Grumpy and Spunky Take A Walk

Wherein Disney remakes the same movie for 20 years.

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If you devour details about Disney princess movies months ahead of their release—and why wouldn’t you, you’re only an adult—you may have noticed this groundbreaking headline from Comic-Con:

Moana heroine won’t have a love interest in the film

Wow. I mean, holy damn. That sure is something.

Can you remember the last time you watched a film and what stuck with you was that it didn’t feature a love interest for the protagonist? Of course not, because you aren’t a Disney marketer who cares about this shit.

It’s pretty clear to see what’s going on here. Disney is taking another step in monetizing their own rehabilitation. The schtick of it is this: Disney built an empire adapting public domain stories with stellar animation, catchy songs, and straightforward plots that reinforced cliché social norms (partly because so many of them are set in a Medieval era). This created a long list of grievances with the way Disney portrays their characters, especially women. Now, Disney has done a good job of burying their racist work that nobody much cared for anyway, but the princess films are a flock of golden geese. So now Disney’s business model is to check off some boxes every time they make a princess film and expect an award for very loudly avoiding their own clichés (and often getting one.)

Because really, would anyone have bleated about Frozen breaking convention—the young lovers merely begin dating at the end of the film instead of getting married—if it wasn’t done with the subtlety of a jackhammer? Of course not, because it already happened in Mulan and nobody cared.

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I had initially planned to write about this over two years ago in the wake of Frozen, because I truly hated Frozen both as a terrible film and as a grotesque masquerade of corporate entertainment marketed as social justice. It’s an issue largely focused on the princess movies, but not entirely. But regardless, there’s a case to be made that those two qualities (bad movies and politically-edged marketing) are linked as Disney continues to become more and more a megalith of leveraged intellectual property.

To start off, here are some facts:

  1. Over the course of 61 years (1937–1998) Disney produces eight “princess” films. I’m not going to list them; you know them all.
  2. In 2001, Disney launches the Disney Princess line, a subset of Disney Consumer Products focused on princess-related merchandise.
  3. From 2001 to 2006, Disney Consumer Products sales grow 1000%. Notice the three zeroes in that figure.
  4. Over the course of the next nine years (2007–2016), Disney churns out four films and two TV series showcasing seven princesses total. Moana will be the eighth princess introduced in seven years, as many as the entirety of the 20th Century.

If you respect the intelligence of Disney’s executives, it’s plain to see they saw a market and got set to exploiting the shit out of it. By no coincidence, their first princess off the assembly line filled a gaping hole in their merchandise by representing the black girls who as yet did not have a doll that looked like them. Sofia the First was trotted out for Hispanic girls, only she was lily-white and not even technically Hispanic, so they dropped that line of PR and now there’s Elena of Avalor to plug that gap. Meanwhile Tangled attempted to straddle the line as a princess movies for boys, too, and Frozen was squarely targeted at wine moms who vaguely understood the social cost of exposing their daughters to Disney’s problematic tales of female marginalization and relished in the weight being lifted.

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So to recap: Disney is a money-gorging megalith selling you dolls with a spoonful of social progress—not real social progress, but more like penance for the other, socially-regressive dolls that they’re also selling you. But! What does this have to do with the quality of the films?

Since quality of a film is subjective I’ll just put it this way: the plots to these films are all variations on a template, which I’ll call Grumpy and Spunky Take A Walk. The template is simple: mismatched companions fall in love over a trek from Point A to Point B and then back to Point A. Everything else is just decoration.

You could say that’s being reductive, and that all movies sound alike at some point—coming of age stories, murder mysteries, sports movies, etc. A lot of films fall into specific genres or even narrower sub-genres like comedy sci-fi, and many simply follow well-worn film tropes or structures. But try to name a 20th Century Disney princess movie that fits that formula. Take a few minutes.

But not too long because there aren’t any.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Mulan—none have plots that even come close to an odd-couple trek to an arbitrary destination. This is a plot formula that was used in 0% of Disney’s princess films in the 20th Century and and 100% of the princess films of the 21st.

So what the hell happened? It’s not as if Disney is out of public domain properties to work with. All three of their most-recent princess films are based on the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen. They all had to be retrofitted to fit into the Grumpy and Spunky Take A Walk template.

