Being a Disney fan comes with many perks, one of which is... Having to frequently defend their works when those who aren't in the know take particular kinds of potshots at them.
Now criticism is always welcome, and if you've been here before, you'll know that I don't make excuses for the Mouse House for everything they do. I can be a huge admirer of them, but I can also be pretty harsh on them. To the point where it might rub some the wrong way. For everything the company does that I'm fond of, they do something that makes me want to run the company and do things my way.
For instance, today, I love what the company has going on on the animation side of things. Disney Animation's doing great, Pixar's still kicking. Aside from that, I love what's going on with Marvel, and let's not forget the oncoming tidal wave of awesome that'll be the Star Wars slate. So that's four things I think they're doing really right. Theme parks? Some things I love, some things I dislike. One thing Disney's doing today that I'm not fond of is making non-stop live-action remakes of their animated classics, whilst letting more original live-action projects languish. 2D has been unfairly shown the door again a couple years ago, and I think that whole "2D is no longer viable" nonsense has to stop. They also tend to mess up in the home media department, and often neglect titles that deserve a new release of sorts.
I could go on, but basically, I won't defend Disney all the time. There are things they do and have done that I'm not a fan of...
However, I think some people tend to stick it to Disney without any solid evidence to back up their snark. Disney animated features, I feel, tend to bear the brunt of this. You'll hear lots of things about the studio's 54-soon-to-be-55 classics, like Disney films being negative influences on children, or the many classic Disney heroines being bad role models for young girls, or... Walt Disney being Anti-Semitic. Sometimes it's annoying, sometimes it's kind of extreme.
I'll be focusing on the ones I consider annoying, though...
And brace yourselves, this is all opinion-based. I'm in complete, brutal honest mode here and I'm sure that's going to upset set, given that this is the Internet. I know I'll probably be "wrong" about what I believe concerning these Disney topics. That's the beauty of it though, different strokes for different folks...
Since Disney is so ingrained in pop culture, you probably don't have to watch a single Disney film to know the gist of the story... Everyone knows the exact plots of Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, Cinderella, and 101 Dalmatians, right? Well, it seems like we might know the plots had we not watched these classics. You can guess that Snow White involves an innocent girl who bites a poison apple, a prince who rescues her, dwarves, and an evil queen. Right? Well... Maybe not!
So I figured... Why not challenge some of these generalizations myself? Some do, I figured I'd do my part as well, with five generalizations about the animated classics that I... Well... Am not fond of. Perhaps I could reach out to other areas of the company, from TV to the theme parks to consumer products, but I figured I'd talk about the core... The animated features. Sorry folks, a response to Banksy's little coded message on how brainwashed we are by Disney theme parks' manufactured happiness will have to wait!
So without further ado...
#1. During the Disney Renaissance of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Disney animation was finally making animated films that were for adults...
This is perhaps the most annoying of the bunch, for me.
First off... Walt Disney was alive during a different time in Hollywood. A time when there was a little thing called the production code, or often called the Hays Code. The office didn't allow content in films that was above something like a hard PG. No graphic violence or sex, nothing they'd deem uncouth. Harsh language, too. The MPAA launched the fair rating system in 1968, which was roughly two years after Walt's passing.
Walt took animation seriously. It was his medium, and the early Mickey Mouse cartoons weren't made for a specific target audience. In 1928, Steamboat Willie was a picture made for... Audiences. Walt and his crew then unleashed Silly Symphony after Silly Symphony in the early-to-mid 1930s, exercises and experiments that prepared the studio for the bigger things to come... The feature-length motion pictures. They were also not "children's films".
The Disney studio spent a then-large $1.4 million on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first animated feature to be made by a major movie studio, and the first American one. Earlier features, such as the lost Argentinian film The Apostle (1917) and the German silhouette feature The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), got there first.
We all know how Hollywood snarked about Snow White, how it was "Disney's Folly", how Walt's wife Lillian and brother Roy O. tried to talk him out of making it, and how people asked "How is anyone going to sit through an 80-minute cartoon???"
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs ended up becoming the world's highest-grossing motion picture, and kept the record until the juggernaut Gone with the Wind surpassed it. Was it a children's film? It was not. Like Walt's earlier work, it was a picture made for people, regardless of what it was based on. Like other Hollywood pictures that adhered to the family-friendly code, Snow White was simply one of many pictures for general audiences.
Walt got criticism for the film's darker moments and the sequences that scared younger children, to which he responded that the film was not for children and that the studio makes movies for... The free-thinking adult! The film was actually the subject of controversy in some European countries due to its scary scenes. Walt was smart, for he knew that if he made a picture that was just for the kids, who would've paid good money (during the Great Depression no less) to see it? Did "strictly-for-kids films" even exist in the 1930s and 1940s?
Snow White rightfully garnered critical acclaim, Pinocchio was also acclaimed. Both features are considered landmarks of cinema by open-minded commentators. Fantasia was ahead of its time and it even angered some critics (the New York Times writer at the time compared the film to Nazism!), but nowadays it's recognized as another landmark of cinema. The more economic Dumbo was definitely well-liked back in 1941, and is also considered one of the all-time greats. Had the attack on Pearl Harbor never happened, the flying elephant himself would've been featured on the cover of TIME Magazine. Bambi polarized critics in 1942, but it is also now recognized as a masterpiece.
Why do you think that is?
