Disney has been around for a long time. It has a proven track record for being one of the greatest companies on Earth. It also has a certifiable formula for making great films; a formula that will work every time and entertain children who just want to see princes saving princesses and funny animal sidekicks.
The greatest thing about Disney — the absolute best thing about them — is that they know their greatness can be even better. Eventually, stagnation will turn into loss, and the Disney name will no longer bear the strength it once had. They know that as times change, so must they, and that taking risks is just the first step in becoming even better than they once were.
Disney has made mistakes, of course, and there have been plenty of flops. But that happens to even the most ingenious of people, and it’s all part of the learning curve.
When Disney is great, though, it truly is the best.
The three films that immediately spring to mind are Tangled, Brave, and Frozen (major spoilers ahead, by the way). They’ve turned this genre on its head and have paved the road for, I hope, more films to follow the same path — animated or otherwise.
I think Mulan must be mentioned at this point. In a lot of ways, it pointed the way for these other movies while still having one foot in the Golden Age for Disney. Mulan is about a girl who saves her entire country. She has to pretend to be a boy to do it, and it still feels like a princess movie, but that doesn’t completely detract from the a-typical storyline this movie presents. The guy didn’t save the girl. In the end, the girl saved everybody.
Tangled falls closer to this film than the other two. It’s a guy-rescues-the-girl-movie, but I think there’s one important difference here: the happily ever after is focused on family, not romantic love, and the marriage proposal happens after many years. The last fact is one of my favorite things about Tangled because so many Disney movies (and not just the animated ones) jump from Problem Solved to Now We’re Hitched Because We’re Totally Meant For Each Other.
It’s a beautiful concept, but not exactly realistic.
And right from Tangled, we jump into Brave, which completely throws off the shackles of True Love and deals with more realism than I thought possible in an animated movie. Merida doesn’t want to be married, despite the fact that she is a princess and is destined — by the law of the land — to take a husband. Although there are suitors in this movie, there’s no Prince in Shining Armor. And there isn’t even a real villain. Merida is both the protagonist and the antagonist, and it’s her actions — not the actions of the witch, who really isn’t wicked at all — that bring about everything that happens in the movie. In the end, Merida gets her wish and learns a valuable lesson in the process. And no prince had to help her along the way.
Lastly, there’s Frozen. Frozen feels like a different beast altogether, though I’d say it’s a blend of what both Tangled and Brave do for this type of story. The greatest thing about Frozen is that it throws all the tropes at you at once — the princess, the prince, the instalove, the marriage proposal — and then stuffs them full of dynamite and blows everything apart. By the time Frozen ends, the Prince in Shining Armor is actually evil, and the Boy Who Is a Nobody is the one who really steals our (and the princess’) hearts. While that latter point wasn’t exactly a shocking twist, I loved how the move ended on a kiss between the two main characters. No marriage proposal, no Happily Ever After. Just a realistic ending to a movie that was truly about two sisters and their relationship to one another.
I think a lot of other companies and franchises could benefit from doing what Disney has been doing for the last few years. We need more stories that fall outside the box but still give us the satisfaction of having all the parts we typically love in these types of narratives. It’s tricky, and it certainly is a risk, but if done correctly, the rewards could be astronomical.
Besides, creativity should be heralded above profit, don’t you think?
In particular, I would love for these ideas to be applied to superhero movies. We need some female-led superhero films, and not just the kind where the heroine is super hot and hooks up with the guy in the end. Although any female superhero movie would make me happy at this point, I’d love to see Marvel, for example, go outside the box and give us something truly great and creative.