News Archives: "The Spirit of Youth" Editorial by Merlin Jones

Originally published on, July 8, 2004; Archived July 17, 2005.
Reprinted with permission.

The Spirit of Youth
By Merlin Jones

Walt Disney's ability to connect with audiences of all ages is celebrated. While Walt objected to intellectual interpretation of his work, he was clear in attributing one constant to the success of Disney entertainment: a child's point-of-view.

"I do not make films primarily for children. I make them for the child in all of us, whether he be six or sixty. Call the child innocence. The worst of us is not without innocence, although buried deeply it might be. In my work I try to reach and speak to that innocence, showing it the fun and joy of living; showing it that laughter is healthy; showing it that the human species, although happily ridiculous at times, is still reaching for the stars."

"I do not make pictures for children, at least not just for children. I won't play down to them. Too many people grow up. That's the real trouble with the world, too many people grow up. They forget. They don't remember what it's like to be 12 years old."

"People who have worked with me say I am 'innocence in action.' They say I have the innocence and unself-consciousness of a child. Maybe I have. I still look at the world with uncontaminated wonder, and with all living things I have a terrific sympathy."

"The American child is a highly intelligent human being - characteristically sensitive, humorous, open-minded, eager to learn, and has a strong sense of excitement, energy and healthy curiosity about the world in which he lives. Lucky indeed is the grownup who manages to carry these same characteristics over into his adult life. It usually makes for a happy and successful individual."

"Why do we have to grow up? I know more adults who have the children's approach to life. They're people who don't give a hang what the Joneses do. You see them at Disneyland every time you go there. They are not afraid to be delighted with simple pleasures, and they have a degree of contentment with what life has brought - sometimes it isn't much either."

Indeed, while Walt Disney's body of work covered a wide range of ideas and genres, he memorably returned to this theme time and again in some of his most successful pictures. In these films, a cold, distant adult is reawakened to life's joys and possibilities by the unfettered Spirit of Youth.

Peter Pan, Song of the South, Pollyanna, The Three Lives of Thomasina, and, perhaps most memorably, Mary Poppins, all center on the concept of a distant parental figure lost in the trappings of adult society; ...propriety, power, marital problems, mourning, regret, politics, business, money... all of these "grownup" concerns were shown to distract from the pure, joyful innocence and simplicity of a child's point-of-view.

In a way, this can be viewed as the root Disney theme from which so many others grow: children in their purity are wiser and more in tune with the natural world than their distracted elders, who have committed their defenses so heavily toward constructs of the ego that they are unwilling or unable to admit their view of the world isn't working.

A rigid dogma of rules for "sensible" behavior has been constructed in the minds of these narrowly focused adult characters, often influenced by their peers and social standing. Naivety, imagination, play, stories, dreams, eccentricities, optimism, humor - all are railed against by the cold parent as impracticality, poppycock, nonsense, silliness - a waste of time in a world filled with hard facts and the necessity of securing money, power, status and emotional self-protection.

Unlike Disney's symbolic fairytale villains which embody the young protagonist's innermost fears and demons, these parental antagonists are not "evil," they are simply misguided - blind to what is most important to their own well-being. These "cold fish" serve as a warning of what we could become if we buy into external pressures, losing touch with our true selves.

An old cliché paints the character type best: "He knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing." - or as Mary Poppins puts it, "Sometimes a person we love, through no fault of his own, can't see past the end of his nose."

This was a very personal issue to Walt Disney, who had just such a relationship with his own father Elias.

In "Walt Disney; An American Original," biographer Bob Thomas relates, "Elias Disney could not understand his son's fascination with the entertainment world, nor did he sympathize with Walt's ambition to be a cartoonist. But he agreed to pay for the boy's correspondence courses in art - as long as Walt contributed to the family income."

Steven Watts, author of "The Magic Kingdom; Walt Disney and the American Way of Life" concurs:

"Elias, a man of stern temperament, had clashed with all of his sons in their younger days and his relationship with his youngest boy had been especially difficult. Their confrontations were partly a matter of divergent personalities, but also partly a matter of historical and cultural change. The dour, demanding father simply talked a different language from his vivacious, creative son."

