Is It Time to Ask for More from Animation?

This afternoon I finally bit the bullet and went out to the theater to see Disney’s latest animated film, Frozen. I knew a lot of my friends (many of whom do not have children, it should be pointed out) really loved this movie, and at the time of this writing it has just received a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination. Rumors are swirling that it will be headed to Broadway soon, although that isn’t so much a benchmark of a quality film as it is a somewhat expected pattern from Disney. I had seen the trailer a few times, and I honestly wasn’t incredibly motivated to go see it. My interpretation was that it was a kind of flimsy storyline (“Let’s go bring back summer!”) with lots of screen time allocated to a talking snow man. I didn’t get what all the fuss was about. But my family was going, so I went.

In fact, here’s the official trailer, for those of you who like to play along at home:
 

 
What I actually got at the theater was a series of very pleasant surprises. We had the somewhat-prequisite tragic backstory (but hey, the protagonist actually had TWO parents, so yay!), a sympathetic and well-defined relationship between “the non-male character who might possibly save the day” and “the character who caused all the trouble in the first place” — a relationship I would never have assumed from the trailer, but it definitely held my interest — and some really, really incredible music. Now, one of my friends who attended with us remarked that he wasn’t particularly a fan of Broadway-style “always-on” kind of singing, which this film has in abundance. It wasn’t like Les Mis with lots of depth and subtlety of dynamics. The emotions also didn’t play terribly deeply, but to me it was a good match for the humor sprinkled throughout. Deeper emotions would have run counter to keeping kids interested, I think. As for the music itself, it was very memorable and extremely well-written, and I only found out afterward that the songs were written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. Robert Lopez is probably best known as the Tony-award-winning co-creator of Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon. No wonder I couldn’t get those songs out of my head! I also found out later that Frozen was rather loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, which is another little piece of information that would have greatly increased my desire to go see this movie had I known about it ahead of time. Finally, for as much screen time as the talking snow man got in the trailer, I was very relieved to discover that his role was much less important in the overall film. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, and especially with the fantastic sound system, I’m very glad I got to see this in the theater. That’s pretty much a complete 180 from my previous “meh, I’ll just catch it on Netflix” attitude.

As I left the theater today feeling rather satisfied by this movie, I thought of another Disney movie which my family and I had totally skipped in the theaters, and later regretted after discovering it on Netflix: Wreck-It Ralph. I seem to remember seeing the trailer for Ralph maybe once, probably in front of Brave, which of course got lots of attention due to the whole “new Disney princess” phenomenon. I don’t remember much about the trailer at all, except that once again, it didn’t excite me. It didn’t motivate me to go see that film. Once I did finally see it, I wished I had seen it in the theaters at least once. And once again, for the curious among you, here’s the trailer:
 

 
Now I’m not naive enough to believe that I personally embody Disney’s key demographic when it comes to animated movies. My kids — all boys — are older now, and lean more toward the Pixar side than the traditional Disney side. They’re rapidly approaching the point where they’ll be over animation almost entirely, and the only Disney stuff they’ll follow will be movies like the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Given the number of toys and games that always accompany the latest Disney feature, it’s really obvious that younger kids are Disney’s #1 demographic.

But here’s the thing: Disney isn’t satisfied with making cutesy little movies that sell a ton of toys, nor has that ever been their benchmark. Walt Disney himself wanted quality films, so the Disney Studios started out by creating absolutely gorgeous films with rich stories…that happened to launch the sales of tons and tons of toys. So that ends up being the main focus of their marketing efforts — getting kids’ attention so that they’ll get their parents to take them to the movie.

The problem is, those marketing tactics are missing a rather critical historical element in Walt Disney’s mindset, particularly when it came to creating theme parks like Disneyland and Disney World. That critical element was Walt Disney’s desire to fill a particular niche; he wanted to create opportunities for children and adults to do things together, not just have adults take kids to a thing that the kids do on their own. Movie trailers like the ones for Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph might inform parents about a movie their kids will want to see, but there is little if anything enticing the parents to go because they might enjoy it. The movies look all cute and funny and family-friendly, but they don’t appear to have one very important thing.

Heart.

It’s sad, because these films absolutely do have a heart to their stories! There are complex characters and intriguing situations and lots of moments for even the youngest child to experience and contemplate. They may not be able to vocalize what it all means, but you can be sure it has an effect on them. And, more importantly (from my vantage point, anyway), the stories are also interesting to the adults who are there with their kids. It becomes something both adults and children can anticipate enjoying together, rather than just another kid movie that the parents also have to attend. Plus, in the case of Frozen, it wouldn’t have taken much time or effort to at least have a quick flash on the screen that Idina Menzel was featured, or that the songs were written by a Tony-award winning Broadway composer. Heck, from the trailers, there was no indication that it was even a musical at all, much less one that would rival that wonderful period in Disney’s history where they kept making wonderful animated musicals like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Even just a hint of a song or two would have done wonders to increase interest for adults; or for those who aren’t big fans of musicals (yes, I know a couple), they would have at least known what to expect. There’s a HUGE legacy there, and Disney just left it on the table.

John Lasseter said in an interview once that animation is not a genre, it is a storytelling tool. He said, “Never in the history of cinema has a medium entertained an audience. It’s what you do with the medium.” Even though the vast majority of animated films out there are family-friendly, there should not be the presumption that they are “only” for kids. Yes, there are plenty of movies out there that are goofy little animated kid flicks — The Nut Job was one of them, which was the other choice in kid-friendly movies today. (My eight-year-old, who had already seen Frozen once, chose to see it again rather than go to The Nut Job. Even he can tell a dumb-looking movie right away.) But sometimes animation is simply the choice the studio or the director makes in how they want to tell a story, any story. When Disney actively chooses to take what looks like a safe marketing tactic — that is, to sell the movie just to the little kids — they are doing a great disservice to their artists, their storytellers, and in fact their entire legacy. There were many moments in Frozen where I truly felt like I was watching beautiful artwork which just happened to be in motion. There were moments where I was caught up in an engaging musical moment that led me to truly empathize with these characters, just as I would in a live-action film. None of those moments were even hinted at in the trailer, the most important calling card a film can have. I called those moments a series of pleasant surprises earlier, but I don’t really want to be surprised by them. I don’t want to miss them, either. So they belong in the trailers; they need to be shared, and often.

If Disney is going to continue to do the work of ardent, truly beautiful storytelling — which I sincerely hope they do — they owe it to themselves to make sure that the stories they tell reach all of their intended audiences. They deserve no less.

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