Like a Geek God #16 by Mark Pursell
That Old Disney Magic
I had no intention of ever seeing Frozen.
Now, please understand. I’m a Disneyphile. I have a deep, permanent affection for the fairy-tale musicals of the Disney Renaissance, not to mention the Golden Age classics like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Sleeping Beauty. I want nothing more than for Disney to make movies that capture that same magical spirit you find in The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. But having seen and intensely disliked 2010’s Tangled, a milquetoast Rapunzel riff, I didn’t have a lot of confidence that Disney possessed the talent and the wherewithal to make another great fairy-tale musical. I was also predisposed to dislike Frozen because it represents the final, meat-machine incarnation of a “Snow Queen” adaptation that had been in and out of development hell at Disney for twenty-plus years. As a huge fan of the original Hans Christian Andersen story, I was dismayed to find that the long-rumored “Snow Queen” movie would finally see the light of day not as a darkly-beautiful, epic handdrawn film, but as a computer-animated romp bearing only the slightest relation to the source material. However, when Frozen came out, several friends (both online and in “real” life) urged me to see it, claiming that it hearkened back to the very movies, like Mermaid and Beast, that made me a Disney/animation geek in the first place.
Suffice to say I should have trusted my own instincts. It’s difficult to decide what aspect of Frozen is the most obnoxious. Is it the contrived, nonsensical plot? Is it the shameless aping of Wicked, in which a nascent Snow Queen is stylized as a “misunderstood” villainess, complete with a “screw you guys, I’mma be me!” midway-point ballad that comes off as such a desperate “Defying Gravity” copycat you feel embarrassed for the songwriters? (They even hired Idina Menzel to voice the character. I mean, come on).
Frozen’s lackluster storytelling isn’t an isolated problem, though. Animated movies in general are in a bit of a rut these days.
Look, I’m a lifelong animation geek. Not just anime, which certainly has a large and very specific geek subculture of its own, but all animation. American, Japanese, 2D, 3D, whatever. There’s something magical about animation that live-action doesn’t quite capture. Purely from a visual standpoint, you can achieve effects of color, stylization, special effects and more that might fall flat or be less effective in live action. Animation is, in some senses, a storybook or a painting come to life.
From an animation standpoint, I’ve been lucky enough to grow up and exist during two distinct Golden Ages. As I mentioned above, I grew up during the Disney Renaissance of the ‘90s. Then I was a teenager and young adult during the Aughties when Pixar’s visual mastery and storytelling panache exceeded that of its parent company. This was also a time when Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki was accomplishing his greatest work (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away).
Something peculiar has happened in the last several years, however. I hesitate to say that animated storytelling has lost its “nobility of purpose,” but I can’t think of any other way to put it. DreamWorks and studios of its ilk ushered in a new and different era with Shrek and its descendents, a flotilla of pandering pablum that translates fart jokes into dollar signs with the ease of Rumpelstiltskin spinning straw into gold. Disney itself—torn in an existential crisis between the fairy-tale musicals that lifted them from the shadows of the ‘70s/‘80s and the creative success of their one-time vassal, Pixar—abandoned the class and taste that put them back on the map in favor of crude, unfunny fare such as Chicken Little and Bolt.
Even Pixar itself, after spending the late ‘90s and most of the Aughties in the enviable position of being the arbiter of good taste in animated filmmaking, has begun sinking itself into unnecessary sequels and middle-America politicking (I’m looking at you, Cars). The 2010s have seen Disney attempting to once again “recapture” their brand-name magic by releasing computer-animated fairy-tale musicals like Tangled and Frozen; from a box-office standpoint, it’s been a successful move, but the movies themselves are such insubstantial, ill-conceived imitations of Disney’s own former triumphs that one can hardly imagine them standing any test of time.
In short, the pendulum, as it will tend to do, has swung in an addlepated direction for about a decade or fifteen years, as far as animation is concerned. In Disney’s first Golden Age, animation elevated itself in the eyes of the public as something not just for silly shorts and the amusement of children but as an artistic medium capable of magic, beauty, and wonder.
Public opinion swung the other way in the ‘70s and ‘80s (perhaps partially due to some less-than-successful filmmaking ventures on Disney’s part), only for Disney to shake the dust off and recapture their former glory during the Renaissance of the ‘90s. Yes, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast had funny moments, but they were first and foremost great movies, with characters you cared about and moments you wanted to relive over and over.
It’s no accident or surprise that Beauty and the Beast became the first animated movie to ever be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture of the Year. Disney wasn’t making cartoons. They were making movies that happened to be animated. It’s a similar mindset to what makes Pixar’s seminal works so captivating and so classic. It’s a mindset largely absent from the animated movies of the current era.
Of course, it’s not all bad. After a string of unremarkable releases (even fairy-tale adventure Brave suffered from behind-the-scenes drama and misguided promotion), Pixar is set to release Inside Out in 2015, a highly-conceptual movie about the emotions inside the mind of a little girl. Cartoon Saloon, the Irish studio behind 2009’s flawless The Secret of Kells (possibly the best animated movie of the last several years, to this writer’s mind), will follow up the success of that movie in 2014 with new feature Song of the Sea. As for Disney? One can only assume that the success of Tangled and Frozen will result in more computer-animated fairy tales with silly plots and slangy one-word titles filling our theaters at regular intervals. Here’s hoping that there’s a visionary or two waiting in the wings to inject those ventures with the kind of verve and magic that made Disney the indomitable franchise it is today. Anything less is just coasting.
Mark Pursell (Episode 75) is a lifelong geek and lover of words. His publishing credits include Nimrod International Journal, The New Orleans Review, and The Florida Review, where he also served as poetry editor. His work can most recently be seen in the first volume of the 15 Views of Orlando anthology from Burrow Press. He currently teaches storytelling and narrative design for video games at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida.