Why Disney sequels and remakes matter

It’s pretty good, y’know. You should check it out!

With Beauty and the Beast hitting cinemas earlier in the year, and footage from The Lion King being shown at D23, the focus for Disney fans at the moment is very much on the company’s repeated revisiting of its history. Opinion, of course, ranges from utter outrage to gleeful celebration, and as a fan of both Disney and creative remixing, I fall very much into the latter category. After all, what’s wrong with re-telling these ‘tales as old as time’ when they come from an oral tradition that enabled each storyteller to craft their version of the story in their own specific way. Surely that’s the point of (and one of the joys of) fairy tales.

Much of the criticism of Disney seems to revolve around a perceived lack of originality, and that’s a fair point. When you think of Disney’s output you probably don’t think much about sequels and remakes. That’s because out of the 56 films that constitute their core offering (their Animated Classics), only one is a sequel: The Rescuers Down Under. Wreck-It Ralph 2 and Frozen 2 will follow before this decade is out, and after their critical and commercial successes last year, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Zootopia and Moana get spin-offs as well. But until recently, sequels and remakes have been a well that Disney has rarely wished into.

Sort of.

Buried away in the Disney filmography is a string of sequels that the studio released during the 90s and early 00s. Spinning off everything from Mulan and Pocahontas to Peter Pan and Cinderella, these films are often dismissed by fans and critics alike and were quickly stopped once John Lasseter took control in the mid Noughties. They were released direct to video (later DVD) and were produced by Disney’s TV animation wing, DisneyToons Studio, which opened its doors in 1990 with Duck Tales: Treasure of the Lost Lamp and has also produced the Planes and (really rather brilliant) Tinkerbell series.

It’s easy to be sniffy about these releases. The animation is often inferior to the Animated Classics, and the scripts are pretty tenuous because, in many cases, the stories don’t strictly need to be told. After all, is there really a need for Bambi 2, a midquel that focuses on the Great Prince of the Forest’s mentoring of his new charge? Do we absolutely have to have The Jungle Book 2, in which Baloo is suspected of having taken Mowgli back to the jungle? And who the heck asked for Cinderella III: A Twist in Time, which finds Cinders (I kid you not) travelling through time?

Some of these films (Cinderella II: Dreams Come True, Hunchback of Notre Dame II, Lion King 1 ½, (which – again, not joking here – riffs on ‘Rozencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ in the way the original riffed on ‘Hamlet’) are pretty good and well worth checking out if you liked the first films. But vital necessities? Not really. At least not in terms of telling stories that have to be told. But maybe, when considering these films, we’re approaching them in the wrong way. Instead of thinking if we need them, we should instead think about whether they’re needed by their core audience: kids. And in that case, I’d argue the answer is an overwhelming yes.

When I was young, I watched my favourite films over and over again. The Goonies, Superman, various Disneys, and various Spielbergs all went through the cycle at my house as me, my sister, and my brother learned every bit of dialogue and memorised every beat. I suspect you were the same if you had a film, or films, that you were truly passionate about. When you really love a movie (or a TV show, or a book) as a child, you don’t want it to end, so when you do get to those closing credits, you rewind and rewatch, knowing deep down that everything will happen in exactly the same way at exactly the same time as the other 7,984 times you’ve watched it, but still watching it anyway.

Films are windows into lives that kids haven’t yet experienced. They help them understand emotions they could be struggling with and get to grips with empathy, associating so firmly with certain characters that they don’t want to let go of them. It’s why fan fiction and fan art have become so significant as mediums for self-exploration in recent years, and why the pressure is greater than ever for film-makers to be more inclusive. In a world that’s as divisive and fraught as ours is, the safety of fiction offers a comforting arena where anyone can be anything without fear of judgement or reprisal.

Giving kids further adventures with their fictional heroes is therefore not simply a money-making venture, but something of genuine worth. I know I wish I’d had further adventures with the likes of Elliott and Chunk to enjoy when I was a kid. And I suspect the kids of today are lapping up the wonderful Frozen comic books produced by Joe Books and are thrilled at the prospect of seeing weekly stories from the worlds of Tangled and Big Hero 6They represent a very real, very important map through the chaos of growing up and that, surely, is more significant than star ratings and rankings on Rotten Tomatoes.

