Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers, Disney’s latest live-action largely re-imagining of a cherished nostalgic title, was launched on Disney+ last week as part of its quest to remake every single aspect of pre-existing IP in its massive library of material.
This fresh take on the TV cartoon of the same name, directed by Akiva Schaffer of The Lonely Island fame, features an all-star ensemble of modern comedy favorites and has received critical acclaim for its blend of animation styles, voice acting, and meta-gags.
This is maybe Disney’s most iconic film in years, edging closer to a DreamWorks title than anything else from the usually sincere House of Mouse.
There are Muppets, Ninja Turtles, Roger Rabbit obviously an inspiration for this film, old and new fairy-tale characters, and the original awful CGI Sonic the Hedgehog from the live-action film, who was replaced after the popular reaction.
If you’re my age or older, you’ll chuckle a lot, but I’m not sure how well this will appeal to the target audience of kids.
Do they give a damn about R. Crumb’s work or convention circuit jokes? However, one joke, in particular, has raised some legitimate concerns regarding the film’s aim and Disney’s overall role in pop culture discourse.
Sweet Pete, played by an always-enthusiastic Will Arnett, is the story’s villain. He’s the grown-up counterpart of Disney’s Peter Pan, now a chubby gangster who gets a lot of flak for his weight.
Until puberty hit, he was the studio’s darling, their up-and-coming adorable young hero. He’s now hairy and chubby, and he runs a cartoon bootlegging operation.
If you’re unfamiliar with Disney’s version of Peter Pan, the setup appears to be a clear take on how young stars are dumped by the system as they grow older. It feels a lot darker if you know who Bobby Driscoll is.
In Disney’s adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s famous novel, Robert Cletus Driscoll portrayed Peter. He began acting like a kid at the age of five and quickly rose through the ranks at MGM, landing his first film role at the age of five. Prior to being head-hunted by Disney, he worked with Myrna Loy, Anne Baxter, and Lionel Barrymore.
He was one of Walt Disney’s first signings, and he went on to play the lead youngster in Song of the South. He and his co-star Luana Patten were dubbed Disney’s “sweetheart duo,” the ideal kid performers for the American big screen after WWII.
Driscoll would go on to play in the studio’s blockbuster hits Treasure Island and So Dear to My Heart, winning a special Young Academy Award for outstanding juvenile actor in 1949 in March 1950. He was described by Walt Disney as “the living incarnation of his own youth,” therefore he was an obvious choice for the role of Peter Pan, the never-growing-up youngster.
But all of that changed when Driscoll began to mature. At the tender age of 16, Disney no longer saw him as a “likable” leading man. He had signed a deal with Disney that ran until 1965, but it was terminated three years early. Disney was said to have had issues with Driscoll getting pimples as a teenager.
Driscoll struggled to find a job after that and was teased at school because he was a Disney kid. He became addicted to narcotics and was arrested for possession several times.
He had little roles here and there, but he could never escape the shadow of being Uncle Walt’s favorite child star. His remains were discovered in a desolate East Village tenement building in 1968.
Heart failure aggravated by drug use was revealed to be the cause of death after an autopsy. His remains remained unclaimed for nearly a year until his mother made an attempt to locate him. He was 31.
Viewers and commentators have debated whether Schaffer and screenwriters Dan Gregor and Doug Mand created this joke in reference to Driscoll’s tragic death. To be honest, it’s easy to argue both sides, and your personal viewpoint will almost certainly be influenced by your existing knowledge of the story.
I immediately thought of Driscoll when I watched this moment, but I don’t expect every child in the audience to be aware of or care about him. They have no reason to. But then again, why would they be aware of 80% of the film’s bizarre meta jokes?
This is far from the first time we’ve seen a pop culture narrative about an angry former child actor. There’s a reason why such a concept has taken root in our heads. It’s not like we’re short of material, especially considering the film and television industries are basically built on the soul-sucking use of minors.
Although the rules have improved, they have not kept pace with the rise of internet celebrities and the resulting flood of youth exploitation in the name of content. We could spend all day cataloging former child stars who battled addiction, abuse, and public ridicule over the last century or so.
Our society’s default frame of thought is that of the degraded child star. It feels more inescapable than botox or reality TV appearances because we have become accustomed to it. That’s because in part of people like Driscoll, who is the most devastating example of the Walt Disney Company’s commodification and appropriation of the entire concept of childhood.
Such a bleak period in history is ripe for re-discovery and possibly even satire. Given their penetrating and brutal critique of the music industry in the underappreciated Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, the Lonely Island boys could have been the perfect choice for such a scenario.
Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers gives them the benefit of the doubt because they know how to punch up in hilariously foolish ways.
Great satire, on the other hand, is dependent on context, which includes the platform. Of all, spitting in Mickey Mouse’s face on his own territory takes nerve, but when he’s the one signing the check, how far can you go? When the monarch pays the jesters, how much can you really insult him?
Disney, more than any other studio or big global brand, has a tight grip on its IPs and overall image. They’ve been strengthening their grip on pop culture for decades, and they’ve molded themselves into the rosiest vision of ‘your youth’ we can conceive.
Nobody has weaponized nostalgia more effectively than Disney in a world obsessed with it. They began inserting more self-aware fourth-wall gags into their work after receiving criticism for being too po-faced and not ‘cool’ like their competition see the complete Shrek joke.
Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers is very much a part of this twenty-first-century tendency, a method for Disney to spoof itself without offending anyone.
It’s a roast where the honoree gets to vote on the jokes ahead of time. Disney getting to poke fun at a young man whose life they squandered? It’s understandable that some people might be offended.
If nothing else, I hope this discussion prompts people to remember Bobby Driscoll and the horrifying cycle of exploiting children until they dare to be autonomous beings rather than pretty toys. Disney has no intention of ceasing to exploit children.