"Walt's encounter with his father's rigid moral and political principles triggered a highly ambivalent response. Full of love and resentment in equal proportions, eager both to please and to escape Elias, the sensitive boy developed a deep-seated tension over paternal authority. In almost a literal sense, it haunted him."

"Over the long term, Walt consciously pulled away from much of his father's cultural and political morality. His stern upbringing, for instance, caused him to relax in his own child-rearing practices. "It was a thing I never forgot. You just can't do that with children," he noted of his father's domineering ways. "I never discounted the intelligence in my kids... I talk to my kids... You know, people don't realize sometimes that a child has a lot of good reasoning, you know?"

In the films at hand, Walt's position (that of the frustrated child) is championed by a symbolic, sometimes magical, character who intervenes in the family conflict to set everything right. Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, Thomasina and Uncle Remus are not the protagonists of the stories named for them, but interlopers, tricksters, observers of the family struggle (Pollyanna serves as both protagonist and interventionist).

The Spirits of Youth are classic change agents... Genies young Walt might have wished for himself.

Tellingly, most of these stories resonated with Walt for years before he initiated the film adaptations.

Walt had seen J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan on stage as a child and was captivated by the performance, as he was by the 1924 silent film from Paramount, directed by Herbert Brenon (which the Disney Studio later bought, lock, stock and negative, to serve as a basis for the animated adaptation). Walt claimed that Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus stories were the first books he ever read on his own, and Eleanor H. Porter's Pollyanna was also a popular book during his childhood (and a hit 1920 film with Mary Pickford).

Years later, Walt's interest in Mary Poppins began with the sound of daughter Diane's laughter as she read P.L. Travers' book. Paul Gallico's novel Thomasina was a more contemporary extension of themes that had intrigued him since childhood.

However the subjects originally connected with Walt, one can surmise he found a bit of his own relationship with Elias in each of the antagonists:

"Oh, Mary... of all the impossible, childish fiddle faddle. Peter Pan indeed. How can we expect the children to grow up and be practical when you're as bad as they are? No wonder Wendy gets these idiotic ideas." —George Darling (Peter Pan)

"Mr. Darling was a practical man," preoccupied with the strict codes of Victorian society. His determination to create the proper appearance at a business dinner clashes with the disorderly imagination of eldest daughter Wendy in the soiling of his last clean shirt front, a false veneer used as a treasure map. To Mr. Darling (voiced by Hans Conreid), Wendy's stories of Peter Pan are incorrigible.

For Wendy's own good, for her future success as a Victorian wife and mother, these chaotic impulses must be harnessed by proper training as a lady. Dilemma: After a last night in the nursery, Wendy is to be re-educated away from childish dreams by her father's edict. But the dreamer, not ready to release the infinite possibilities of childhood - escapes into the fantasy, where her own father is represented by the obsessive Captain Hook, whose only goal is to destroy Peter Pan, the very Spirit of Youth.

In the course of the story, Wendy accepts that she must embrace "growing up", but she never loses her belief in the impossible, or Peter Pan. Like her Mother, she will retain that twinkle in her eye throughout life and pass it on to her own children. By virtue of her conviction, Wendy is able to give George a glimpse of his own childhood, a glimpse of hope for his future, represented by a ship in the clouds he had seen "a long time ago, when I was very young."

Due to the abbreviated narrative of the animated feature, the George Darling character arc plays out far more broadly than those in the live-action features we'll examine. But in this "practical man" we see the basic personality flaw of all the others. George has forgotten the dream, his field of vision has been narrowed. The problem can't be solved (or the family put right) until he remembers the existence of his inner child.