So when we think of these sequels and remakes like Beauty and the Beast, it’s wise to remove ourselves from the equation, regardless of how artistically significant we see the original, or financially motivated we view the new stories. Art, in whatever medium it comes, is not static and it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists, and needs to evolve, in order to illuminate, engage and inform, as well as simply to entertain and stand as great work. That illumination shines in different ways to different people and if illuminating the lives of younger audiences requires a few sequels or remakes of variable quality, I’d say that’s a fair trade.  

Advertisements

Mouse House Movie Club #12: Beauty and the Beasts (1991 and 2017)

Super-big spoilers. Beware.

Disney’s live action remake cycle continues apace with Beauty and the Beast, so of course, I popped along to see it, rose in hand and ‘Be Our Guest’ in my heart. It’s a very enjoyable film with some standout moments and glorious production design, but it’s comfortably the weakest of this run of remakes and certainly the one that compares most unfavourably with its predecessor. So rather than a simple review, I figured the best approach to Beauty and the Beast 2017 is to compare it to Beauty and the Beast 1991, because there’s a lot to be learned about both films, and the process of remaking stories, by doing so.

“For who could ever learn to love a Beast…”
Beauty and the Beast 2017 (henceforth known as B&TB17 to save my achy fingers) is largely a very faithful adaption, with only a couple of new songs and fleshed-out backstories offered by way of major additions. However, there are some subtle alterations dotted throughout and while they’re only small, they have a pretty significant impact on the story’s focus and meaning.

The first is the prologue. In B&TB91, Prince’s Adam’s descent into Beast is told by a male narrator who plays no part in the rest of the film, and plays out through stained glass windows. However, in B&TB17, the narration is given by Emma Thompson (who voices Mrs Potts), lasts a good couple of minutes longer, and is played out by the flesh-and-blood actors.

It’s a very minor change, and a legitimate choice on the part of screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, and director Bill Condon, but it shifts the focus of the film dramatically. The masterstroke of playing this story out on stained glass windows is it builds no connection between the audience and The Beast. It positions this element of the story as what it is: backstory and exposition. We’re being told what we need to know without getting an insight into just how horrifying Adam’s metamorphosis into Beast is.

This changes in B&TB17. Adam’s story is no longer exposition, it’s fully fleshed-out tragedy. It gets the film off to entirely the wrong start, building up the emotional connection with Beast before we’ve met Belle. With the film later giving us an insight into how he became so selfish and cruel (a dead mother and nasty father) and an entirely new song (the powerful ‘Evermore’), B&TB17 seems more his story than Belle’s: a story of redemption for a flawed man rather than empowerment for a lost woman.

It’s important to state here that I’m not suggesting anyone involved in B&TB17 has intentionally shifted the focus. Belle is still a strong woman, she still gets all her defining moments, and like Beast, she too has a new backstory. Indeed, at times, this film enhances the feminism of the original by showing Belle inventing a proto-washing machine, and teaching a young girl to read. There is, however, a notable difference and it’s hard not to notice who the screenwriters are here.

B&TB91 was written by Linda Woolverton (who also penned Maleficent), while the new version is written by two men: Chbosky and Spiliotopoulos. Woolverton’s take doesn’t entirely sideline Beast and nor does the new version entirely sideline Belle, but it’s difficult – if not impossible – for a film to perfectly balance out two leads: there’ll always be one who subtly takes the limelight. By making the aforementioned subtle changes, and by making him less sympathetic when he first meets Belle (in the animated film, he offers Belle a room rather than keeping her in the dungeon; here it’s Lumiere, much to Beast’s anger), B&TB17 becomes Beast’s redemption story because, I assume, that’s what sings most clearly to the male writers.

This switch in focus underlines why it’s so important to get more women into significant roles in Hollywood. No matter the intentions or skill of male creative talents, they can’t bring the same insight into their female characters as women can, and that does play out in the final product. Would Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph have featured the kind of compelling female characters they do without Jennifer Lee? Would Moana have made the decisive switch from focusing on Maui to focusing on Moana without producer Osnat Shurer? Would Maleficent have been a more straightforward Sleeping Beauty remake without Woolverton’s script? They wouldn’t have been sexist, I’m sure, and nor is B&TB17, but that’s not the point.

