My Love/Hate Relationship With the Disney Revival Films

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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.

“How Far I’ll Go”Analysis (Re: criticism)

Moana’s soundtrack is lauded as one of Disney’s absolute greatest, though there have been some people who disagree. Some people think Lin Manuel dropped the ball compared to his previous work.

While I do enjoy most of the songs for this movie (I can watch the “Shiny” sequence over and over again), I do have a few problems. Mainly, for Moana’s main songs, it ends up TELLING (rather than showing) her character.

Let’s look at “How Far I’ll Go”.

I’ve been staring at the edge of the water / long as I can remember / never really knowing why

So far, so good. It’s been established in the previous song that Moana has been attracted to the ocean but we’re not sure why.

I wish I could be the perfect daughter / but I come back to the water / no matter how hard I try 

Alright, stop right there. When did the movie establish she wanted to be the ‘perfect daughter’? At least when Mulan lamented on how she couldn’t be the ‘perfect daughter’, we knew WHY: she couldn’t fight into the cultural norm and bring her family honor. Sure, we see Moana get into a scuffle with her Dad, but there was nothing to establish before that she was desperate to make him proud/gain his approval.

She continues to sing about her desire to travel the sea and how she yearns for it. Which…we already knew. They’re nice lyrics, and Auli’i Cravalho sings them wonderfully, but it doesn’t really move the plot forward.

Then she gets to the next verse where she uses the word “island” FOUR. TIMES. That’s not good songwriting. It just sounds repetitive. She talks about how happy and content the islanders are with their role in the island (which was already established in the previous song) and how she wants to settle with her role (again, we already kind of settled that with the preceding song).

I can lead with pride / I can make us strong / I’ll be satisfied if I play along

Hold up. We saw that she is a competent leader, but nowhere did the movie show her leading with PRIDE. When we see her interacting with the villagers, she doesn’t look prideful. She looks rather nervous when she leads. Previous moments made it look like she did NOT really feel satisfied being the chief. And where did the movie say Moana could make her people ‘strong’?

But the voice inside sings a different song / What is wrong with me?

*sighs*

No, Moana, what IS wrong with you? You live in a village where everyone adores you, you have supportive parents, and you’re set for life as a chief, and you’re complaining that something’s wrong with you because you’d rather be a navigator?

Well no matter, because as soon as she said that she’s happy to rush back to the beach, sing about how the ocean calls her, and gets ready to set sail.

So you can see why the lyrics aren’t very strong. Instead of moving the story forward, it either rehashes what we already know, or TELLS us what makes Moana so special.

Which leads to my biggest problem. I don’t see what makes Moana so special.

Like…she literally has no flaws. She was chosen by the ocean to restore the heart of Te Fiti. She’s going to be the chief, no question, and is competent at it. Everyone loves her, and she loves them all. She is physically and athletically strong but still manages to look conventionally attractive. She is able to learn how to properly navigate and sail in almost no time at all. She snaps a demigod out of his funk. She outsmarts several monsters. She saves the day, not needing help. And in the end, she doesn’t have to choose between her role and her passion. The whole movie sets Moana up as someone special and powerful…yet I’m supposed to feel sorry for when there are contrived moments when Maui tells her “you think you’re something you’re not” and cheer for her when she almost immediately realizes “I AM MOANA”.

Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, and Tiana all had realistic flaws. Jasmine’s impulsive decision to leave the palace puts her in danger. Pocahontas keeping her rendezvous with John Smith a secret, rather than being upfront with her father, caused the death of one of her people and escalated tensions between the Powhatan and the colonialists. Mulan aggressively does not fit her culture’s gender roles (either as a man or as a woman). And Tiana’s drive to get her restaurant wears her down and interferes with her ability to socialize with others. They all have to learn from their mistakes and fix them, or grow and develop as characters, or cause SOME form of change. And ultimately, they all become lovable, sympathetic characters. But Moana is literally perfect. TOO perfect.