I initially thought it all started with 2007’s The Princess and the Frog, in which Tiana is transformed into a frog and has to travel to a voodoo queen’s house in the swamp to turn back into a human. But then I saw 2003’s Brother Bear, in which Kenai is transformed into a bear and has to travel to a far-off mountain to turn back into a human. But that’s still years after 2000’s The Emperor’s New Groove, in which Kuzco is transformed into a llama and has to travel back to his castle to turn back into a human.

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I mean, it’s not just me noticing this, right?

Now, The Emperor’s New Groove is an interesting junction. The bulletproof Disney Renaissance that began in the late ’80s was definitely over by 2000, and the next decade would be a meager one with more misses than hits (and a bizarre sci-fi bent). And Groove itself had a famously troubled production history; the movie might have been scrapped entirely if not for the promotional deals that were already in place, deals which necessitated a movie, any movie, actually see release. So, serving the demands of merchandising first and cinema second, the studio scuttled together a salvage job. Given the circumstances, the threadbare plot is understandable as a quick-and-dirty device to string together slapstick, fourth-wall-breaking jokes. Disney dodged a bullet, struggled for the next decade, and then seemingly out of nowhere arrived back on top with the rejuvenation of the Disney princess formula.

To today’s parents who spent their own childhood in Disney’s ’90s heyday, it’s a cute Circle of Life happenstance to bring up their kids in a new golden era. But there’s something unsettling about Disney’s redemption coming largely through the practice of recycling the same plot engine that they used as a last-ditch effort to save a doomed movie. Disney has certainly done journey movies before—Pinocchio, 101 Dalmations, and The Jungle Book come to mind. But they lack that certain synthetic quality of unwilling companions forced together by the journey just long enough to become friends.

Looking at the timing of all this makes some sense out of it. Here we are as Disney’s Götterdämmerung intersects with the dawn of Pixar’s own Golden Age, with a time crunch to complete the damn movie to satisfy marketing partnerships, and Disney reaches for the nearest thing to save itself. What does it reach for? The plot engine underneath Toy Story.

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There’s a lot going on in Toy Story, which is a perfect film, but it definitely rides on a frame of “unwilling companions forced together by the journey just long enough to become friends.” What a cosmic coincidence that, when the pressure was on, Disney borrowed the backbone of the film that began Pixar’s ascent (and arguably Disney’s descent). And then, nearly 10 years later, Disney rebuilt their empire by wittingly or unwittingly aping the guys who ate their lunch 20 years ago.

Of course, now Disney owns Pixar. They can force Pixar to make embarrassing sequels to properties that are only marginally distinct from toy commercials, and they can infect Pixar with their tired commitment to the Grumpy/Spunky formula.

When I first heard the concept of Inside Out it sounded like Pixar was entering a brave new territory in storytelling. Personified emotions living in a girl’s head guide her through a traumatic life experience? Holy shit, how is that even a movie? It’s ideas like this that make me actually care about Pixar’s films beyond simply entertainment for my kids.

The film has an amazing concept and setting, and that’s why it’s such a damn shame how it turned out. Because what’s the plot? Joy and Sadness get catapulted out of their home and have to walk back. So, they were in a place, but then a plot device sends them away from that place, and they have to walk back to the place. There’s no way back other than to walk back, through about 60 minutes’ worth of running time obstacles.

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I’m sorry, but how the fuck is that the plot to a once-in-a-decade solid gold concept? How do you set a movie in a child’s developing brain and populate it with her emotions, and then set up the film’s main problem as something that can be solved by a character re-occupying a previously occupied room?

And moreover, how does nobody notice this? People can be massive, even celebratory cynics about the clichés that go unchecked in specific genres or by certain directors. Yet I’ve never seen a word about Disney’s eager habit of putting out films that are just variations on the same lazy plot of characters having a desperate need to be in a different physical location—which, in the case of a film like Inside Out, where the entire setting is created from scratch and location has no inherent meaning, is remarkably depressing. At some point, one wonders if they’ll lose the ability to tell a story without an obligatory march to an incidental destination.

According to Entertainment Weekly, Moana could very well fit the same bill:

Set 2,000 years ago in the South Pacific, Moana is the story of the titular 16-year-old girl, voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, who goes in search of a banished demi god named Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) in order to, naturally, save the world.

“Goes in search of a banished demi god” could be a 10-minute plot starter or it could be the whole damn beefalo. I hope it’s the former. But if not, does it really matter? Moms will have a new doll to buy their kids, unburdened by something as horrifyingly regressive as a girl having a love interest.

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