In Search of the American Myth: Once Upon a Time, a Man Named Disney…

WaltDisneyandMickeyMouseWallpaper-4Our culture loves to tell stories—we, however, now have another medium in which to relate them. Last month, our friend Rachel featured a series of posts about film selections for “movie nights.” While Rachel’s posts emphasize the entertaining nature of films, I want to explore this month a topic that I find most interesting. In fact, I wish I could have explored it more in depth in grad school when I numerous resources at my disposal. However, a series of blog post will have to do. Some of my closest friends will recall numerous conversations about mythology and its presence in film. We have also discussed at length the mystery of the American myth. Of course, I find the two almost invariably connected.

Stories carry the framework of a culture. Specifically, myth and fairy tales mainly perpetuate the divine reality or the culture identity respectively, and both have evolved through space and time. Rising societies transmute these tales to fit their own cultural paradigms and usually create their own mythology or fairy tales. For instance, the Romans heavy adapted Greek myth, but the Romans held different values then the Greeks, so the former created a mythology entirely different from its Greek counterpart, a theme in Rick Roirdan’s second Percy Jackson series.

As for the United States, our mythology and tales mostly originate in European tradition, but we have since created its own myth and story because of our differing values. Our paradigm centers on the ideals of the American Dream and personal improvement and progression vis-à-vis the values of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness established in our Declaration of Independence. Therefore, our myths and stories will focus on characters striving for a better life, and we greatly esteem the happily-ever-after endings that so frequently pop up in the final moments of films.

We may thank Disney for this transmutation of European myths and stories into an American context. For instance, the Grimm version of “Cinderella” is bleak and morose. Her father never dies and joins the stepmother in her abuse of the young girl. While both Cinderellas live happily at the end, Disney avoids the horrible implication that a father would so wickedly mistreat his daughter. We also see this change in The Little Mermaid. In Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, the mermaid dies and is turned into sea foam. I made the mistake of telling this version to three-year-olds, who were terrified at the mermaid’s outcome. Naturally, America generally loves a happy or triumphant ending, so the tale was changed to fit this mindset. Disney has also Americanized Eastern stories, as Aladdin and the legend of Mulan have become part of the Disney canon.

But the story of the American Dream does not stop with the adaptation of European and Eastern stories. With the advent of Pixar, Disney has told many enduring stories of hardship and triumph, even if those characters so happen to be toys, bugs, monsters, or cars. Thus, we see Disney creating an American mythology—the exciting adventures of lovable heroes that uphold the ideals of our culture.

Let’s face it—America has a mythology. It may not be as epic as Homer’s Iliad (sorry, I could not help myself) or as tantalizing as Scheherazade’s One Thousand Tales, but Disney and the many filmmakers I will feature in the following weeks have given us a myths and stories that we can consider ours.

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Posted on October 4, 2013, in Disney, Fairytales, Film, Mythology, Social Commentary, Stephen Parish and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I greatly look forward to this series!

  2. America does have mythology through movies but not all movie mediums just show a culture’s framework. All stories, movie or book, try to persuade the recipient to do something. As in the Pixar’s “Finding Nemo” one of the themes that make the story interesting is the conflict between Nemo and his father. Through the course of the movie Nemo is not at fault for his disobedience. More his father is at fault for being overly protective. “Finding Nemo” might not have carried the theme across and so the culture would be different then the stories framework portrayed. In many cases you are correct as you pointed out what Walt Disney did with his adaption of Cinderella and The Little Mermaid. American mythologies as well as the other mythologies out there do have a culture’s framework. The framework can be wrong because of the authors purpose to persuade his audience to a cause.

  3. Everyone at some point in their childhood has watched a Disney movie. The conflict’s are always simple enough for a child to understand, and there will always be some sort of “life lesson” to be learned. In the movie that we all know and love, “Pocahontas”, the lesson you would learn is that all people are equal no matter what race or ethnicity. “Pocahontas” was completely changed from the true story to be more interesting. She did save John Smith, but she was twelve at the time. She never even made it to England. As you said above, Mr. Parish, a lot of stories made into Disney movies are made to end with the idea that “love conquers all”. So therefore, yes I do agree with you on the idea of America having a mythology. It may be more simplistic than another culture’s, but it does play a huge part in the way Americans view life.

  4. Kirsten Leonard

    Growing up as a child, the only movies that one is permitted to see by his parents are Disney animated movies or any other animated movie. At such a young age, you are oblivious to the actual storyline or theme, if you will, and search for only a plot that emits happiness. Looking back, and after reading these blog posts, I do agree that all films seem to have an underlying mythology that relates to the “American Dream.” For example, the Lion King demonstrates the desire as Americans to overcome tragedy and reach a life of bliss. However, as an avid movie goer, sitting and depicting movie plots down to the core is not my forte. When I go to the movies, I am there to escape the headaches around me, not to meditate on every detail. Only if the movie displays the theme or underlying message so openly, do I vegetate on how the plot relates to the human desire.

  5. Americans are known to sugarcoat most stories. Many fairytales have changed over the years to hide the darker side of life. There are many examples, however one in particular exemplifies this idea perfectly. Disney adapted the well known novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” into a children’s film. In the movie, Quasimodo, Esmeralda, and Phoebus defeat the antagonist and live happily ever after. In the original tale by Victor Hugo, Phoebus betrays Quasimodo and Esmeralda to Frollo. The two of them are both killed at the stake. I agree with the idea of America having a mythology. Americans believe from childhood in the idea that all stories have a happy endings for the reason it is all they are exposed to from a very young age.

  6. We, as humans, love entertainment. We go to the movies to relax and have a good time. I grew up around Disney movies, as most children do, and it’s obvious how they become classics in everyone’s eyes; however, there are never sad endings. When you think about it, you realize that if a movie has a sad ending, we tend to get upset and have a certain dislike for it. As children, we love to see this, but it makes them think that the world is a perfectly happy place, when it can get gruesome itself. The same is true for teenagers and adults in our American customs of happiness. I believe that Disney needs to also show that the world has an unattractive side and debunk this American myth. We can’t believe everything we see in our untruthful media!

  7. I Completely agree on the idea of the pattern of Americas mythology having the theme of the American dream. Disney movies are one of my favorite things but they are all very predictable. You know that the hero will always defeat the villain, good will always overcome evil, and the poor orphan girl will always get the handsome prince. I think a lot of times we make excuses saying that “we have to make it happy for kids” but if we are honest with ourselves I think it goes deeper than that. I think us as Americans have made this a pattern in all our entertainment because this is how we wish our lives were. who doesn’t wish that life was as easy as a Disney movie? American Mythology has a pattern of “Happily Ever After” because people like to escape reality & be able to believe in magic even if only for 90 minutes of a movie.

    • I Completely agree on the idea of the pattern of Americas mythology having the theme of the American dream. Disney movies are one of my favorite things but they are all very predictable. You know that the hero will always defeat the villain, good will always overcome evil, and the poor orphan girl will always get the handsome prince. I think a lot of times we make excuses saying that “we have to make it happy for kids” but if we are honest with ourselves I think it goes deeper than that. I think us as Americans have made this a pattern in all our entertainment because this is how we wish our lives were. who doesn’t wish that life was as easy as a Disney movie? American Mythology has a pattern of “Happily Ever After” because people like to escape reality & be able to believe in magic even if only for 90 minutes of a movie.

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