Enviro-toons and Environmental History: Crossing Studios, Crossing Approaches to Ecology
The genre of animation (and animated shorts) gains power because it challenges expectations of art, film, and narrative. The best animated films “offer the greatest potential for expressing a variety of divergent points of view, while at the same time accommodating a dominant paradigm of established social meaning” (Wells Animation and America 13). Studios may resist or subvert the aesthetic and ideological orthodoxy associated with Disney, but they challenge aesthetic as well as ideological expectations through their negotiated resolutions between dominant and subversive views of social mores. The following brief analysis discusses representative animated shorts and demonstrates the often subtle but nonetheless powerful ecological messages conveyed within them from this period. Keeping in mind that the historical and cultural contexts in which these cartoons were produced vary, we argue that ultimately, beliefs about technology, consumerism, and the natural are reflected in, and sometimes critiqued by, enviro-toons.
Of the enviro-toons we viewed, most demonstrate the power of nature over the human world. These more traditional cartoons seem to be a by-product of the ongoing conflict between “the machine and the natural” (Klein 79). Industrialization widened the gap between nature and culture, between humans and the natural world. Nature, then, was seen as either a resource to be exploited or an “enemy” to be controlled. Some early Felix the Cat cartoons foreground this reemphasized nature/culture binary when they show how stormy weather can spoil a picnic (April Maze (1930). April Maze seems to anticipate New Deal programs that saw nature as a powerful force needing both respect and taming. Tennessee Valley Authority projects, for example, promoted a system of dams to control flooding on big rivers—and to bring electricity to the rural poor. Michael Barrier explains that Otto Messmer, the cartoon’s director, “never let his audience forget that Felix was as artificial as his environment” (Hollywood Cartoons 45), but in April Maze, nature is effectively portrayed as a powerful force that the more human-like Felix cannot conquer.
Cartoons from the 1940s, too, reflected this conflict between humans and the natural world. Perhaps as a reaction to World War II, however, superheroes like Superman fought natural elements and won. Norman Klein concurs, suggesting that the world war had just as much of an impact on cartoons as did Hollywood movies like film noir and screwball comedies (183). The Superman series from this period seems to reflect this impact most visibly. They also exaggerate the machina versatilis, ”updat[ing] an old theme of theirs, the film screen as machine” (Klein 86). According to Klein, “The entire screen seems to be made of steel, like a machine housed in black, corrugated metal, with gray canyons beneath skyscrapers, and diabolical machines instead of ghouls” (86). In this mechanized context, the cartoons place Superman as superior to elements in the natural world. In the opening to most of the cartoons, Superman masters lightning and other elements like those in April Maze. And in Volcano (1942) Superman stops a volcanic eruption to save Lois Lane and the town below. Superman always comes out victorious, an argument in favor of the Allies’ own victory over the Germans. The war provided the industrial background of a Modernist world in which technologies (and humans) triumph over nature.
Several Walt Disney cartoons from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s highlight this sustained conflict between humans (or anthropomorphized animal figures) and the natural world, unsurprising coming from this more conservative studio. Flowers and Trees (1932) foregrounds idyllic nature’s triumph over an evil anthropomorphized tree stump. As the first color short from Disney, Flowers and Trees won an Academy Award with its Technicolor dancing trees and flowers, romantic tree love story, and jealousy. But the tree stump’s jealous rage is thwarted by birds, which literally put out his fire. The tree stump clearly represents the evil human world, since his tongue is a snake and his goal is to destroy the tree lovers and their forest. In the end, the stump destroys himself and reinforces his non-flora status, since vultures encircle his corpse.
Four Disney cartoons that feature Donald Duck and Chip an’ Dale highlight the power of nature over the human world—or at least the human-like world of Donald Duck, all in relation to the chipmunks saving their nuts: Chip an’ Dale (1947), Out on a Limb (1950), Out of Scale (1951), and Dragon Around (1954). This approach to ecology continues in feature length films from Disney and other studios, from Alice in Wonderland (1951) to The Daydreamer (1966), The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977), The Little Mermaid (1989), and Lilo and Stitch (2002). All of these cartoons emphasize the power of nature over the human (or anthropomorphized animal) world and suggest that economic approaches to ecology blossomed during this pre- and post-World War II industrial era and continued into the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.