When John Lasseter and Ed Catmull took the reigns of Walt Disney Animation Studios in the late 2000’s after almost a decade of bombs, they ushered in a new age, known as the Disney Revival. Not only are these films huge critical and commercial hits, they are also beloved by many. The films that are officially considered part of the Disney Revival are The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Winnie the Pooh, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6, Zootopia, and Moana, with sequels to Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph on the way. (There’s another film called Gigantic which is constantly being pushed back, so who knows if it will actually see the light of day.) I have seen all these films in theatres and am probably not going to break the habit for the foreseeable future.
I have a weird relationship with this new era. Whereas I love pretty much every film from the Disney Renaissance era, I have mixed feelings for the Revival. If I could put them into tiers of fave, I’d make high tier (Big Hero 6 and Wreck-It Ralph, my faves), mid tier (Zootopia and Winnie the Pooh, the films I’m mostly neutral towards) and low tier (Frozen, The Princess and the Frog, and Moana, the films that I seriously dislike). (Tangled would fit somewhere between high and mid tier.) I think it’s because they are all extremely relevant to my life right now in terms of character and theme, and how they are handled can either make or break the movie for me.
Big Hero 6, Frozen, and Wreck-It Ralph all came out at very crucial points in my life, when I was deeply depressed. (I’m going to skip over The Princess and the Frog because I think I’ve already said everything I wanted to about it before, and I don’t have much to say for Tangled or Winnie the Pooh at the moment.) Wreck-It Ralph helped me a lot because, in addition to being a damn good movie, the characters of Ralph and Vanellope resonated with me very strongly. They were both shunned by the people around them, and I could definitely see it as because they were coded to have a disability or disorder (in my view, autism). I cheered for Vanellope when she became a champion racer, and I cried for Ralph when he became accepted for who he was.
A similar situation happened with Big Hero 6. At that point I was neck deep in my depression and the movie’s message that people will love you and you can get better when you are in a bad mental state meant a lot. The film never fails to make me happy due to the frenetic action, amazing directing, beautiful animation, and lovable characters.
By contrast, when Frozen came out (I was in the midst of my depression) I was…really offended by it to be honest. Okay, you have Elsa, a character who is severely mentally ill and clearly the much more interesting character than Anna, and you don’t even focus on her? You don’t let her be the hero? You constantly show her fucking up and sinking deeper into her misery? And then suddenly she’s better with one act of love (but not really, as the shorts reveal she’s constantly blaming herself and trying to make Anna happy)? And she only gets to use her powers for the most mundane things? Yeah, that wasn’t the kind of message I wanted at that point in my life. That, and the film was the definition of overhyped.
When Zootopia came out, I had mixed feelings for it. I thought it told a fun mystery story with great chemistry between the two leads, but it wasn’t really that great at portraying the message of prejudice and tolerance. I think for me it was because predators and prey are too broad to neatly symbolize as white people and people of colour; there are legit reasons for prey to not want to always trust predators, and you can be both a predator AND a prey in nature. When it first came out I was still a bit of a social justice warrior, so I was hypercritical of it at first, but now that I’ve moved on from that movement my feelings towards the film have calmed down a lot. I think the film got a little overrated, but it’s still enjoyable enough, even if I don’t go out of my way to see it.
Moana on the other hand, is not enjoyable for me. Full disclosure: I was SO hyped for this film, I thought it was going to be a masterpiece and an ultimate fave, that it would be the greatest Disney movie ever, and when I finally got to see it, I was left with a feeling of great disappointment. And I think I finally know why: it’s the only Disney Revival movie to come out (aside from Frozen) that feels like it was aimed SQUARELY at little girls. Everything just feels really dumbed down. There’s a lot of TELLING rather than showing, the story and conflict is really simplistic and stupid (Moana thinks something’s wrong with her because she wants to go sailing?), there’s a lot of comic relief and some cliches (of COURSE Moana and Maui are going to fight at a crucial point in the movie but he’ll come back at the climax), and Moana is so devoid of flaws or interesting development that she’s clearly meant to be a shallow Girl Power TM mascot than an actual character. The whole film just feels more juvenile than the others. I guess most of this praise the movie gets is from nostalgia value, which I can definitely appreciate, plus it’s a movie that takes a look at non-white/non Western culture with some truly gorgeous visuals (although, I think some people ONLY like this film and Princess and the Frog because the main characters aren’t white). But for me, that is not enough.
I guess overall I can say that whereas the non-Princess films are trying to take risks and be more interesting, the Princess films are just there to make a lot of money from little girls and nostalgic millennials. This bothers me because previous Disney films were meant to enjoyed by the WHOLE family. Beauty and the Beast isn’t just a film for little girls, it’s a work of art that people of all ages and genders can enjoy. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a movie that got EVERYONE into animation. But now it seems that Disney feels that the princesses are just meant to be safe, marketable, and deliver shallow girl power messages. As an adult Disney fan who wants to see these films as actual films and not just cartoons for kids, that’s disappointing–but also why I latch onto Big Hero 6 and Wreck-It Ralph so easily.
So you’ll understand why I’m so excited for Wreck-It Ralph 2 and not excited for Frozen 2, and won’t be excited for any more princess films either. I don’t know what kind of film Gigantic will be like so we’ll see.
And with that, these are my final thoughts/explanations on why I like some of the new Disney films better than others. You don’t have to agree, but I’m not going to change my mind. This is my current stance on the matter.
Beyond that, I am definitely going to be excited and curious for other movies in store for us in this era and how they’ll have an impact on my life.