Confronting the Specter of Copyright Law in 'Kingdom Hearts II'
Is Steamboat Mickey under threat? Or is the ability to remix the past an opportunity?
All screenshots courtesy Disney/Square Enix
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
This article contains spoilers for Kingdom Hearts II.
Kingdom Hearts 3 is out later this month, but this week I cannot stop thinking about this one moment in Kingdom Hearts 2: Protagonist Sora and his buddies Donald Duck and Goofy are summoned to Disney Castle. It’s a fantastical location, a video game version of the place everyone takes pictures in front of, and it is precisely this fantastical quality that is in danger. After all, Disney Castle is the seat of King Mickey and Queen Minnie, the sovereigns that project power out into the pseudo-space between the worlds that make up the Kingdom Hearts experience. Queen Minnie explains that this throne of power is, in fact, in danger.
It is in danger because the Cornerstone of Light, a device that prevents Disney Castle from being attacked by the world-threatening Heartless, has been compromised. In a strange turn of events, big bad Maleficent was so cruel to her employee (and original villain) Pete that his sadness and consternation opened a time-travel portal into the deep past of Disney. In the past, Pete is threatening and stealing the Cornerstone. And so Sora and crew have to travel back there to save it.
From the perspective of a game, this is all setup to get these characters back in time to the Timeless River, a mashup world of early Disney shorts that have Mickey Mouse and the attending side characters running around and doing profoundly silly things. The world situates itself in a Kingdom Hearts context by reminding you that it’s not all Aladdin and Ariel, that Disney has a core, that it all emerged from something which was once wholly strange and alien. Disney the creator, not Disney the intellectual property management corporation.
This is reflected in the attitudes of the people you meet on the Timeless River. You meet the Pete from that era. He’s grumpy about his lazy assistant Mickey, but he’s not commanding a military of heart-stealing creatures. The people who live on the river are full of hope for the upcoming Disney Castle, which is going to be built soon, and by looking around the environment you realize that you’re standing on the ground upon which this massive entertainment enterprise is going to be constructed. And you’re playing in the aesthetic space, the temperment, of that world.
Of course our heroes do what they were trying to do. They defeat evil Pete, save the Cornerstone of Light, and return to their original time to tell Queen Minnie that everything has been solved. But there’s a moment of friction and tension that happens at the end, and that’s what I find so compelling about the Timeless River.
Donald doesn’t want to leave. “Wait,” he yells. “As long as we’re here…”
He can’t finish his sentence. Sora and Goofy shout him down. They grab his arms and drag him to the portal to take him back home, open the door, and bodily toss him through it. They smile and play it for laughs, like he’s the most ridiculous person who ever existed for wanting to dive into the primordial ooze that produced him in order to create something more to his liking. The game can’t help but play it for laughs because to play it as anything else, and god forbid if you played it straight, it would be too disturbing. Whatever Donald wants to do here in the past is literally unspeakable and unknowable for the plot of Kingdom Hearts II. Any kind of tampering with the source code of the Disney enterprise is strictly off-limits.
It’s interesting to see this moment of friction in the game during the same week that a remarkable thing happened: works from 1923 entered into the public domain. We’re currently in a weird time for copyright law (and The Atlantic has you covered if you really want to know the ins and outs), but the thing that’s worth noting is that the current way that copyright works is bound up in Mickey Mouse and Disney’s desire to control the rascally rat’s image from Steamboat Willie. The shape of the intellectual property that literally defines a massive amount of the aesthetic life of the 20th and ongoing 21st century is threatened by change, by augmentation, and by competing interpretations.
Donald Duck’s desire for change is lurking in the Disney enterprise. He’s that change. He’s a rogue agent, the gremlin in the system, and he wants to détourne this whole operation. Or maybe he just wants to stack the deck in his own favor. When he wants to go back in time and tamper, is he trying to unseat the future king? Is Donald Duck trying to assume the throne by manipulating time?
We don’t know, and I gauge that it’s hard to imagine because of the sheer gravity that Disney has. We can’t imagine Donald Duck being the king, or any of these things being different, because there’s a canonicity to the entire Disney intellectual property stable. Mickey is the king not because of narrative or logic or mechanical necessity, but because he’s the most valuable property, the marquee mouse, the symbolic king that founds this whole thing.
...Disney’s enforcers are even in their fiction...
History is a weird thing. It creates the foundations from which the world we live in emerge, but we’re also creating it all the time. We’re looking backward to find moments that mattered, and making them matter in the present. We tactically read the march of material, and we block some things out and choose to highlight others. The fantasy of the time travel plot is that we could do that directly, that we could annihilate competing narratives and set up a foundation in our own image. Every time travel plot is, at its core, an attempt to draw some kind of favorable look. Donald Duck is just John Connor creating himself or Marvin Berry making a phone call.
When I played through that scene in Kingdom Hearts II, all I could see was a kind of silly melancholy, an on-face ridiculous idea that Donald Duck could do anything to shift the historical weight of Disney. We might re-read certain things, and our thoughts about history might change, but Disney’s enforcers are even in their fiction. Sora and Goofy throw Donald out of that gate, and it’s a statement about how the past doesn’t change. Disney is Disney. No tampering.
It’ll be interesting to see if Steamboat Willie enters the public domain in 2024 as current law says it should.