[5 February 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s time to stop hatin’ on Disney - not that they don’t still deserve a little manufactured wholesomeness dissing. Critics clamor over the retread sequelizing of classic titles, the cookie cutter entertainment options, and the long dead aesthetic of the corporate namesake, and still the House of Mouse thrives. Hot on the heels of the smash hit concert tour, Hannah Montana - aka Achy Breaky offspring Miley Cyrus, has broken box office records with the 3-D version of her syrup-strapped stage show, and everyone’s favorite organized opportunist couldn’t be happier. As a matter of fact, Disney has announced an extended theatrical run for the film, hoping to milk that cacophonous cash cow for all its pre-adolescent worth.
Now granted, there is nothing inherently wrong with what Montana/Cyrus represents. It’s yet another in a long line of tide pooling cultural waves, generational substrata that see certain heretofore unknown quantities leap up and grasp the pre-tween constituency. It represents the untenable trending, the post-Popcorn Report’s inability to gauge the ga-ga factor in the Double-O demo. Certainly, if someone could forecast which underage family fodder becomes the next Tickle Me Elmo, Drake Bell and Josh Peck would be on their fifth franchise effort. Kids are fickle, however, and they tend to run with the herd. Tell them that a brain addled bumpkin with limited life skills is the second coming of pop artistry, and it’s Britney/Hilary all over again.
So, naturally, we cast aspersion on the younger generation, wondering how cultural phenoms could go from the Beatles to the Backstreet Boys in 30 short years. Social fashions are gauged, the talent temperature is taken, and predictions are prepared. Then, seemingly out of the ether, an unfamiliar quantity grasps the short attention span of kid nation and a new fad is formed. Companies rush to capitalize, entertainment show tongues wag, and in the end, no one knows nothing, William Goldman style. Like any good social surfer, the entity rides the crest, establishes their potential staying power (or lack thereof) and then goes the way of the Big Kahuna, leaving room for the next mainstream mindboggler.
There’s another element here that’s equally aggressive, a facet that longs to see this latest bandwagon dismantled, burnt, and buried in salted earth so that it never has reason to reinvent or revive its fortunes. The aesthetic watchdogs, the so called connoisseurs who believe that opinion is fact and individual taste is a matter of group determination wince at the very suggestion that something like Hannah Montana is worthy of such acclaim. To them, it’s a creative Rapture, a moment when art is usurped by artifice to raise the routine and the redolent from the genre grave. It doesn’t matter if the no-frill filler makes millions of underdeveloped music lovers ecstatic - scholarship demands its intellectual pound of flesh, and there’s lots of pubescent baby fat to go around.
But why blame the audience for the blanding of the medium when the true culprit is so bloody obvious - and remember, Disney is just responding to some already present fiscal wind. No, the true adversaries in this nightmare of nonthreatening-ness are parents - specifically the generation of guardians who grew up in the ‘70s. For them, Uncle Walt and his old world pen and ink iconography represented the purest panacea to a disco and drugged-out decade overflowing with bad vibes and even worse entertainment options. Thanks to the rerelease boycotts on all their famous films, the full length animated features the company counted on to continue their legacy became the pot of gold at the end of the lineage leprechaun’s rainbow. Now, three decades later, they command that their own progeny bathe in the warm, overworked glow of the new creative order that’s learned to capitalize on - and cannibalize - its past.
You see, Disney actually lives by the motto forwarded in the classic I’m No Fool shorts series. As little Jiminy Cricket crooned, “they play safe for you and me.” The basic formula is this - if it made money before, it will make money again. The amount is usually determined less by the quality and the peeked sense of proprietary nostalgia. When home video came along, the House of Mouse protected it’s product like a mother badger sensing a coyote. This made Moms and Dads dismiss the Ten Commandments and covet the Hell out of the rapidly OOP videotapes (and later, DVDs). They needed them for two very important reasons. One, they represented the high end of kid vid oriented amusement. Unlike the infomercial-esque Saturday morning fare, which tended to hide its charms in mechanical cartooning and lax production value, Mickey had a patina of quality.
The second element was even more important - it held the wee ones in rapt attention. Compared to the crap pouring out of the boob tube, the gorgeous drawings and backdrops that Disney excelled at gave children their first taste of true eye candy - and their sugar addicted brains drank it up. As more and more titles became available, the suits suggested extended the more popular series. While recent policy changes have put the kibosh on such direct-to-video revamps, the company learned a valuable lesson: the more you give the world weary adult and their biological responsibilities, the greater the returns…and the need…and the vicious cycle.
Now, there’s the Disney Channel. Instead of having to put in a disc or fire up some aging technology, you can hit the remote and soak your soul in 24/7 House of Mouse fodder. It’s all there - the old cartoons, the new revisions, the original programs, and the trends in progress. Hannah Montana’s rise to record returns is a subject left for another time, another place. After all, little girls like to think in lockstep with one another, and too many careers can be chalked up to such a mob mentality. But the true culprit remains the parent, the people who can’t say “NO”, the individuals who substitute prescriptions for discipline and wish fulfillment for actual interpersonal connections.
After all, one misguided mom let her daughter submit a series of lies in essay form (including the death of a fictional father in Iraq) just to win tickets to Ms. Cyrus’ group hug. When confronted, she claimed innocence, then argued that her choice was not really fraud - it was a creative chance at making her demanding daughter happy. Better minds can dissect the ethics of said decision, but it points to the real problem. If adults were not willing to part with hundreds of their hard earned dollars to feed the need of kids who’ve achieved said want out of endless, unsupervised hours in front of the TV, there’d be no demand. Without demand, no mania. Without mania, no phenomenon. And without the phenomenon, no windfall.
Like the stereotypical miser rubbing his wrinkled hands together at the thought of another possible penny, Disney must love every controversial, craze-fueling second. Even the recent disclosure of a Hannah/Miley double (used to facilitate a costume change) did very little damage to the ever increasing cult. It’s no surprise then that the concert film cleaned up at the box office. Parents have been preparing their kids to be such consumers since the minute they flicked on the flat screen. Without a buffer for what the House of Mouse is putting across (there are dozens of ads each day for the movie, including song-long clips to get the toes - and wallets - tapping), without some manner of matured wisdom to wipe the panic away from the apparent peer pressure of being outside the Cyrus loop, the benevolent brainwashing will continue - unabated and undeterred.
So don’t be surprised if Hannah Montana and her safe as sugared sunshine music make a second big weekend splash at the box office. Even with the ‘had to be their first’ crowd over and done with it, the buzz is still loud enough to draw in the fringe and the merely curious. Nothing stimulates sales like a high profile, and it doesn’t look like the media mushroom cloud is going to die down anytime soon. But there has to be a constituency for every hard sell shilling, and Mothers and Fathers around the country have created the perfect, unfiltered sponge to absorb it all. Call it tradition or trickery, but Disney is more than happy to play along. They may have started it all, but someone else keeps the coffers overflowing. After all, very few children have that kind of disposable income. Too bad their parents don’t have as much disposable time.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/hannah-hosanna/