Much of Disney’s success prior to the WWII was attributed to its simplistic yet beautifully illustrated stories that focused on light-hearted humor and illustrated the happiness of the rural and working class in America. Its narratives appealed to people from all walks of life and demonstrated how animation offers a medium of storytelling and visual entertainment which can bring immense happiness to people across the world. Disney from the very start aimed its content not only to children but also adults who could appreciate his films and learn from their stories.
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Above all, it aimed at creating educational and family-friendly entertainment that consisted of morals. Time and time again it attempted to steer clear from politics, culture, race and in a way appeal to the mass audiences making it a huge success not just in America but across the world. However, during the WWII this image of Disney quickly transformed as Disney converted its whimsical studio into a wartime educator transforming the image of Disney forever.
The advent of the WWII in a way broke Disney long streak of trying to steer clear any political propaganda. Nearly bankrupted by Fantasia (1940), Disney needed to find a way through which it could earn its revenue, make up for the losses and prevent the company from heading downhill. As the war clouds drew near, the United States armed forces needed new recruits and easier ways to train the huge number of enlistees who had no prior experience with regard to fighting in a war. This collaboration was, therefore, a way for Walt Disney to not only earn revenue but display his patriotism with an effort to contribute to the war. Nevertheless, this period, in my opinion, marked the turning point for Disney. From producing films of whimsy and light-hearted humor to creating high quality instructional and educational films for the military, this period truly demonstrated Disney’s vast transformation and impact on the lives of Americans. This paper, therefore, aims to analyze three popular Disney films that were released during this period in order to demonstrate Disney’s active role as an educator during the WWII era.
Disney’s ‘Education For Death’ in my opinion is one such prominent example that depicts Disney ‘s use of animation to instill animosity in the minds of the viewers and illustrates Disney’s dark use of animation in educating Americans about the Nazi ideologies. Unlike Disney’s previous films, barnyard animals are not seen to be used in this short film. This, in my opinion, is intentional as Disney attempts to be a serious educator. By using human characters and realistic animation it portrays the seriousness of the war. The plot revolves around a young boy who is born in Germany who is brainwashed at an early age to follow the Nazi propaganda without questioning or rationalizing its motive. He quickly learns to blindly follow what the government expects of him and in a way becomes a true Nazi. Rather than the prominent use of colors and lighting that is usually seen in Disney’s films, this short film makes use of darkness and shadows, creating an aura of mystery and fear. There is a striking similarity seen in this short film in comparison to Disney’s Snow White, where the main protagonist is lost in the woods. Disney uses similar colors, deep hues, and elongated shadows to accentuate the fear. Despite the seriousness portrayed in the film Disney continues to use light-hearted humor to criticize and ridicule Hitler and his ideologies. The tale of Sleeping Beauty is used as an example, to mock Germany by using an overweight ridiculous looking women to portray Sleeping Beauty as Germany and Hitler as her prince charming. Education for Death, therefore, acts as a perfect propaganda piece that uses visuals and humor to shed a negative light on the enemy. In addition, this film intentionally uses German in most of its dialogues to create a sense of mystery and uncertainty. In other words the fear of the unknown. Unlike Disney’s previous films that steered clear of religion, culture, and politics this film incorporates all three aspects to not only imbibe patriarchal values but to develop fear and animosity against the Nazi ideology. In the short film the Bible is seen to be replaced by a copy of Mein Kampf, and the crucifix by a large sword demonstrating Hitler’s intolerance for religion or culture. By portraying the Nazi menace as an extremely scary Education for Death acts as a dark yet wonderful propaganda that successfully impacted many Americans during the time of war. By using sensitive subjects like religion, culture and children it not only aimed at informing and educating citizens about the Nazi ideology but in a way imbibed patriotic feelings towards their country motivating them to contribute towards the war either through funds or by enlisting in the war.
While Disney avoided using barnyard animals in the Education of death to display the enemy in a negative light it used its most popular protagonist Donald to act as a wartime educator and an icon that represented American patriotism. By the mid-1940s Donald Duck had surpassed Mickey Mouse’s in terms of fame and was crowned as the most popular figure in the Disney universe (Cooper, 2014) With his quick wit and sarcasm, Donald Duck was not only relatable to the audience but seems to make a perfect fit in human society. His tantrums and short temper perfectly represented the frustration of the Americans at the time of war. ” In his cartoon world, Donald is forced to uphold the duties of a species he is not, fighting as an element of nature in the second great machine war. If he was expected to blend seamlessly into Disney’s increasingly socially recognizable onscreen world, he certainly did not go unnoticed” (Cooper, 2014). Hence it was no surprise why he was selected as the chosen American representative to educate and inform citizens during the time of war.
