Disneyland is a rare achievement, a location that popularized and cemented the consistent foothold of an entire industry: theme parks. There had been carnivals and fairs throughout the world for centuries, and places like Coney Island and Santa Claus Town (in Santa Claus, Indiana) already existed. But when Disneyland opened in Anaheim in 1955, it singlehandedly changed tourism. But in the nearly 60 years since, it has gone from a uniquely fanciful escape to a gargantuan symbol of cultivated corporate performance, an intricately complex clock with millions of moving parts all designed to project a façade that creates a specific experience while simultaneous shoving a vacuum hose into everyone’s wallet. It is a victim and perpetrator of the industry it helped to create.
“Familyland” is ostensibly an indictment of theme-park culture, specifically Disneyland, and a well-timed episode, just far enough away from the opening of a quasi-Disney biopic to let it fade from prestige award contention. Saving Mr. Banks is a patch job of history, timed to the anniversary of Mary Poppins and getting the eminently lovable Tom Hanks to play Walt Disney. Response to the film has been rather tepid, though Meryl Streep took it upon herself to laud Emma Thompson while tearing into Walt Disney (and forgetting to mention that P.L. Travers wasn’t exactly a kind lady). The facts of Streep’s speech aside, “Familyland” has fun poking at the long-rumored negative aspects of Disney’s personality.
Around the years depicted in Saving Mr. Banks, it was rumored that the Burbank police department deployed officers to ensure that Disney didn’t hurt anyone while using his car, because he was often too drunk to legally drive. (So goes the story told by my family members, who all lived near the Disney lot at the time.) That’s basically a suburban legend at this point, but it’s a good story, especially given what Saving Mr. Banks attempts to put forth with the Disney persona. That’s basically what goes on with the jokes in “Familyland”: broadsides based on anti-Semitism, racism, and antiquated gender politics.
The episode boils down to a rather generic “family preservation” message, as Francine laments how a second trip to Familyland is so different from her nostalgic memories of the past. Instead of sticking to her schedule, recreating a trip of tight-knit family moments, the rest of the Smiths divide up to check out the different equivalent representations of Disneyland theme areas. Stan checks out the Shame The Whore Parade in the Wild West zone (Frontierland); Steve gets stuck in a go-kart traffic jam in Cartoon City (Toon Town); Hayley attempts to prevent a costumed princess from telling young girls they have to find a husband and listen to everything he says (Fantasyland); and Roger marvels at the comedic outdated “accuracy” of space travel and other predictions of future society (Tomorrowland).
But because Francine loudly complains about how the park experience isn’t what she remembers, it awakens the cryogenically preserved Roy Family (a name which alludes to Walt’s brother and Disney Animation co-founder), who breaks out of his bronze statue to retake control of the park. After seeing mass gluttony and selfishness (and recoiling at an interracial couple), Family initiates the “Shut It Down, Shut It All Down” sequence—one of the episode’s best sight gags, as that’s different from both the “Shut It Down” and “Shut It All Down” options—creating a high-walled prison, trapping everyone inside the park.
The desolate landscape a week later has a bit of a “Rapture’s Delight” vibe, as Stan, Steve, Hayley, and Roger divide up the four areas of the park into kingdoms in miniature. Francine, left to wander the park with Klaus, discovers Simpler Times Mountain (Splash Mountain) and goes through an uncomfortable 25 minutes of racism before encountering Roy. He doesn’t have a long game planned. He simply wants to destroy everyone in the park, and for Francine to be his live-in mistress and 1950s housewife.
The statement of the episode becomes clear with Francine’s ride through Simpler Times Mountain: the pervasive, negative aspects of society cannot be excised through Roy’s brutal tactics, nor can the pastoral image of the cultural past be restored. And, given Family’s highly ignorant statements, going back to that perceived innocence wouldn’t actually be better. (Song Of The South is one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, because of its incredibly offensive approach to slavery, and the fact that the film has been buried by Disney but kept alive in the park through Splash Mountain remains a confusing bit of brand history.)
“Familyland” isn’t a particularly laugh-out-loud funny episode, but it’s sumptuously detailed, a travel episode that culminates with a giant battle scene between the Smith family armies. That fantasy sequence would be ridiculous, were it not for a theme park namesake coming back to life and espousing ignorant views in an attempt to restore the stability of nuclear families. The depth of the homage to Disney, and the fact that it felt like playful insults instead of character assassination, left me feeling satisfied by the whimsical fantasy of the scenario. American Dad creates a situation where it gets to destroy a direct recreation of an iconic theme park, but also critiques Francine’s nostalgia for a time that she just can’t get back. The message takes a back seat to spectacle, but I like that the show doesn’t always need to be far-reaching in its fanciful creations. By containing the plot to one location, even an expansive, diverse place like a theme park, the episode is more controlled and focused on rounding out the homage.
- Patrick Stewart’s narration is reliably funny, as it has been during other episodes where he serves as the faux-somber storyteller. Plus Avery reveals his family fetish, which is just creepy enough to be funny without being entirely off-putting, and does a dance that seems like it’s ripping off “Zou Bisou Bisou.”
- Disneyland, and other theme parks like it, are all-encompassing destinations that serve all needs without requiring guests to leave the immediate surrounding area. As a northern California kid, as I got older I preferred the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz, for its proximity to the beach and simpler layout—my favorite part of Disneyland is now California Adventure, which has many of the same aspects, more Beach Boys songs and less of the family fantasy film-come-to-life cosplay.
- Roger’s obsession with Trippin Balls—basically Dippin’ Dots—was hilarious.
- Steve will only eat fresh churros with the dipping sauce. Anything else is insufficient.