In the early 1940s, Walt Disney Studios was in serious financial trouble. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) were a critical and financial success. However, it was still way over budget, and their later features, Pinocchio and Fancy (both in 1940), did not perform as well. The company was on the verge of bankruptcy before the United States entered World War II, largely because it was cut off from the previously lucrative European market. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Walt Disney allowed the military to occupy his studio. The company’s entire production changed drastically, with around 90% of its output at the time devoted to aiding the war effort. This involved the creation of various insignia for branches of the military and the production of training videos and propaganda films.
Although the term “propaganda” has a negative connotation, in this context it simply means a form of communication intended to promote a specific point of view to the public. Moreover, acknowledging and critiquing the contradictory way in which these propaganda films present different forms of nationalism is not an equivocation of the Allied and Axis powers. In addition to the animated shorts discussed in this article, Disney’s production of propaganda films during this period was prolific, extending to films produced in partnership with the Roosevelt administration to promote the Good Neighbor Policy. in Latin America, The Three Caballeros (Norman Ferguson, 1944) and Greetings Amigos (Norman Ferguson et al., 1942).
They also contributed to Frank Capra’s why we fight (1942-45), a series of seven short documentaries made in partnership with the US War Department as a refutation of Nazi propaganda films like Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl, 1935) and to convince the American public to support American intervention in alliance with the Soviet Union. These films therefore exist in opposition to German nationalism and state propaganda while simultaneously embodying the same for the United States and the wider Allied powers. These films are divided into three distinct themes: explorations of the enemy’s psyche, calls to action for citizens on the home front, and explicit satire of hyper-nationalism and European fascism.
education for death (Clyde Geronimi, 1943) purports to present a narrative of how someone becomes a Nazi. This conditioning begins at birth; the school is a Nazi brainwashing center that peddles revisionist history. All of German life exists to worship the führer, and experiencing any form of joy is explicitly forbidden. The film portrays nationalist indoctrination as bad, but it needs to be presented in a highly exaggerated form that helps home-front audiences understand Germany as merely “the enemy” while deterring further questioning of the American K-12 education. It must reinforce the binary good-evil relationship between the Allied and Axis powers as a propaganda film.
reason and emotion (William Roberts, 1943) goes even further by presenting the two concepts as distinct and in direct opposition to each other. Reason is drawn as a scientist assembled and associated with adulthood and responsibility. The emotion is presented in the form of a caveman and linked to impulsive, myopic and childish behavior. Hitler is said to have relied entirely on emotional appeals and manipulation of the German public into feelings of fear and anger. contrary to Upside down (Pete Docter, 2015), which is directly inspired by this short film; there is no balance between these opposing concepts. German nationalism under Hitler’s rule is correctly presented as bad and evil, while American nationalism is presented uncritically as a force for good. It is beyond the ideological purposes of this and other cartoons to examine the flaws of American society and the inequalities embedded in its systems. The United States and Germany assume good and bad binary roles. Nationalism is presented as essentially morally neutral; what matters is that you swear allegiance to the right nation.
This appeal to American nationalism extends to the films they made to encourage support for the war effort on the home front, including, but not limited to, The spirit of ’43 (Jack King, 1943), which encourages Americans to pay their taxes on time. Like reason and emotion, the concern revolves around two opposing ideas. Donald Duck tries to decide whether to spend money on frivolous items or save it to pay his newly increased taxes while still paying basic living expenses. The former is shown to support the Axis powers, while the latter decision will help the Allies win the war. The film presents the spending of Donald — and by proxy of the American public — not only as personal financial decisions, but also as important political acts that will help justice prevail.
Disney returns to examine the enemy in its most famous propaganda short, The face of the Führer (Jack Kinney, 1943), which won the Oscar for best animated short of the year. It was originally called Donald Duck in Nutzi Land, with the change occurring after Spike Jones recorded the film’s title track, and it became a hit. As in The spirit of ’43, Donald assumes the role of the American citizen; but now he finds himself in the surreal fascist hellscape subtly named “Nutzi Land”, where the streets are dotted with swastika topiaries and every hour of the day is spent saluting Hitler. It is a deliberate satire of the extremes of German (and to a lesser extent Japanese) nationalism that is slightly undermined by the ending when Donald wakes from his dream in his American flag pajamas and rushes over to kiss his miniature Statue of the Freedom in front of a set of starry curtains. Criticism of nationalism could only extend so far, otherwise it would no longer fulfill its explicit aims of rallying the Allied Powers.
The end of the war did not mark the end of the Walt Disney Company working alongside the United States military. They still do so to this day, although in a less official capacity. The Department of Defense Entertainment Media Unit exists to help film productions access military equipment for their projects. The caveat is that the Pentagon must approve the film’s script if a film wants access to this equipment and the other “perks” (including not having to pay Screen Actors Guild members their standard minimum rates ) of the grant they have to portray the U.S. military in a positive light.
This is most evident in Marvel Cinematic Universe entries including, but not limited to, Iron Man and iron man 2 (Jon Favreau, 2008 and 2010), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Joe and Anthony Russo, 2014), and more recently Captain Marvel (Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, 2019). The latter even came with a series of Air Force recruiting ads. Like early World War II films satirizing hypernationalism in Nazi Germany, Captain Marvel positions itself as a critique of the displacement of refugees caused by war and imperialism. Moreover, like those films, it presents the United States and its military in an explicitly positive light. The real problems that exist in America and those its eternal wars have caused remain unanswered.