Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Fork Films and Chicago Media Project releases the film in Orlando theaters on Friday, September 16, with theatrical and VOD to follow on Friday, September 23.
Depending on your perspective, Abigail Disney is either a) the exact right person to take aim at her family’s (you know, that Disney family) legacy or b) an ungrateful trust fund brat who should just enjoy the fruits of her forebears’ labor. No one knows that better than Emmy-winning filmmaker and activist Disney, the granddaughter of Disney co-founder Roy Disney and great-niece of Walt Disney, who has spent decades of her life attempting to do good with both her voice (big) and her money (bigger). In 2019, Disney’s social activism, filmmaking career, and family interest collided in spectacular fashion when she took aim at The Walt Disney Company and its then-CEO Bob Iger in a series of tweets calling out Iger’s “insane” salary.
What Disney did drew instant attention, of course, and she soon found herself hitting the media trail (TV appearances, Washington Post op-ed, and even a hearing before the House Financial Services Committee). As both the star and co-director of “The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales” — again made with her “Armor of Light” co-director Kathleen Hughes — Disney takes her audience back to the genesis of that tweet storm and the work that has followed, work that always seems to provoke a response, many of them directly in response to Disney’s own name.
In seeking to justify and explain her position as a believer in the necessity of pay equality, Disney and Hughes pile on the research, talking heads, and history lessons, and while much of the information shared in “The American Dream” is stunning, tenuous threads and too-zippy pacing keep it from landing with much impact. There are at least four documentaries shoved inside “The American Dream” — none of them fully fleshed out, all of them compelling — but the one on offer here mostly disappoints because of how much more Disney and Hughes clearly have to say.
In trying to package her message for wider consumption, and perhaps to stave off the kind of horrific blowback she got after those initial tweets, Disney flattens her passion. In even-keeled voiceover, Disney walks us through her family history (one truly born of a “bootstraps, rags to riches” mentality), explains how she came to be caught up in the Disney labor dispute, and uses some decidedly non Disney-esque animation to describe her creeping realization that her family was of a different stripe. She sits at her kitchen table to talk through her concerns with her big sister, chats about some bad emails with Iger to her son while making dinner, and generally tries her hardest to remind viewers that this is a personal, important issue for her.
Unquestionably, it is. Disney’s bonafides as a philanthropist and activist are hard won, and she’s endured plenty of slings and arrows to get there. Making “The American Dream” is a smart way to explain the issues to a wide assortment of viewers, and couching it in both personal experience and a wide range of historical notations is certainly clever. But the dissonance on offer — Disney ruminating on the problems workers face while sitting in her well-appointed penthouse — is impossible to overlook. Disney’s intentions are pure, but both the substance and the style of “The American Dream” fall tremendously short of her intentions.
In 2018, a Disney Parks worker contacted Disney on Facebook to ask for her assistance in bridging the yawning pay equality gap between everyday “cast members” and heavy-hitters like Iger — who at the time made 2,000 times more every year than the average parks custodian. That request soon felt like a calling to Disney. While she’s never been involved with company on a professional level, her admiration for her grandfather and great uncle and what they built is clear (also clear: her pride in her own father’s early attempts to help workers, for which he was roundly dismissed).
Disney introduces us to that same worker (Ralph), plus a handful of others as they share the painful details of their lives, caught between their affection for the Disney way of life and an economic climate that makes it impossible for them to achieve the most basic elements of the American Dream, even while working full-time for one of the most famous and profitable companies in the world. Sticking with these employees would make for a fine enough documentary, especially as the film’s reach stretches through the early days of COVID (and the furloughing and layoffs that followed), but Disney and Hughes also feel compelled to add some heavy history lessons that detract from the initially personal feel of the doc.
And, again, these elements are compelling and interesting and often stunning, but the on-screen effect is jumbled and scattered. In short order, Disney and Hughes attempt to tackle the full history of the collective social contract, the relationship between labor unions and the American government, the basis of “free market” ideology, ethical evolutions in the country, and systemic racism. All of these issues factor into the problems with The Walt Disney Company and other profit-mad corporations, but in a film that clocks in under two hours, the breakneck pace in which these topics unfurl leaves zero space for contemplation or consideration.
Disney and Hughes’ doc has more impact and punch when it gets more pointed, like during a first-act sequence that sees Disney berated by Republican lawmakers during her hearing — asking for a livable wage is socialism, they all but scream at her, how dare she get angry at a company that does such good for its people! — while the Disney workers we’ve just met spend their off hours helping out at a food pantry… for fellow Disney workers. An entire documentary like that? Now that’s one that hurts, the kind that can enact the change Disney is so desperate for, the kind the very people who first begged Disney for her help could truly benefit from.
“The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.