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I always grin when the Disney Castle appears and the tune from “When You Wish Upon A Star” is played at the start of every Disney movie.
As a 90’s Kid, I belong to a very fortunate age group; one that grew up during the Disney Renaissance.
For those of you not familiar with the term, the Disney Renaissance refers to the ten year period spanning from 1989 to 1999 during which Walt Disney Animation Studios returned to making animated films, the vast majority of which were musicals, based on well-known stories. The string of highly successful films released during this Golden Era includes:
- The Little Mermaid (1989), Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
- The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Rotten Tomatoes: 68%
- Beauty and the Beast (1991), Rotten Tomatoes: 93%
- Aladdin (1992), Rotten Tomatoes: 94%
- The Lion King (1994), Rotten Tomatoes: 90%
- Pocahontas (1995), Rotten Tomatoes: 56%
- The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Rotten Tomatoes: 73%
- Hercules (1997), Rotten Tomatoes: 84%
- Mulan (1998), Rotten Tomatoes: 86%
- Tarzan (1999), Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
As you can see, the films I grew up with were pretty darn awesome. So, yes, I belong to that group of current late teens/young adults that knows every word to almost every Disney song there is. You see plenty of them doing medleys on YouTube, reminding us of a world that is shining, shimmering, splendid… Those are my people.
When I am faced with the dilemma of comparing Disney films, often because a friend asked me which I thought was better, my desired response is to look offended and say “How dare you!”. Most of the time, we cannot genuinely decide which of two successful Disney films is better. I believe that this is the appropriate and, in fact, intended response that the wonderful people at Disney want us to have. That is because the magical thing about successful Disney films is that each of them is wonderfully memorable in their own way.
While not all Disney films have been critically successful (hence my use of the term “successful Disney film” in the previous paragraph), a good portion of their films have come to be regarded as classics. They all possess that timeless Disney magic that allows us to continue to enjoy such films even after we’ve grown up, and that allows ever image-conscious teenagers to break into song and momentarily toss aside trendy music in favour of those haunting tunes from a more innocent time. What, however, constitutes this timeless quality that Disney has repeatedly been able to produce? For me, it comes down to three essential ingredients:
SPOILERS DISCUSSED (If you haven’t seen certain Disney films)
1. The Emotional Element
Disney films never fail to tug at our heartstrings for one simple reason; the character and plot development is superb. We’re so emotionally connected to the characters that it makes the climax of the story so emotionally gripping, and it makes the fairy tale-style happy endings matter so much more. We are practically weeping with and cheering with the characters. We walk out of the cinema feeling as if we experienced the time of our lives because we did not simply watch an adventure; we were on the adventure. It’s as if the folks at Disney are experts on the human condition.
Before watching Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen, I admittedly braced myself for disappointment. It wasn’t because I thought they were going to be bad films; it was because I was someone in her late teens who grew up watching countless Disney classics, and the standard was so stratospheric-high that it would seem unrealistic to expect Disney to be able to meet it once again. Yet, I still enjoyed them tremendously and certainly wasn’t disappointed.
Frozen was heart-wrenching from the beginning, and sadness and sympathy for the selfless sisters is the underlying tone throughout the entire movie as they repeatedly demonstrate sacrifice and selfless love for one another. Wreck-It Ralph, despite being seemingly fun and light-hearted, was effectively heartbreaking once the movie began its transition to a more serious tone in order to effectively build up towards the climax. The scene where Ralph destroys Vanellope’s kart in order to protect her left us as much an emotional wreck as the characters were. To make it better (for the story, but emotionally harder for us viewers), this scene happens right after Vanellope makes Ralph a “You’re my hero” medal. Man, Disney sure knows how to build up to an emotional scene, which in turn builds up to the chair-gripping climax. Bravo.
In short, we feel for these characters, and thus, their adventure becomes our own. And how could we ever forget such an adventure?
2. The Surprise Element
The good Disney films never fail to surprise us. Never. What makes this feat even more impressive is how Disney is always able to come up with new ways to surprise even those of us who are so well versed with the plot twists in decades of Disney films. At the right moment, a Disney film brings out an unanticipated major twist that is meaningful to the film. The twists are meaningful in the sense that they are not there simply to surprise us for the sake of surprise, but that the twists add to the plot and character development, which in turn adds to the emotional element of the film.
Again, I’m going to illustrate this with examples from Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen, since those two movies showed me that Disney magic is still very much alive and flourishing. In Wreck-It Ralph, the revelation that King Candy was Turbo was superb as it was certainly unexpected, and it effectively justified the rationale of the antagonist and thus, Vanellope’s backstory. And it gave additional importance and necessity to the protagonists’ eventual success. Although an anecdote about Turbo is discussed earlier in the movie, it seems to satisfactorily serve its purpose of explaining a term used in the movie to describe a game character that leaves his game and to illustrate the possible consequences of the title character’s course of action. Having served this purpose, we do not suspect that Turbo’s story should offer any additional function, especially that of being an integral build up to the twist. It’s impressive how the writers snuck that in there.
Frozen is a wonderful example of multiple meaningful twists. It utilises a combination of a seemingly predictable twist and the main twist that we did not anticipate. When Prince Hans is revealed to be only interested in the throne of Arendelle, it wasn’t exactly shocking. It was a standard plot twist, and an overused one. I remember begging in my head while watching the movie that this twist was not all Disney had to offer. Thankfully, it wasn’t. The predictable Prince Hans twist more intelligently served to remove any anticipation of a second more meaningful twist. The best part of this main twist, which is only revealed in the final minutes of the film, is that the twist is applied to the most central recurring topic that is a trademark feature of Disney films; True Love’s Kiss. Never with my self-professed Disney expertise would I have anticipated True Love to be the twist. An earlier mention of “an act of true love” is quickly interpreted by the characters, and thus the audience, to be the trademark “True Love’s Kiss”, only to be revealed later that Anna’s selfless love for her sister was the act required to heal Anna. That was the defining moment in the film when I felt the timeless Disney magic. Superb.
3. The Music
Oh my freakin’ gosh… the music… that Disney music… Need I really say more? I’m not an expert on what makes Disney soundtracks so unbelievably catchy and memorable, but the fact that the songs are timeless makes the animated musicals timeless as well. Aladdin‘s “A Whole New World” is legendary. Tunes such as “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas, “Reflection” from Mulan and “True Love’s Kiss” from Enchanted (that wonderful Disney homage and self-parody) stay in your head for eternity. It is impossible to watch The Lion King, Hercules, Tarzan, and The Little Mermaid without singing along to every song. I am absolutely sure that those songs were playing in your head once I mentioned them.
While not all successful Disney animated films are musicals, the vast majority of Disney musicals have been successful, and it’s easy to see why. The link is simple; timeless soundtracks lead to timeless musicals.
Disney will never bring us on the same adventure twice. As long as they continue the splendid job that they have always done, we can be sure that the Wonderful World of Disney will always be there to entertain us.