Post #29: Something Old, Something New: Disney’s Aesthetic of the Past

Post #29: Something Old, Something New: Disney’s Aesthetic of the Past

In keeping with the Disney cinematic tradition, the 1997 animated film Hercules features several songs. At roughly the midway point, Hercules’ love interest Meg laments the fact that she’s fallen in love with her mark in the song “I Won’t Say I’m In Love.” The Muses, the sassy narrators of the film, provide backing vocals for Meg. At one point Meg walks past the Muses, who’ve transformed into anthropomorphic columns holding up a triangular pediment. This alludes to the Erechtheum, a late fifth-century BC temple on the Athenian acropolis right next to the Parthenon, which features the so-called Caryatid porch, with columns carved into the shapes of maidens (see figure 1). Disney’s choice of the Muses as symbols of classical antiquity is perfect considering that in ancient Greece and in Rome, poets often invoked the goddesses at the start of their compositions for inspiration.

Figure 1: The Muses-cum-Caryatids appear on the left, with the source of the allusion, the Erechtheum’s Caryatid Porch, on the right.

Figure 1: The Muses-cum-Caryatids appear on the left, with the source of the allusion, the Erechtheum’s Caryatid Porch, on the right.

Take, for instance, the first line of Homer’s Odyssey: “Tell me, Muse, about the man of many turns…”). Indeed, as the narrator of Homer’s Iliad asserts in Book 2, without the Muses, mortal artists are nothing: “Tell me now, you Muses who have homes on Mount Olympus: / For you are ever-present goddesses who know everything, / While we mortals hear only distant reports and know nothing at all.” Disney’s Muses channel their ancient predecessors at the beginning of Hercules: “We are the Muses, goddesses of the arts and proclaimers of heroes,” one of them explains, to which another adds, “Heroes like Hercules.” A third: “Honey, you mean Hunkules. Woo-oh, I’d like to make some sweet music in his--” This second Muse reminds us that Disney’s Muses are both embodiments of the ancient Greek past as well as the audience’s present. Both frames are on display in “I Won’t Say I’m in Love”: the Muses transform themselves into recognizable elements of ancient Greek/Roman/neoclassical items, but their singing might be roughly classified as R&B or gospel, replete with multi-colored stage lights.

Figure 2: The Muses as five busts in Disney’s Hercules.

Figure 2: The Muses as five busts in Disney’s Hercules.

Figure 3: On the left is a row of typical Roman busts in the Vatican Museum. On the right is a typical neoclassical piece, with a bust of Julius Caesar sitting atop a column. The latter was created in the 1950s.

Figure 3: On the left is a row of typical Roman busts in the Vatican Museum. On the right is a typical neoclassical piece, with a bust of Julius Caesar sitting atop a column. The latter was created in the 1950s.

In the same song, the Muses appear as a series of singing busts on pedestals (see figure 2). Disney is making another reference to ancient material culture here: these pieces are modeled after the portrait busts that ancient Rome made of famous individuals as well as the practice of neoclassical busts (see figure 3). There’s a more immediate (and more modern) reference for this, however, as the second bust to the left makes clear. The head has broken off and is held by an arm sticking out from the torso. This detail bears a striking resemblance to another famous broken bust in Disney history. In the Haunted Mansion attraction at Disneyland, Disneyworld’s Magic Kingdom, and Disneyland Tokyo, riders traveling through the mansion’s graveyard are similarly greeted by five busts positioned on columns (and the second one is broken; see figure 4). These busts, with moving images projected onto their faces, sing like the Muses, but rather than being backing vocals for “Don’t Say I’m in Love,” they perform the Haunted Mansion theme “Grim Grinning Ghosts.”

Figure 4: The five singing busts in the graveyard of Disney’s Haunted Mansion attraction.

Figure 4: The five singing busts in the graveyard of Disney’s Haunted Mansion attraction.

On the one hand this is a sly wink to knowledgeable audience members who recognize this allusion to Disney history. On the other, this brief image serves to incorporate Disney into the ancient Greek setting of Hercules. This mashing together of past and present derives from an aesthetic of the Disney theme parks: “something old, something new.” When a new attraction is built, inevitably on the grounds of an old one (since space is at a premium), the Imagineers (Disney’s term for ride engineers) are encouraged to incorporate an element or elements from the previous attraction. For instance, the Splash Mountain log ride, built in 1991, took the place of America Sings, a performance hall in which guests were regaled by melodic animatronic animals that was built in 1974. Some of America Sing’s animatronics appear almost unchanged in the various scenes of Splash Mountain (see figure 5), and the “skeletons” of others were used as the G2 droids that appear in the queue of ‘Star Tours’ (built in 1986). This aesthetic creates a time loop, melding the past with the present and ensuring that at Disneyland only the present moment exists.

Figure 5: On the left are geese characters from Disneyland’s shuttered America Sings attraction. On the right, those same animatronics now appear in Disneyland’s Splash Mountain.

Figure 5: On the left are geese characters from Disneyland’s shuttered America Sings attraction. On the right, those same animatronics now appear in Disneyland’s Splash Mountain.

The Muses of Disney’s Hercules represent both the classical/neoclassical tradition and the Disney tradition. Their appearance and character has already been put into a contemporary idiom--their modern style of music, dancing, speech patterns, and so on--but the visual reference to Disney’s The Haunted Mansion attraction situates them, and by extension ‘Hercules’ as a whole, in Disney history. The Haunted Mansion was created specifically for Disney and first opened in 1969 in Disneyland. By having the Muses refer back to this moment, then, the ancient Greek past of Hercules is assimilated into Disney’s past, an instance of “something old” incorporated into “something new.”

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