Janet Manley on knockoff Disney murals and the slightly fucked look of an unauthenticated childhood.
In the year of my childhood 1989, Disney demanded three Miami daycare centers paint over their murals of unlicensed trademarked characters. The problem, according to a spokesperson for The Mouse, was that people might think the daycare centers were officially run by Disney. They might see an anemic Mickey Mouse curving over a stout Minnie on a wall by a sand-pocked lawn and think: this is it, the real thing.
The public took a different view: ″I’ve gotten so many telephone calls from people angry at Disney that I bet Walt Disney is turning over in his grave right now,″ Erica Scotti, executive director of the Very Important Babies Daycare, told the Associated Press at the time. PR-wise, the Very Important Babies won out—Universal Studios offered to paint Hanna-Barbera characters over Minnie, Mickey, Donald, and Goofy, and Disney seems to have sat criss-cross applesauce ever since, its litigious arms in its lap, when it comes to the kind of unsanctioned artwork immortalized by @bootleg_daycare, an Instagram account that curates uncanny replicas of popular children’s characters.
You see these characters painted lopsidedly onto stucco and rusty panel vans — Snow White looking more like Danny Devito, Spiderman’s buttocks twin prows over a bounce house, Belle’s tennis ball head grafted onto a tumescent neck, Thomas next to graffiti that reads "tunnel gang." Are these artworks an attempt to bring something fine into our ugly world, or a half-assed effort by people who couldn’t give a toot? The actual effect of the art is more complicated.
The feed has an aesthetic of Season 1 Bart Simpson, of these edibles that look too much like candy!, and an obvious unreality. I’m reminded of the junk-yard lady pushing toys into Sarah’s hands in Labyrinth, an attempt to trap her in nostalgia and keep her from reaching David Bowie’s codpiece. “You remember Betsy Boo, don’t you?” she babbles, as Sarah realizes “this isn’t real.” But as Disney and Mattel apply FaceTune to characters we once knew, defacing (or yassifying) the original stories, the bootleg versions begin to feel more familiar somehow, the vague scent on them of your brother pinning time down over your head in a Dutch oven. (Notably, the account is followed by several older-brother types — blues guitarist John Mayer, dark children’s book maker Jon Klassen, critic Jerry Saltz.)
“It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody,” said Baudrillard, who probably never wore fake Adidas silkies, and did not live to see a bellhop performing in character as a gungan, or Disney licensing on pandemic-issue face masks. My own children have come into a world attempting to stretch the trademarked wallpaper into the periphery of their vision, generate memories, and conjure horizon to horizon a perfect parenting paradigm, yet they delight in a lump of vending machine plastic that maybe resembles Thor. — Janet Manley