Disney have lost their bid to trademark The Day of the Dead, the intended name of their new film based on the legendary Mexican holiday. Following an uproar on social media the storytelling behemoth were forced to withdraw the application. But this is not the first cultural tradition, history and story that Disney and other animated producers such as Dreamworks have appropriated. Certainly stories are meant to be told. As a storyteller I take many stories that are not mine and I often don’t have a particular cultural connection to, and I tell them. In fact, I make a living out of telling them. So am I any different from Disney, and is there a line to be drawn when it comes to telling copyright free traditional tales?
There is certainly a fine line between making a story one’s own and respecting it’s origins and it is a line I am very carful to tread in my own work. My intention is to tell stories with integrity. Yes, I do use my own words and add my own twists and nuances. But I always acknowledge a stories providence and cultural background, and that means doing thorough research on each and every tale before it passes my lips. I also never take one story and set it in a different place or culture, because to me this begins to feel like stealing, or forcibly removing the story from it’s motherland. It is crossing the line.
Are Hollywood producers thieves? In my opinion they often are, because there is rarely a respectful acknowledgement of the history and traditions that come with the story. For example both Mulan and Kung Fu Panda are based on traditional Chinese stories, history and traditions and yet Chinese directors and producers have not had the opportunity to tell these stories. Instead the people of China must watch an American perspective on their traditions and pay Hollywood for the privilege. Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride is based on a Ukranian folk tale that stems from a time when there were regular murders of Jewish brides on the way to their nuptials by anti semites. Heavy stuff, but c’mon Tim, shouldn’t the origins of a tale always be explored and acknowledged?
If I’m honest, it’s hard for me to complain about this, because I love a great deal of the work of Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks. With three children, many happy memories have been made going to the cinema to watch the latest animated release. I just can’t help myself. I love their original storytelling in Toy Story and Finding Nemo, and although The Lion King has it’s issues it pleases me that it has made it to the West End as a stage play with an all black cast. I was furious that Disney set a film in Africa and then failed to have a single black character (Tarzan). It was a step forward when The Princess and the Frog came out. Finally a black female protagonist, much to the delight of my two mixed race daughters. But then they go and try to take ownership of The Day of the Dead. Tut tut Disney. One step forward, two steps back. Money talks in Hollywood, but for me my role as a storyteller is clear. I am the respectful custodian of the stories I tell, they do not belong to me.