Sunday 11 December 2016

Making magic to infinity and beyond

It's nearly 100 years old so how come Disney still manages to be relevant to children today?

Hazel Gaynor

Published 16/05/2011 | 05:00

Happy ending: Our children love dressing up as their Disney heroes, whether that's as Buzz Lightyear, Woody, or princesses. L–R: Abbie
McNamara, Myles McNamara, Max Gaynor, Ryan Boyle, Sam Gaynor (front), Ciara Legge. Photo: Dave Meehan
Happy ending: Our children love dressing up as their Disney heroes, whether that's as Buzz Lightyear, Woody, or princesses. L–R: Abbie McNamara, Myles McNamara, Max Gaynor, Ryan Boyle, Sam Gaynor (front), Ciara Legge. Photo: Dave Meehan

If there are children under 10 in your house, then I'm guessing you probably have at least one Disney dress-up costume in your toy box, be it Sleeping Beauty, Snow White or Buzz Lightyear.

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And I doubt it stops there. It's likely your children are also in possession of a talking Sheriff Woody, a 'Mickey Mouse Clubhouse' toy, a Cinderella schoolbag or a 'Winnie the Pooh' duvet.

As of this Wednesday the allure of Disney will be even more difficult to resist when the company opens its first store here, on Dublin's Grafton Street, in the former Laura Ashley.

The shop will comprise two floors selling all kinds of Disney merchandise to make your children drool. There'll even be some bespoke Irish products, like a green Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

What is it about Disney that gets under our skin, even now in 2011? Although it began in 1923, when life and times were much simpler and more innocent, its characters still manage to captivate the modern generation of tech-savvy children, holding their imaginations hostage with a gallery of colourful characters.

Perhaps we parents are partly to blame. Despite all my pre-motherhood claims that I would never get sucked in to such commercialism, I melt when I see my son's face light up as Nemo finds his Daddy. And who can resist the cuteness of a little girl dressed up as Snow White?

Crucial to Disney's enduring appeal is its ability to tell great stories and create characters our children adore. So much so that they want to role-play their heroes and heroines and have duvets and school bags with them on them. That's where the spin-off merchandising comes in.

Behind the clever writing and carefully executed animation lies an extremely powerful marketing machine.

While many parents willingly buy into the Disney brand, for others the name represents not a place of magic and make-believe but an enormous corporation with the power to influence our children's impressionable young minds. Should we be concerned?

Tanya Flanagan, national co-ordinator of the Modern Languages in Primary Schools initiative and mum-of-two, doesn't think so.

"I don't have a problem with Disney. Their stories have very positive underlying messages and are grounded in good morals. It's easy to be cynical about the merchandising, but in my experience these are items you'd buy anyway -- duvet covers, lunchboxes.

"Having a princess on a schoolbag doesn't mean my child is constantly hounding me to take her to Disneyland and isn't going to do her any permanent damage."

For many parents, that's the point. They happily indulge their children and get them the schoolbag with their favourite Disney characters on, because they know this is a phase their children will experience.

"Disney toys are entirely age-appropriate," Tanya adds, "and allow my daughter to be what she is, a little girl, unlike some of the more 'modern' toys which encourage little girls to grow up and focus on make-up and fashionable clothes. My children play out fantasy scenarios and role-play with the dress-up costumes; they are a great vehicle for collaborative play."

In the politically correct world we live in, there is definitely pressure on parents to take the sensible grown-up attitude of, 'Tut tut, what terrible role models these silly princesses are, fussing about glass slippers and pining over Prince Charming'.

But is there a genuine cause for concern about a five-year-old girl swishing around in a sparkly dress, waving a wand at everyone because she's seen Cinderella do the same? Susan Gilmore, play expert and director at Gymboree Ireland, explains.

"Pretend play is critical to a child's development. It helps them to develop flexible thinking, improve their vocabulary and verbal skills, order the world outside, increase independence and improve self-confidence. The brilliance of Disney is that they keep coming up with appealing characters which our children want to pretend to be."

Clinical psychologist Dr Mark Harrold agrees that for children who are of the age to enjoy Disney, it's all a bit of harmless fun.

"I don't think parents need to read too much into this, or take away any of the fun by worrying about stereotyping, or that their children will develop expectations of subservience or obsessions with beauty.

"I would be much more concerned about children mimicking toys which encourage them to wear adult clothing and take away their innocence with certain attitudes and accents."

In advance of the Dublin store opening, manager of the Belfast shop, Anna-Marie Kinlan, tells us what we can expect.

"When children first walk into the store their faces light up with excitement; they're not quite sure what to look at at first -- the princess castle or the sparkly pixie dust trail floor."

In case you're interested, the 12-inch Buzz Lightyear is the most popular toy.

As countless parents like Tanya Flanagan have discovered, there is always room for a little more Disney in the toybox.

"The characters have an enduring appeal for boys and girls; even the newer ones will be around for a very long time. While other toys may end up in the charity bag, the children absolutely won't part with their Disney stuff!"

The secret of Disney's success is the sum of many parts: great stories, alluring characters, ruthless marketing and an uncanny ability to know what makes our children tick.

It is a formula which has worked for nearly 100 years and, as a certain Space Ranger might say, will most probably keep on working, 'to infinity and beyond'.

The new Disney store, on 60 Grafton Street, Dublin 2, opens this Wednesday. There is a grand opening event on this Saturday, May 21, at 10.30am. There'll also be an opportunity to meet with some Disney favourites on Grafton Street from 11am-5pm

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