Throughout my childhood, Disney was a juggernaut of art, releasing a consistent stream of animated masterpieces throughout the 90s in what has been described as their Renaissance era. From the Little Mermaid to Tarzan, the House of Mouse was a consistent quality machine that couldn’t falter. At least that’s how it felt, especially since my dad was Mickey’s biggest hype man and a Disney adult before Instagram addicts ever coined the term.
But on the company’s 100th birthday, and a decade since my dad passed, Disney has lost a lot of that momentum and charm. After swallowing up every beloved intellectual property this side of a comic book and a galaxy far, far away, they’ve become less about Walt Disney’s vision for the future of art and more about how they can justify paying Bob Iger a $27 million salary.
To celebrate Thanksgiving, the Walt Disney Instagram account posted a seemingly innocuous picture of Mickey Mouse and his pals eating at the dinner table. Forgetting that an homage to Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom of Want” had already been done by Disney in 1993, those on social media felt that the new image just looked a bit … strange. TikToker Megan Rose Ruiz noted in a million-view TikTok video that there’s an uncanny fork-like utensil next to Mickey’s hand, there’s a plate with “wiggly edges,” the shadows are off, and Daisy Duck’s head just “floats.”
Though there’s yet to be confirmation, the weird off-details have led some to believe that the image was created by artificial intelligence, the new trend in media meant to replace human hands with algorithmically designed patterns. We know that Disney is investing in the future of AI: 12 years ago, the Disney Research Studios were established at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology lab in Zurich to research machine learning and visual computing in an attempt to cut costs. Their partners have already published papers on 3D face reconstruction and recognition thanks to Disney funding.
The fruits of their research labor have already started to pay off on shows for Disney Plus. The opening credits for “Secret Invasion” were made with AI, and the technology was allegedly used on a season two poster for “Loki.”
But some still aren’t sure if the image was made by human or robot hands. “Sure it looks creepy and cringe, but so did the previous version,” wrote data journalist Dan Nguyen on X. Over the past year, AI has become such a popular and terrifying buzzword that just the thought of it creeps into everything we see, even when it might not actually be made by our future robot overlords.
The fact that there are so many people even questioning if Disney used AI in this image says so much about the once undisputed king of the animation industry. The brand has had a truly troublesome 2023, with multiple nine-figure franchise movies failing to break even, losing $500 million with streaming in the third quarter, and Marvel VFX artists unionizing after years of overwork and mistreatment. Their latest movie, “Wish,” was supposed to be a $200 million victory lap for the company’s centennial but was instead an easter egg-filled yawn-a-palooza that received a lukewarm response with only $19.5 million in box office sales in its first weekend.
That said, Walt Disney was a self-described “innovator” who believed, “we must keep our aim constantly focused on the future.” Which is to say, it’s hard to imagine a world in which Disney himself wouldn’t have wholeheartedly embraced AI. He was, after all, always a businessman first and animator second. If anything, these recent actions show that the House of Mouse has always been a capitalist project. One that its fans have long struggled to accept.