Monday, July 20, 2009

What Disney Does To You (And Me)

I am a child of Disney. Actually, wait. Change that. I am a half-child of Disney. Call me a step-child of Disney if you want, which helps with the familiar characterization (which ironically enough is of course endorsed by Disney in Cinderella) of the step-parent (which here is Disney, keep up) as an outwardly lovely but privately absolutely evil taskmaster. Anyway, I call myself a half-child of Disney because while, like all other children in the Western world, me and my siblings were raised on Disney movies- Beauty and the Beast and Fantasia remain to this day two of my all-time favourites- but we weren't, unlike almost everyone of my age I've since encountered, raised on all of them. We may have practically worn out those videotapes of Bambi and Sleeping Beauty, but I didn't see The Lion King or Aladdin until I was sixteen (at the imploring of a schoolfriend), and I have somehow managed to live thus far without ever setting my eyes on Pinocchio.

To get more sharply to my point, the other night I finally got around to filling another gaping hole in my Disney checklist, the vaunted 1989 film The Little Mermaid. Disney, as you might expect, removes all the rough edges from Hans Christian Andersen's dark fairy tale, and changes the original spiritual ending for their traditional romantic one of prince and princess living happily ever after. Still, it's a pleasant concoction, buoyed by a fantastically ripe villain in Ursula the Sea-Witch and, of course, the bizarrely (but wonderfully) Jamaican crab Sebastian, who provides the film's highlight in the sensuous 'Kiss the Girl'. Indeed, if I'd seen all this as a child, I'd most likely have fallen head over heels in love with it, have watched it countless times, and been able to recount it all to you now- as I probably could right now with Beauty and the Beast, with which all the aforementioned things did happen. As I've just turned twenty-one, things aren't quite the same. Which makes it more apparent than ever that what these Disney films rely on, deeply, is nostalgia. The youthful mind is probably unlikely to question the idea of sixteen-year-old marrying... well, simply marrying, really, or make the eyes roll at the alarming superiority shot through in Ariel's wistful song about wanting to be human. I could probably go and pick holes in Beauty and the Beast in a similar manner, but I don't want to. If I watched it now, I wouldn't question it at all. But I can't help doing it when coming fresh to The Little Mermaid. My analytical thought processes can't resist it.

It's interesting to look at Disney now. Their traditional hand-drawn animations lost their lustre when compared to Pixar's cleverer animation and conceptualizations of the various worlds they set their stories in. They left their princess stories behind- Pocahontas is probably the last one that could fit that mold- and inspiration, as well as monetary success, tailed off. So what of this December's The Princess and the Frog, the studio's first 2D-animated theatrical release in five years? The title obviously gives away that this is indeed a return to their princess mold, and the trailer promises that it will be "in the tradition of Walt Disney's most beloved classics". I could pick holes in that (the unusually arrogant nature of the prince, which must surely be changed over the narrative; the New Orleans setting, probably ripe for more caricature than ever if they're not careful), but I'm wondering who the audience for this is. Do today's kids (I'm so old...) still grow up on Disney's "beloved classics"? Or is it their parents- some of whom, though it's frightening to think it, are my age- that will be dragging their kids along, eager for a fresh burst of childhood nostalgia? Will the "tradition" of Disney's formulas be as successful today as it was back then, or have things- technically, moralistically, socially, whateverly- changed too much? Can 2D-animation measure up to Pixar, and who are Disney hoping this will appeal to? Is this project simply chasing a ghost?


J.D. said...

So... this is like when I finally saw Mary Poppins, isn't it?

mB said...

I do wonder how far the "nostalgia" factor will be able to push P&F, but in terms of its critical and audience reception, the one thing that gives me faith is the fact that the project is being supervised by none other than John 'Pixar' Lassetter (who also oversaw Bolt - namely the only of Disney's 3D films to even think of matching the wonder of Pixar's oeuvre).

Encore Entertainment said...

I'm kind of fed up Pixar. I have high hopes for this film...ok maybe not high hopes but I'm hopeful.

Vote on the animated poll on my site, please.