I legitimately could not sympathize with Moana after she sang her song. Not only did it remind me waaay too much of “Reflection”, but there was nothing that really warranted her to feel so sorry about herself. Why not make Moana an outcast? Why not have her villagers actively challenge and doubt her future role as chief? Why not have people find her love for the ocean as weird? Why not have Moana be weak (both physically and as a chief) and come back stronger when she returns? That way it would make her bond with her grandmother and Maui more poignant, and her desire to restore the heart more altruistic. But no, she just REALLY loves her people and sailing and can do anything.

Yeah, I’m frustrated. I don’t see Moana as a three-dimensional, compelling character. I see her more as a role model, someone people can admire, but not relate to. I’m disappointed because she was being built up as this great badass character but she’s really not.

But then again, I’m in the minority. I know a lot of people who love Moana, and I can’t fault them for that. But for me, I’m going to stick with Mulan, Pocahontas, Vanellope Von Schweetz, Belle, Jasmine, Tiana, and Honey and Gogo. These are characters I can connect to and relate to; I’ll leave Moana to those that relate and connect to her.

Further Thoughts: Moana

SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE THING

So a lot of people are saying that while Moana definitely looks and (at least to an extent) sounds nice (I especially love the use of Pacific Islander vocals and music), the story is too familiar and/or has some pacing issues. For some people it’s only a minor gripe, but for others it seriously harms the movie.

And if you’ve seen my previous review, yeah, that’s kind of a problem for me as well.

It has one of the problems I had with The Princess and the Frog: the setting. So much of the movie takes place on a damn boat in the middle of the open ocean. We rarely go to other islands (it would have been really cool if we got to see other villages and how the curse was affecting them, and it would have raised the stakes even higher) or even go diving into the ocean; we just watch these characters go sailing. Whenever something happens, it feels inconsequential. What was the point of the Kakamora scene? We get some substance with the Lalotai/Tamatoa scene, but after we get the hook, we never deal with Tamatoa again. And I wouldn’t mind except there’s an entire song sequence that makes the character really cool, but we don’t see him again (except for a comedic end credits scene). Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to have Tamatoa actively pursuing the heroes and preventing them from reaching their goal?

I could not get invested in Moana’s character, nor could I really relate to her. Her character design is beautiful and I like how she’s very physical and is a capable leader. But I couldn’t really sympathize with her when she asked “what is wrong with me?” so dramatically and lamented on how she can’t be a perfect daughter. You live a charmed life where everyone adores you, and it’s not like you have something to seriously be ashamed of. If people were saying she’s weird or doubting her ability to lead, or if there was the implication that she might not be straight or neurotypical, that would make sense, but that’s not the case. Why couldn’t she just say “when I’m chief, I’m going to lift the ban and we’ll all go sailing?” The movie makes it clear that it’s mostly her father who enacted the ‘no sailing’ rule, so why does she have to keep it? Why did she have to wait until the end of the movie to realize that she could be both? Basically, I just couldn’t get behind her when she started to doubt herself, and that prevented me from really LOVING her character.

Also, when Maui’s fish hook is cracked, he angrily tells her “the ocean told you you were special and you believed it” and “I’m not killing myself so you can prove you’re something you’re not.” She feels sad, but it’s okay because within a few minutes she’s all “I AM MOANA!” and off to put the heart back.

Which leads me to my next big gripe: people recover from shockingly bad things waaaaaaaay too quickly in this movie. Whereas Hiro and Ralph take their time and gradually and naturally recover from their mental woes, the characters in Moana bounce back immediately after something horrible.

I’ve already talked about how Maui, who clearly has mental issues, doesn’t really get any proper closure (he wants to be loved for who he is, and while his reputation is restored, we don’t see if people actually love him again), but I’ve also noticed how Tui is (realistically) traumatized after losing his best friend after sailing beyond the reef, but by the end of the movie he’s suddenly very accepting of way finding without any onscreen character development. Moana almost drowns when sailing for the first time but it doesn’t traumatize her whatsoever, and she is a little too calm and accepting when her gramma dies.

