Losing Mickey

"Disney needs to avoid getting lost in translation, an especially difficult proposition in China. It is a deeply American brand trying to break into a country where the government wants to suppress Western ideals." --How China Won the Keys to Disney's Magic Kingdom, The New York Times, June 14, 2016


I'm conflicted. Disney-Pixar's Finding Dory, sequel to the popular, lovable Finding Nemo, came out this week. I'd like to see it. But as Shanghai Disney opened last Thursday, I had to wonder: does the Disney brand deserve my monetary support? Does it deserve yours? What did Jiminy Cricket used to say? "Always let your conscience be your guide." Sorry, Jiminy. My conscience is confused.

I shouldn't be surprised. Label-reading over the past five years had already made me cynical about Disney's supposedly all-American brand. I'd say 99.99 percent of the company's merchandise--every Mickey and Minnie, Elsa and Anna, T-shirt and bit and bauble--is manufactured elsewhere; mostly in China. An argument could be made that for decades now, Disney's been China's, not ours; that Shanghai Disney's the next logical step. Why, more than 330 million people live within easy reach of the new theme park. How could any sane multinational corporation resist that potential gold mine? Jiminy Cricket be damned. Magic Kingdom, meet Middle Kingdom. Mickey, meet Mao. Walt, meet your new partners in the Carousel of Progress.

And so it came to pass that back in 2011, as we tossed and turned over our Great Recession, Disney and an increasingly aggressive communist China broke ground on the $5.5 billion resort. Under the terms of the agreement, The New York Times reports, state-owned Shanghai Shendi Group won an astounding 57 percent stake in the resort, including "revenue from hotels, restaurants and merchandise sold on the grounds." Disney Chairman and CEO Robert Iger (2015 compensation: $46.5 million) gushed: “This is a defining moment in our company’s history."

Yeah, Bob, I'd have to agree. Definitely a defining moment. In Shanghai, under your leadership, Disney's formerly American--and yes, fun and silly--narrative will undergo a kind of ethnic cleansing. "Worried that importing classic rides would reek of cultural imperialism," The New York Times continues, "Disney left out stalwarts such as Space Mountain, the Jungle Cruise and It’s a Small World...a move that pleased executives at the company’s Chinese partner...Disney is going to extraordinary lengths to prove its commitment to China and the Communist Party." Um, okay. No hokey Jungle Cruise? No really bad jokes? No childlike global characters singing that song you can't get out of your head for the rest of the day? Stop the world, I want to get off.

Is it just me, or is anyone else picturing Mickey and Minnie and the gang from Frozen in battle-green Mao jackets, Little Red Books in hands, marching dutifully along in the Shanghai Disney Main Street Parade?

I'm guessing the audio-animatronic "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln" attraction won't be pulling into Shanghai Disney anytime soon. That's a shame. My siblings and I used to duck inside Mr. Lincoln's air conditioned theater at Disneyland to escape the rest of the park's long lines and Anaheim summer heat. As we watched the not-quite-lifelike man on the stage move about, the hum and click of his gears and machinery--at first laughably noticeable--receded into the background. His mechanized mouth opened and closed, out-of-sync with the piped-in words that filled the dark, artificially-cooled space. Here now, brought to you courtesy online-search-wizardry, part of Lincoln's speech:

What constitutes the bulwark of our...liberty and independence? It is not our frowning battlements, our bristling sea coasts...These are not our reliance against...tyranny...Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in our bosoms. Our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands, everywhere. Destroy this spirit, and you have planted the seeds of despotism around your own doors.

Tell me, Abe: how to keep the spirit of liberty alive nowadays? By aligning oneself with a government intent on controlling the rights and freedoms of its people? Does that make sense? I see you stroking your beard. I see you saying "Nope."

The same day Shanghai Disney threw open its polished gates, a press conference was held in Hong Kong. Lam Wing Kee, one of five Hong Kong booksellers who vanished last year while across the border visiting the city of Shenzhen (where much of our electronic gadgetry originates), spoke out about his months in custody on mainland China. According to The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Lam and his colleagues were abducted and detained, "blindfolded, handcuffed and taken by train to a cell measuring 200 to 300 square feet in the eastern city of Ningbo, about 13 hours away...forced to sign a document admitting guilt for mailing banned books to mainland China." Under the "one country, two systems" legal framework, Hong Kong booksellers are allowed to sell books banned on the mainland and "mainland officials don't have the authority to abduct Hong Kong citizens and take them to the mainland." No matter. A tyrannical government doesn't sweat the details.

Which brings me back to Finding Dory. We may have lost Mickey, but we still, for the moment, have sweet, vulnerable, memory-challenged Dory. Of course I'm going to see her movie. I want to celebrate another unique animated feature film made here in the Bay Area by Pixar, the other--increasingly more admirable--half of the Disney equation. I want to encourage Pixar to keep producing films here; to keep providing jobs for talented animators and writers and hundreds of other people connected to film-making. I want to laugh, eat popcorn with my family, forget last week's unthinkable Orlando-based horrors.

Is that so wrong? Hope not.