"Uncle Remus — I'm trying my best to bring up Johnny to be obedient and truthful. But you and your stories are making that very difficult. I think maybe it would be better if he didn't hear any more for awhile." —Miss Sally (Song of the South)

Miss Sally (Song of the South) is a bit more complex. Her husband, a reporter, is dedicated to his work to the exclusion of family. Mired in the trappings of class status and post-war politics, Sally (played by Ruth Warrick) has lost a vital connection to her youth. She has stopped laughing.

During a trial separation, Sally transfers her anger onto her son, Johnny. Access to puppies, friends — and especially the tales of Br'er Rabbit — seem trivial to Sally's very worldly problems. Out of frustration, she creates even more anxiety for her son by restraining his creative expression, choosing his friends, clothes and pets... forbidding the telling of tales.

In his innocence, Johnny has no hang-ups about class, race, politics - he only knows that Uncle Remus has opened a Technicolor pathway to imagination with his storytelling - a connection to a vivid world of relevant feelings and ideas outside of Miss Sally's preconceived notions. When Uncle Remus is forbidden to sidetrack Johnny with anymore of his stories, tragedy strikes as the boy tries to hang on to Uncle Remus and his dreams. It is only when the parents are confronted by the potential loss of their son do they realize what is truly important - finding their Laughing Place, the place they knew as children, the place they can share with Johnny as a family, together.

"Pollyanna. I think we ought to get one thing straight right now. I don't want you constantly quoting what your father used to say." —Polly Harrington (Pollyanna)

Polly Harrington (Pollyanna) is a woman possessed of wealth, power and influence — sharply focused on retaining and exercising domination over everything in her world. Rejected by a former lover, Polly (played by Jane Wyman) has shut down her emotions to become a control freak, bitterly pulling the strings in her community, congregation and household like a puppeteer, with no interest in the affect on the lives of others.

When an orphaned niece comes to live with her, Aunt Polly's wall is impenetrable. She particularly blocks out the quoted messages of hope from Pollyanna's father... what her niece calls The Glad Game. Instead, she encourages the local minister to demonize the citizens, demoralizing the entire community to ease her personal pain.

But as Pollyanna's relentless optimism begins to change her surroundings, Aunt Polly is made aware of her emotional deficit and iron hand. She can give everything but love.

Only when Polly's inner child is reconnected, is she able to use that hope to cope with a tragedy that has befallen her niece. As Polly opens to the possibilities of living and releases her control over the town, the sullen adults of Harrington are also awakened to Pollyanna's Glad Game. Pollyanna's bright spirit has saved their souls.

"About Thomasina... I had her put to sleep. There was nothing else I could do. Now try to understand, Mary." —Andrew MacDhui (The Three Lives of Thomasina)

In The Three Lives of Thomasina, Andrew MacDhui (played by Patrick McGoohan) is a widowed veterinarian unable to cope with grief. Stuck in a career he didn't choose, and having lost the love of his life, the skilled surgeon has closed off his emotional pathways. Andrew has become angry with God and nature - and turns his back on the animals to whom he could restore life, if he chose... and to the healing fantasy life of his own daughter.

Mary MacDhui is left to bond with her ginger cat, Thomasina, who becomes everything to the lonely child. Unable to see the pet's importance to a lonely little girl, and perhaps even a tad resentful of her importance in the household, MacDhui puts the cat "to sleep" after an accident, and by doing so, becomes dead to his own daughter. Though he rationalizes the situation, his actions come back to haunt him. "I can get her another cat, can't I? Well, can't I?" As the housekeeper responds, "For a clever man, you've an awful lot to learn."

Only when MacDhui's emotions are reawakened by a beautiful, spiritual "witch," who teaches him the value of the creatures he is entrusted with, does he discover the healing power of natural gifts VS intellectual reasoning. With this breakthrough, MacDhui is finally able to return the reincarnated cat to his daughter, thereby returning to life in her eyes as well. A new life begins, with all of them together.

"A British bank is run with precision,
A British home requires nothing less.
Tradition, discipline and rules,
Must be the tools.
Without them; disorder, chaos, moral disintegration...
In short you have a ghastly mess."

"The children must be molded shaped and taught,
That life's a looming battle to be faced and fought."

