Bob Iger is barely out the door at the Walt Disney Company and already a film from a scion of the founding family has come along to give the well compensated ex-CEO a kick in the ass.
However, the Abigail Disney co-directed The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales documentary doesn’t have much to add to the discussions of income inequity, ice cold hearted corporations and the legacy of the Reagan Revolution, except a high profile and well-heeled surname.
Debuting with its world premiere at the virtual Sundance Film Festival tonight as the House of Mouse’s stock took a whack from Wall Street, the Abigail E. Disney and Kathleen Hughes directed The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales proves to be less an exercise for social and economic justice and more a vanity exercise with talking heads.
Which is more than a real shame, it is a tragically missed opportunity.
The nearly 90-minute film could have used the media attention that the “superpower,” as the documentary terms it, of the Disney name naturally attracts to put the spotlight on some very rotten and deep-rooted practices in this country that leave so many with so little despite working so hard. Instead, ending with an email from its co-director to the very well paid Iger and new-ish Disney boss Bob Chapek, a ‘to be continued,” and a slate limply complimenting the company on recently increasing the wages of many employees to $18.50 in the next year, the docu meanders and missteps time and time again.
Unlike W. Kamau Bell’s Sundance debuting We Need To Talk About Cosby docuseries or Rachel Lears’ environmental politics To The End film at this year’s Sundance, American Dream flounders in part for not significantly pivoting to include recent events like those wage gains, even if they directly impact on the tale Disney and Hughes are determined to tell. So, kicking off with the labor disputes at Disneyland in 2018 that saw wages so low nearly 10% of the theme parks’ full-time staff were revealed to have been homeless in the past couple of years, the film sticks to its script.
Now, biopic tendencies and all, that script certainly has some weight when it pipes in that at the same time as that sickeningly low pay for Disneyland “cast members” became known, their boss Iger hauled in a compensation package of $65 million in 2018 — or, as the film bluntly states, a Disneyland custodian “would have to work for 2000 years to make what Bob Iger makes in one.”
But, as any screenwriter worth their keyboard will tell you, a few good scenes do not make a story.
Yes, Abigail Disney admits to her ‘privileged life” and that Disney the company is far from alone in doing Wall Street’s bidding at workers and taxpayers’ expense. Yet it seems in far too many ways that the dividend anointed offspring is fueled by essentially getting the cold shoulder from Iger after sending him an email or two four years ago laying out the economic realities battering many of his low-paid employees.
In that vein, Abigail Disney openly seems often blinded in nostalgia for the New Deal era and the immediate years of post-WWII America as well as a rose-colored glasses looking back at the company’s past. Correspondingly, the great niece of Walt Disney and granddaughter of Roy O. Disney doesn’t perceive the moves her ancestors made to build their empire as having as much to do with the bottom line as the suits running the joint nowadays. More MAGA than she probably wants to be, and oddly comparing “id and superego” Walt and Grandpa Roy to Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket, the younger Disney seals the deal on the notion that sons and daughters of great fortunes often can’t get out of their own way for their best sake — just ask Robert Kennedy Jr.
Which is why in long stretches of American Dream, there are two Disneys — at the very least.
There is the warm, loving, employee friendly, rags to riches and all outfit, founded and run by brothers Walt and Roy. That’s the good Disney revered by Abigail and a sibling or two in soft focus in this film. Then there is the evil Disney, milked for shareholder profit and big executive salaries by the likes of Micheal Eisner (who Abigail’s father Roy E. Disney helped put in the CEO chair and later kick out) Iger, and now implicitly his successor Chapek.
Narrated by Disney as well featuring her onscreen most of the time, American Dream and Other Fairy Tales not only has a problem with its family history, but also with being fatally self-involved with its rich lady self-awakening through line. In terms of the big picture and the ugly underbelly of the GOP’s hostile takeover of the 1980s, there’s not a lot here that Mark Achbar’s 2003 film The Corporation and the careers of Noam Chomsky or Liz Garbus haven’t addressed better.
Additionally, despite all the criticisms over the years over many of the movies her Great Uncle and Granddad put out back in the day, Abigail Disney just seems to have discovered that the real American Dream has been racially rigged, to put it very mildly.
In terms of the family portrait, American Dream the movie soft pedals union battles at Disney back in Walt’s day like the bitter 1941 Animation Workers strike. An action that the cost cutting and debt heavy Walt Disney openly blamed on “Communist agitation, leadership, and activities” before he struck a deal with the workers he had fired and scapegoated.
Long review short: You can’t have it both ways and you can’t make up your own version of the truth for the past to condemn the present – even if your last name is Disney and your brother and sister help produce your latest film.
There is nothing but truth in comparing the exploitations of 21st American capitalism and its “inequality economy,” as The Sum of Us author Heather McGhee puts it in the film, to “the Gilded Age and the plantation economy.” There is also no denying that the Covid-19 pandemic ripped off the soiled bandages on a lot of the gaping holes in most people’s lives and bank accounts.
That’s a reality that saw tens of thousands of Disney employees furloughed for months back in 2020, among millions who lost their jobs and livelihoods. That’s a reality that further divides this deeply divided country
The fact is unchecked greed is not good, but neither is the unchecked egotism and lack of self awareness of The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales.
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