A Spoonful of Sugar

Every now and then, as you're digging around trying to find some old tax papers in all those boxes crammed into your garage, you'll stumble across some forgotten but potent artifact from your childhood. It could be the teddy bear you carried everywhere when you were 5; it could be the Star Wars lunch box that mysteriously vanished when you were 6; it could be some Popsicle-stick dragon you made when you were 7. But suddenly, after all these years, there it is again, an echo from what feels like another lifetime. It inspires such a strange and bittersweet rush of emotions. You tell yourself you should just toss this silly thing back on the pile of moldy old Van Halen T-shirts and get back to what you were doing, but instead you find yourself taking a long, hard look at your life, who you were the last time you saw this thing and who you've become since then.

In the heart of Disneyland—past Tomorrowland's revamp of the Nautilus submarine ride into that Little Nemo atrocity, over to New Orleans Square and ThePirates of the Caribbean (currently featuring the intrusive presence of an animatronic Johnny Depp), up a flight of stairs and into the Disneyland Gallery—you will find an attic overflowing with forgotten relics from your childhood. The “Storybook Memories” exhibit showcases the art of Disney's Little Golden Books, wonderful space-age illustrations from Alice in Wonderland, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, and more besides. These books were published and republished, adored by literally generations of kids. Maybe you don't remember having these books when you were little, but trust me: You did.

The art in these books deviates quite a bit from the look of the actual films; much of it has more in common with the arch, retro charm of longtime Disney production designer Mary Blair, whose work has attracted an avid cult following of its own in recent years. The Cinderella seen in this exhibit is less the willowy, elegant blonde of the film and more of a fun, funky little cartoon babe—less Princess Grace and more Judy Jetson. “Snazzy” is hardly the word that comes to mind when one thinks of the great Disney films, but it's unavoidable here. The Golden Book version of Alice's Mad Tea Party is positively snazz-tastic. The style is simple yet painterly, angular yet as welcoming as a security blanket. These are beautiful books.

Looking at these classic, fairytale images today, they could hardly be more anachronistic. In the age of Shrek, when everybody's a wiseguy and irony has become crushingly ubiquitous even in our children's stories, it's downright bizarre to see all of this A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes stuff presented with such sparkling sincerity. All those aspiring princesses pining for a better tomorrow while sweet little birdies twitter around them, the stalwart princes facing down fire-breathing dragons, the towering castles and dark forests full of twisty trees . . . didn't people back then see how hopelessly corny this stuff was? Well, no, they didn't. And neither did you, until a bunch of embittered Gen-X'ers got a hold of pop culture and sold you the lie that flashy and snarky are better than lovingly handmade and, well . . . hopelessly corny.

At some point, somebody at Disney decided the public was sick of old-fashioned fairy tales. It's puzzling why they decided this—the studio's last old-school fairy tale was Beauty and the Beast, after all, and that made more cash than you could stuff into Scrooge McDuck's vault. Today's cartoons are mostly tiresome CGI things about wisecracking animals. They arrive market-tested within an inch of their lives, the characters tweaked to reflect trendy demographic groups, tie-in deals signed with Burger King, Crest Toothpaste and Massengill's Medicated Douche. Every so often, something fun does slip through. But are today's kids going to get misty-eyed decades hence, when they're digging through their closets and stumble across an old Monsters, Inc. Thermos?

Walk through Disneyland today, and you pay sad witness to the park's old charms being buried, bit by bit, beneath tons of corporate crap. But there, hidden away in a little gallery you'd probably never notice if you didn't know to look for it, is a reminder of the days when Disney was magical. Disney is hardly overpublicizing this show—they're giving much more attention to “Inspired by Disneyland,” a somewhat woebegone affair featuring a lot of paintings of Minnie Mouse as the Mona Lisa and all that. The Disneyland Gallery's “cast members” say the “Storybook Memories” show should be running for at least another few weeks, but it could come down at any time. So go, now. Don't just toss this one back on the pile of moldy old Van Halen T-shirts.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *