(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)
One of the most important things you have to know about Walt Disney is that he was a patriot. Every word of that sentence is true, and in different ways. It’s not just that Walt Disney’s story feels like the truest embodiment of the American Dream. (Though how could it not? A poor Midwestern boy comes from meager means and turns himself into one of the most powerful and influential cultural figures of the last 100-plus years. It sounds too good to be true.) It’s that Disney’s legacy is crafted in such a way that you have to understand he was a patriot. It’s not just that he was one – you must be aware of that truth, or else it will all be for naught. He was known for his animated films, for helping create characters like Mickey Mouse, for building a theme park in Southern California before theme parks were commonplace. But Walt Disney was an American, and don’t you forget it.
Diving into the Disney Vault in the last few months via the Disney+ streaming service has been both a necessary balm and an aggressively illuminating experience for this viewer. When the coronavirus pandemic began in earnest, the notion of escaping into fantasy became an awfully tantalizing notion. You couldn’t forget, truly, about the fact that we were stuck in the middle of a terrifying period in human history that will surely inspire countless minute-by-minute texts (presuming humanity is still around in a hundred years or so). But, in the moment, you could allow yourself to wade into the fantastical waters of the Walt Disney Company and forget about your troubles.
Or, rather, I could. I’m a cishet white guy with a decent enough day job that allows me the option to work remotely in the middle of a pandemic. I have the privilege and luxury to put on Frozen II or correctly formatted episodes of The Simpsons and forget about the world for as long as I like. The last few weeks of American history, though, have served as a bracing reminder that my luxuries extend as far as the color of my skin as much as they extend to my gender. Even (or, perhaps, especially) a progressive-minded person like me needs to remember these things, when indulging in cultural institutions that are themselves privileged.
I mention all of this to you because the gap between my initial excitement when Disney+ announced that The Liberty Story would arrive on the streaming service, and my experience watching this episode of the Disneyland TV series is enough to fill an ocean. I have, in the past, written at length about how much I want Disney to confront its history; even leaving that aside, I’d love to see every episode of the Disney anthology TV series on Disney+. There’s still plenty left over, with episode after episode arriving like a drip of water from a leaky faucet. I want all those episodes to go up on Disney+, because I’d like to experience them all.
But I’m thinking a lot lately about what it means to know that Walt Disney was a patriot, that he was an American. Because what I’m really thinking about lately is what it means to both be an American, and what it means to be the kind of American who spends much of your time loudly reminding everyone that you’re an American. In many ways, that kind of unabashed, loud-and-proud patriotism is what The Liberty Story is about: timed to the release of the 1957 live-action film Johnny Tremain, the episode is about the influence of American history on Disney, on Disneyland, and on the films and shorts his studio released.
What does America mean to you? For people like Walt Disney, America meant rebellion against tyranny, and fighting for the nebulous cause of what was right. I say “nebulous” not because the concept of rebelling against tyranny is wrong, but because the definition of what constitutes “tyranny” and what constitutes “rebellion” seems to be up for debate. In April, some truly lost souls demonstrated that, to them, tyranny was being told that wearing a mask to protect themselves and others was a good idea. In May and June, we’ve seen what actual tyranny is, and how peaceful rebellion can be. All of these current events weigh heavily on the viewing experience of The Liberty Story, at least for me. I don’t suppose to assume what Walt Disney would think about the current state of affairs in the country. He was fiercely anti-Communist, and his track record on race and gender relations is…putting it lightly, not great. But his stances don’t tell us what he would say now, because he’s not here; we can look at the past and wonder, but no more.
Here’s what I can say: watching The Liberty Story as protests erupt across the country, the result of a legitimate and fierce upswell in anger at the continued brutalization of Black men and women at the hands of police forces nationwide, is…an interesting experience. It’s partially a marketing tool to promote a story in which a young man gets involved with a group of rebels who chafe at cruel treatment by a thuggish group who wish to subjugate and control them. The rebels are the heroes of Johnny Tremain, as they are the heroes of other stories with similar plotlines that you can find on Disney+. (Because didn’t I just describe, in the broadest strokes possible, the premise of Star Wars?)
