Monday, August 13, 2018

The Disney Identity

Beloved Reader:  (long tired sigh) Okay, you old fart, why are you mad a Disney Princess movies?

Cataline: Glad you asked.

Did you notice that the latest Disney villain kind of sucked?

He shouldn't have.  Tomatoa had a great little song that was written by the over-rated Lin-Manuel Miranda  and performed by the under-rated Jemaine Clement.  

He was well designed.  And for as brief a time as he had on screen, he still managed to pass Cataline's Character Test.  You can describe the character of Tomatoa without referring to anything he said or did.  And that's a good thing because he didn't get a chance to say or do all that much.

He was barely there at all.  In fact you could excise Tomatoa from the story completely and you wouldn't notice he was gone.  

From a plot perspective there was no reason to include him at all.  Why have villain if he's not going to matter to the film at all?

The answer is tradition.  Moana is a Disney Princess movie and that means they have to have a Disney Villain.  Even if they don't.

That didn't use to be the case.  Back in Walt's day, the villain drove the plot.  The villain provided both the conflict and the MacGuffin that moved the story forward. Defeating the villain was always the climax of the story.

The characters were set and the conflict was external.  It was Man versus Man.  Or to be more accurate Princess Versus Evil Queen but you get my point.

The Little Mermaid was almost the last of true Disney Princess movies that followed this formula.*  The characters were pretty much the same at the end as they were at the beginning.  Perhaps a little wiser for having learned an important life lesson about giving into temptation but that was it, in terms of character development, because they character didn't need to develop.  It was a film for little girls and it wasn't supposed to teach them to be anything other than little girls.

For those of you who weren't around at the time.  Disney was having some major problems in those days.  For better than a decade it had had an anemic corporate leadership that spent all it's time wandering around asking itself, "what would Walt do?"  After having barely fought off a corporate raid that would have gutted out the entire company, Walt's son-in-law was fired and Michael Eisner was brought in to helm the Disney.  

Little Mermaid was one of Eisner's first projects and it was a huge success.  So he went to it's creative team and asked, "What else have you got for me?"

The answer was that they had this terrific idea.  Treasure Island but in SPACE!

Eisner blinked for a moment and said, "I'll think about it...maybe. But in the meantime, Richard Williams looks like he's finally going to complete the movie that he has been making for thirty freaking years; The Thief and the Cobbler.**  Come up with your own Arabian Nights themed movie and beat that one to the boxoffice.  Make sure it has a thief in it."

A little disappointed the animators left the Presence.

Animator 1: So what do we do?

Animator 2: Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves?  

Animator 1: Nah, too violent for a kid's movie.  How about Aladdin?

Animator 2: Well, not too violent but Aladdin isn't a thief either.

Animator 1: He is now.

Animator 2: Isn't this making a thief the hero a little problematic for a Disney movie?

And the answer to this question changed everything.

Animator 1: Not if we make a him a better person by the end of the story.  Aladdin's journey to becoming a better man is the real story here.  Everything else is incidental and in service to this goal. 

Animator 2: Brilliant!  Let's do lunch

Aladdin was where they first changed the nature of the conflict to Man versus Himself. The conflict became internal and it was all about identity.  Jaffar was a pretty good villain even if the parrot managed to be even more annoying than Robin Williams.  But the climax of the story was Aladdin's adopting a new identity as a more noble version of himself.  Casting off the glamour of being a fake prince to become a real one. Defeating Jaffar was the Anti-climax.  Just some cleaning up that needed to be taken care of.

Aladdin cost 30 million to make and raked in about half a billion world wide which made it something of a hit.  So the Animators went back to Eisner.

Animator 1: So about Treasure SPACE!

Eisner: That still sounds kind of original.  What else is out there that you can you rip off?  Anime is starting to take off now right?  Some Japanamation kid's thing, maybe?

Animator 2: What like Kimba the White Lion?

