). There is little or nothing (for example) about the long string of techno-comedies that began with The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), little about Victory Through Air Power (1943) or Our Friend the Atom (1957), and little about Disney’s ongoing commentary on the automobile (carried on in shorts such as “Motormania” [1948], features such as The Love Bug [1968], and quasi-documentaries such as Dad, Can I Borrow the Car? [1970]). There is also relatively little about specific uses of technology within the theme parks: the evolution of Disney’s trademark animatronic figures, the extent to which thrill rides like the Matterhorn Bobsleds and Space Mountain led or lagged behind contemporary rollercoaster design, and the role of the parks as demonstration venues for “futuristic” technologies like the Monorail, People Mover, and House of Tomorrow.
The idea of Walt Disney Studios as a technological pioneer is not wholly new. Disney’s early use of Technicolor and development of the multi-plane camera have been noted, and lauded, by film historians before. Disney biographers such as Stephen Watts and Neal Gabler have traced the studio’s enthusiastic colonization of new media, and other Disney scholars have analyzed the theme parks’ use of technology to create illusion. What is new—and important—in The Mouse Machine is Telotte’s meticulously developed picture of Walt Disney Studios as a consistently innovative organization: a serial early adopter of cutting edge technologies. Argument-driven and written in dense, complex academic prose, it’s not the kind of Disney book one would read for fun. It demands close attention rather than casual skimming, but it will also reward such attention—not only from Disney specialists, but from all scholars interested in the history of technological innovation in the entertainment business.

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