In the interests of journalistic disclosure, let me state for the record: Disney gives me the willies. Oh, the movies are fine: In fact, Beauty and the Beast may be one of the most soulful films of the last 25 years. It’s the company’s aggressive insistence on marketing itself as the best — no, the only — source for children’s entertainment that freezes my marrow. It’s the sense that if you don’t go along with the figurines and the theme parks and the audiotapes and the CD-ROMs — that if you don’t cave in to Mickey’s cheery, denatured omnipresence and just buy all the stuff — then you must be un-American. And when you consider that Disney’s latest online extravaganza, Daily Blast (www.disneyblast.com), is a partial co-venture with Microsoft — a company that apparently won’t be content until the Windows logo is embossed on our brain stems — well, you’ll pardon me if the paranoia Klaxons on my honorary Oliver Stone tinfoil helmet have just gone off.
The two corporations are a natural match, since both have made billions by utilizing a strategy that Bill Gates calls ”embrace and extend” to conquer their respective fields of kiddie and computer culture. In Disney’s case, that means embracing classic fairy tales, British children’s books, and Victor Hugo novels in a vise grip of inoffensiveness, while extending those properties into every medium imaginable.
The Internet, of course, represents the ripest medium since Walt battled it out with long-forgotten animation rivals in the 1920s. Disney Online, the parent company’s new-media arm, has made forays into cyberspace in the form of disney.com (all-purpose PR info on movies, parks, et al.) and family.com (Disney-oriented parenting tips), but Daily Blast is its most ambitious project yet. A subscription to the Microsoft Network delivers the site for free; it’s also available for $4.95 a month to anyone with a PC running Windows 95 and, preferably, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer Web browser. Once everything is installed correctly and you’ve logged on, a separate browser window pops open — and practically crawls off the screen into your lap. Simply put, Daily Blast is so technically astonishing that it instantly rewrites the rules for online entertainment.
Music plays continuously. Navigational buttons beep and glow as the cursor passes over them. While the News and Sports categories feature solid items, stats, and polls from cohosts ABC and ESPN, the Games, Stories, and Blast Jr. areas are all Disney and loaded with interactivity. A Mickey Mouse paint box is breathtaking; an Aladdin comic strip is stuck halfway between a cartoon and a comic book but is nifty nonetheless; a Big Bad Wolf Huff ‘n’ Puff game is co-opted from that old classic Brickles, yet still is addictive. The whole site feels alive.
It’s when you check out the Winnie the Pooh ”Walking in the Forest” interactive story that the magic begins to pall. At first glance, the smooth animation and simple-yet-engaging narrative choices make this a charmer of a breakthrough. But the Disneyfication of Pooh had already leached away most of the childlike mystery of A.A. Milne’s original stories, and the sketchy illustrations here boil off what little is left. Other areas betray a market-driven paucity of imagination. Click on the link for Number of the Day in Blast Jr., and you get a static image of five…dalmatians. Play Disney-Libs, and put words of your choosing into a…Lion King story. Over in Disneyana, the Fact of the Day is that the Donald Duck classic Trader Horn was released (whoop-de-dang-do — and couldn’t they even mention the year?).
Some areas, like a one-panel Daily Comic, aren’t funny. Others, like the Banana Boredom Busters (odd things to do with said fruit), are plain weird. But hey, what does it matter, since Daily Blast will constantly be putting up new content, including a weekly downloadable D-Toy (one day it was a nonsensical animation involving a hair dryer) that kids will be urged to save and trade, thus ensuring regular visits to the site.
Call me a troublemaker, but wouldn’t it be nice if children spent the occasional day without Disney? A boycott isn’t necessary — just perspective. My 2-year-old daughter and I read books together, listen to CDs, and watch tapes — and, yes, some of them are Disney movies. I refuse to be like the yutz who wrote in a recent New Yorker article about moving his family to Paris so his son wouldn’t be exposed to Barney (it didn’t work). Younger kids don’t know from good or bad taste; they deserve the freedom of their own kitsch and a parent’s faith that they’ll move on. I’m a fairly balanced adult despite gorging on Saturday-morning schlock like Magilla Gorilla in my youth; likewise, my daughter will survive, maybe even be bettered by, Pocahontas.
At least as long as she knows there are ways to tell the tale that don’t involve tie-in rainwear. For that reason, I won’t be logging on to this latest online achievement at home. Daily Blast views the world and the Web through Disney-colored glasses, and it’s a place where everything looks stunning, rich, and exactly the same. B