But while those might be personal issues, a lot of people will still say the movie is disappointing, familiar, typical Disney Princess, dull, etc.

Well there’s probably a reason for that.

See, this isn’t a John Musker and Ron Clements film. Not really. While directing, they apparently focused more on the look and animation of the film. Don Hall and Chris Williams were brought in later to resolve story issues. There were story issues because, probably, this movie was written by NINE PEOPLE (including Taika Waititi, who wrote the first draft that was subsequently rewritten). Jared Bush wrote the final screenplay, but Pamela Ribbon, Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell, and the four directors all had input on the story. That’s a pretty big writing team! Plus they also had to revise the story several times to keep it culturally accurate/sensitive. So it begs the question: whose story are we REALLY telling?

And remember, this movie was originally supposed to come out in 2018, but was bumped up to 2016. (I’m not sure what the exact reason is, but according to some, it’s to help ride the wave of Frozen.) It should be easy to see that maybe some things were possibly rushed.

And of course, there’s also the fact that this is, ultimately, a Disney Princess  TM film. Disney Princess TM films are allowed to add some new twists and ideas (as this movie does), but ultimately, they have to tread certain territory in order to remain marketable and commercially viable. Non-princess movies tend to be more subversive and take more risks.

Yeah. Things are starting to click into place now.

Despite all the problems, I cannot really say that I hate Moana or that it’s a bad film. I just can’t call it a fave, even though I really wanted it to be. This could’ve been a masterpiece, and it almost is…but not quite. Maybe the next Disney films will deliver instead.

Moana Review

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Finally. After months and months of suffering and waiting, it came, and I got to see it.

AAANNNNNNNNNNNNNNDDD…

It was okay.

Yeah, that’s how I feel. I was expecting this movie to be a masterpiece in the vein of Beauty and the Beast, but I was underwhelmed. I still enjoyed it, but I felt like it could have been more.

Let me clear: the animation and effects were absolutely stunning (the lava demon, Te Ka, is a masterpiece of animation onto itself), the music was fantastic, and there were some truly beautiful and thrilling scenes (especially the climax). But it had some serious problems.

If you don’t want to read spoilers, let me just say, in terms of John Musker/Ron Clements movies, it’s better than The Princess and the Frog, but not as good as Aladdin. In terms of Disney Revival movies, it’s legions better than Frozen but nowhere near as good as Wreck-It Ralph or Big Hero 6. Of course I’m extremely biased, so make what you will of that. My recommendation is that if you want to see a SPECTACLE, then this movie is great. But if you want something with substance…you’re not going to get it.

My issue with the pacing is that there are some parts of the story that get really slow (especially the entire first act). But then again, I realize the movies I cling onto are films with brisk, livelier paces, so I could be biased. What I really have problems with, is the characterization. And with that, here’s my spoiler review below.

Continue reading “Moana Review”

Before Criticizing Disney…

(Updated)

Now that Moana is edging ever closer to its release date, more footage (including the official trailer!) is being revealed, and merchandise is now out. And of course, the controversy ball is rolling.

The now pulled costume for Maui included brown skin and tattoos, and of course, a lot of people weren’t happy about it. The argument is that it allows non-Polynesian children to partake in ‘polyface’.

I’m not going to make any excuses for the costume, but what bothers me is that, with this simple mistake, people are frothing at the mouth and saying that ALL merchandise for the movie is bad and that Disney is exploiting Pacific Islanders and commodifying their culture and bodies, and that Disney is a Big Bad Racist Capitalist Machine TM.

This…upsets me.

Now, I’m not going to tell Pacific Islanders and Polynesians to see the film when they’re not comfortable doing so. They have a right not to support the film if they choose so.