—George Banks (Mary Poppins)

Elements of all these misguided adults are embodied in George Banks of Mary Poppins (played by David Tomlinson). The film is considered somewhat of a career statement for Walt Disney, a culmination of the mediums, techniques, styles and messages used throughout 40 years of film-making... and it is here that Walt makes his definitive statement on the Spirit of Youth.

George Banks is a junior partner in the Dawes, Thomes, Mosely, Grubbs, Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. Every moment of his waking life is dedicated to achieving partner status. Whether in the presence of his wife and children or cannon fire, George's attention is somewhere else, preoccupied by the strictures and structures of the Bank, his personal emotional prison.

With a distant, cold father and a mother fixated on creating her own achievements as a suffragette, Jane and Michael Banks act out their abandonment frustration on a legion of nannies until the arrival of Mary Poppins. Mary Poppins is every bit the opposite of practical George Banks: She is pure youth and imagination, a spinner of fantasies, a rule-breaker, a chaotic force with no defined, predictable pattern. Like most artistic types, she is difficult to manage as an employee - in fact; she manages upward. Mary Poppins is a threat — not only to George Banks' control over his household, but to his job and entire worldview. She's a rebel against the system in a Spoonful of Sugar... Che Guevara with an umbrella.

George quickly determines to get rid of Mary Poppins, to put his world back in proper order. But Pandora's Box is already open. Mary's spirit has reignited and reordered the staff, the family... and now she sets her sights on the Bank.

Challenging the very core of the Bank's premise, Mary Poppins inspires the children that the best use of their tuppence is to Feed the Birds, not invest in an expansion of the British Empire. To George Banks, this is unthinkable heresy, even more so to the elder Mr. Dawes, Chairman of the Bank board. So preoccupied with the Bank's litany of investment opportunity, Dawes has not laughed in years (neither has Banks for that matter). His demand for the children's tuppence symbolizes a war for their very souls. As true avatars of Walt, the children refuse to give in to the system, holding tight to the dream. Now George Banks must choose as well... Will it be his children, his own inner child - or money, power, and the meaningless world of numbers offered by the Bank?

Along with Jane and Michael's childhood, George's time is running out. In a moment of desperation, George reconnects with his own Spirit of Youth via a simple, corny joke told by the children. Able to smile for the first time in years, childish laughter frees Banks from his own emotional cell and literally kills the elder Mr. Dawes (...who dies from laughing at the same joke).

It was a character moment from Walt's own history. Bob Thomas relates, "Walt compiled the jokes and tried the best ones out on his father. Elias listened to them without a smile. Two days later, he would remark straight-faced to his son, "You know, I've been thinking about that joke you told me, Walter. Funny, very funny."

"Feed the birds and what have you got? ...Fat birds!" —The Elder Mr. Dawes (Mary Poppins)

In Mary Poppins, Walt firmly paints money as the antithesis of creativity. Bankers VS. children. And yet the family business comes out for the better once George Banks sets his youthful spirit free by allowing himself to "Feed the Birds."
"Elias' ways also shaped Walt's view of money." writes Steven Watts, "In contrast to his father's nitrous tightness, he developed a more carefree attitude: money was simply something to use for more important ends. While Elias was reluctant to spend a nickel, Walt once revealed with a chuckle, "The funny thing is, I didn't inherit any of that thrift."

This eternal struggle would hang like the Sword of Damocles over Walt's own career, where finding and making money meant creative freedom, the means by which to dream, to build new things.

For an overgrown kid who built model trains in his yard, collected miniatures from around the world, and constructed detailed dioramas for fun and relaxation — money could fund higher pursuits — and create even larger moneymaking opportunities.

If Walt himself had settled for the rational, risk-averse path of Mr. Dawes or Elias Disney... Steamboat Willie, Snow White, Disneyland... everything that has come to define the Disney name would not have been realized. On paper, in the rational mind, these things never made sense — perhaps they still don't — and were in fact hotly advised against by cooler heads of finance. But in the natural world, these dreams — once realized — mesmerized audiences, made a fortune and a built an entertainment empire.

