The Spielberg/Disney Connection

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This is an archive post that was originally published in 2014.

“Disney is the birthplace of imagination and has always been as close to the worldwide audience as any company ever has.”
Steven Spielberg

For most children, it’s a magical land filled with princesses, fairies and magical castles. For Steven Spielberg though, Disneyland was the thing of nightmares. Taken there by his parents as a small child, the young Spielberg was traumatised by what he saw, his overactive imagination turning every ride, every attraction, no matter how innocuous, into something dark, disturbing, and yet, as he would confess years later, somehow pleasurable.

“My father took me to the Magic Kingdom in 1959. I was afraid of everything: the crazy eyeball of the sea serpent in the submarine ride; the witch from Snow White offering me a poison apple; Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Yet it was the kind of scary that tickles. It took me several trips back and a little more growing up before I recognised the twinkle in Mr. Disney’s eyes.”

The films scared him too (“I came screaming home from Snow White when I was eight years old and tried to hide under the covers,” he has confessed. “Between Snow White, Fantasia and Bambi, I was a basket case of neurosis.”), but the twinkle in Mr. Disney’s eyes continued to appeal to Spielberg as he turned from impressionable young kid into influential Hollywood film-maker. The two men share deep similarities, both insisting on the power of wonder and imagination, both exploring live action and animated film-making, both building empires and internationally beloved icons through their films. But the comparisons don’t end there.

For Spielberg, Disney and his films are deeply symbolic (of hope and innocence, both won and lost), and references are made time and again in many of his most celebrated films. In this piece, I look at those references and explore what they mean.

Jaws/Bambi
This isn’t strictly a direct Spielberg/Disney connection, but as Spielberg has a significant influence over the work of his composer, it’s well worth mentioning the similarities between John Williams’s Jaws theme and Frank Churchill’s Man theme from Bambi. I’m sure you need no reminders of Williams’s score, so etched into popular culture is it, but here’s the Bambi theme. We’re not talking about direct homage here, but there’s a clear link between Churchill’s looming, insistent strings and Williams’s, both in the use of two solitary notes and the way they gradually climb from something brooding and mysterious into something immediate and violent. It’s difficult to imagine Bambi wasn’t on both Williams and Spielberg’s mind here. Not only does the connection form a pleasing irony (for Bambi, man was the threat; for the people of Amity, it’s an animal), but both films focus on the death of innocence (think of Jaws‘s shocking Kintner boy death scene) and emotional maturity of the lead character. By incorporating a small bit of Bambi into Jaws, Spielberg and Williams quietly emphasise those points.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind/Pinocchio
More than mere reference, the link between Close Encounters and Pinocchio is perhaps the strongest and most significant of any of the films on this list. This is no mere fleeting reference (though we do get that when Roy Neary tries to convince his kids to see a re-release of Pinocchio instead of playing Goofy Golf); instead, Spielberg weaves the Pinocchio, and the whole Disney ethos, into Close Encounters‘ tapestry. This is done, brilliantly, through the use of Leigh Harline and Ned Washington’s iconic ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’, which is quoted by John Williams in the film’s finale. “I pretty much hung my story on the mood the song created, the way it affected me emotionally,” Spielberg has said. Indeed, thematically, Close Encounters is very close to Pinocchio, with Roy being transformed into a “real boy” thanks to the sense of purpose and belief his alien visitations give him. Spielberg’s use of ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ enriches this connection, and ultimately crystalises Close Encounters into what it truly is: not just a science fiction drama, but an urban fairy tale.

1941/Dumbo
Innocence is the key in Spielberg’s third Disney reference. At the height of the madness in his much-maligned wartime comedy 1941, Spielberg takes us to a movie theatre, where General Stilwell is taking in a screening of Dumbo. We’re up to the scene where the crows sing ‘When I See An Elephant Fly’, and Stilwell’s having the time of his life, nodding his head in time with the beat and mouthing the lyrics. He has absolutely no concern for the chaos raging outside; when one of his men arrives to tell him of the rioting, he bats him away before telling another soldier, who’s standing guard, to move because he’s blocking the screen. It’s another moment of stupid comedy in a film stuffed it, but it also connects with something deeper. Spielberg’s not just satirising authority here, as he does in the rest of the film, he’s also sympathising with it. There’s something quite sad about Stillwell sat in the theatre like a child, desperately clinging to the only slim slice of innocence he can at this time of great peril and violence. Spielberg has called the Second World War “the death of the innocence of the entire world”, and in this small scene, in perhaps his weakest film, he hinted at themes he’d explore with much more success in the likes of Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.