It's not just the great animation and the technical wizardry, it's the storytelling. Snow White is so acclaimed because it's a great work of cinema, period. The same goes for Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi. Walt Disney and his studio were at their peak during this era, blowing the doors open and showing the world what possibilities animation had as a medium and an art form, surpassing many live-action films in the visual department and capturing imaginations of all ages. For example, Sergei Eisentein, the director of Battleship Potemkin, called Snow White the greatest film of all time. Celebrities like Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. were blown away by the film at its 1937 premiere.
The rapid fire experimentation and innovation all came to a halt because of World War II and the impact it had on the studio, though in the post-war years, experimentation and innovating had still come about in different areas. Maybe it wasn't in the features, but it was indeed elsewhere... 1959's Sleeping Beauty, perhaps, was the only ambitious, game-changing animated Walt film made during the post-war era. Sadly, Sleeping Beauty was a box office disappointment. The picture that lowered Walt's hopes when it had come to the animated medium.
After the war, Walt continued to make the family-friendly general audiences motion pictures he had made before. After Walt Disney had died in 1966, and after the posthumous release of The Jungle Book in 1967, the animation studio didn't wow audiences the way it used to for a little while. The Aristocats and Robin Hood were certainly big hits at the box office when they came out, but now the rating system was in place. G-rated entertainment like that was not bold, it was not with the times, it would become a bit passé. George Lucas' Star Wars had changed the family film game in 1977, with its edgy PG rating, its ambitions, and its excellent storytelling that was more in line with Walt's first five features than any contemporary Disney film from the time.
The 1960s and 1970s had also brought in a wave of cheaply-produced cartoons made strictly for children (and they would often be an excuse to sell some products) that would air on Saturday mornings. These cartoons, while harmless, pushed this sort of notion that animation was for kids. People growing at the time were sort of conditioned to think this way. Because Disney's classic animated films weren't on the level of the PG or R-rated films of the 1970s, they too were considered kids' films. Only something like Ralph Bakshi's X-rated films would get more critical attention and more consideration, for they were "adult" animated films with graphic violence, nudity, sexual content, and swearing. Disney cartoons didn't have all of that, therefore they were "just for kids" to lots of people...
The family film changed after Star Wars, and in the early-to-mid 80s we saw a lot of darker family fare that wore their PG ratings proudly. Disney didn't keep up, and when they tried with a string of PG-rated live-action films, it backfired. Perhaps had Ron Miller's tenure as CEO had continued, maybe he would've steered the company in an edgier direction? It seems like he wanted to go that way with the PG pictures and the decision to make The Black Cauldron something bigger in scope than the previous string of films, something a bit darker and more in line with Walt's films. In 1984, the PG-13 rating was invented, but Disney still stuck with the "lame-o" G rating. The Black Cauldron still managed to get a PG rating, but it was really not anymore frightening than the G-rated Walt films.
(For context, the classic Walt films got their ratings when they were theatrically re-released in the late 60s and early 70s. It's possible that the MPAA doesn't really re-rate films when it comes to home media, but only when films are theatrically re-released. The Wizard of Oz got a theatrical re-release two years ago, and got a PG instead of the G it always held. Grease was originally PG in 1978, but in 2010, the film came back to theaters and got a PG-13.)
Enter the Disney Renaissance...
New CEO Michael Eisner and animation Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, after some hassle, began to ramp up Disney's long-dormant animation studio. No longer would they produce stiff, old-timey pictures like Robin Hood and The Fox and the Hound, they would now make features that would be more energetic, more confident, and definitely more for the mainstream moviegoers. The Great Mouse Detective has a lot more energy than many of the 70s and early 80s Disney animated features, Oliver & Company too, as that was a truly contemporary picture. This of course would lead to a new Disney Golden Age...
The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King are indeed very good, well-made pictures. However, the notion that they are the first truly "adult" Disney animated films is silly. It's a slap in the face to Walt and his hard work, and his absolute dedication to bringing animation to new heights, not to mention his insistence that he didn't make films for children only. As I said before, Walt never intended his films for a single target audience, and he aimed the smarts at the adults while the kids could enjoy the films on their level. I'd actually argue that Disney's animation became more child-oriented in the 1990s.
To their credit, that quartet of blockbuster smashes - hence my exclusion of the great Rescuers Down Under, which sadly very few people saw - have some of the elements that made the best Walt films work: The storytelling in all four is solid, each packing emotional resonance. The four of them have some good comedy too, along with much-welcome darker moments. However, because people like Katzenberg still saw Disney animation as a "product" for "children first and foremost", there had to be a compromise. The ugly thing known as "executive meddling" had quite a lot of influence on three of these features. It's why The Lion King has unnecessary fart jokes and out-of-place pop cultural references, it's why Beauty and the Beast has an overly cartoonish and mood-clashing scene where the enchanted objects in the castle stop Gaston's mob, it's why a talking Happy Meal toy like Flounder exists in The Little Mermaid.
Aladdin, I feel, truly got almost everything right and did not pander. Aladdin tells you right from the first few minutes that it's going to be an irreverent, fourth wall-poking comedy. That way, the bouncier elements and the pop cultural references are hardly out-of-place when they are inserted into more intense moments. (The final battle with Jafar comes to mind.) Humor, I think, isn't easy to insert into a more serious moment. I think Walt and crew got it right, which is astounding. Remember the Monstro chase in Pinocchio? When Jiminy yells "Gesundheit!" at the whale's first sneeze, it doesn't shatter the mood. What follows, however, are minutes and minutes of mayhem and terror. No jokes here, for Pinocchio, Geppetto and the pets are being chased by a deadly whale! Walt played it straight.