Without a woman in a strong and significant position, those films would be very different in subtle ways, and could potentially have meant less to the female audience members who have related to them. I’d be interested to hear what young girls who’ve never seen the original Beauty and the Beast but have now gone to watch the remake think. Do they come out feeling like they can do anything and be anyone, like Belle can? Or do they come out feeling sympathy for Beast and his story of redemption? Unlike the original, I have a feeling it’s the latter.

“Little town…”
The film’s depiction of Belle herself also plays into this. To my mind, two moments define Belle’s character: the song ‘Belle’ (of course) and ‘Be Our Guest’. The first establishes her yearning, while the second shows us how she reacts to getting what she yearns for. You can nail one but not the other and still succeed, but if both don’t work, your character’s in real trouble, and sadly that’s what happens with B&TB17 .

A core part of the problem is Emma Watson. A tremendous ambassador and justifiably vaunted hero for millions of young women, Watson is nevertheless a limited actor. Give her pure and straightforward emotions to play, and she soars. So in the reprise of ‘Belle’, when all she has to convey is disgust turning into joyous ambition she’s fine. Likewise in ‘Something There’, when all she has to convey is a growing sense of affection, she’s great too. But Belle’s a complex character, and the two core moments I’ve mentioned feature complicated emotions that Watson can’t quite tap in to.

Let’s take ‘Belle’ first. On paper, this is a pretty insulting song. Belle journeys through her “little town” passing judgement on its “little people” who go about their boring business “like always”. A bit stuck up for sure, but a vital part of success here is complexity. Belle has to seen bored, but she can’t seem boring. She has to seem cut off, but she can’t seem distant. She has to want more, but she can’t dismiss the villagers as being less. In B&TB91, Paige O’Hara’s beautifully warm voice and the energy of the character animation combine to convey this. She seems to regard the villagers with genuine affection, and while she’s disconnected from them, it’s because she’s dreaming up an adventure. She’s bored, but by no means boring. Yearning but not critical.

Watson simply doesn’t have the range to convey this delicacy.  She plods through the scene, rather than bounding through it, and when she gets wrapped up in her book (“It’s my favourite part, you’ll see…”) she looks like she’s reading the back of a cereal box rather than an exciting bit of a beloved novel. This may have been a conscious choice on Watson’s part (Belle does need to convey some boredom here), but it’s undoubtedly the wrong choice. More than any other ‘I Want’ Song, ‘Belle’ dictates the character for the rest of the film. It’s not only our defining insight into her hopes and dreams, but it’s the first impression we get of her. It needs to be a good one, and Watson’s performance sadly isn’t.

She’s not helped by a small but significant change to the script that redefines Belle’s journey. In the original, Belle’s asked about the book she’s returning to the library, which here is noticeably smaller and contains just a handful of books to make the town seem even worse and its people even stupider. She replies with a description of Jack and the Beanstalk. It’s a masterstroke from lyricist Howard Ashman, highlighting her desire to escape the “little town” into something bigger (a giant’s world) and emphasising her desire for adventure. She wants to go to the kind of ‘big’ place Jack goes to.

In B&TB17, however, the book is changed, with Belle saying it’s about “two lovers in fair Verona”.  Obviously this is Romeo and Juliet, and it’s referenced again later when Belle tells Beast that it’s “my favourite play”. If we take that book to be a symbol of Belle’s hopes and dreams, this change is pretty disastrous, as it entirely reshapes her motivation. She’s no longer wanting adventure, she’s wanting romance. She’s no longer looking for something independent from other people, she’s looking to be one half of a partnership. It strips away a certain amount of her agency.

Of course, Belle references love in B&TB91’s rendition too (“here’s where she meets Prince Charming…”), but it’s almost incidental. The love she’s describing here is a result of the adventure she yearns for – it’s something she encounters after discovering herself through adventure, and therefore much more empowering. By giving Romeo and Juliet such prominence, the writers have again conveyed a truth more relevant to Beast than to Belle. The reference is there to represent a transformative tale about love crossing even the biggest of barriers, and heighten the sense of redemption Beast feels as the story progresses.

