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December 10, 2013

What Does Disney Mean to You?

Has anybody reading this seen that movie Frozen yet?

The most I’ve seen of it outside of a couple of commercials (I only paid half my attention to, a poster, and maybe an online ad is Bob “MovieBob” Chipman’s review -- and the way he talked about it, it’s very nearly a revelation.  Obviously, reviews are only a suggestion of quality and not a confirmation of it, but I tend to take MovieBob’s words very seriously. 

Even if I didn’t, I have to admit I’m kind of interested in the movie.  I didn’t go see Tangled in theaters, but when I watched it on TV sometime later, I asked myself if I’d made a mistake in missing out.  Though I find it odd that they didn’t just call it Rapunzel instead of Tangled.  And why the poster has the Dreamworks Face in full force.  And now that I think about it, I wonder why promos for Frozen -- which could/should have been called The Snow Queen -- are more eager to show off a cloying mascot character instead of giving any indication as to the real meat of the movie, i.e. the depth that’s apparently a major part of what makes it actually…you know, good.   But what do I know?  I’m no Walt Disney.  Then again, I don’t have to be.   

It’s been a while -- no, this is probably the first time I’ve ever put any thought into Disney as a whole, but this is as good a time as any to challenge my perspective.

Let me back up a bit.  It’s worth mentioning that my brother and buddy are getting hyped for the upcoming 47 Ronin.  But given that the last time they got hyped for a movie I had to endure things like Man of Steel and The Wolverine, I have my reservations.  When asked if I was hyped -- and by extension, ready to see the movie -- I gave them a resounding “Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…”  Dear old big bro gave an answer for me, so it’s very likely that my fate (such as it is) is sealed. 

I don’t want to doubt the quality of a movie I haven’t even seen yet, so I’ll set my reservations aside.  But the reason why I delayed my response was because for a moment, I was genuinely considering making a different suggestion.  I thought about saying “You know what movie I want to see?  Frozen.”  But I held off; I was in the company of MANLY MAN MEN -- one of which still loves the abhorrent explosion-fest that is Resident Evil 6 -- and I had my doubts they’d take my suggestion of watching a movie starring two pretty princesses and NOT the standard-fare growling anti-hero seriously.    

But it got me thinking.  Main characters aside -- because as we all clearly know, males can never like or enjoy anything starring female characters, dood -- I started to wonder: is it really okay to go out of my way to watch a Disney movie?  The obvious answer to that, and the one I came up with seconds after asking, is “YES, OF COURSE YOU BIG FAT DUMMY.”  (Bear in mind that this is coming from someone who, along with his older brother, saw Toy Story 3 in theaters and had a good cry because of it.)  But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if I’d gone off on the wrong sort of tangent. 

So here’s the question that needs answering, by me and by you: what makes Disney good?

Well, relatively speaking, but I’ll get back to that.  Now, if I remember right, Disney as an organization -- and a movie-maker, obviously -- has been around since the forties.  (Turns out I wasn’t right; apparently it’s been here since the thirties.)  And Snow White was one of their earliest animated movies, making it by extension one of the first entries into the Animated Canon.  That’s quite a long time to be putting out movies, and while I haven’t seen every movie in the Canon -- The Black Cauldron, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Princess and the Frog elude me to this day -- it’s safe to say that everything from the techniques involved to the nature of these movies have evolved significantly.  As they should.  So it should go without saying that I hold Disney in some fairly high esteem.

They’ve earned that respect -- partly by way of the fear they’ve imparted.

Um…out of curiosity, this was something parents took their children to, wasn’t it?  I wonder if there were any awkward conversations on the way back home. 

I may not be an expert on the Canon, but my understanding of it -- accented by having played a whopping TWO Kingdom Hearts games -- is that Disney is capable of dishing out sugar as well as spice.  On one hand, it’ll take you on colorful, sprawling adventures; on the other, it’ll liberally turn its characters into hellish devils (if not having them appear just ‘cause).  On one hand, it’ll show off princesses looking for more in life and would-be heroes out to make a name -- or pretty penny -- for themselves; on the other, it’ll force people to experience extreme suffering and/or loss, either directly or in their backstories.  On one hand, it’ll almost inevitably give its leads a happy ending, and maybe a kiss for their troubles -- the perfect storybook ending; on the other, the journey there will almost inevitably force upon them their darkest hour. 