In The Lion King, on the other hand, when Timon and Pumbaa comically take on Scar's hyenas and make awkward references to In the Heat of the Night during the epic battle for Pride Rock, it's a little jarring. Aladdin on the other hand knows it's not a serious drama like Lion King, it knows it's goofy, so the Genie's comedy during the final battle with Jafar works and is hilarious! I understand this is all a complete minority opinion, I really do. Comic relief can be great when put into a darker or tougher moment, but I feel with many of the 90s Disney films, especially after Lion King, it felt like the executives telling the animators "No, this is too intense! We have to lighten the load for the kids in the audience!" To me, that's talking down to the audience and the children in it. Walt didn't do that, as his films realized the scary moments through. Lampwick's transformation into a donkey didn't need a fart joke or Pinocchio making a forced reference to a contemporary movie. Bambi's last third didn't need a cheap joke to make the hunter invasion and ensuing fire a little less intense.
Everything meshes very well in Aladdin, and maybe some of the at-the-time jokes are dated, but they still didn't take away from the picture. When the film had to get a little more serious, it was believable, for the storytelling and character work shined. For a G-rated film, it's a real riot and it's incredibly hilarious. Anything that has a kid-friendly G-rating and is that funny, is doing something really right. Aladdin is closer to Who Framed Roger Rabbit than any of the other Renaissance-era Disney animated features. It aims at the adults first, though kids can watch it. No different from Walt's films.
It would only get worse after The Lion King. Pocahontas is an absolute mess and at times is a damn insulting film (not for the reasons one would expect, though), The Hunchback of Notre Dame is definitely a notes-riddled movie as evidenced by the film's audio commentary and the interfering gargoyles, Mulan commits the same sin and so does Tarzan. Then we all know what happened from there...
So the notion that these films are more "adult" than Walt's films, I think, is absolute bunk. I think some of these films, quite frankly, are more for children than any of Walt's animated classics...
#2. The Disney Renaissance films are more complex than anything that had come before them...
This ties in with the annoying belief that Walt made films that were only for children.
Even when the aforementioned 90s films aren't stooping down to please the 6-year-olds in the audience with fart jokes or unnecessary slapstick, how are they more "complex" than Walt's films?
Walt's films were very visceral, they didn't spell things out for the audience. Walt assumed the audience could pick up on the films' themes and story points without having everything be explained. The storytelling was there, the themes were there, it all wasn't hyper-obvious. Let's look at my pick for greatest Disney animated film... Pinocchio!
Pinocchio on the surface seems simple, but no, it isn't. Pinocchio himself is a child-like puppet, and he's not perfect. He's capable of making mistakes, he willfully lies in one scene and gives into temptation in many others, but he realizes his mistakes and does have a good heart. There are many visual moments that illustrate the consequences of his actions, and what happens in the story mirrors his choices. Jiminy Cricket makes some bad decisions on a whim, too, despite being good at heart. The villains are more representations of sins and ramifications rather than full-fledged, story-driving menaces. (Stromboli is greed and fame, the Coachman is temptation, etc.) Pinocchio is the villain, for he is his own worst enemy. Everything that happened to him and Geppetto could've all been averted had he simply said "no" to Foulfellow and Gideon... But he's naive, he's learning, so his gullibility isn't illogical. It gives the character... Depth.
Pinocchio is also one of Disney's darkest animated features. While there aren't any scenes containing graphic violence or anything of the PG-13 sort, the Pleasure Island sequence as a whole is unnerving to the adult viewer. Before Lampwick's transformation into a donkey, we fear for Pinocchio and a ton of children because we know something is up with a secluded island for little boys that's run by a shady-looking man who says they won't come back as... BOYS. That whole entire portion of the film is unsettling and uncomfortable.
Tie all of the above with some scary images that have sure given nightmares to generations of kids, and a strong emotional core, and you have a very well-rounded, complex film. What exactly does something like Beauty and the Beast have in it that makes it a much more valid and complex feature than anything Walt made? Even if the Renaissance features were more "complex", that doesn't make them "better". I see the word "complex" spewed so much when people talk about modern animated movies, but I have no idea what they're talking about. Sure, you'll get a real complex picture with lots of moving parts like Inside Out, but most of the films aren't doing anything differently from Walt's films. They aren't hyper-elaborate, intricate, clock-like films, and the fact that they have themes? That's nothing new!
It was certainly nothing new in the 90s as well. A majority of Walt Disney's animated features had it all: Tightly-constructed plots, immediately likable and relatable characters, a strong commitment to good storytelling, the gamut of emotions, deeper ideas and themes, and above all aimed to be... Entertaining to anyone who gave them a watch.
Also, don't get me started on pieces that say that Disney's films are too simplistic. I one time read a piece that unnecessarily, negatively compared Disney animation as a whole to Hayao Miyazaki. When I was done reading, I thought I had read "Reasons Why Miyazaki Is Better Than Disney". What upset me about the article was that it relied on generalizations, it made me think that the author hadn't seen any of Walt Disney's films. The author flat-out said that Disney films are always good-vs-evil stories, with clear cut good guys and "mustache-twirling" bad guys who are plotting evil. Some are, that is true. Snow White has the Queen, Sleeping Beauty has Maleficent. Other villains are either willfully cruel (like Lady Tremaine in Cinderella), others act off of fear (Shere Khan in The Jungle Book), some are more comical like Captain Hook or the Queen of Hearts. However, some Disney animated films... Aren't always about good guys and bad guys!
