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Inside Disney's Walled Garden

Wikipedia defines a "walled garden" this way:

A walled garden, with regards to media content, refers to a closed set or exclusive set of information services provided for users (a method of creating a monopoly or securing an information system). This is in contrast to providing consumers access to the open Internet for content and e-commerce.

"Walled garden" was the phrase that instantly crossed my mind when I read last March 10 about the new Disney Web portal called D23, which a press release billed as "the official community for Disney fans." For $74.99 a year, subscribers will get a lavishly illustrated quarterly magazine called Disney twenty-three and an assortment of tchotchkes, including a "suitable-for-framing member certificate" and "an exclusive collectible gift from the new Walt Disney Archives Collection." Through the Web portal itself, "all fans can stay connected to Disney every day...but only D23 members will received regular email updates on special event and merchandise opportunities exclusive to them."

The Wall Street Journal was quick to spot an unstated motive for this new initiative:

One of the most persistent thorns in Disney's side has been the proliferation of unofficial Web sites and blogs that sometimes spread rumors and opine about various aspects of the company and its doings. Disney hopes D23 will become the official online voice for Disney fans world-wide.

Today's Walt Disney Company is all about control as well as money, so it's certainly possible that a few well-trafficked sites like Jim Hill's are indeed targets of D23. I think it more likely, though, that Disney executives have been aware for a long time that there is a body of Disney fans whose interest is so intense that it extends to everything the company is involved with, even Dancing with the Stars and Hannah Montana, and that there are also subsets of fans who are just as interested in the cartoons, or the parks, or the comics, or Pixar, or—you name it. D23 looks to me like a carefully planned effort to appeal to all such Disney fans, and to get them to spend more time and money in the company's new walled garden. If sites like Hill's suffer as a consequence, that'll be no more than a bonus.

Art of Pixar Short FilmsCopyright is what makes the walled garden's walls so high. The copyright law's protections have been expanded broadly in recent years, at the behest of huge media companies like Disney, and it's increasingly common for such companies to seek to exercise more control over what is published about their copyrighted products. That is especially true where images are involved.

We've already seen a radical transformation in the number and nature of richly illustrated, adult-oriented books about the Disney cartoons. Thirty-five years ago, when Abrams published Christopher Finch's Art of Walt Disney, that book—coming as it did from a respected art-book publisher, and coming also many years after the last book that was at all comparable—got an extraordinarily large amount of attention, and also sold extremely well. Now, though, heavily illustrated Disney books are thick on the shelves, and most of them bear Disney's own imprint.

One justly esteemed author of such books lamented to me a few years ago that his books rarely get reviewed, thanks no doubt to their "Disney Editions" label, but from Disney's point view, that can't matter much: there's a sizable core of fans who will buy most such books, and Disney doesn't have to share the money with an outside publisher. More and more, I'm sure, it will be writers who are paid by Disney who will be telling us about Disney history, new Disney films, and so on. And if Disney has its way, most Disney fans will not look anywhere else—or take their money anywhere else—for their Disney dose.

The greatest hazard in such arrangements is not error but dullness. There's evidence for that in the "making of" features that accompany the new Blu-ray releases of Sleeping Beauty and Pinocchio. The histories of both of those lavish failures are vastly more interesting than you could guess from what those of us who appear on the screen say about them (I appear briefly in both features). What's left is not wrong, exactly, but it's safe and controversy-free. It's also not very interesting—unless one is a diehard Disney animation freak who can't hear the same stories too many times. Such people are, of course, the target audience.

Amid Amidi, co-proprietor of the popular Cartoon Brew site and author of the admirable Cartoon Modern: Style and Design in Fifties Animation, is ordinarily anything but a dull writer, but I found his text for The Art of Pixar Short Films slow going much of the time, precisely because the book feels just about as" official" as those DVD extras. Most of the artwork, the book's raison d'être, is pedestrian at best, and so are most of the films. That doesn't mean, paradoxically, that some of them aren't exceptionally interesting, but Amidi's book tends to focus on the least interesting things about them.

