A better mousetrap

The wonderful worlds that Walt built are rendered at the Modern in Fort Worth

The section of Catherine Wagner's photographs of the parks, all uninhabited and glossy and morphed, makes for a great case of Twilight Zone jitters. Her take on the super-stylized interiors of Mickey and Minnie's "homes" is more subtly twisted than most filmic nightmares. Even more spooky: the ultra-fied versions of Italy's Piazza San Marco and Paris' Eiffel Tower. Why go see the real thing when in the world of Disney there are no gypsy children snagging your camera, no centuries-old grime, no haughty foreigners or signs written in gibberish?

And the crowning element: Walt's original vision of EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) and Project X--a real, neo-Orwellian city built for a limited population, its waste and traffic-efficient methodology borrowed from architect Victor Gruen. (The gnawing, underlying questions about this utopia: Who gets to live there? Is there population control? What industry supports its infrastructure?)

The show kicks off with the innocuous models of retro-charming Main Street and ends, without ever stating it, with Walt as Big Brother. For him, the theme park wasn't just a fun day out with the kids. It was a vision of how things could be. Not to scare you, but Hitler's all-time favorite film was Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Kindred spirits, anyone? After Walt's death in 1966, his inheritors toned down the extremes and turned EPCOT into a year-round world's fair, and Disney became a standard corporate giant.

In fact, Walt has of late been put under a critical microscope for his ideals. In 1993, Marc Eliot published Walt Disney: Dark Prince of Hollywood with an angle on Disney's dictatorial ship-running, visions of an elitist future, and discriminating practices. Disney may have nurtured Goofy and Donald and the gang, but he wasn't so fond of the great unwashed. Or, for that matter, illustrators and inkers who couldn't keep up with the animation studio's back-breaking daily quotas. Reassurance to him meant tight control. Was the Wonderful World of Disney ever the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed entity we thought it once was? Perhaps Eisner's version is a bit more generous than the original.

Correct me if I'm wrong. In The Little Mermaid, the first film marking Disney's contemporary reign after a recession slump, the bulging, mohawked octopus was intentionally modeled after the late Divine--John Waters' notorious drag-queen heroine who screwed everything in sight. Sounds like an improvement to me.

See the show for its design prowess. Leave the show with far bigger issues to ponder.

The Architecture of Reassurance: Designing the Disney Theme Parks is at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth through April 13. Admission is free. For info call (817) 738-9215.

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