Walt's films didn't always have traditional scheming bad guy villains. If you've watched all of his 19 animated features, you would know that...
Since I already took apart Pinocchio, let's look at Dumbo. No one in that movie plans to do evil, diabolical things. There's no villain looking to take over the world! Or disrupt the circus. No, what makes Dumbo work so much is that the antagonists are simply cruel and prejudiced to a little elephant all because he has something that really differentiates him the others. The gossipy elephants pick on him, and condemn his mother for trying to protect him. They're just mean and cruel, nothing more. There's lots of people who are like that. If you've been bullied, you would know! However, they blindly believe that their cruelty is acceptable.
The Ringmaster is indeed a jerk, but he's also just doing what he thinks is acceptable. When he's shown in the film, there is not much of a sense of dread, the film treats him like he's one of the characters, regardless of what kind of person he is. His presence in the film is normal, whereas you get a different feeling when you see the Evil Queen or Lady Tremaine or Cruella de Vil. You see and feel they're evil, because they fit the bill of malicious and willfully harmful bad guys. Also, Dumbo's mother gets locked away because the humans perceive her protecting of Dumbo to be a threat. A big misunderstanding, which is also... A part of life! The gossipy elephants that pick on Dumbo are jerks, not towering menaces of doom. Sometimes people are cruel and prejudiced, and sometimes cruelty is considered a societal norm, ignorance is a real thing, and if you've ever picked up a history book, there's no need to say any more than that.
In the end, Dumbo is no longer picked on. The other elephants see that they were simply wrong, and best of all Mrs. Jumbo is freed and both are given their own special car. Sure, it took a little proving to get there, but that's life! Dumbo is pretty true to life, I'd say. No real, clear-cut "bad guys" planning to harm others. Instead the hurting comes from ignorance. I guess those who write off Walt's films either didn't see this film, or didn't pay attention when watching it. When it has to be spelled out, you know there's a problem...
Another favorite example is Bambi...
In Bambi, the hunter who takes Bambi's mother's life is never treated as a "bad guy". Nature is very much an antagonist here, "Man" is simply an antagonist because of the harm he brings to forest animals. Not only does Man bring harm to forest animals, winter weather does too. Man-made fire brings Man's death. Nature. Real life. No hunters saying "Hahaha! Let's kill some deer!"
One of the reasons why Bambi is so great as an environmental, pro-nature film is because it does not preach, at all. This is not an "anti-hunting" film, per se. It doesn't say that hunters are evil people. Making the hunter a character would've been a dreadful mistake that would've singlehandedly destroyed the film, let alone showing him. Is the hunter hunting for venison? Or the sport? Probably one of those, he's mostly likely not a scheming "hahaha!" baddie. Hunting for sport brings out quite a debate, and for a good reason, but does the average sport hunter plot evil? Or does the average sport hunter just not think twice about shooting a deer?
The film doesn't show the hunter or hunters, you only hear gunshots. The animals in the film never call humans "evil". They are certainly frightened of Man, because what they know is... Man will kill, nothing else. It creates a mystery of sorts, imagine being a forest animal not knowing what Man looks like, and that all you know is it'll kill you if you aren't careful. That adds a lot of depth to the world the filmmakers have established in the film. It's also a striking contrast from many animated films about animals where the critters know what humans do and what they're all about. Not once does an animal in the film refer to a hunter or human as bad, evil, what have you. "Man... Was in the forest." The supposedly much more mature British animated classic Watership Down commits that very sin. "Men have always hated us." "They'll never rest until they spoil the earth."
Cinderella's villain Lady Tremaine is indeed willfully mean and bad to Cinderella, but let's back up for a second. She's not seeking world domination or power, she already has power over her stepchild, and exerts it. I would say she's just an awful person, more so than a diabolical baddie. She's frequently called one of the most loathsome of Disney villains, and for a good reason. She may not kill anyone, nor does she really try... But the level of contempt she has for Cinderella is enough.
Lady and the Tramp doesn't have much of a bad guy-villain in it, either. Aunt Sara? She's just a temperamental type who isn't quite fond of dogs (because some people in real life aren't fond of dogs or pets, period) and tends to misunderstand way too much. Not a diabolical person, just someone who is kind of a pain in the ass. She means well, she just isn't quite the right person to leave with a dog. Si and Am are mischievous cats who are out for themselves, and they do get Lady in trouble, but we don't see them after that. They're really just a fun plot device with a sly, catchy song. The rat? The rat goes into the baby's room, but it's a rat! Of course they need it out of the baby's room for the baby's safety. It looks evil, sure, but that's because the animators wanted to emphasize the threat. No scheming dogcatchers, no evil dogs to be seen here. Some rough alley dogs chase Lady in one scene that Tramp fights off, why did they chase her? She was in heat. Vulnerable, smaller, high class dog goes on the wrong side of the tracks where undesirable bigger dogs that can easily take advantage of her roam, does that sound familiar?
If anything, Tramp's kind of the jerk of the movie, a womanizer and he mistreats Lady a few times till he finally gets it from her. Lady and the Tramp is a story about class differences, Lady's of the high class "Kennel Club set", living in her luxurious neighborhood. Tramp is the "lowly" stray bum on the other side of the tracks. You think all the two did was eat spaghetti? No, and Jock and Trusty propose to marry her, to essentially hide what had happened and to help her keep her pride. You think any kid would get all of that when watching the film? All the film needed were those conflicts alone, nothing else. No bad guys needed, here. Deeper than some may think, I'd say.