New Spirit is one such film where Disney proved the influence Donald had over its viewers. Unlike the other short films where Donald is portrayed as a lazy, irresponsible prankster in this film he is depicted as a responsible American citizen. Apart from the film promising freedom and liberty it managed to educate and motivate the viewers to start paying taxes. One of the biggest struggles during the time of war was the shortage of funds. Nevertheless, Disney effectively used Donald to not only imbibe patriarchal values but to educate citizens about the income tax law enacted in 1942 to help fund the war. The plot revolves around Donald Duck listening to an infomercial that asks Donald if he wants to be a patriot and contribute to the war efforts. After some convincing, the radio informational suggests how the easiest way for him to contribute is by paying his taxes. The rest of the film consists of steps in which the income tax can be filed. By looking at how the narrative is structured, we are able to see that the film is intended as an effective educational method to create awareness and demonstrate how taxes can be played easily. The phrase ‘Taxes to beat the Axis’ not only struck a chord with most people but encouraged them to do their part in order to display their patriotism towards their country. In a way, this short film compels the viewers to pay their taxes by indirectly stating that not paying taxes would be a un-American thing to do, and the only way of being a patriot is by paying taxes. This strategy worked out well as Watts rightly points out that this film encouraged the prompt filing of tax returns (Watts, 1997). Unlike Education for death, this film uses bright colors and animation with an intended to boost patriotism and encourage participation. The last three minutes of the film, however, bears a striking similarity to the Education of Death and Der Fuehrer’s Face especially in the scenes where Germany is portrayed. There is a prominent use of silhouettes, shadows and the symbol of swastikas to demonstrate the terror and anguish brought about by the Nazi army. In the New Spirit, the scene where the paid taxes dissolves into the silhouettes of American factories bears a resemblance to the Nazi factories scene in Der Fuehrer’s Face. This, in my opinion, is intentional to show the contrast between American and German war ideologies. In Der Fuehrer’s Face the factories are represented using a reddish tint and thick clouds of smoke in the background to demonstrate the dangerous use of these factories to bring about mass destruction however in New spirit, American factories are portrayed in a very mild manner justifying that the American army believes in maintaining peace, however, has to participate in the war in order to protect its citizens freedom and democracy .
Unlike Disney’s original cartoons that emphasized simplistic stories with no hidden agendas, Disney’s wartime production uses beautifully illustrated animation to suggest ideas, educate citizens, and psychologically impact its viewers. Der Fuehrer’s Face is one such short film that suggests Disney’s transformation into politics. One of Disney’s key strengths is in its creation of nature and surroundings that mesmerizes its audience however during the WWII Disney films uses this very strength to Nazify nature. Der Fuehrer’s Face starts off by capturing the audience attention using the catchy rhythm sung by the Nazi armies marching band. However, as they are seen walking through the local countryside all elements of nature such as the telephone poles, clouds, shrubs, windmills, trees appear to take the shape of swastikas. As Copper rightly points out, “Disney’s illustrated Nazi Germany commits to a nature whose original referent is an ideological symbol, subsumed by a nature that has come to imitate the workings of the state. “(Cooper 2014) By using Disney’s wartime hero Donald, the pitiful state of Germany is demonstrated where due to a shortage of food they have to make do with hard bread and a coffee bean instead of actual coffee. Donald is then shown to be working in the ammunition factory where he has to slave and at the same time salute to any portrait that contains the image of Hitler. Through this Disney demonstrates the pitiful state of every German who is forced to overwork and respect Hitler blindly without questioning or disobeying him. Unlike Disney’s other films there is a use of dull colors to demonstrate the darkness and misery of people in Germany. Donald is then shown to be bombarded with propaganda messages about the superiority of the Germans and the glory of working for Hitler. After a paid vacation that consists of making swastika shapes with his body for a few seconds, Donald is ordered to work overtime. Eventually, Donald has a nervous breakdown and starts hallucinating. The hallucinations in a way convey the use of New York style animation similar to the one used in Dumbo. Ironically this film in a way not just represented the poor conditions in Germany but the working conditions of the Disney employees. Due to the war and meager salaries and extensive labor, their frustrations are clearly represented in this film making the film realistic and successful. The film finally concludes by showing Donald who wakes up only to realize that the entire event was just a nightmare. From this scene onwards prominent use of colors is seen with an intention to show the contrast between Germany and America and present America as a glorious country. Embracing a miniature of the Statue of Liberty, Donald states how glad he is to be a citizen of American thereby conveying patriotism and evoking a sense of pride in being an American.
All the above three films display how Disney transformed from an anti-political entertainer to a wartime educator. Its use of Donald as an American ambassador helped strengthen the perception of the Disney’s brand as a symbol of the United States and its values. Although this period was marked as a dark time for Disney due to the lack of funds and the growing frustration of Disney’s employees it’s use of animation during World War II period not only demonstrated its influence over its viewers but in a way demonstrated its contribution to the nations victory linking the brand of Disney to the country itself. With a bit of Disney diplomacy and a whole lot of Donald’s patriotism, Disney set the foundation to becoming a brand that every American felt proud to associate themselves to.
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