In writing about Pixar's short films Amidi had to deal with a complicating factor that had no parallel in the half-dozen "Art of" books devoted to a single Pixar feature. The shorts that John Lasseter made long ago as he worked his way toward Toy Story—back when he was a creative filmmaker rather than a corporate overlord and every film was in fact a giant step forward even if it wasn't terribly entertaining—differ immensely from most of the shorts made by other directors in the years since the first Pixar feature's great success. Some of the later shorts are sterile exercises; others are slack and pointless; but they are almost all thin in inspiration and indifferent in execution. Stack them all together, and you'd have just about enough gags for a garden-variety Looney Tune. The most recent short, Presto (released in 2008 and not covered by the book), was obviously inspired by Tex Avery, and just as obviously falls well short of its model.

Alchemy of AnimationWhat is the rationale for these shorts? Why are they being made? The reasons usually advanced (by Amidi, among many others) aren't convincing. For one thing, the shorts haven't proved to be good testing grounds for future feature directors. Jan Pinkava did move up from Geri's Game to Ratatouille, but he was booted off that feature and replaced by Brad Bird (an outsider), and he eventually left the studio. Pixar now depends on a handful of feature-tested directors—Lasseter, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton—just as it relies increasingly on feature-tested material; its next two features, after Docter's Up, will be sequels, to Toy Story and Cars.

The drama and excitement in the story of Pixar's shorts is is to be found almost entirely in their technical advances, especially in those early shorts that Lasseter himself directed. That drama and excitement comes through in the clips from vintage interviews with Lasseter that are part of the Pixar Short Films DVD released in 2007, but I sense too little of it in Amidi's text. What there is instead is a standard journalistic mix: a heavy dose of the anecdotal (John Lasseter slept under his desk! Bud Luckey had to be strong-armed into recording his song for Boundin'!) combined with accounts of technical developments that lean toward the overly compressed and superficial (can't risk boring the reader!). And, of course, the artistic merit of all of the films, except perhaps the very first experimental effort, is a given.

This is, I'm sure, exactly the kind of book that Pixar and Disney wanted, but another kind of book, one that revealed the drama in those technical developments by translating them into accessible language and exploring their implications at length, would have done greater justice to what is actually substantial and important about the Pixar shorts. There would also have been more risk in such a book, for both the writer (who would probably have had to work harder and longer) and Pixar (whose embrace of a genuinely serious book might have annoyed many of its fans). Such considerations may have been decisive.

Curiously, it's just as The Art of Pixar Short Films has appeared that we've had an excellent demonstration that books dealing less with films' artistic merits than with how they were made can take root and even flourish in the new walled garden. The book in question is another recent "Disney book," The Alchemy of Animation by the longtime Disney producer Don Hahn. Hahn's book bears the Disney Editions imprint (Amidi's book was published by Chronicle Books, which published the earlier books in Pixar's "Art of" series), but it wears its Disney label lightly.

The Alchemy of Animation is an admirably clear and beautifully illustrated explanation of how the different kinds of animated films—CGI, hand-drawn, stop-motion—are made. Inevitably, Hahn simplifies and rounds off sharp corners, but his presentation of the basics looks sound to me. (CGI emerges from the book seeming even more like a complex industrial process, and even less like a vehicle for artistic expression, than I would have thought.) The book ranges across the history of Disney animation, of course, but given its purpose, Hahn has no need to consider whether, say, Dumbo and Home on the Range have anything in common other than a very general similarity in the way they passed through the Disney plant.

I don't want to end this piece without acknowledging the burden anyone writing an "authorized" book like The Art of Pixar Short Films labors under. I've felt some of that burden myself, in the bits of "authorized" work I've done: my audio commentaries for Looney Tunes and Popeye DVDs and my occasional on-camera appearances for those DVDs and the two from Disney. I've felt some obligation to exercise care in saying what I think—not that I've felt any pressure to dissemble. Rather, I've felt obliged to recognize that it's not necessary to say everything I know about a particular film. If I've been a little uncomfortable in that position—and I have—I can barely imagine how I would feel if I were writing an entire book that would bear my name as author but, as with Amidi's book, would be copyrighted by "Disney/Pixar" and would necessarily echo an official point of view. Probably I'd be climbing the walled garden's walls.

[Posted April 17, 2009]