But there’s a different sense of rebellion permeating The Liberty Story. At best, the hourlong installment of the Walt Disney anthology TV series is both a welcome arrival on the streaming service and one frustratingly absent of context. The episode dives right in, as Walt Disney nods along to “The Liberty Tree”, a song that appears in Johnny Tremain and whose music may be recognizable if you’ve ever visited the Disney theme parks. From there, Disney talks about the history of the American Revolution and how that history inspired a possible new addition to Disneyland Park: Liberty Street.
After detailing the plans of what that area would have looked like – Liberty Street never came to fruition in Disney’s lifetime, with Liberty Square being a vital part of Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom – Disney moves on to describing the adaptation of Johnny Tremain before showing about 20 minutes’ worth of clips. After that section of clips, we see a black-and-white version of a 1953 animated short titled Ben and Me, the “Me” being a mouse voiced by Disney Legend Sterling Holloway who befriends and inspires Benjamin Franklin during the fight to claim American freedom, culminating with writing and ratifying the Declaration of Independence.
As always, there’s an element of the curious in watching what passed for television in the mid-1950s. The notion that the Walt Disney Company would release an hourlong special touting a new film? Perfectly plausible. The notion that this special would feature roughly one-quarter of the overall film, essentially serving as such an expanded preview that it basically tells the entire story without you needing to go to the theater? Less plausible. But that’s what the first half of The Liberty Story is. It’s fitting because, if you’ve watched Johnny Tremain (and it’s on Disney+, so you can), you know that its cinematic ambitions are purely made-for-TV.
One of the most fascinating parts of the episode, whether or not you divorce yourself from the context of watching it in 2020, is Ben and Me. The 20-minute short is one of the very first from the Buena Vista Distribution studio arm, which would eventually become Walt Disney Pictures. Moreover, you can’t find it anywhere else on Disney+. (At this point, sadly, only the black-and-white version is available, even though it was originally released in color.) The short is pleasant, charming, and totally removed from the realities of history. Of course, that’s not a huge problem – whatever else I can say about The Liberty Story, it would be mighty foolish of me to expect historical fidelity in a short film anchored by a talking mouse.
But that’s where we come to the legacy. For theme-park obsessives, the legacy of this hourlong episode is that it features blueprints and architectural plans for a theme-park area that never came to life. Liberty Square is one of the most lavishly, precisely themed parts of the Magic Kingdom, and for a time, it was perhaps the most underrated area as well. (I say “for a time” because my interest in experiencing one of its flagship attractions, The Hall of Presidents, is…low at a time when our current Commander-in-Chief plays a large role in its climax. Your mileage may vary.) Listening to Disney talk about his inspirations for Liberty Street is fascinating, because even if that area wound up on the cutting-room floor, its spirit is present in so much of the Walt Disney Company.
But that spirit, equally present in The Liberty Story, is one of pure idealization and nostalgia for a past that we didn’t experience and probably never existed at all. This is where context is so badly necessary for The Liberty Story, not to explain away what Disney stood for or to talk about how accurate (or not) the representation of American history was in films like Johnny Tremain. Grounding the audience in some reasonable place regarding what to expect is all the more necessary at a time when studios struggle with their problematic content. (The recent furor surrounding Gone With the Wind should inspire a lot more people to wonder why such a film has been a standard-bearer of popularity for so long in American culture.)
The Liberty Story is worth your time, if you’re a certain kind of viewer. It’s worth your time if you want to get a glimpse into the type of television Walt Disney made in the 1950s. It’s worth your time if you want to watch one of the studio’s animated shorts that’s otherwise unavailable on streaming or digital venues. But here is an example of exactly why Disney+ needs a host, or a series of hosts. They need to do more than just throw titles on a service and hope that people notice them. A brief paragraph or sentence warning of outdated cultural depictions is not enough, and has never been enough. At a time when cultural institutions are accurately being taken to task for their pasts, and at a time when the concept of American exceptionalism is correctly being confronted and interrogated by many of its citizens, context is necessary.