I guess what I’m getting at here is that Disney movies are kind of two-faced, dead-set on delighting one’s childish sensibilities while punishing them for even existing.  (It’s worth noting that there’s something called “Runaway Brain” floating out there in the ether, but given that the TV Tropes page alone makes me want to hide under the covers I dare not venture any further.)  Whatever the case, it just shows the mastery Disney has over “highs and lows”; by giving its audience humor, good spirits, and a sense of fun, it helps them get adjusted to the highs of the story, and something for them to sink their teeth into. 

BUT by adding in those highs, it makes the inevitable lows that much more brutal.  Aladdin riding high --literally -- with Princess Jasmine is tempered later on by Aladdin getting stranded in an arctic wasteland without the unlimited power of Robin Williams to save him.  Mulan triumphing in Chinese boot camp and becoming “one of the guys” gets tempered by her troop finding a devastated village.  And Snow White?  Showing the dwarves being happy and content with their new housemate makes the inevitable rash all the more affecting.  When a dwarf who by definition is supposed to be grumpy ends up ready to burst into tears, you know shit is seriously fucked.

In spite of all that, I think it’s safe to say that people don’t watch these movies (and to a lesser extent, the myriad cartoons) to be terrified or emotionally curb-stomped.  They watch it because they expect, and will be rewarded with, a movie that tickles their fancy in a way only the magical kingdom can.  There’s an inherent simplicity to these movies -- take a concept, the basic story beats straight out of a storybook, mix well with sugar -- that makes them easily digestible.  But it’s those magical moments that keep them memorable, from seeing some insane setpieces to hearing some impossibly-catchy songs.  The movies, by and large, understand how to inspire wonder in viewers of all ages.  It knows how to create an adventure.  And yes, I suppose it’s worth mentioning that it does know how to toss in a pretty princess or two.  There’s a stigma behind that, I know, but to be fair, it at least has connotations of royalty, prestige, and of course power.  Implied power rather than explicitly shown power, but the concept is still there.

That’s not to say Disney is entirely without fault, of course.  As a Kingdom Hearts fan (even if companies like Square-Enix and games like Birth by Sleep are making that VERY hard), one of my major concerns for the upcoming third game has been “Okay, what new levels are they going to put into the game?”  3D gave an answer of sorts by tossing in a Hunchback level, but it also included…a Tron Legacy level?  And KH2 had a Pirates of the Caribbean level?  Okay.  Tossing those in doesn’t automatically make the games bad, but it is an unnerving signal that the Canon might be running a little thin for comfort.  Like I said, I think Tangled is really good (even if I lament the loss of classic 2D animation), but when it, Frozen, and The Princess and the Frog are the only entries that come to mind in the past decade or so, and Pixar has taken the reins on delivering that animated goodness, I can’t help but feel a little worried.  Then again, that lack of content could feed into having my dream of a Mighty Ducks­-themed world in KH3 finally come true.

I’ve heard that Mickey Mouse has been supplanted as one of the world’s most recognizable characters in favor of Nintendo’s Mario, and possibly Superman IIRC.  And honestly, I can see why; it feels like Disney’s -- for lack of a better word -- been slacking off over the past few years, letting their stable and the Canon at large fall to the wayside, or coast on past victories instead of blazing ahead.  Alternatively, maybe it’s the Canon’s quality that’s been on the wane.  MovieBob suggested that Frozen is proof that Disney “finally figured out” how to get its groove back, and a part of me went “Really?”  But the more I think about it, the more I realize that the movies that have come out semi-recently have either failed to leave an impression on me (Treasure Planet, Atlantis), or been so unremarkable that I didn’t even bother sitting through them (Home on the Range, Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons).  Something has been lost.

I wonder if it’s part of some kind of transitional period.  That movie Enchanted -- if I remember right from the Nostalgia Critic’s look at it a year or so back -- seemed to make fun of the idea of Disney and its conceits rather than embrace and accept them.  I won’t pretend like Disney hasn’t set some dangerous precedents and put some less-than-flattering ideas into people all over, but personally, I never felt like Disney had to change.  I never felt like it had to make fun of itself, or apologize for doing what it did with gusto, or “reinvent” itself to get with the times.  What it did, it did with no shortage of conviction and talent (for better or worse), and people enjoyed that.  It was something inherent to its nature, and while I don’t think it needed to change, I respect that -- as evidenced by things like Mulan, Tarzan, and Lilo and Stitch -- there was an attempt at evolution that ultimately proved enjoyable, and I wonder what would have happened if it stayed on that path. 

