6 Storytelling Strategies Disney Learned, Forgot, Then Learned Again During the Renaissance

    Disney, the future overlord of the terrifying dystopian society in my worst nightmares, grows more disturbingly powerful every day. In 2014, they plundered $7.5 billion from the defenseless citizens of the world. $7.5 billion. That's more than the gross domestic product of Japan. At this rate, it is only a matter of time before they nuke the earth and establish a New Disney World, fed off of the genetically engineered food they keep in the Epcot ball (I've seen it, the preparations are being made), and repopulated with blond-haired, blue-eyed consumer zombies. When that day comes (and it will, I assure you), future serfs living in a truly small, small world, will look back and ask, "How did this happen? Did they get their power through intimidation? Were people afraid that if they did not make offerings of cash to Disney, they would have nowhere to take their children on over-priced summer vacations? Was it through military might? Did they use their armies of costumed mascots to overpower us?" But the answer will be none of those things. The answer will be movies. 

    Without the movies, Disney is nothing but a few theme parks and, as Dollywood proves, having a few rides and some nice, themed scenery gets you nothing except some over-weight guests who are are willing to pay to wait in line. To truly cultivate a discipleship that will remain loyal despite your obvious insidiousness, you need to influence who your consumers are as human beings. And what better way to do that than to create stories as memorable to them as the ones form the bible or the myths of old?

    Around 1984, Michael Eisner took control as the CEO of Disney and, a few years later, steered them through The Disney Renaissance, as it is known by the faithful. This period from around 1989 to 1999, is when they finally started making the big bucks again (enough to start turning their theme parks into little protosocieties and to fund research on how to unfreeze Walt). They harnessed this cash-flow by learning six strategies for making moving films. They would occasionally forget these lessons but, by the end, they were firing on all cylinders. 

 

1. Protagonists need to be smart

    Let me start by saying, “The Little Mermaid” is going to catch a lot of flack here, not because it’s not a great movie (it is), but because it’s where they learned a lot of lessons. Let’s face it, Ariel isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. The girl thinks forks are hair-curling dinglehoppers. Sure, this is mostly because she’s being educated by an alcoholic seagull, but it doesn’t take a genius to avoid a faustian bargain with a cave-dwelling sea monster. Thankfully, Disney realized early on that it gets a little old to watch someone who isn’t particularly bright, especially if they’re extraordinarily mute. Their next few heroes, Belle, and Aladdin (and Jasmine for that matter) were always a step ahead of the next guy and, though Simba gets knocked around a little bit first, he develops some real street smarts. Unfortunately, by the time Pocahontas and Hercules rolled around, they started thinking that a pair of steel cajones was enough for a character to be admirable, which is part of the reason those films don’t quite stand up as well as the others.

 

2. The music should be fun

    Undoubtedly to reinforce the sinister hypnotism that their films have over us, Disney has always imbued their movies with killer soundtracks. Hakuna Matata  is even delightful backwards. Sure, the lyrics sound like a combination of Japanese and Arabic, but it has a groovy entrancing feel. Which is why it’s so scary! Who knows what kind of dastardly subliminal messages are hidden in there? I’m going to give “The Little Mermaid” serious props here because, even though it was their first crack at the broadway-style animated feature, Alan Menkin and Howard Asheman came out swinging with Part of Your World, Under the Sea, Kiss the Girl, and my personal favorite, Les Poissons. With that in mind, I’ll give them a pass on Daughters of Triton. They kept up this track record for quite a long time. 

    Even after losing Howard Asheman mid-way through writing “Aladdin,” Tim Rice was able to step in and save the day to pull it home through “The Lion King,” assisted by Sir Elton John (although I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if ABBA had been available). Unfortunately, Alan Menkin and Stephen Schwartz weren’t such a great pair and, though they were able to get through “Pocahontas” alright, giving us the smash hit, Mine, Mine, Mine, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” was their downfall. Maybe it’s because the villain, Frollo, is the gloomiest man in the history film,  or that the gypsy puppeteer, Clopin, gives me the creeps but Out There, Hellfire, and The Bells of Notre Dame, just put me in a foul mood. Fortunately, David Zippel stepped onto the scene with “Hercules” and “Mulan” (up yours Stephen Schwartz!) and was able to breath a little life into things. Then “Tarzan” rolled around. I wish I could have been in the room to hear the pitch from whoever suggested they get Phil Collins for that, because that man is a visionary. Nobody does fun like Phil. Plus there’s the added bonus that now I can imagine Patrick Bateman in the role of Tarzan. 


