Universal’s world of Harry Potter presents a challenge to an established version of magic.

Breaking Disney’s Spell?


Once upon a time there was a movie called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

The 1937 production wasn’t just Walt Disney’s first feature-length animated film, it was also his first major attempt to define “magic.” I’m talking about the wicked queen and her mystic mirror, as well as the enchantment of “love’s first kiss.”

Snow White, of course, was a hit. And for the next 60 years, Uncle Walt & Co. continued to shape and refine their version of magic in the popular imagination. When Mickey Mouse famously donned a wizard’s hat in the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” section of Fantasia, it was as if Disney were staking his claim to the crown of enchantment.

This version of magic reigned supreme until 1997, when J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was published in England. Soon, there were seven novels that swept the world and inspired a hit Warner Bros. movie series.

Now, with the opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando this spring, these two competing versions of magic are encamping in Central Florida, within a magic spell’s throw of each other. The stakes aren’t just the hearts and minds of kids of all ages, but big-time dollars, too.

What makes Rowling’s magic different from Disney’s version?

Disney’s idea of enchantment is expansive enough to include sorcerers, genies and mermaids. But more than anything else, it’s about fairies—from Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother to Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy, Peter Pan’s Tinker Bell to Sleeping Beauty’s fairy trio, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather.

Basically, it’s an all-American re-imagining of the hocus-pocus found mainly in the European stories and fairytales on which so many of the company’s classics are based. The magical characters, both good and evil, belong to a totally fanciful realm in some distant storybook past—a world with few similarities to our own.

Rowling’s version of magic, meanwhile, is almost a parody of ordinary, present-day, middle-class British life.

The world of Harry Potter is centered at a wizardry school that—with its cliques, quirky professors and team sports (Quidditch)—brings to mind a typical English boarding school. (Even the name Harry Potter strikes me as deliberately mundane.)

How did Disney’s seemingly unshakable lock on the enchantment franchise come to be challenged by a British upstart? And what does it say about the spirit of our times that Rowling’s more reality-based magic has so swiftly become so phenomenally popular?

This is all part of how the popular culture continually evolves—a story of ruthless Darwinian renewal.

And that, my dear muggles, is no fairytale.

Exit the Critic


Anyone who cares about theater—and local theater, in particular—knows that Elizabeth Maupin has made a difference. As the Orlando Sentinel’s theater critic for more than a quarter century, she attended—and wrote about—stage productions big and small, good and bad, far and wide. And without diminishing the merits of her specific insights, the simple fact that she paid close attention to the theater scene here and diligently shared her discoveries with her readers helped to raise the bar for local productions. Maupin left her job at the Sentinel in February because, as she noted on her blog, there “are some other things I want to do with my life—books to read, places to see, clay to throw.” She has earned our gratitude and, of course, our very best wishes.

Categories: News and Features