“Try the grey stuff…”
‘Be Our Guest’ acts as a semi-official reprise of ‘Belle’ in so much as it’s the character encountering the “adventure in the great wide somewhere” that she longs for. It comes at a critical point in the film, with Belle having been treated appallingly by Beast and refused dinner. Any normal person in that situation would try to escape, and indeed that’s exactly what the Belle of B&TB17 tries to do. What keeps her in the castle is ‘Be Our Guest’, where she realises two things: (1) Lumiere and co are pretty damn decent and need her, and (2) she’s finally found what she’s looking for.

Again, Watson is confronted with a complex emotional scene, and again she can’t convey its full breadth. This is, in part, because she struggles with non-verbal reaction, and as Belle’s silent throughout the song, that’s a pretty big problem. There’s clear decision-making here on Watson’s part. In B&TB91, Belle is very animated (no pun intended): she laughs, sings, and claps along with the song, and Watson seems to have made a conscious choice to underplay it for fear of being seen to overact. But instead, she seems bored, doing nothing but smile with coy admiration at Lumiere and co.

Where’s the enjoyment? Where’s the excitement? Where’s the sense that Belle’s heart’s desire has finally come into fruition? Sadly, Watson simply can’t convey those things and admiration and sympathy for her new friends, and so Belle’s decision to stay – previously made because she realised she could achieve her dreams in the castle – switches to being about helping Lumiere et al. Like her relationship with Beast, Belle’s growth has become most relevant to us through how it reflects on other characters rather than herself. That may not be how it was intended, but sadly that’s how it plays out. Watson sadly doesn’t have the range to equally convey both sides the emotional equation of this scene.

“My what a guy…”
Beyond Belle and the Beast, Gaston is the film’s third most significant character, and in the animation, he’s one of the most unique villains in the Disney canon. Possessing a specific kind of evil, he’s a hateful misogynist who embodies the most corrupt of patriarchal values. He’s “the best” man in town because he’s the strongest and the most handsome. Because of this, he deserves the best woman, and that’s the most attractive one: Belle, whose name, of course, literally means beauty. When she refuses his advances, he attempts to corner her with a proposal and later hatches a plan to have her father Maurice committed so he can blackmail her into marrying him.

This is Gaston ’91’s defining act of evil, and it’s an inherently misogynistic one, but it’s removed from the new film. Instead of trying to have Maurice sent to the asylum (which would have been more difficult here as B&TB17’s Maurice is less obviously eccentric), he offers to help him find Belle. He and LeFou travel with him through the woods in search of Beast’s castle before the endless journey and Maurice’s uncertainty about the castle’s location get too much for Gaston. He abandons the plan and confesses that he only joined Maurice because he wants to marry Belle. When Maurice tells him that this will never happen, Gaston punches him, ties him to a tree and leaves him to the wolves.

Again, this is a very minor change, but it’s a significant one. No longer is Gaston a hateful misogynist whose defining act of evil is to try to own a woman, but a more generic kind of evil: an attempted murderer.  This fundamentally shifts Gaston’s dramatic purpose. In 1991, he was the personification of everything Belle is fighting against: the cage she must fly from to live the life she wants. In 2017, he’s the mirror image of the Beast: the man who’s a monster contrasting with the monster who’s a man.  As a result, the story again feels more geared around Beast’s journey than Belle’s and the final conflict is less about Gaston’s outrage at having been rejected in favour of a hideous beast and more about a masculine battle of wits: the good man v the bad man.

Why the change? It’s pure speculation, but Gaston is a real money spinner for Disney. Since 1991, he’s become a mainstay at the theme parks, indeed one of the most popular meet and greet figures the parks have because of his entertainment value. He’s a dumb lunk who says and does idiotic things that we can all laugh at. Releasing a new film where he’s unequivocally a misogynist represents a threat to that. It’s kinda like showing the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark walking out of a concentration camp. Suddenly, the pantomime bad guy has become a little too real, the evil a little too tangible. The laughs we experience at the parks would seem hollow if we’re reminded too clearly of Gaston’s misogyny, and that would hit profitability, so it’s not a surprise that the character’s been tweaked. It’s just a shame that those tweaks, as so many of them here do, come at the expense of Belle.

