The German version of the review can be found here. / Die deutschsprachige Version der Rezension finden Sie hier.


The On Disney anthology, edited by Ute Dettmar and Ingrid Tomkowiak, is the ninth volume of Studies zu Kinder- und Jugendliteratur und -medien, an academic book series that investigates inter- and transmedial networks in youth culture. Previous volumes include anthologies on the intersection between children’s media and urban culture, oral and written storytelling, memory, and politics, and monographs addressing spatial and poetic aspects of children’s literature. Consistent with the series’ focus on media, On Disney embraces the transcultural and transmedial impulse of Disney, interrogating how stories (adaptations, remakes, and originals) have been re-visited and adjusted by the company over the decades. As such, the volume adds to a substantial body of academic research intent on untangling Disney’s multifaceted media presence, with a particular focus on current political discourse and Disney’s negotiation of European culture.

The fifteen essays of On Disney are organised into five thematic chapters. The first three chapters, “Human-Human and Human-Animal Relations”, “Gender and Diversity”, and “Aspects of Cultural Heritage”, critically reflect on Disney’s strategies to represent a range of identities, cultures, and bodies on-screen. Contributions to these chapters are primarily concerned with visual media – Disney’s animated and live-action feature films and documentaries – but these cinematic analyses are situated within a varied web of sources including posters, novels, theme park projects, press releases, musical scores, mythology, and charitable organisations. Chapter four, “Iconic Characters and Narratives”, groups together three essays that document the configuration of recognisable characters: dancing skeletons, Robin Hood, and Captain Jack Sparrow. The fifth and final chapter, “Immersive Experience, Reflexive Engagement”, examines how Disney fans have opportunities to participate through sensory and performative channels. 


Ingrid Tomkowiak and Christine Lötscher’s essays in Chapter One offer complementary perspectives on how sentimental animal characters in Disney can reflect human-animal relations in the real world. In “Happy Pictures? Disney’s Dumbo Films and the Entertainment Industry”, Tomkowiak compares how the intersectional identity of the elephant protagonist, Dumbo, “as a child, as an animal and as a disabled person” (p. 5), is constructed differently within the 1941 cel-animated (i.e., hand-drawn) film, and Tim Burton’s 2019 live-action remake of Dumbo. Lötscher’s essay, “Animal Bodies, Human Voices, and the Big Entanglement. Disneynature’s Documentary Series”, analyses the oft-overlooked Disneynature films that combine footage of animals with humorous coming-of-age stories, typical of Disney’s animated films. In both essays, it is satisfying to learn how Disney’s anthropomorphic animals invite engagement with contemporary politics, such as PETAs animal-conscious recommendations for the ending of the Dumbo remake, and the impact of Disneynature’s annual conservation campaigns.

Chapter Two, the largest section, contains five essays that explore Disney’s representation of race, gender and diversity in animated and live action films released from 1989 onwards. In “Curtailment in Mermaid Lore. Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989)”, Lies Wesseling evaluates the narrative restrictions Disney places on the potentially binary-breaking mythical figure of the mermaid, noting how “the literary tomboy trope” (p. 47) assigned to Ariel falls short of disrupting hierarchies. Yvonne Festl explores how the shifting visual design of characters in Mulan communicates the constructedness of gender in “’Be a Man’. Gender and Body in Disney’s Mulan (1998)”, whilst Sara Van den Bossche exposes the antifeminist, and later postfeminist, construction of Princess Jasmine in the animated film and live-action remake in “Walking the Line. A Feminist Reading of Gendered Orientations and Voice in Disney’s Aladdin Films (1992/2019)”. All three essays clearly address how Disney frequently forefronts gender roles, and gendered bodies, to complicate and disrupt, if not entirely overhaul, patriarchal ideologies recognisable in its early work.

Claudia Sackl investigates Disney’s representational strategies in relation to Black characters in three twenty-first century films in “Screening Blackness. Controversial Visibilities of Race in Disney’s Fairy Tale Adaptations”. In light of the social media response to African American actress Halle Bailey’s casting as Ariel in the 2023 live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, Sackl’s nuanced reflections on how “emergent visibilities of race” (p. 82) in Disney films are a “result from a complex, multi-layered convergence between reality and imagination caught between online participatory culture and corporate fan service, fan activism and conservative backlash” (ibid), are timely. To close the chapter, Ute Dettmar’s essay “From E.T.A. Hoffmann to Disney. Figurations of the Nutcracker in Changing Media and Culture” explores “aspects of adaptation, cultural hybridisation, and Intermediality in Disney’s treatment of its explicitly credited sources” (p. 99) in a study of how elements from Hoffmann’s fairytale and Tchaikovsky’s ballet were embedded in Disney’s big-budget, fantasy extravaganza, coming-of-age film The Nutcracker and The Four Realms (2014). Whilst “evidently intended as a story of female empowerment” (p.106), Dettmar reveals how Disney continues to rely on “a tried-and-true image strategy” that “negotiates gender and diversity without fundamentally recoding them” (p. 108).

Chapter Three consists of two essays on European cultural heritage. In a most original piece, “Walt O’Disney and the Little People. Playing to the Irish-American Diaspora”, Emer O’Sullivan examines how Irishness was performed on-screen, and “staged (and sold) in the paratextual material” (p. 118) of Disney’s live-action family film Darby O’Gill and The Little People (1959). O’Sullivan’s exploration of Walt Disney’s unsuccessful attempts to sell the film as “an original, genuine Irish article” (p. 127) by exploiting his diasporic Irish American identity and producing a fictionalised ‘making of’ documentary in which his team caught a ‘real’ leprechaun for their film is truly eye-opening. Ludger Scherer contributes “From the Old World. Disney’s Transformation of European Cultural Heritage in Fantasia (1940)”; a detailed account of how a “hecatomb of collaborators” (p. 134) – story directors, artists, composers, conductors - merged classical European music, Greco-Roman myths, and art styles to create Fantasia (1940). The result, Scherer rightly observes, is an ambiguously erotic patchwork of episodes which dance the line between “intercultural exchange and cultural hegemony” (p. 151).

The three essays that complete Chapter Four spotlight iconic characters within the Disney franchise. Julia Benner’s essay, “Music in Their Bones. Play, Music and Materiality in Disney’s Dancing Skeleton Films”, explores how the five Disney skeleton films, released between 1929 and 2017, can be read as meta-cinematic, “filmic palimpsests” (p. 155), containing parodic layers of folklore, festivals, toys, and music. Benner succeeds in tracing the subtle cultural shifts that occurred between films, which contributed to the transformation of the living skeleton from an assemblage of musical bones in The Skeleton Dance (1929), to a pop star celebrity figure in Coco (2017). Anika Ullmann approaches Disney’s Americanisation of the Robin Hood myth as a “conservative political-economic fable” (p. 173) in “’Taxing the Heart and Soul out of the People’. Disney’s Robin Hood (1973) as Conservative Fable”. Ullmann demonstrates how poverty in the animated film is portrayed as an effect of taxation, not a precondition, and, as such, “Robin the fox does not steal from the rich and give to the poor, he steals from the rich and gives back to the momentarily poor” (p. 178) who were once rich. Robin the fox, Ullman argues, is “the quintessential Disneyesque hero” (p. 182): a temporarily reactionary, rather than a revolutionary, figure. Aleta-Amirée von Holzen explores the features of another Disney hero in “Jack Sparrow – the Ultimate Adventurer”, which provides a close reading of Johnny Depp’s pirate character in the Pirates of the Caribbean (2003, 2006, 2007, 2011, 2017) film series. Von Holzen draws upon Georg Simmel’s philosophical concept of ‘the adventurer’ to recognise Jack as a postmodern, binary-breaking, hero who is “adventure personified” (p. 195). 

The final section, Chapter Five, decisively moves away from analyses of on-screen media, and towards immersive products that encourage active, reflexive fan participation. “From Anaheim to Batuu. Fan Tourism and Disney’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge as Transmedia Playground” by Lincoln Geraghty details the plethora of ways that fans who visit the Star Wars themed area, found at two Disney resorts in the states, can “not just imagine the Star Wars storyworld, they can live it and return home with a part of it thanks to the merchandise and memories collected whilst in that space” (p. 204). By repositioning the fan as both flâneur and fan tourist, Geraghty emphasises the performative act of being on site, including eating and drinking themed refreshments, play-acting characters, exploring the “old city” (p. 207), and participating in imagineered rides. Natalie Borsy provides fresh insight into how Disney is metaphorically, and literally, consumed via an unusual group of Disney texts in her essay, “Consuming Disney. Image Cultivation, Indoctrination and Immersive Transmedia Storytelling in Disney Cookbooks”. Accompanied by delectable images of food and drink, such as the Dagobah Slug Slinger drink from The Official Blackspire Outpost Cookbook (2019), Borsy approaches the Disney cookbook from a multitude of angles, including artistic design, multi-generational appeal, licensing, fan participation, and, most intriguingly, the ways in which “food functions as an adaptation of Disney’s stories” (p. 222). For the final essay of the On Disney volume, Anna Sparrman considers the influence of Disneyland’s Main Street in an amusement park called Liseberg, in her essay “The Social Aesthetics of Family Space. The Visual Heritage of Disney in a Swedish Amusement Park”. Sparrman’s self-reflections on her methodological journey offer insight into how researchers might approach the Disney phenomena in a way that avoids prejudice and pure critique, instead seeking a mode that is “suggestive in nature rather than argumentative” (p. 245).


As this volume demonstrates, there are many vibrant examples within Disney’s decades-long catalogue that expose tensions between the changing aesthetics and the ideology of its products across media. Though the contributions in On Disney cover a wide range of films and their media influences, I would have liked to see essays on a broader scope of interactive media forms included in the collection, as touched upon in Chapter Five. Reflections on the deconstruction of images, tropes and narratives in, for instance, the design of Disney merchandise and theatrical productions, or within Disney’s educational resources and programmes, may have helped to illuminate the variety of inter- and transmedia channels by which Disney attempts to publicly engage with current discourses. The company has an undeniable, nostalgia-infused, intergenerational popularity, but its critical reputation as a capitalist behemoth that Americanises European culture, and is inscribed with conservative values, complicates how images, tropes and narratives are constructed and perceived. Refreshingly, contributions to this volume resist the impulse to simplify this tension by entirely villainising or idolising The Disney Company, and instead work to unravel the complexities of creating and consuming media in a changing world.


Titel: On Disney: Deconstructing Images, Tropes and Narratives
  • Name: Ute Dettmar
  • Name: Ingrid Tomkowiak
Erscheinungsort: Berlin, Heidelberg
Erscheinungsjahr: 2022
Verlag: J. B. Metzler
ISBN-13: 978-3-662-64624-3
Seitenzahl: 247
Preis: 90.94€
The book information on the editors, Ute Dettmar and Ingrid Tomkowiak, the book title, On Disney: Deconstructing Images, Tropes and Narratives, and the publisher, J. B. Metzler, are shown against a red background. The upper third of the picture is taken up by an image of a cup carousel with people.