Historically, the more Walt horrified his bankers by reinvesting profits into seemingly impossible dreams, the more wealthy and powerful he became, the more the company grew and prospered, the greater the value came to the name "Walt Disney."

"Money is something I understand only vaguely, and think about it only when I don't have enough to finance my current enthusiasm, whatever it may be. All I know about money is I have to have it to do things. I don't want to bank my dividends, I'd rather keep my money working," Walt said, "When I make a profit, I don't squander it or hide it away; I immediately plow it back into a fresh project. I have little respect for money as such; I regard it merely as a medium for financing new ideas. I neither wish nor intend to amass a personal fortune. Money - or rather the lack of it to carry out my ideas - may worry me, but it does not excite me. Ideas excite me."

Disney Legend Ward Kimball observed, "If you want to know the real secret of Walt's success, it's that he never tried to make money. He was always trying to make something that he could have fun with or be proud of. He told me once, 'I plow back everything I make into the company. I look at it this way: If I can't use the money now, if I can't have fun with it, I'm not going to be able to take it with me.' That's the way he talked. That's the way he felt."

"Walt was really more concerned with the end result than money." Kimball continued, "If it made money, fine. He felt that if you put your heart into a project and if you were a perfectionist, people would automatically like it." They did.

"According to Ben Sharpsteen, while Disney realized that bankers made it possible to make movies, 'he never had any reverence for them.' When pressed to the wall by his bankers to keep down expenses, he would snap: 'I can't hire bookkeepers to draw pictures for me." writes Steven Watts.

While credit is due to Roy O. Disney for providing the shrewd eye, financial vision and solid structure to support Walt's ephemeral schemes, he was clearly devoted in support of the dreamer, the visionary. Roy's wisdom was to create a well-protected playpen for his younger brother — and then to stand back and watch him create.

In today's Disney Company, the Vision is being guided by clear-thinking strategic planners, marketers, statisticians, politicians, social engineers, accountants, and bankers... with the creatives as mere hired help.

Where once Spirits of Youth — animators, artists, storytellers, Imagineers, designers and futurists — contributed the guiding light to Disney's name and image, providing the very essence of the public perception of the company — now their laugher has grown silent, quashed by the practical crunching of numbers and the sensible questions of predetermined surveys (if not the ringing of a cash register).

Innovation has been replaced by templates, imagination by projections, inspiration by management structure.

Mary Poppins has been dismissed by the Walt Disney Company for creating an unseemly display of creative chaos and emotional resistance in the steely presence of MBA practicality. The system has choked out that Spoonful of Sugar.

"We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective." —Michael Eisner


It's not an allegorical stretch to say the Walt Disney Company is now run by the likes of George Darling, Polly Harrington, Miss Sally, Andrew MacDhui and George Banks. Animators have had their last night in the nursery, fairy tales have been forbidden, audiences have been ordered to grow up, cast-members are never to quote what Walt used to say, the storytellers have been sent away, the old rides and films have been put to sleep and your tuppence will never be used to Feed the Birds.

I'm sure it's all very sensible on a spreadsheet. But we kids don't like it — and refuse to give up the dream.

...And it's no wonder that this Disney "family" is in chaos.

Meanwhile, the Spirit of Youth enlivens PIXAR with goodwill from audiences worldwide, hungry for the childish Disney experience that the Company itself now refuses to produce. So customers have found their Laughing Place in Emeryville instead of Burbank, Anaheim and Orlando and taken their disposable income with them.

But the rational eyes of Disney management are unwilling or unable to see the message at the end of their noses.

To our chagrin, in real life there are no magical nannies to pop in and set things right. But hope springs eternal that the winds will change and that ship will once again fly across the moon, triggering memories that even strategic planners must have seen a long time ago, when they were very young.

"If all the world thought and acted like children, we'd never have any trouble. The only pity is even kids have to grow up." —Walt Disney

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