“Tale as old as time…”
Over 2,500 words into this blog I’ll admit that there’s a certain redundancy in comparing the two films (sorry!). They were made at very different times and, obviously, in two different forms: like-for-like comparison is difficult. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t profoundly important. B&TB17 is a charming, sweet, and sometimes very moving adaptation of the classic story. I’ve seen it twice now and will undoubtedly pick it up when it’s released on Blu-Ray. I may have spent this entire piece critiquing it, but I can still highlight Tobias Schliessler’s sumptuous cinematography, Alan Menken’s soaring score, and Bill Condon’s expressive direction as wonderful elements of a lovely film.

As an adaptation of an era-defining Disney masterpiece, however, it’s severely lacking. The remakes Disney is currently engaged with are interesting and worthwhile, with some reinventing the original without necessarily improving it (Maleficent and Cinderella), and others transforming the flawed source into something incredible (Pete’s Dragon). Beauty and the Beast does neither and so sits as an awkward companion piece. It highlights the advances the art of cinema has taken in the quarter of a decade since the original, but sadly, serves mostly to show how impressive that first outing truly is. Some enchanted roses, it seems, will never wither.

The Line Where the Sky Meets the Sea: Moana, Disney Princesses, and the Journey to Identity

moana-fallback_fde4d101

This essay contains spoilers throughout. Do not read until you’ve seen the film.

“If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick,” arrogant Demigod Maui tells teenage adventurer Moana in Disney’s latest animated masterpiece. “You’re a Princess!” It’s a neat little line that parodies Disney Princess heritage without mocking it too derisively, but there’s much more than mere humour going on with this line. While Moana may protest at Maui’s definition, she is, by sheer force of the Disney marketing machine at least, a Princess, and as such you’ll likely hear critics rhapsodise over how different she is from her predecessors when they come to write their reviews of this film. There’s certainly truth in that, but though the external shell may be that of a rough and ready warrior, Moana is, heart and soul, a very traditional Disney Princess. And as I’ll explore in this essay, that’s a very good thing.

An Innocent Warrior
Let’s deal with that shell first of all, because at its core, Moana is about the multi-faceted nature of identity: the diversity of the human race as a whole, the changing roles we, as individuals, play in our cultures, and the parts we play in order to do that. Moana is, absolutely, a character of agency and physical strength. She defeats creepy coconut guys (the adorably nasty mini-pirates, the Kakamora), outwits a giant crab (the superficial and delightfully self-indulgent Tamatao), and escapes a humongous lava monster (the beautifully animated Te Ka). She doesn’t need a prince to come and save her and is never shy about attempting a physically intimidating task, be that scaling a steep cliff or swinging onto the Kakamora ship to rescue her idiotic chicken friend Hei Hei. Moana is Disney-Princess-as-action hero, and it’s wonderful that a generation of young women have another ass-kicking Mulan-style heroine to look up to.

But just as there was more to Mulan than dressing as a guy and joining the army, so too is there more to Moana. The title of this section refers the second song we hear in the film. ‘An Innocent Warrior’ is played during a sequence where toddler Moana ventures to the beach and encounters a baby turtle that’s trying to make its way across the sand, beyond the birds hoping to gobble it up, and towards the safety of the sea. Compassionate enough to understand the animal’s struggles, Moana leaves the ocean that had piqued her interest enough to bring her down to the beach in the first place and rips a large leaf off the branch of a tree. Using it to shield the turtle from the birds, she ushers her new friend down to the water and bids it farewell as it swims off. An innocent warrior from the very start, Moana here displays the courage and strength of a fighter and the faith, pure compassion, and maybe even naivety of an innocent. In other words, she’s defined as much by her emotional strength as her physical strength.

