Disney’s Creative And Moral Decline
Disney added colour to my childhood in so many ways. I listened to my cassette soundtrack of ‘Pocahontas’ so much it broke. I still listen to it on YouTube now. I used to pine for October when the next Disney feature was scheduled to come out. As an adult, I went back through the old classics and watched them again with the same joy and wonder I felt as a child. There’s no other brand whose products I’ve been as familiar with so consistently from childhood to adulthood.
Until recently, I used to still look forward to Disney’s new releases. To my despair, however, Disney is now completely committed to rewriting and remaking all its past classics with the intention of addressing every bad faith critique of what are, at their crux, wholesome children’s movies. Making children’s movies for bad faith critics rather than, well, children has proved as disastrous as it sounds. All the charm and joy of the originals have been sucked out these live-action remakes.
As critic Chris Stuckmann points out during his review of ‘The Lion King’ remake: having realistic lions means the emotional expression of the characters is limited by the medium allowing the powerful and colourful emotional moments of the original to fall flat in comparison.
Disney films were successful because they were fantasy and fairy tale. Not only is it odd to see fantasy fairy tales play out in the style of realism but dropping today’s political issues into medieval fantasy settings just feels so tortured. The 2017 ‘Beauty and the Beast’ remake is a prime offender here.
Musicals, in particular, require a great deal of suspension of disbelieve. That’s why they suit animated or highly stylised movies more so than works of realism. Lindsay Ellis has already talked at length about this:
Disney seems to have forgotten that their movies worked because they were animated not in spite of or regardless of it. Some forms of storytelling don’t suit realism and Disney’s classic animated movies definitely don’t suit realism.
This works the other way around too. Tom Stoppard’s highly stylised 2012 film, ‘Anna Karenina’ tanked with both critics and movie goers alike. Leo Tolstoy is the literary king of realism. Having a story written with painstaking realism shoved into a highly stylised pantomime unsurprisingly grated with audiences.
The only “life-action remake” that has really worked for me was ‘Maleficent’ (2014) and owes its success with audiences to it being a completely original storyline to ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (1959) with fully developed characters and an alternative plot. ‘Maleficent’ is also not a musical.
It doesn’t feel like a Disney movie though. I still respect it for being a highly original take. It’s a gritty rape allegory that feels jarring and moving in equal measure. But its success created a different type of monster.
The live-action remakes that followed weren’t highly original retellings from a different perspective. They were either shot-by-shot retellings e.g. ‘The Lion King’ (2019) of movies we’d seen before or retellings that attempt to correct perceived flaws with the original e.g. ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (2017).
Does Disney really feel that rewriting its past so they can silence bad faith critics is the most important thing they should be concentrating on right now? Or is worse than that?
Is Disney simply incapable of making new, original movies?
For a company like Disney to give precedent to shoddy remakes of its old intellectual and creative works, over investing in new creative ventures, shows both creative — and I would argue moral — decline.
I get that these movies make money, but they do so because of nostalgia for the originals. It’s milking fans rather than prviding them with new sources of entertainment.
At the end of the Disney Renaissance (1989–1999), the company began to make bad choices because they did not understand why their movies were successful in the first place.
Disney animated films are usually whimsical romantic comedy musicals with some intense drama in the third act followed by a ‘happily ever after’ ending. In all the most successful Disney classics the protagonist and the love interest end up together at the end.
When ‘Pocahontas’ and ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ proved to be less successful with critics towards the end of the 1990s, Disney studio execs panicked and changed their strategy.
But ‘Pocahontas’ and ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ were not comedies; they were musical dramas. They also depart from previous Disney Renaissance films in that neither protagonist in either film ends up with their love interest.
Happy endings matter!
I would argue that the source of these stories made them less suitable as a basis for Disney movies anyway. ‘The ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’ is not a book with a ‘happily ever after’. [Hell no…]
The Disney Renaissance officially ended with ‘Tarzan’ (1999), despite being a box office success.
‘Tarzan’ fell flatter with audiences and I think the above explanation from the Sideways YouTube channel hits the nail on the head of why that is. It’s yet another abandonment of the original formula. Disney changed its strategy based on the lack of success of films that didn’t follow the formula of previous successes. This, coupled with Pixar making an entirely different type of animated film, meant execs killed off the Disney animated classic — I would say prematurely.
The 2000s were not a happy time for Disney. I have to think so much harder to name a Disney movie from this period than I do to name a Disney movie from the 1990s. The one redeeming feature of this decade was when Disney cemented its already close relationship with Pixar. All my favourite animated movies from this period are Pixar movies, rather than Disney movies.
But then came the 2010s and the success of ‘Tangled’ (2010), ‘Frozen’ (2013) and ‘Moana’ (2016) which follow the original formula of the most successful Disney Renaissance movies prove that Disney was wrong to abandon their traditional animated storytelling.
The first two were both romantic comedy musicals with strong scripts and charming animation. ‘Frozen’ in particular turns so much of what we have come to expect from Disney on its head — but it still remains faithful to the winning formula!
‘Moana’ is a little different in that it has no romantic storyline — but making the decision to not include that type of storyline altogether works better than having the protagonist and the love-interest not end up together at the end.
Just when I thought Disney was back on track, they go and start making the live-action remakes in the mid-2010s. I thought these would be clever retellings in the vein of ‘Maleficent’ in 2014 — but then…
‘The Beauty and the Beast’ came out in 2017. It was the same movie as the original but with added lip-service to every bad faith critic who ever watched the original movie with added unnecessary exposition and backstory.
‘The Lion King’ remake was a shot for shot remake of the original with less humour and personality. Then they remade ‘Aladdin’ without Robin Williams. So I just stopped watching. Somethings just don’t need to be remade. The rot hasn’t just set in; it’s company policy.
Creatively, I don’t have much hope for Disney anymore. I wish they’d just get back to making good, entertaining animated family movies — with a happy ending!
So enduring is the majority of Disney’s creative output, the company can make a whole streaming service based largely on content we have already seen (Disney+) but will pay to see again.
Disney is one of the few media companies rich enough to take risks on new material and new talent whilst still staying in the black by milking its back catalogue. To see a company that used to be defined by innovation and imagination coast on nostalgia for the stuff it’s already done makes me feel icky.
Disney could easily be investing in more animators and storytellers. Disney could hire groups of writers, lock them in a room until they come up with new scripts without even noticing the expense. I say this as a writer who would love to move into writing for movies and film: we are plentiful and cheap. Los Angeles is filled with brilliant people at the beginning of their careers who would be grateful for so much as a crumb.
Without investment primarily in new projects, the live-action remakes feel even more like shameless cash-grabs. It’s like Disney is saying: “We just want your money so here’s something you liked before.” Disney has given up any pretence of holding up its side of the bargain. What I want from Disney are more original animated family movies where the characters sings an “I want…” song and the protagonist and the love interest end up together. What I’m getting is content that looks as regurgitated as it is.
Either Disney has forgotten what made it successful in the first place — or it just doesn’t care about its fans anymore. It’s either a wholly creative decline or both a moral and a creative decline. Disney abandoning its fans whilst still expecting them to hand over their money is bad enough. But to then consistently fail at investing in new talent, new writing, new ideas, new projects and new content just adds insult to injury.
I sincerely hope Disney finds its way back soon.
Thank you for reading — I hope you found my thoughts interesting. Agree with me? Don’t agree with me? Let me know either way: @Sayde_Scarlett