Lastly I'd like to thrown in Shere Khan from The Jungle Book. Shere Khan is an intimidating predatory animal, but his hatred of man stems from his fear. He would certainly be out of place in Bambi, but what's interesting is that his villainy is mostly derived from his desire not to get blown away by a gun. He see him hunt like a normal tiger, but once he learns of a human child lost in the jungle, he knows he can easily take him down. His oozes with confidence and smiles like a bad guy would, yet I think he's not your typical diabolical villain, either.
I could go on all day, but these are just a few examples. 90s Disney on the other hand, the "much more complex" 90s Disney films all have a clear-cut bad guy in them. Gaston, Jafar, Scar, Ratcliffe, Frollo, and so on. Bad guys looking to do something diabolical, and it was quite common. Films like Pocahontas definitely didn't need a scheming bad guy like Ratcliffe, an unnecessary antagonist whose inclusion singlehandedly negates the whole idea of prejudice and fear being an enemy. Walt's films sometimes had those kinds of baddies, sometimes they didn't. Thankfully, with some of the recent films, they don't do this. No big bads in Bolt and Winnie the Pooh, and some surprises come along the way. Some bad guys are definitely diabolical in the new films, like King Candy/Turbo and Hans, while others? Callaghan in Big Hero 6 wants revenge more than anything, no different from Hiro at one point in the film!
Even when you get down to it, the post-Walt films have a nice assortment of villains too. In the Renaissance we did see too many scheming, "power-hungry" types like Jafar, Scar, and Ratcliffe, yet we also got straight-up money-seeking scum like Clayton, and comical callbacks to Captain Hook like Yzma, and some rather complicated ones like John Silver. Brother Bear, despite the bad writing, has no bad guy in sight either, just some of the main characters causing problems for others or themselves. Meet The Robinsons has an antagonist who is more driven by anger than anything else, until his hat turns out to be the diabolical baddie.
Not to mention, the animation and visuals of the Walt films are top-notch, even today. The animators more than creatively worked within the limitations of the times. What did the Renaissance films really do that took animation above the classics? Aside from meshing computer-generated imagery with traditional animation, what really? The best animation in those films is equal to the best of the Walt films, not better. Both eras compliment each other.
I'd also like to add that Walt's films sometimes had abstract sequences or attempted to do what live-action couldn't ever think of doing. Watch 'Pink Elephants on Parade' in Dumbo, watch Bambi and Ronno fight in Bambi, watch Fantasia and The Three Caballeros... They did this stuff long before the Renaissance films did...
Thankfully they keep this tradition alive, though I did miss it when seeing Frozen and Big Hero 6... Moana looks to do this, though. Zootopia? Up in the air, but sequences like these always add a lovely touch, showing something animation can really do that live-action can't. Plus, I'm a fan of surrealism. Short films keep it alive, such as experimental and game-changing works like Paperman and Feast.
Perhaps those people who were so quick to call the likes of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King the greatest Disney animated features ever made were the types of people who "grew out" of Disney films when they reached adolescence prior to the 1980s/1990s, or maybe they were swept up in the hype that surrounded these films at the time. Disney themselves exacerbated it. It seems like that has carried over to today's generation of writers, who write rather ludicrous spiel that I feel disrespects Walt's work and everything Walt did for the medium. Walt and the animators' passions oozed all over his best animated films.
In the end, what is a film that both children and adults can enjoy equally? Not a children's film... A FAMILY film. Or how about just... A movie.
When Brad Bird - an animation mastermind for those of you who don't know - was questioned on his latest film Tomorrowland and how it looked a little "philosophical" for a "kids movie", he said he made the movie for people who love movies...
Now when Disney starts making hard PG or PG-13 animated films that very adult-oriented, then you can talk to me about Disney films have evolved or progressed...
#3. Previous Disney heroines aren't positive/progressive/good role models/etc...
This is probably equally as irritating as the belief that every Disney animated film made prior to the Renaissance was just for children...
What is it with critics/writers and their aggressive dismissal of several Disney animated heroines?
Even filmmakers fall prey to this. John Lasseter himself said in interviews that he wants to give audiences "stronger" female characters, ones that don't sit around waiting for someone to rescue them. A film like Frozen works off of that canon fodder, no different than the way DreamWorks' Shrek did fourteen years ago...
Snow White didn't wait for the unnamed prince to rescue her. When the prince came into her courtyard while she was singing, what did she do? Run into the castle. So much for wanting to "marry a man she just met." If anything, the man fell in love with her at first sight! Sure, she sang a little song called 'Some Day My Prince Will Come' before that prince showed up, but what's wrong with being a romantic? After she runs away from the castle after learning that her stepmother wants her dead, what does she do? She braves a dark forest and then stumbles upon an empty, messy house. What does she do? She takes initiative and has her new animal pals help her tidy it up. She finds out it's a home for seven dwarves, what does she do? She decides to stay there, knowing that she has a new place to stay since her home is inhabited by... Let's see, someone who wants her dead! Also, the dwarves are more than fine with her staying.
Only till then does she ever mention a prince, and sings that song again, but 'Some Day My Prince Will Come' is more her saying she wants love, not someone to rescue her. Never once does she say something like "when will someone rescue me?" She didn't need rescuing, she was safe and fine in the dwarves' home. She saved herself. She wanted love...
After biting the apple, sure she needed rescuing! You would too if you bit a poisoned apple that put you in an eternal slumber!