But I hate this assumption that Disney is this monolithic AI with no thought process. Like nobody realizes that Disney is a HUGE company made up of many different divisions and hundreds (thousands?) of workers. The people who made Moana are not the same people who made the merch for Moana, who aren’t the same people who distribute and finance the film. Lumping them all together is disingenuous.

Furthermore…what is up with this assumption that this movie was ONLY made to exploit Pacific Islanders? That is fundamentally untrue. John Musker and Ron Clements wanted to make this film for a long time. They were inspired by Polynesian artwork and history and wanted to tell a story about it. They got together with hardworking animators, artists, and storytellers and consulted with actual Polynesian people (forming an Oceanic Story Trust) to make this film as culturally sensitive and enriching as they possibly can. And they went out of their way to have a majority Polynesian cast. Yet somehow this is lost to a lot of critics. The filmmakers aren’t real people, they’re cogs in a capitalist machine. And the Polynesians involved with the creative process? They either don’t exist, or somehow are too ‘wealthy’ or brainwashed or some bullshit and don’t matter.

And this whole “you can’t buy the merch, any merch” ideology is really harmful. Sure, brown children aren’t allowed to have toys of people that at least partially resemble them because you say so. Sure, girls who may feel empowered with Moana can’t have dolls of her because you say so. Sure, heavier set kids can’t have toys of Maui because you said so. Because you, an adult, think that Disney is an evil capitalist machine that only represents people when it makes them money. You can absolutely criticize how they only continue to market white and animal led movies (*side-eyes how Frozen got marketed do death for years but Big Hero 6 is struggling to get more merch in stores even though they’re both popular and successful*), but that doesn’t mean you can just say that nobody should buy the merch because it ‘doesn’t matter in the long run’ and that it’s not important to fight for more representation. For a lot of children, characters like Moana are going to be so important.

At this point, what really bothers me is that it’s really obvious that, no matter what Disney does, it’s never going to be good enough. People will complain and make wild accusations without doing any research (a lot of people were making assumptions about Big Hero 6 without reading into the making of the film to call it racist) and turn around and excuse other animation studios for doing the most basic progressive thing. I’m not saying people should like or support Disney if they don’t want to, but they have to stop acting like they genuinely care about Disney getting better when they clearly don’t, or try to make other people feel guilty for wanting to see a damn film. That’s all I’m going to say about this for now. I’m just tired of having to deal with so much inanity before a movie I’ve been anticipating comes out. It’s tiring and it goes absolutely nowhere.

On an endnote, this is my 100th post! To prep me for Moana’s release, I’ll do reviews of John Musker/Ron Clements movies and/or the Disney Revival!

Moana Update

Since I’m starting school, I might not be as active as I once was. But I’ll try to get stuff out whenever I can. One thing I’ll make sure to keep blogging about is updates on Moana. 

The merch for the movie is finally out, and it includes dolls, plushies, and costumes.

oh-that-disney-princess-emily:
“ She’s here!!!
”

The books are due to come in October (why they’d release the spoiler-filled books before the movie is released is beyond me).

Here’s the new poster!

My only problem is that Disney feels the need to latch onto Frozen. It’s been three years. You don’t need to keep reminding people that you made that movie. Plus I would think, for this movie, it would be better to say that it’s “From the creators of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin” since it’s directed by John Musker and Ron Clements. Other than that, this is a really great poster.

It looks like we’re going to get a new trailer on Thursday! I’m so excited! And it looks like after that, we’ll have #MoanaMondays, with new info on the movie released every Monday! Not only is that exciting, but it’s also rather appropriate. Hype for the movie has been few and far between, so now that the movie is only a few months away, they better get the hype machine revved up!

One bit of info I really want clarified before the movie is released is info on the villain. Apparently the main villain is going to be a lava monster, but there’s a lot of confusion on the villain’s name (apparently it’s Te something) and gender. For awhile the lava monster was described as female, but one source called it male? I can’t tell if that’s a mistake or if that’s an actual change. I hope it’s female (because I need more monstrous female villains in my life), but it’s possible they didn’t want to confuse the villain with Pele.

