At the beginning of the 1940s, Walt Disney Studios was in major financial trouble. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) were a critical and financial success. However, it still ran wildly over budget, and their subsequent features, Pinocchio and Fantasia (both 1940), didn’t perform nearly as well. The company was about to go bankrupt before the United States entered World War II due in large part to being 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 whole output shifted drastically, with around 90% of its output at the time being dedicated to helping the war effort. This involved the creation of various insignia for branches of the military and producing training videos and propaganda films.
Although the term “propaganda” carries negative connotations, in this context, it simply refers to a form of communication intended to promote a specific point of view to the public. Additionally, acknowledging and criticizing the contradictory way that 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 output of propaganda films during this period was prolific, extending to include films produced in partnership with the Roosevelt administration to promote the Good Neighbor policy in Latin America, The Three Caballeros (Norman Ferguson, 1944) and Saludos Amigos (Norman Ferguson et al., 1942).
They also contributed to Frank Capra’s Why We Fight (1942-45), a series of seven documentary shorts made in partnership with the US Department of War as a refutation of Nazi propaganda films like Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl, 1935) and to convince the American public to support US intervention in alliance with the Soviet Union. These films thus exist in opposition to German nationalism and state propaganda while simultaneously embodying the same for the United States and broader Allied Powers. These films are divided by three distinct themes: explorations of the enemy’s psyche, incitements to action for citizens on the home front, and explicit satire of hyper-nationalism and European fascism.
Education for Death (Clyde Geronimi, 1943) claims to present an account 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 fuehrer, and experiencing any form of joy is explicitly forbidden. The film presents nationalist indoctrination as bad, but it must be presented in a highly exaggerated form that helps the home front audience to understand Germany as simply “the enemy” while disincentivizing further interrogation of 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, presenting the two concepts as separate and in direct opposition to each other. Reason is drawn as a put-together scientist and associated with adulthood and responsibility. Emotion is presented in the form of a caveman and connected with impulsive, shortsighted, and childish behavior. Hitler is said to rely entirely on emotional appeals and manipulation of the German public into feelings of fear and anger. Unlike Inside Out (Pete Docter, 2015), which drew direct inspiration from this short; there is no balance struck between these opposing concepts. German nationalism under Hitler’s rule is correctly presented as wrong and evil, while American nationalism is uncritically held up as a force for good. It is beyond the ideological goals of this and the other cartoons to examine the faults of American society and the inequities baked into its systems. The US and Germany take on binary good and evil roles. Nationalism is presented as essentially morally neutral; what matters is that you swear allegiance to the correct nation.
This appeal to US 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 is framed around two ideas in opposition. Donald Duck is trying to decide if he should spend money on frivolous items or save it to pay his newly increased taxes while still affording 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 Donald’s – and by proxy the American public’s – spending as not just personal financial decisions but important political acts that will help justice to prevail.
Disney returns to examine the enemy in their most famous propaganda short, Der Fuehrer’s Face (Jack Kinney, 1943), which won the year’s Academy Award for Best Animated Short. It was originally titled Donald Duck in Nutzi Land, with the change occurring after Spike Jones recorded the film’s main song, and it became a hit. Like in The Spirit of ’43, Donald takes on the role of the American citizen; but now he is in the subtly-named surreal fascist hellscape “Nutzi Land,” where the streets are dotted with swastika topiaries and all hours of the day are spent heiling Hitler. This 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 up from his dream in American flag pajamas and rushes to embrace his miniature Statue of Liberty in front of a set of star-spangled curtains. The critique of nationalism could only extend so far, or else it would no longer fulfill its explicit goals to garner support for 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 to this day, albeit in a less official capacity. The Department of Defense’s Entertainment Media Unit exists to assist film productions with access to military equipment for their projects. The caveat is that the Pentagon has to approve of the film’s script if a film wants access to this equipment and the other “benefits” (including not having to pay Screen Actors Guild members their standard minimum rates) of the subsidy they have to portray the US military in a positive light.
This is most apparent 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 most recently Captain Marvel (Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, 2019). The latter was even accompanied by a series of Air Force recruitment advertisements. Like the earlier World War II films satirizing hypernationalism in Nazi Germany, Captain Marvel positions itself as a critique of refugee displacement caused by war and imperialism. Also, like those films, it presents the United States and its military in an explicitly positive light. The real problems that exist in the America and those which its forever wars have caused remain unaddressed.