How do people miss these details? You know, for films that are supposedly not as "complex" as today's animated features, they seem to have elements and storytelling that modern film viewers miss. Even people like Mr. Lasseter! Shouldn't he, a Disney animation diehard who now runs the animation studio, know these things? The same goes for any Disney animation fan or anyone who views these films.
Cinderella? Cinderella puts up with the abuse she receives from her stepmother and stepsisters, and has put up with it for years and years. Yet Cinderella remains optimistic and hopeful, rather than depressed, or pessimistic, or not into dreaming of better things to come. "They can't order me to stop dreaming!" She even goes as far as being snarky to her oppressors. Some of her lines are actually funny! I also love the bit where she corrects them on the letter sent by the King regarding the ball. See, she doesn't mess around! But apparently she isn't strong or valid as a character. Perhaps she should break out of the house, or end her oppressors' lives. You know, go full G.I. Jane on the stepfamily. But instead she waited for things to get better, but what's wrong with that? After all she gets her way, and didn't need no prince to do it for her.
Unlike Snow White, she's not much of a romantic from the get-go. She wants to go to the ball just to get out of the house, more than anything. A night of much-needed freedom, to be with people, in a grand setting, and she totally jumps at that opportunity, she plays her cards right until the stepsisters rip her newly-made dress apart. Until the ball, she never mentions the prince, and she never says anything along the lines of "I wish someone will save me from this hell hole."
For the record, the film even takes a jab at fairy tale logic during the ball sequence. It beat Frozen to the punch, it beat Shrek to the punch, and it beat the Rocky & Bullwinkle's Fractured Fairy Tales to the punch...
"No doubt you saw the whole pretty picture in detail. The young prince bowing to the assembly. Suddenly, he stops. He looks up. For lo... there she stands. The girl of his dreams. Who she is or whence she came, he knows not, nor does he care, for his heart tells him that here, here is the maid predestined to be his bride. A pretty plot for fairy tales, Sire. But in real life, oh, no. No, it was foredoomed to failure."
After dancing with the Prince, does she take his hand and then escape her awful life? Nope, when midnight comes, she goes back home. She's kind of in love, you could say, after that. She never really outright says "I want to marry him!" or even implies that. Love at first sight is common in many stories, so why is it wrong here? The Prince is actually more determined to find her and marry her, as stated in the film, he immediately falls in love with her. "You can't marry a man you just met" indeed...
Lastly, the climax. She assists the animals in helping her get herself out of her room that she's been locked in, so it's not just the animals who rescue her from that situation. ("Get Bruno!") Then she arrives just in time to try on the glass slipper, but then Lady Tremaine trips the footman, the slipper shatters! All hope is lost, right? She saved the other one and held onto it, and she happily shows that she did so. What's that about her being a weak character again?
Not to mention she's relentlessly kind, looking for the best in others. Hey, she's that nice (to those who abuse her, no less) and optimistic despite everything that happens and has happened to her. She's a raging optimist, in the face of such bad things happening. If that isn't strong, I don't know what is...
Perhaps Cinderella is someone we can all take a page from...
Sleeping Beauty? Aurora was betrothed to Prince Phillip the day she was born. When meeting the prince for the first time, she doesn't fall in love with him right away, and actually would prefer to have her guardian fairies meet him first. Of course, she touches the spinning wheel spindle and falls into her deep sleep. Of course someone's going to have to save her, and it isn't Prince Phillip alone. The fairies aid him in saving her. Without them, he wouldn't have escape Maleficent's evil domicile nor would have gotten through the thorn forest. Prior to touching the spindle, Aurora wasn't some damsel in distress either.
I'm not going to go beyond that, because ever since Ariel hit the scene in 1989, there was talk about the new, progressive, "feminist" Disney princess. Then Belle was better, then Jasmine was better, then Mulan was better, and so on and so forth. It's funny how some people look at the newest Disney animated heroine and say "Wow! Finally! A feminist, progressive Disney heroine that doesn't sit around waiting for Prince Charming!" Yes, people say that about Anna and Elsa when Mulan already exists, that supposed "strong, progressive, feminist" Disney heroine. Did they all of a sudden forget that they praised someone like Mulan for the same thing they're praising Anna and Elsa for?
For the record, Anna is the first Disney animated heroine to proclaim that she wants to marry a man she just met. Oh Frozen, you are so clever and subversive and anti-fairy tale...
I bet when Moana comes out next fall, we're going to hear from a thousand think pieces about how "strong" Moana herself is, or how "progressive" the film is, or how she puts all those previous Disney heroines to shame. Anna and Elsa will no longer be "strong", they'll be just another set of anti-feminist heroines. The public will conveniently forget that they ever praised those two. Don't rule it out, I say.
As for marriage... Can we stop assuming the marriage always happened right away? Snow White ends with Snow and the Prince walking through the woods and to the Prince's castle. Cinderella shows the marriage, but there's a cross-fade between the slipper-wearing scene and the marriage. Maybe it happened months later, years even. The same goes for other Disney love stories, The Little Mermaid comes to mind. Tangled is perhaps the only one that specifies that the marriage came later, just in case the audience thought it would happen right away.
