See also Disney’s Animal Farm and Disney’s Book of Revelations.
A quick look at your newspaper’s “Now Showing” section confirms your suspicion that Hollywood’s store of compelling ideas is bankrupt. This might explain Disney’s recent tactic of producing animated musical versions of classic George Orwell novels (see Disney’s Animal Farm)–all, supposedly, with the “magic Disney touch.” Unfortunately, in these movies, that magic touch consists largely of adapting “classic” pop songs for the film’s soundtrack and Boomer-parent audience. Hence, Disney’s “1984” opens with the familiar clarinet notes of the Beatles’ classic “When I’m Sixty-Four,” but the lyrics have been revamped into the more sinister “Will They Deceive Me? / Will They Bereave Me? / In Nineteen Eighty-Four!”
Disney’s 1984 stars the voice of David Schwimmer (TV’s Friends) as Winston Smith, an information worker in The Party, which rules the futuristic superstate of Oceania. He attends political rallies, where large Telescreens project images of Big Brother (Jerry Seinfeld), while the crowds chant with adoration at their leader. Big Brother’s theme song, played whenever he appears, is “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s Big Brother,” a variation of the soft-rock classic “(He Ain’t Heavy) He’s My Brother.” But unlike in the novel, the rallies are not seen as sinister events. People are even issued ration tickets for Victory Gin, as token payment for appearing in the crowd. People are rewarded for watching the Telescreens.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers fail to establish a consistent tone for the movie. At first the cloudy gray animation seems appropriate for Orwell’s dark vision. But the steady procession of spritely musical numbers clashes with the animation, creating a cognitive disconnect. We are uncertain how to respond to this material. Big Brother, so often the object of lively songs (“He Ain’t Heavy, He’s Big Brother,”, “”Brother, Can You Spare My Life?” “Atom Heart Brother”) seems like more of a benevolent despot, or harmless Oz figure, than a totalitarian dictator. We are also distracted, but finally amused by the many Hollywood in-jokes, as director Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy, Dogma) pokes fun at Disney’s arch-rivals in the mass entertainment industry—and even at Disney itself. Eventually Disney’s 1984 settles in as a baroque satire of contemporary entertainment.
As in the novel, Winston Smith’s occupation (information worker) is to doctor old newspapers and books to ensure that they are consistent with The Party’s current policies. Winston’s chief task is to delete all references to “Unpersons”—persons that Big Brother has decided should be expunged from the nation’s consciousness and the public record. In a dig at Disney’s arch-rival Time-Warner, attentive viewers can see Winston sitting at his computer, methodically obliterating every existing picture of Ted Turner (now Vice-President at Time-Warner), Jane Fonda (shown as her 1968 sex-kitten Barbarella), and Rupert Murdoch.
Winston leads a dull life in service of The Party, until one day a woman (Jenna Elfman from TV’s Dharma and Greg) bumps into him on the street, and passes him a note which reads “I love you.” This act is in open defiance of The Party, which forbids love and marriage, and pairs couples only for the purpose of procreation. But despite the Telescreens watching them from every angle, Winston and Julia hold hands skipping down the streets of Air Strip One (Britain) to the tune of David Cassidy’s “I Think I Love You.”
Julia soon hands Winston some writings of the notorious banned enemy of the state, Goldstein (voice-overs by a co-operative Steven Spielberg), who encourages resistance to Big Brother. Winston is terrified by his possession of this contraband material, and fears that he will end up in the hands of the Thought Police (though if you look carefully, you’ll see the “contraband literature” is really a copy of the screenplay for the movie 1941, a rare 1980 Spielberg directorial embarrassment).
The bizarre helmets worn by the Thought Police, although superficially an attempt to parody Princess Leia’s dual crescent-roll haircut in Star Wars (Carrie Fisher is even the voice of the first Thought Policeman we see), bears an uncanny similarity to Disney’s own Mouse Ears logo. Thus, the images of legions of Thought Police patrolling the streets of Oceania, wearing what look to us like Mouse Ear helmets, elicits unintentional nervous laughter as we meditate on Disney’s control of our children’s minds. During a three-minute montage we watch children turning in their parents to the Thought Police for “thought crimes”, while the soundtrack blares “The Thought Police” to the tune of the old Cheap Trick song “The Dream Police.” We are unsure whether to laugh or be nervous, and so just look apprehensively at the many children in the audience, who we know often obediently log on to Disney-controlled web sites, volunteering information about their parents’ purchasing patterns.
Soon the Thought Police hand over Winston and Julia to O’Brien (Dennis Franz of TV’s NYPD Blue), the High Party Official, for their thought crimes, mainly extra-Party love. O’Brien is tasked with finding the most appropriate punishment for them. By searching information gathered about Winston by the Telescreens, O’Brien knows that Winston’s greatest fear is rats. Winston and Julia are immediately tied down to a bed while numerous rats crawl over them to the tune of “The Rats in The Cradle (And They’ll Kill You Soon)” a variation of Harry Chapin’s “The Cat’s in the Cradle (And The Silverspoon).” Again, as the rats look like Mickey Mouse’s first cousins, we wonder how much of the anti-Disney fun is sanctioned, and how much director Kevin Smith snuck past an unusually dim-witted Disney censor.
Luckily for Winston and Julia, the rats gnaw away their ropes, allowing them to miraculously escape from the heavily-fortified Ministry of Truth compound. But soon they are hunted down by tanks, helicopters, and armored personnel carriers. They climb to the top of London’s Big Ben, and decide to leap off and die rather than face further torture by the Thought Police. As they are falling, Winston wakes up in his own bed, and we realize it was all a dream.
Winston then walks out of his Manhattan apartment to contemporary Times Square, where he sees the gargantuan video screens, and neon brand-name saturation of the world’s great corporations. “We are not controlled because the Telescreens look upon us,” muses Winston in the film’s final line. “We are controlled because we look upon the Telescreens.”