Here’s what the villain apparently looks like:

Moana Antagonist: Kakamora

(I can’t really tell by the chest if it’s flat or if the breasts are very small. But I’m LOVING the lava details.)

The only problem is that apparently the Disney Parks is thinking of hiring a white or Asian girl (instead of a Polynesian one) to be Moana’s face character (apparently so they can rehire the actress for multiple roles). That is, of course, not very good. I think it also proves how you cannot criticize Disney as a monolith; one division can be very progressive, another can be the opposite. So, you know, maybe make a fuss about it?

But I’m still excited for the movie itself. I think what made me REALLY excited for it now (since it was hard to remain enthusiastic for something with so little hype) is that it’s being co-directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams, who directed Big Hero 6. So, that tells me this movie is going to be THE BEST.

Till then, can’t wait for more info!

Moana is an ‘Anti Princess’ and why that concerns me

So remember how there was buzz awhile ago about Moana possibly not being in the Disney Princess lineup? Well, turns out there might be a reason for that.

Turns out, in the movie, Moana explicitly makes it clear that she is no princess. At least, if TIME magazine’s interview with the directors is correct. The point of the movie is that Moana is going to be a HEROINE, and is markedly different from the classic Disney Princess TM with a thicker build and no love interest.

I think what’s going to happen is that, if Moana is successful enough, the movie will have its own separate franchise, kind of like Frozen‘s. That’s…actually kind of awesome! I just hope they don’t overkill it.

That said, I have a few problems with the direction they’re taking Moana’s character.

First off, what does John Musker mean by “I don’t know that any of the other princesses we’ve been involved with we’d describe as badass.”? What does it mean for a female character to be a badass? What’s the requirement? I know not every Disney heroine has had the opportunity to navigate the seas, fight giant monsters, and save the world with a hot as hell demigod, but that doesn’t mean they can’t do incredible feats in their own right.

Also, what’s really bothered me about Disney lately (and, to an extent, other animation companies) is that there’s this pervasive attitude of ‘we can’t make our female lead dainty and soft spoken and gentle! she has to be TOUGH and TAKE NO SHIT! she’s not like OTHER girls! she’s not waiting for her prince!’ and all that shit. Like…we get it. You’re ashamed that animated princesses in the past haven’t exactly been able to save the day. Shut up.

And what’s worse is that sometimes the character’s so-called badassery feels very forced, to the point where she’s often not as well-rounded or developed to her male counterparts. And I’m a little scared that this is what’s going to happen with Moana. I’m worried that they’re going to push her whole badass and “I don’t want to be a princess or fulfill my assigned role in life” at the expense at making her a really fleshed out character. I’m pretty confident at this point that they’re not going to build her up as this competent fighter who ends up being the damsel in distress at the end (a very common trope, can’t let the ladies be TOO independent!), but still.

I’m hoping, at the very least, she’ll be written similar to Mulan. She was an excellent soldier who saved the day and didn’t focus too much on romance, but she was still a well-written and enjoyable character. You could feel the pain she was going through and how she loved her family but also needed to love herself more. She wasn’t abrasive or too aggressive, and she could be awkward, but not to the point where it got annoying. Mulan is a fantastic example of the ‘strong independent woman’ done RIGHT, which is unfortunately something that tends to get lost with writers.

Now, of course, I have to remind myself not to be too harsh on Moana’s character if she doesn’t live up to my expectations. Remember, Moana is a Polynesian heroine, and the best people to critique her character are going to be Polynesian women. I don’t want to let my biased Western view of things taint the character.

Still, at this point, I can’t help but feel more excited for Maui than for Moana herself. From what we’ve seen and heard from Maui, I can already tell he’s going to be a dynamic and interesting character. I wish we had more info on Moana besides her being a badass.

Hopefully my interest will change soon, or the movie itself will prove me wrong. The movie is only about three months away, so, hop to the hype campaign, Disney!