As for the whole "Disney tells you that you have to be beautiful to win in the end" spiel that Shrek had a field day with... Snow White and Cinderella certainly succeed because of their inner-beauty, not their appearances. Snow White is deemed the fairest in the land because of her inner-beauty, as the Queen is actually regarded as more beautiful, looks-wise. However, Snow White isn't an "ugly" character. Same goes for several Disney heroes and heroines. The Queen, before her transformation, isn't ugly either. Lady Tremaine isn't ugly, the stepsisters are. Why was the Witch so ugly though? Why were the stepsisters ugly? Because animation allowed the artists to exaggerate bad looks in go beyond live-action's limitations, and use that to emphasize how awful these characters were. The films aren't trying to tell people "If you're ugly, you won't get love. You won't get ahead. You won't win in the end." These are cinematic stories, not lesson-teaching devices. Animation simply allowed the studio to make a hyper-hideous witch, animation simply allowed the studio to make the stepsisters look very awkward and unattractive.
Lastly... Can we stop dictating what makes a female character valid? "Strong" can be cool when done right, but most of all, audiences deserve interesting, compelling female characters. There are also many different kinds of women in the world. Stories get to tell us about flawed men, many men that aren't strong at all. That's okay, but the female character has to be perfect, the badass, she must have no sign of weakness whatsoever. Now to me, that's kind of insulting. Flaws are one of the things that make good characters... Well... Good characters! We got just that with several Disney heroines, old and new.
The Disney heroines are all different characters with different personalities who do different things and go about things differently. You know, like real people! Plus, things are boring when every character is pretty much the same.
#4. Disney's efforts were safe during the post-war years...
Once in a while I'll see criticism of what Charles Solomon calls Disney's "Silver Age", the post-war years up until the release of The Jungle Book, though Mr. Solomon pinpoints the end of that era at the year 1960. Anyways, that era sometimes is criticized for being a pale shadow of what Disney was during the Golden Age, or that ambition had sort of ceased to be, or that the animation quality wasn't up to par, and that the stories weren't as edgy or great...
Roy O. Disney put it this way: "We were skinny and gaunt and we had no fat on our bones. Those were lost years for us."
It is certainly true that World War II's impact on the studio forced a lot of cutbacks. No longer could Walt Disney and his crew make animated features that had the visual complexity of Pinocchio, they had to be more in line with what we saw in Dumbo or the theatrical shorts. Since there wasn't enough resources to do a full single-story animated feature after the United States entered the war, shorts production resumed and features would be anthology films composed of short segments. This lasted for quite a while, until Walt finally took the gamble, made a new single-story feature, and was justified in his decision.
The package features tend to be overlooked, though within those pictures lie some interesting, sometimes oddball tidbits of Disney animation...
Some visual experimentation peaked through, though. The Three Caballeros is quite psychedelic and has different art styles in many different scenes, along with early meshing of animation and live-action. The art direction in features like Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland embraces smaller budgets, and Mary Blair's fingerprints are all over those films. Both have at least one surreal or trippy moment that takes advantage of the medium ('Sweet, Sweet Nightingale', 'The Card March'). It is indeed true that much of Cinderella is grounded by the reliance on live-action reference footage, and I'm not the biggest fan of the Disney live-action-based human characters' designs of the era, but yet they still have appeal and are highly believable when well-written. The more abstract-looking characters in the early-to-mid 50s films have the better, more interesting designs.
Sleeping Beauty would be the last animated film of Walt's that would go back to the ambitions of the Golden Age films, the return to the expensive animated feature with lavish visuals that would be so intricate. It even had its own unique art style and character design scheme. It's very much dominated by the work of artist Eyvind Earle. It sadly flopped. The animation staff was severely cut down as a result, the Xerography process was introduced, features would cost even less... Yet with some features and works from this era, Disney once again embraced the limitations and tried new things.
101 Dalmatians is one of the only Xerox era Disney animated films that really stands out, and one that actually works because of the format it was done in. The scratchy look that Xerography produced is indeed a divisive one to this day. Walt hated it, a good chunk of animation fans today don't care for it, and I'm more than happy that Disney put the lid on it in the 1980s because the characters in those films look like they have a war of scribbles going on inside of them in some scenes. Though I will say, it works better on furry and hairy characters. Imperfection is beauty, yes, but stuff like that isn't what Walt strove for. Actually, when the look is used for experimental or more avant-garde purposes, it's a delight. Ever see the 2000 Disney animated short John Henry? The character animation in it harks back to the Xerography of the 60s and feels like a more modern 101 Dalmatians, it's an absolute gem. That's because it chooses that style, the 60s and 70s Disney animated films didn't have much of a choice.
Dalmatians' backgrounds drench themselves in the Xerox look, and today the film is a visual anomaly in the Disney animation library. Many post-Dalmatians films aren't as successful. The Sword in the Stone is a very weird meshing of Dalmatians' art direction and something I'd call "Diet Sleeping Beauty". The Jungle Book's backgrounds are very lavish but the scratchiness kind of clashes with them, the Winnie the Pooh shorts go for a storybook look so that way the scratchiness works. The Aristocats has a little bit of that Dalmatians look, but nothing particularly jumps out. Robin Hood's overall look is more like a Saturday morning cartoon. Of course, by the mid-1970s, the technology was improved and we saw less scratchy scribble wars going on inside the drawings, and we finally started to see smoother Xerox lines.
This reminds me... I'd love to see Disney animation do a 2D animated film with a Victorian etching aesthetic. Wouldn't that look great or what?
Let's also not forget some other experiments. In the mid-1950s, we saw some Disney shorts - such as Toot, Whistle, Plunk & Boom and Paul Bunyan - take cues from the UPA, who were redefining animation in the post-war years with their minimalism. The studio even tried stop-motion for the 1959 short Noah's Ark.
So now we get to the storytelling...