All told, I think we need a juggernaut like Disney.  We need a corporation that, in spite of its flaws and business practices (which I’d prefer not to delve into here, for obvious reasons) has made a name for itself just by putting out amazing, unforgettable films over the course of decades.  They’re deliverers of fiction to the masses, taking ideas, concepts, or even previously-treaded ground and giving it a unique spin.  And that’s something to celebrate.  That’s something to be happy for.  Whether you’re a creator or not, you have to respect the awesome power the house that Mickey Mouse built wields.  They have the potential to keep entertaining us -- and if Frozen is any indication, it’s likely that they’ll keep on doing it for years to come.

And that’s about all I have to say about that.  Now, here’s where you come in. 

I’m in a good place with Disney right about now, but I have a pretty strong hunch that others don’t feel quite as receptive as I do.  Maybe they can’t separate Disney the creative force from Disney the corporation whose blood is made of money…and whose veins are made of more money.  So if you’ve got an opinion, feel free to weigh in.  How do you feel about the company and its output?  Do you think it’s got the juice to hang in this modern, “irony”-loving era of ours?  Got a favorite movie or song in mind?  Think the company’s responsible for instilling the worst in its audiences across the ages?  Now’s your chance for an all-out attack.  Get to those comments and let me hear what you think.

Just be wary of Chernabog.  He’s a bit of a cheeky one, as you can see.


  1. Honestly I think Disney is at it's best when it takes risks. I know why they don't take them though. Case and point, Emperor's New Groove. No one gave that movie the time of day because it dared to be a loose interpretation of a fable rather than a blatant version of it.

    That said it had nothing to do with the Emperor's New Clothes. It also broke up the rules. The 'main character' took up the role of the comedic sidekick, the cronie for the villain ended up stealing the show as the typical comedic sidekick, and the move assaulted you with witty humor.

    I hold it in the same regards as 'Animaniacs' and that's saying something.

    That said the classics are still good even if they're tired old tales. Art direction, humor, etc... But Disney impresses me when they pull a fast one. The fast one. You go in thinking its a cheap sell out movie for marketing and you end up finding a great deal of substance. Hopefully they can use that magic to save Star Wars.

  2. I haven't seen Frozen yet, but I also heard nothing but good things about it. Seems it's the dawn of another Disney Renaissance. Disney always had it's highs and it's lows and after the Nineties were extremely successful, it seems only natural that the next decade would be less so (eventhough Treasure Planet was one of the best Disney movies ever. Better than Lion King. Yeah. I said that.) I mean look at the Eighty's Disney movies. Most of them up until the Little Mermaid were pretty sub-par too.

    One the Topic of Kingdom Hearts: Are you planning to buy the two ReMIXes? I think you would be more appreciative of KH2 (and it's Final Mix) after playing Chain of Memories (which still has the best story in the series).

  3. *GASP*

    You never saw 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame'? WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU!!!!! TT-TT

    I kid, I kid. It was the first movie I saw in theaters when I was a kid. To say that film was my childhood is a ginormous understatement. My parents bought me anything and everything Hunchback-related, which worked out well in their favor since Disney spends a ton of its time denying the film ever existed. From toys to Esmerelda halloween costumes, to having blankets and wall decorations, Hunchback was my first real "fangirl obsession". So its pretty obvious that I squealed like a drug-induced maniac in public when I saw the DVD/Blu-ray combo pack earlier this year.

    But back then, my mom saw it herself first before taking me. The film didn't disturb me in the slightest (though the scene at the festival always broke my heart). Though I think Hunchback was what made me love epic orchestral music and a story with a dark tone. Kinda ironic that Disney of all things would make me like dark stuff - at least atmosphere-wise. The characters themselves are still lighthearted enough that no one fits the "tortured antihero" trope our media frequently and wrongly associates with "dark".

    So I guess that's the one credit I'll always give Disney. I enjoyed their other stuff, like Mulan and Little Mermaid, but nothing topped the movie that Disney really went out there with. The Lion King was another good step too, but I never found myself as invested. Still, I'd like Disney to make more interesting moves like them, try out more challenging stories, but still retain that family movie heart it cherishes so much. From what I've noticed lately (seen Brave and Princess and the Frog, but not Tangled or Frozen), they seem to be playing it safe. Too safe. That makes me sad, unless pissed off soccer moms really are conquering the world when I wasn't looking.

