Once upon a time, I was a little kid booing the wicked Queen in a small-town theater, with all my friends from the town's staunchest Catholic and Protestant families. I haven't forgotten those movie evenings, and I'll bet that a lot of other Americans my age haven't forgotten, either. We cheered for Snow White. We yelled for Mickey. We cried buckets for Bambi. Best of all, we clapped our hands and swore we believed in fairies, so Tinkerbelle wouldn't die.
Today, the entertainment company that made seven generations of kids shriek with delight is in big trouble. Extremist religious groups are attacking Disney. These church folks say that once upon a time Disney made movies for the American family. But today, they say, Disney has betrayed "family values."
The trouble is, the extremists aren't telling us the whole story. Their real aim is to oppose any works of the imagination that they believe have "pagan," "satanic," "occult" content. Americans who tracks the growth of book-burning know that these groups are working hard to ban fairy tales, novels, etc. that they deem "satanic". The American Booksellers Assn.'s annual publication "Banned Books" documents the profile of themes that the extremists want removed from American culture. Gosh, these people even hate stories in which animals talk like humans. Where does that leave Mickey? Donald Duck? Bambi et al?
If Walt Disney were to create Mickey Mouse now, in 1996, the Southern Baptists and their cohorts would glower like the wicked Queen. Probably they'd say that Mickey is "blasphemous -- unnatural." "After all," they'd thunder, "God gave the power of speech only to humans. It's not natural for animals to talk." If Disney released "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves" today, the Southern Baptists would accuse him of going "morally astray" into "pagan fairy tales and Satanism." Indeed, any beloved Disney classic with fairies in it would be mincemeat today. Flitting sprites with magical powers would definitely be interpreted by overheated believers as a "hidden agenda to seduce American children into the homosexual lifestyle." Clap your hands for Tinkerbelle today? Not if you're an extremist believer.
In other words, when these animal-and-fairy-infested films were originally released there was no national uproar. Fifty years ago, such movies were part and parcel of the "family values" of most conservative Americans. Like the ones I knew in the small town where I grew up. Like my own family. Even in those straight-laced times, Disney stood for the victory of imagination. Bigots have always tried to chain imagination, because -- like democracy -- it works best only when freed.
So the Southern Baptists and their fellow travelers have got it all wrong about those days of yore. Disney's films haven't changed all that radically. True, the company didn't stick its neck out for domestic partners in those days -- but it always managed (however discreetly) to touch its magic wand to themes and stories not found in the Bible. No...what HAS changed radically is extreme-right-wing religion in America -- its rise to power, its naked ambition to control us all.
At stake is not just the future of a corporation. At stake is the survival of imagination as a driving force of American culture. At stake is the right to imagine. Yes, there is a right to imagine, and no culture can stay healthy without it. If Disney goes down, it will be a dark day for anybody else who messes with sparkle dust. Let's hope that enough people clap their hands for Disney.