Produced, Written & Directed by Philip B. Swift
Featuring Dana Snyder, Leonard Kinsey,
Roxy Tart, James H. Carter II
First of all, let me begin with full disclosure: I did not watch the trailer for Philip Swift’s documentary before watching it, nor did I read a single word about it. I wanted to experience the film from a standpoint as unbiased as possible.
However, before I watched it, I had inferred several possible narratives that might be told by something titled The Dark Side of Disney.
I assumed this might tell of Walt Disney’s anti-union stances in the 1940’s and 1950’s or his willingness to testify during the McCarthy hearings.
Or, perhaps the movie would perhaps show the inhumane labor practices of the sweatshops that contract to produce many Disney-themed goods.
As it turns out, none of these guesses were correct.
The Dark Side of Disney was something wholly unexpected.
Philip Swift introduces viewers to a wide range of adults who choose to experience Disney parks in a variety of ways. Some enjoy getting dolled up to experience the park, others want to simply look behind the scenes (Swift’s own visit to the park includes his getting a fake employee ID and going backstage and into the utilidor system of tunnels). A first-hand look at how the pipes are laid out does nothing to enhance my park experience, but it clearly does for others. Swift’s film is inhabited by people whose ideal way to experience the park is by stripping away the fun and magic to see the inner workings.
In short, Swift meets a lot of people who might be much happier as employees of Disneyworld.
Of the people Swift showcases in his documentary, none stands out more than Logan, a painfully skinny guy of ambiguous age who joins Swift and his crew at the park. Logan’s preference is to do a lot of drugs (or as he calls it, “…a bunch of rebel shit”) before and during his Disneyworld visits.
For me, there was nothing rebellious or amusing about Logan.
Instead, Logan comes across as a painfully sad and broken human being who combines two forms of escapism, Disneyworld and drugs, as a way to get through another day. If Swift’s hope was to detail a day at the park from the perspective of a rebel, it was lost on me. I waited for Swift to delve into the sadness of Logan, to understand the inner demons that act as judge, jury and executioner in this young man’s soul. I waited to no avail to see how this one man’s darkness was broken through the magic of the park or see the one ride that brings him joy and reminds him that ‘it’s going to be okay’.
Honestly, I was just glad that I didn’t read Logan’s obituary at the end of the film.
The second most interesting person in the film is Swift’s own mother. For all of the film’s focus on the self-proclaimed dark side of Disney, Swift’s mother comes across as not only a true fan of Disneyworld, but as someone who relies on the very escapism and fantasy of the park for spiritual and emotional grounding.
As much as Swift’s focus seems to be on the mildly subversive ways adults can experience Disneyworld, it is his mother’s dedication to experiencing the park as it should be, with a sense of wonder and whimsy, that is the most genuine and beautiful. I would not recommend The Dark Side of Disney for someone like her—not because it is a bad film, but because its appeal will not resonate with someone who celebrates her final round of chemotherapy with a visit to Disneyworld, and who has decades of fond memories of experiencing the park with her own mother.
For many people, Disneyland and Disneyworld are experienced with joy and a heightened sense of childlike wonder. For others, these parks are maybe experienced with a ‘Yeah, I guess that’s cool, but what’s behind the curtain?’ For those people, I recommend The Dark Side of Disney.
For Swift’s sake, let me add another disclosure here: I am a big Disney fan. I grew up going to Disneyland multiple times each summer, know more useless Disney trivia than any single person should, am able to find a great deal of charm in even the bad movies Walt Disney produced (yeah, I’m looking at you Monkeys, Go Home). For me, the fantasy is very much a part of the appeal that Disney creates, whether that be on television, on a record, or in a park. The fantasy is where the charm exists, it’s where the characters like Davy Crockett and Nemo and Peter Pan live and breathe as sentient beings, it’s where you can be fully immersed without intrusion from the real world. Disney parks exist for one basic premise: escapism.
Personally, I want to watch the fireworks display, not poke around the soot-encrusted pyrotechnic tubes hours after they’ve been used.