3. Orphans always tug at the heart strings

    Only four heroes from the Disney Renaissance films have parents that they know from birth, or that survive through the whole thing. Why is this? Does Disney just like crushing our hopes and dreams? The answer is obviously, yes, but it goes much deeper. Nothing spells adventure more than a mysterious past. Or, in the case of “The Lion King,” a tragic one. John Smith would have been more likable as an orphan. It might have helped me look past the fact that, at the beginning of “Pocahontas,” he brags about murdering savages (that’s right kids, before the movie, John Smith killed his fair share of natives). Mulan didn’t need to be an orphan because Mulan is the biggest badass in all of Disney. The Empire tried to make her an orphan by sending her old, crippled dad off to war, and he was all too ready to march to his death, but what does Mulan do? She says, fuck that, and picks up a sword. She’s the best. 

 

4. Don’t pander to the kids

    Disney may have taken this one a bit too far. Putting in jokes for the parents is one thing, hiding dirty stuff in the frames is another. Further proof that Disney is not only trying to influence how we think and feel, but also how we reproduce. “Filthier,” I imagine the frostbitten Walt saying from his cryogenic chamber. 

    Sleaziness aside, the lyrics alone prove that their movies were never afraid of being too smart for their audience. Here’s a choice sampling:

“Next time, gonna use a nom de plume.” - Aladdin

“Why invite their calumny and consternation?” - Frollo, Aka Mr. Grumpy Pants

“Meticulous planning, tenacity spanning decades of denial, is simply why I’ll, be king, undisputed, respected, saluted, and seen for the wonder I am.” - Scar, Aka the lion with the sickest flow this side of the Sahara    

    The truth is, most of the audience might just be enjoying the shapes and colors, but the ones that aren’t are learning new words and ideas through context clues. the kids watching might not have a clue that the Genie is going into a Rodney Dangerfield impression, but they can infer from the rest of the scene that he is in desperate need of antipsychotics.

    Disney doesn’t shy away from the dark stuff either. My dog didn’t die until I was a sophomore in college, and all my grandparents are still going strong, which means that my first real encounter with death was when Bambi’s mom died. By the time, with the release of “The Lion King,” Disney sat me down and explained to me that, yes, dads can die too, and family can betray you, I was ready for them to tell me about the birds and the bees. As it turns out, they were trying, just in a really creepy way. 

 

5. The bad-guy can’t go down easy

    Here’s where I diss “The Little Mermaid” again. Ursula is a pretty creepy villain, squirting around with her weird tentacles, tending a garden of shriveled people plants, and able to turn herself into a giant, deep-voiced sea-goddess/monster. Which is why it’s so disappointing when Prince Eric just runs her through with his ship’s bowsprit a la “Jaws IV: The Revenge” (a film that not even Sir Michael Caine could save). It was almost as if Disney was saying, “don’t worry, no matter how big and evil something becomes, you can always get rid of it easily.” Thankfully, the world was too bright for this little piece of propaganda, but Disney was still able to come up with a solution that implies their own nefariousness shouldn’t be feared, while also making for a satisfying denouement. In the rest of the movies of the Renaissance, the villains do themselves in. Except for Pocahontas, because barely anything happens in that movie, and Mulan because, again, Mulan is a badass. 

6. Every hero needs a secret

    I love Belle as much as the next guy. Who wouldn’t love a bookish girl who’s named for how hot she is? Plus she’s got a kooky inventor dad who can make it so that you never have to chop fire wood. That’s a big bonus if you’re living in provincial France. The problem is, as a protagonist, she gets a little dull. Why? Because she’s too honest. That goes for Hercules and Tarzan, too. 

    The best heroes have to deal with conflict from within AND without. Aladdin is basically a con artist who lies his way into the government, Simba thinks he basically murdered his dad, and Mulan is a cross-dresser. And, even though they are all liars, they are my favorites. The only thing that keeps Pocohantas from being an absolute bore is that she’s sneaking off to canoodle with her boyfriend of a different race (side note here to give a little sympathy for Kocoum, who is apparently so bad that Pocahontas says “should I marry Kocoum, is all my dreaming at an end?” I mean, come on, he seemed like a nice guy). 

    By the time “Tarzan” hit theaters, the age of The Disney Renaissance was at an end, and the age of Pixar had begun. “The Emperor’s New Groove” and “Lilo and Stitch” were really the last solid “hand drawn” efforts until “The Princess and the Frog,” seven years later. Since then, it’s been nothing but 3D animation. Maybe it’s because all the great story tellers have been working at Pixar, maybe it’s because the old style of animation just isn’t as exciting to the current generation, or maybe it’s so Disney can have an excuse to develop massive supercomputers, capable of guiding nuclear warheads, without raising suspicion. Whatever the purpose, we are now stuck with movies like “Big Hero 6,” “Frozen,” and “Wreck-It Ralph,” which are all fine pictures, but don’t have the same impact as the Disney films I grew up with. Thank God they have transformed into a sequel factory, relying on the success of their old films to bolster their slate for the coming years. Maybe now we will have a slim chance at being able to free ourselves from the “Clockwork Orange”-style hold that Disney has had over our minds for the past couple of decades.