A good chunk of the features eschewed the dark visuals and frightening sequences of the early films, but yet some of them didn't. Cinderella certainly doesn't have the darker or scarier moments that Snow White and Pinocchio had, but it didn't need them. Peter Pan could've indeed used some, out of the 1950s films I feel the film is perhaps too lighthearted for its own good and indeed on the safer side. Lady and the Tramp has the rat fight, as the story itself was decidedly not a darker one.
Maybe if the frights were minimal in the 1950s and 1960s, they were still there. The 'Mickey & the Beanstalk' segment of Fun & Fancy Free has an arguably terrifying scene of Donald Duck going berserk out of starvation, attempting to axe a cow. The Adventures of Ichabod & Mr. Toad is a good one, too! The first story, while lighthearted and never scary, is still about a character who is quite materialistic and gets too obsessed with new things at the expense of his associates. The second story is the one everyone remembers, because of the scary Headless Horseman chase! But yet outside of that, Ichabod is a character who is completely out for himself, even to the point of wanting to marry someone just for their riches, and to inherit riches from said person's father who will eventually kick the bucket! Kind of a grey, non-heroic type.
Alice in Wonderland? The studio's upside-down portrayal of Wonderland is indeed madcap and unpredictable, almost coldly uninviting in many ways. In that film, characters go from pleasant to unpleasant at the drop of a hat. There's a weird vibe to the place, and the film knows it, from little details like a black-and-white sky clashing with colored surfaces to sometimes light and sometimes shadowy Tulgey Wood. Lady and the Tramp has a pretty intense climax where Tramp fights a rat in a room at night, on top of having a thematic story about class. Sleeping Beauty brought back the early day frights in the form of Maleficent.
The edgier ideas were being ported over to live-action, as films like Treasure Island and Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier would garner PG ratings in the future. Other stories would go down some darker paths, too...
Some short films, perhaps, got a little safe in areas. The Donald Duck and Goofy shorts of the 1940s and 1950s though, some of them are truly very funny. Maybe they're not Looney Tunes or MGM-era Tom & Jerry, but a lot of the cartoons work in their own right.
Above all though, despite the lack of certain frills, good storytelling was still a #1 priority within the animation building. Entertainment was still there, but best of all some ambition still shined through...
#5. Disneyification is inherently wrong...
Certainly a more subjective one, for this one I think is up to you. If you are in the know and have a good argument for disliking Disney's takes on pre-existing source material, that is fine, for you have done your research and you work off of your educated opinions, with a dash of your personal tastes...
But for those who will dismiss anything Disney just because it may go against the source material, well...
I'm a story guy. I write, and though I'm not into adapting previously-written stories, I wouldn't mind taking a crack at it. For me, personally, I don't want to touch something and change it, but I'm not everyone else, and I completely understand that some things in books don't translate to the big screen. One of the most important things to me is this in a movie adaptation of something, going solely by being a writer... Is it good on its own?
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and countless other Disney adaptations are always called "dumbed down", or "watered down", or simply bad because they aren't like the source material.
Here's my thing.
Walt Disney retold stories. Adaptations are basically changed versions of things. Adapt means to change to suit something. Books and films are two different mediums, some things work better in books than they do in movies, some things work better in movies than they do in books. The same goes for everything else: Comic books, TV shows, video games, what have you.
Whether you like how Walt and his crew adapted these stories or not, again, that is all subjective.
But to reject an adaptation just because it's not the original, I think, is unfair. I always cringe when people say "the book is better". Why does it have to be better? Can't the book work in its own way, ditto the film? If you personally prefer the book, that's fine, and vice versa.
To reject an adaptation because it's not edgier or more graphic, I think, is also unfair. Disney has adapted several arguably family-unfriendly stories, and the rub many people have is that the film adaptations aren't edgy or dark enough. To me, there's more to a good story than just violence or content that's inappropriate for the young. Now, needless sanitizing also isn't good. Let's use the Queen's death in Snow White as an example. Snow White doesn't end with the Queen dancing herself to death in red hot iron shoes. Does it have to, though? Would some onscreen graphic violence make Walt Disney's film better? Would an f-bomb or something make it better? For me, I'm quite fine with her fate in the Disney film: Struck by lightning, falls off of a cliff, boulder crushes her, then vultures eat her. They don't show it, but it did happen! Had it ended with her turning nice and throwing a cutesy tea party for everyone, then I'd be rankled!
Disney, I think, still retained the dark punch of stories they've adapted. It's not like they completely sanitized these stories, if you want to call it that. Most of the Disney films have terrified generations of young children, without bloody violence. Sometimes a scary image is more than enough.
If you don't want to see the studio's take on the story and you'd prefer the one with the red iron shoes ending, that version will always exist. Sure, the Disney version might be the well-known one, but the other one exists. It won't be deleted from existence. Now I know some may have a problem with people knowing and celebrating the version they don't like, but... The mainstream world won't always work the way you want it to. I'd prefer if the mainstream crowd considered Pinocchio to be the greatest Disney animated film of all time and not Beauty and the Beast, but that doesn't change my views on Beauty and the Beast.
As far as I'm concerned, something like Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a great story with appealing characters, great comedic moments, a lot of emotion and heart, suspenseful situations, some strong dark moments, and a very well-structured script. It is not the Grimm brothers' Snow White, it's Walt Disney's Snow White. If you prefer the Grimm version, that's great. If you gravitate towards Walt's, that's also great. If you love both the same, that's great! The big question is... Does Walt's version work for what it is?
If it does... What's the issue?
Apply this to every other Disney animated film that's based on pre-existing source material, and... Well, I think you get the point.