E.T./Peter Pan
This link is less cut and dried, but it’s a fair bet that Spielberg’s first encounter with J.M. Barrie’s classic children’s story was the 1953 Disney adaptation, so when we see Elliott and E.T. watching Mary reading Gertie the story, it’s likely Disney that Spielberg was thinking of. They’re at the stage where Tinkerbell is dying and only the repeated affirmation that “I do believe in fairies, I do, I do” will save her life. It’s a comforting moment, a scene representing the perfect familial harmony Elliott’s been so desperately missing. Yet, it’s tinged with sadness. E.T. is both a fairy tale and an anti-fairy tale, a film that recognises the agony and ecstasy of fantasy: sometimes, reality invades our fairy tales, and no matter how much hand-clapping affirmation we perform, there’s no keeping it out. By having Elliott and E.T. watch this scene, Spielberg foreshadows that point, reminding us that their life together, wondrous and inspiring though it may be, simply can’t go on. It’s one of many little signposts that make their eventual separation inevitable – and so much more heartbreaking.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade/Mickey Mouse
This is a very slight reference, but how could I not include it – it’s got Harrison Ford performing ridiculous Scottish accent. In order to gain access to the castle where his father is being held hostage, Indy dons the aforementioned brogue and poses as a Scottish lord attending the castle to view its tapestries. Growing impatient, Scottish Indy asks if he is indeed in the right place. “This is a castle and we have many tapestries,” replies the unimpressed butler, “but if you are a Scottish Lord then I am Mickey Mouse!” Rumbled, Indy punches the poor fellow and so endeth the brief, but thrilling, adventures of Lord Clarence McDonald.

Jurassic Park/Pirates of the Caribbean
The connection here is found in a small exchange between John Hammond and Ian Malcolm. As his dream falls to pieces, Hammond insists that the Park’s problems are small bugs that can be easily ironed out. “All major theme parks have delays,” he says. “When they opened Disneyland in 1956, nothing worked!” “Yeah, but, John, if The Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.” comes Malcolm’s instant response. Much has been made of the link between Spielberg’s depiction of Hammond (which is a much softer, but much more interesting and complex take on the rather one-note villain of Michael Crichton’s book) and Spielberg himself, but this Hammond/Malcolm exchange also brings Disney into the mix. Along with questioning blockbusters, Jurassic Park explores everything about the escapist entertainment he and Disney represent – be it films, cartoons, merchandise, TV shows or theme parks. It isn’t a damning indictment, but it asks us to consider the ramifications of a cinematic landscape of pure entertainment, a landscape without social conscience. This fear is expressed perfectly in the scene between Hammond and Ellie Sattler, where Hammond tells the paleobotanist of his previous attempts at creating attractions as a rendition of the Jurassic Park theme is heard on the soundtrack. Played on xylophone, it’s simple, innocent and childlike. Tellingly, for both Spielberg and Disney, it sounds much like ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’.

Saving Private Ryan/Steamboat Willie
The Disney references take a darker turn in Saving Private Ryan when a German soldier makes reference to Mickey Mouse’s debut, Steamboat Willie. The soldier has been captured by Captain Miller and his men, but the firefight has resulted in the death of the company’s medic, Wade. The other men are furious, and looking for revenge demand that the German (known only as Steamboat Willie in the credits) be killed. Translator Upham defends the soldier, and they strike up something of a friendship, sharing a cigarette which leads to a mention of the Mickey Mouse cartoon. As the company return, Willie mentions more American icons, including Betty Boop and Betty Grable, in a desperate bid to persuade them to spare his life. Thanks to Upham’s intervention they do, but later in the film, Willie is seen again and fires the bullet the fatally wounds Miller. Angry at this hideous twist of fate, Upham kills Willie, completing a turn into violence and darkness for the previously innocent young man. Previously open to to debate and negotiation, Upham has been corrupted by war and the cultural references that once bound he and Willie together have been lost in a haze that’s visually echoed by the murk and blur Spielberg uses to frame Upham in this scene.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence/Pinocchio
Like the Peter Pan reference in E.T., it’s difficult to tell whether this is a connection to the original story or the Disney adaptation, but either way I really couldn’t leave it off this list. A.I. doesn’t simply reference Pinocchio, it’s a direct adaptation that trades on the Disney film’s sense of warmth and comfort by depicting a world almost entirely free of those things. This is a dark and unsettling film, one that questions hope, wonder and fantasy, along with our responsibility to the things we create. It is, as far as I can tell, the last of Spielberg’s Disney references, and it’s a fitting one to end on. A.I. dismantles the Disney myth thoroughly, but gives us just enough ambiguity to help us understands its significance.

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