2009. The Princess and the Frog.
2011. Winnie the Pooh.
2014. Big Hero 6.
2015. Cinderella, live action.
2017. Beauty and the Beast, live action.
Among the many others. And the many others to come.
Notice, if you will, the pattern here.
Classic animation. 3D animation. Classic animation. 3D animation. 3D animation. Live action. 3D animation. Live action.
I’ve been looking at the movies Disney plans to make too:
Cars 3. 3D animation.
Coco. 3D animation.
Gigantic. 3D animation.
Look, I love 3D animated movies. I almost cried at Baymax’s death (and I never cry during movies, so that’s about as emotional as I get). I was beyond happy when Zootopia got its Oscar. As an Aggie, I’m really proud of all the great things going on with Pixar. I think they’ve done some pretty great work.
I really love the live action stuff too. I thought the live-action Cinderella was inspiring and put a relevant spin on the classic tale, and I personally can’t wait to see the “Make a Man Out of You” reprise in the live-action Mulan.
But as great as movies like Big Hero 6 and Zootopia and Cinderella (2015) are, the Disney movies I loved best were movies like Winnie the Pooh, The Princess and the Frog, and Mulan (1998). The classic animated ones. They were fun, they were funny, and they had that special element that makes you feel like you’ve come home.
It’s what’s called Disney magic.
And I think it’s dying.
I saw Moana recently, and while it wasn’t a bad movie, I was seriously disappointed. It was like watching Tangled while listening to Hamilton, with a little bit of culturalness that felt forced. Worst of all, there wasn’t anything really special about it. It was the same old story: protagonist leaves home against the will of authority figures, protagonist enters alternate world on a mission, protagonist doubts self, protagonist finds self, protagonist succeeds. It’s been done about a million times. Which clearly makes it fine, since those other 999,999 versions had something special about them.
Moana didn’t really have anything unique to it. Its pictures looked like just about any other Pixar movie, and its music may as well have been copy-pasted from Hamilton (a musical I personally believe is overrated. Good, but overrated nonetheless).
It also didn’t feel like a Disney movie. Disney movies are supposed to have magic, that special something that makes you feel this feeling that you can’t describe with words. It usually accomplishes this with three things:
- Original music that, while different, still gives you that same fluttery feeling in your chest
- Pictures with a different style from all other Disney movies before it. This was a lot easier back when people still did classic animation; with 2-dimensional cartoons, it was a lot easier to emphasize differences. For example, Snow White has soft curves, as does everyone else in her movie, while Aurora is much more sharp and angular, as is everyone else in her movie. This causes even the same animals to look different.
- Disney fun. Kids’ movies are allowed to be funny.
Part 3, I suspect, will stay. Part 2, I have not complained about even though I really miss it. 2-D animation gives freedom in design where 3-D animation and live action do not and has the power to give every film a different feel and style (Notice how Snow White has soft curves that give an innocent feel, while Hercules has characters that look like they walked off an Ancient Greek vase. That’s the power of 2-D animation. Meanwhile, Norwegian Elsa, German Rapunzel, and Polynesian Moana look so similar it’s ridiculous.). But even though 3D-animated characters look alike and live-action movies have pictures that aren’t any different from regular movies, I haven’t complained because each of those movies had something special to make up for that fact. But Moana‘s failure to get original-sounding music (Part 1) made me realize that a new era of Disney is tiptoeing nearer, and that new era isn’t shining at all.
Disney was made famous by classic, 2-D animation. Other animators existed, but Disney was the king. 2-D animated movies are what most people my age grew up with, and they’re what we think about when we think of our childhood. I suppose Disney thinks that the new generation of kids are going to demand higher-tech animations and crazier music, but that decision is really hurting its older customers. I feel like what Coca-cola consumers must have felt like when Coca-cola decided to abandon its old recipe in favor of New Coke: I want a taste of my childhood, but some people from some big company decided that people “just don’t like that anymore,” so they’ve decided to stop making it. Instead they give me this stuff that’s statistically proven to be better, but it leaves a funny taste in my mouth.
I’m not saying we have to go back to 1930s, 1950s Disney movies. We don’t have to have endings that are happy because someone got married, we don’t have to have all-white princesses, and we don’t have to keep the technology (sound and visual) of the past. Disney movies, like jazz, can keep their roots in the past while continuing to grow and spin unique products. Perfect example: The Princess and the Frog. It had a princess, but she was hard-working and ambitious and fought for herself. It had a romantic plot, but you knew that wasn’t the real reason the characters lived happily ever after. It had Disney-sounding music, but it was jazzy and homey in a way that I think really captured the charm of the American South. It really showed Disney’s ability to capture the past and the future in the same movie.
But just because Disney can doesn’t mean Disney will. I don’t see a single 2-D animated movie on Disney’s list of future movies, and with all the monetary success from each new Pixar movie or live-action film, I don’t know if Disney will have any incentive to change that. Classically animated films simply don’t compare in the box office the way that 3-D animated movies do, and the only reward comes from the hearts of the lovers of classic animation, who I’m not sure work at Disney anymore. And so there is no incentive. That is, unless someone makes 2-D animation cool again.
And old, outdated things on the brink of extinction can be made cool again. La La Land proved that. (I actually got more Disney flutters from La La Land than from Moana, which should tell you about where the rare and endangered Disney magic is on a conservation status.)
Disney isn’t supposed to be like Dreamworks or any other studio in Hollywood. It’s supposed to be Disney, something special. I hope that someone, somewhere feels the same way and decides to join me in fighting for it.
Because Disney magic is magic worth fighting for.
**SIDENOTE** Does it bother anyone else that everyone in Beauty and the Beast (live action) has a British accent? I mean, it’s set in France, during a time when the British and the French absolutely hate each other, and yet everyone has a British accent. I think it might make sense if only Belle had a British accent (It might give the village more reason to call her different, strange, or suspicious.), or if the Beast had a British accent (That might give Gaston and the other villagers more reason to hate him.), but seriously, everyone? That just makes no sense whatsoever.