Eisner: Sounds perfect! Simba the Lion or whatever.  I already love it!

The theme of identity was explored more thoroughly and quite explicitly in the Lion King.  The Prince who blames himself for the death of his father the Great King and abandons his identity, to run off into the forest and live as a wastrel. Again the climax of the film isn't defeating his uncle Scar.  It is when Simba chooses to reassume his identity.  Although this time it is the prince as Hero and and Redeemer.  This is literally one of the oldest stories there is.  The first telling of it being the murder of the god Osiris by his brother Set and his son Horace avenging his father, then ascending his throne.

Another well known aspect of the Lion King was the fact that it was viewed as an African-American Disney movie, even if it starred Mathew Broderick and half the cast was White.

Preening is very important to Lefties and at a boxoffice haul of three quarter of a billion dollars world wide, there was a lot to preen about.  The Lion King proved to them that they could both virtue signal and make a shitload of money.  Everyone was delighted with the result.

Animator 1: So about Treasure Island in...

Eisner: No.  Look we have a really good thing going here with ethnically friendly animation,  Jim Hawkins in SPACE is not ethnically friendly because being English just ain't ethnic.

Animator 2: Well what if we make Jim...

Eisner: Not. Ethinic.  Also see if you can make it a Princess Movie.  Beauty and the Beast raked in north of 400 million world wide.  If we make an Ethnic Princess Movie we should crack a billion, easy.

Pocahontas, made 300 million world wide so it could hardly be viewed as a failure but when you are expecting a billion it's no reason to cheer either.

After a bit of soul searching Disney decided there was nothing wrong with their formula, it's just that the story didn't really give the protagonist a lot to do except be romanced by John Smith.  Yes, she was exploring her identity as a Native American Princess but she was almost a passive character in her own story.

Eisner:  Okay, we'll try this again but this time we need a more actively heroic Princess.

Animator 1:  What's in it for us?

Eisner (hangs head):  Make us money and I'll green light Treasure Planet.

After digging they came up with the more or less true story of Fa Mulan.

In Mulan the Disney Identity quest becomes the absolutely central MacGuffin that all other events are in service to.

Look at me
You may think you see
Who I really am
But you'll never know me
Every day
It's as if I play a part
Now I see
If I wear a mask
I can fool the world
But I cannot fool my heart
Who is that girl I see
Staring straight back at me?
When will my reflection show
Who I am inside?

From that time on, the formula would be set in stone.

It was a call to reject traditional values and adopt new ones.

This was a concerted effort to plant the seeds of feminism in little girl's minds.

And that is the answer to your question Beloved Reader.  That is what is wrong with Disney Identity movies.

*Beauty and the Beast was produced more or less concurrently with Aladdin and came out a year earlier. 

**The Thief and the Cobbler is yet another Hollywood tragedy.  Richard Miller really did work on this project for thirty years.  It had some of the most beautiful and amazing artwork ever drawn.  When Warner Brothers agreed to finance it to completion they assumed ownership of it.  When Miller went over budget they fired him and hired a completely talentless hack to finish it.  And that man just butchered it.

If you do take a look at it, keep in mind that ALL of this was done by hand.  There were no computers involved at all.


Mr. Bee said...

Nice analysis of Disney animated storytelling during the Eisner era. The best thing Eisner did was to make Disney so huge nobody would take it over. Which is also the worst thing, as now Disney is answerable to nobody but the left media monolith.

LBD said...

Three gold balls? This was a story about a pawn shop?

Chris Lutz said...

It was also when Disney pretty much gave up on boys as an audience.

Heterodox said...

Wow. WOW. The Vizeer, the King, the Princess, all ripped off - right down to their looks. That is just blatant. I wonder how Disney's animators felt about doing that.

Skyler the Weird said...

Just wait til the SJW'S discover the fat shaming in Wall-E. It'll disappear like Brer Rabbit.

Nate Winchester said...

For those curious about Disney in that time, the background vids here are good.