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Sundance movie review: 'The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales' a compelling Disney expose

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Sundance movie review: 'The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales' a compelling Disney expose
"The American Dream and Other Fairy Tails" documents a protest for higher Disneyland wages. Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 26 (UPI) -- A documentary about income inequality may sound like a downer. So The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales, which premiered virtually at the Sundance Film Festival, uses the lure of a Disney expose as a microcosm to illustrate broader social issues.

Directed by Abigail E. Disney and Kathleen Hughes, and produced by Susan Disney Lord and Tim Disney, The American Dream follows several employees, or Cast Members, of Disneyland. From 2018 to 2021, Disneyland Cast Members fought for better pay and showed Abigail the hardships under which they live.

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Abigail, Susan and Tim are the grandchildren of Roy O. Disney, Walt's brother and company co-founder, and children of Roy E. Disney, who was on the Disney board of directors. Abigail says she has no official role in the Disney company, but still earns money from family stocks.

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Cast Members Ralph and his wife, Trina, struggle to raise three daughters on two $15-per-hour incomes. They get 75 cents an hour more for working 11:30 p.m.-to-8 a.m. shifts.

They currently live with Trina's mother because they cannot afford a home or rent in Anaheim, Calif. Following Ralph and Trina to a food bank to gather enough to feed their daughters is a stark visual.

Artemis has an unstable housing situation because living in Anaheim or Orange County is prohibitive on their salaries. Ellie becomes a union organizer at age 26. The union won the $15 minimum wage before the beginning of the film, but labor experts estimate a living wage in Anaheim to be $24.

The Cast Members endure because they believe in the park and what it does for families. Many are on food stamps, sleep in their cars and/or can't afford healthcare on their wages. Tearful soundbites from the Cast Members keep the film from becoming a pedantic history or economics lesson.

There are no representatives of the pro Disney camp in the film, but journalists and scholars speak to the broader context of employee issues.

Abigail emails then Disney CEO Bob Iger about her concerns, and he does reply. Iger blames the government for his workers' situation and claims a pay increase wouldn't solve their problems. Iger also refers Abigail to human resources to discuss the company's education program.

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Abigail then takes a look at the history of Disneyland and the Walt Disney Co. to figure out what changed since her grandfather was in charge. There still was an income gap between the CEO and and park employees, but it was smaller. There were fewer bonuses and stock options.

But, Abigail finds her grandfather and grand-uncle were not just better bosses out of the kindness of their hearts. Unions were more powerful in Walt and Roy O.'s era, and the government created laws and regulations that supported unions and employees.

Corporate taxes also were higher, but Disney still managed to profit and survive to the present.

Some of the scholars teach Abigail about another issue outside of her purview -- that the middle class that thrived during Walt and Roy O.'s time was predominantly White. Disney also had a reputation for whitewashing, as archival footage shows a happy Aunt Jemima and Frontierland "Indians" dancing in the park.

Abigail also outlines the political movements that favored capitalism and corporations. The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales posits that business leaders and lobbyists orchestrated a campaign of anti-government, anti-union and anti-regulation rhetoric, going so far as to influence business school curriculum.

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It may sound like an outrageous conspiracy theory, but Abigail has material to back it up. There is President Reagan's famous trickle-down economics policy. Celebrity economist Milton Friedman made a lot of public appearances championing the cause of which Abigail accuses him.

The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales talks about the emergence of "greed is good" philosophy without ever using the clip of Michael Douglas in Wall Street. Friedman and others have already discussed it in appearances that predate the 1987 Oliver Stone film.

This is a lot for a 90-minute film to cover, and there's more.

The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales touches on the city of Anaheim subsidizing Disneyland's parking lot. The film covers the COVID-19 pandemic, and earlier policies of the Michael Eisner era.

By the time the viewer reaches the end, one realizes they've learned a lot about economics and labor, as well as how the Disney sausage is made.

Abigail appears in the movie, but she's not a Michael Moore-like comic figure. She is as relatable as a wealthy filmmaker can be, a self-admitted Disney stockholder who is a philanthropist arguing against high CEO salaries.

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Abigail films some conversations she has with her sister, Susan, in which they discuss Iger's email response and other issues. Those portions of the film feel a bit performative.

Their purpose is to articulate some of the concepts necessary to transition through the documentary, and they serve that purpose, but don't really sound like a casual conversation.

During one of those, Abigail articulates how complicated the situation is. She gives Iger the benefit of the doubt that he cannot just simply raise wages to $24 an hour. If he did, the stock would plummet and the shareholders would oust him from the company.

Surely the next CEO would reinstate lower wages, so there's no quick fix to this problem that's been metastasizing for decades.

The filmmakers did reach out to Disney for comment. A representative replied, "At Disney, our Cast has always been and continues to be our top priority." The representative further touted the company's free online education, subsidized child care and health insurance offered to Cast Members.

The Cast Members in the film refute the value of those claims. Ellie says she can't use Disney's offering for her business school education. Ralph and Trina can't afford the health care premiums. Still, strides are being made by the end of the film, such as a raise to $18.50 an hour by 2023.

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The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales does a good job of making a complicated issue digestible, and more entertaining than an economics lecture. It puts faces on the people who bring you Disneyland magic and offers solutions, so it's not just pessimistic.

It may not be the whole story, but it's a fair call to action to begin rectifying an unfeasible system.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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