  4. ALL GLORY TO THE SOCCER MOMS! *insert hypnotoad sound effect here*

    To be fair, it's not as if I've never said "No! I'm never watching Hunchback because I hate high-quality things!" It just...I don't know, always slipped out of my fingers for some weird reason. As if the two of us couldn't occupy the same space at the same time, for whatever reason. Silly, trans-dimensional reasons. I should probably fix that one of these days.

    Interesting that your mom saw it first and then let you see it. Understandable, of course -- I'd imagine it was some sort of screening process -- but that makes me wonder if that's the case with Disney movies since then. Toy Story 3 was dark as all hell (and almost literally had hell in it for bonus points), and I'm pretty sure in the first five minutes the concept of death is flat-out taught to children watching with wide eyes. It's a sign that the Big D -- or Pixar, arguably -- still has its teeth, but I wonder if any given movie is worth a screening from parents beforehand. Then again, maybe they count on Disney precisely because it can teach kids about death and terror without having an awkward conversation.

    And yeah, I hear you on Brave. It's not a bad film, and I did enjoy it (even if my concentration was split since I was cleaning my laptop at the time), but thinking back it probably has the same problem as Enchanted -- it takes shots at a problem that isn't the absolute root of all evil it's made out to be at times, AND it feels like it's too complacent. Like it's making a statement about ten years too late, at least. Then again, IIRC Merida was the cause of and solution to the movie's problems, so that's something worth considering.

    Princesses! Just as likely to save the day as they are to doom their kingdom.

  5. I have seen Frozen, and for what it's worth I believe that it's well worth watching. I'm not sure if you've made yourself privy to any spoilers regarding it, but part of the reason why it's as good as it is probably lies with the fact that it's more, not self-aware per ce, but rather a lot more genre savvy than a lot of other Disney films have been to this point. Hell, there's a lot that I'd like to discuss, but I don't want to spoil you or anyone else on it.

  6. The way MovieBob was talking about the movie -- the third act, specifically -- there's something absolutely game-changing near the end...to the point where he wrote a separate post just to talk about the ending. It's a tantalizing prospect, to be sure, but I'll hold off on it for as long as my body will allow.

    It'll be interesting to see what happens next. How will people ultimately respond to Frozen? Is this the start of Disney's comeback? Time will tell.

    But I'll consider them "back" if they do what they should have done a long time ago: reboot The Mighty Ducks. The world needs the wisdom of Coach Bombay now more than ever. Or alternatively, more trick shots that -- dare I say it -- surpass even the almighty Knuckle Puck.

  7. Maybe people had problems with The Emperor's New Groove because it had David Spade in it? I've got nothing against the guy, mind, and I'd like to think people aren't so hate-filled that the presence of one actor is enough to completely shut down a movie, but who's to say? Or, I don't know, maybe it has something to do with an irrational distaste of llamas spread across the world's collective consciousness. Who's to say?

    That aside, it will be interesting to see what happens with the next Star Wars movies. I was under the impression that Disney was going to let Lucasfilms or JJ Abrams or whoever take control while the Big D offers support. But if they add in some creative effort, well, that'll be a sight to see.

    The Marvel movies have been doing pretty well for themselves, so maybe it's a sign of good things to come. Maybe the next movies won't be the worst thing ever made by a human besides the bagpipes. To paraphrase a certain crotchety murderer.

  8. Yeah, I've heard that The Little Mermaid was where things really started picking up for the Canon. I can't say with any certainty, though (like I said, I still need/want to check out The Black Cauldron), but what's important is that things have happened since -- some good, some bad. I'll tell you what, though -- if Frozen (and similarly, Tangled) is a sign of an incoming new Renaissance, then I might be saddling up to check out some Disney movies more often.

    As for Kingdom Hearts, I've thought about getting the remixed games but haven't really decided on taking the plunge. I played both 1 and 2 semi-recently, so I'd like to think I've gotten my fill for a while. On the other hand, I do need to check out CoM one way or another, so we'll see. If it'll make KH2 better, maybe it's worth it. Not that it's an awful game, of course; it's just that coming off of KH1 it kind of feels like a step backwards.

    Then again, compared to what would come up a few years later COUGHCOUGH The Lightning Saga COUGHHACKCOUGH it might as well be a masterpiece.