Moana‘s adventurous story allows directors Ron Clements and John Musker to draw this out in more detail. Moana is a fighter, and a very determined and capable one at that, but she’s not able to do everything. She fails in her initial attempts to go beyond the reef, injuring herself in the process; she makes a potentially fatal mistake when closing on her goal, much to the chargin of Maui; and she can’t even muster the necessary strength to remove a Kakamora arrow from her boat’s mast. Maui, meanwhile, plucks it out like an apple from a tree. (1) Perhaps her most significant failure is in her first meeting with Maui, when she allows the visual and lyrical fun of ‘You’re Welcome’ to blind her to the demigod’s true purpose: stealing her boat so he can escape the island he’s marooned on. Only some quick thinking saves her from being marooned herself.

Time and again, the film shows our hero as a work in progress, a young woman as capable of naivety and impetuousness as great feats of heroics. This is key to the film’s story and the character’s development. Moana’s strength isn’t innate; she has to develop it and battling a harsh and unforgiving ocean (and the even more harsh and unforgiving beasties within it) never comes easily. Mistakes are made and, as I’ll return to later, the film explicitly positions this as a positive in ‘I Am Moana (Song of the Ancestors)’, a rousing duet between Moana and her grandmother Gramma Tala in which the virtues of emotional intelligence and learning from weakness are extolled. (2) Indeed, her ability to learn is shown to be one of Moana’s most significant skills, whether it’s in the ingenuity of her rescue of the turtle, her escape from the cave that Maui traps her in, or the way she solves the problems laid out by her people when she’s training under her father to become Chief. She watches, she analyses, she learns, and she masters the skills needs, ultimately mastering her most prized skill: Wayfinding.

53524869d1babc39b91ef7bb_1badb390

Who needs a new song?
While the Wayfinding and warrior nature of Moana is unique to the film, the concept of failing, learning, trying again, and ultimately succeeding runs through all Disney Princess films, even as far back as Cinderella. The motif kicked into a new gear with the Renaissance, where characters were built on their sense of failure – failure to fit in, failure to be understood, failure to meet society’s required standards. This failure is why the ‘I Want Song’ has become such a staple of the Princess film’s make up. These are not just pretty little ditties about wish fulfilment and magic; they’re insights into our heroes’ hopes, desires, and needs, they’re how they process their failures and set their sights on their successes. Ariel feels she can’t fit in in Atlantica, but knows she could in the human world; Belle feels she’ll never be understood or satisfied in her quiet provincial town, so seeks adventure; Rapunzel feels she’ll let down Mother Gothel if she ventures outside, but knows she must anyway. Princesses start off as failures and seek the courage to become successes. While we shouldn’t diminish the physical strength Princesses can show, nor should we suggest it’s the only strength they can show.

In Moana, songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda exacerbates our hero’s sense of failure by basing a song around the world she wants to escape. ‘Where You Are’ owes a debt of gratitude to The Little Mermaid‘s ‘Under the Sea’ in the sense that it focuses on a character (Sebastian the Crab in Mermaid, Moana’s father, Chief Tui, here) strong arming – with the best of intentions – our hero into staying put. He tells Moana of her duty to the island, reminding her that her place in the natural order of things is on Motunui and nowhere else. “The island gives us what we need,” Moana is told, before recognising with a certain sadness that this means “no-one leaves.” She matures during the course of the song, and by the end of it (unlike ‘Under the Sea’) it’s had its desired effect. “So here I’ll stay,” present day Moana sings. “My home, my people/Beside me/And when I think of tomorrow…” “There we are…” say the villagers, completing her sentence.

And indeed there they are. Moana settles, becoming the chief-in-training her father expects her to be and that her people need her to be. She’s aware of the responsibility she holds, and willing to accept it, but the desire to change her life remains: she can’t quite shake off the voice within her that tells her she needs to move on. It’s the emotional intelligence and inner strength that all the Princesses have. She knows there’s something wrong and she needs to do something about it, and her challenge through the film is to achieve that something.

This struggle is brilliantly brought to life through Miranda’s association of Moana with the ocean and the natural world. In the I Want Song ‘How Far I’ll Go’, she sings of being drawn to the “line where the sky meets the sea” and likens her motivation for exploring to “the wind in my sail on the sea”.  By having her describe herself like this, Miranda allows Moana to appreciate her core difference to her family and community. Both she and her people value the land, but while they’re happy to stay where they are and live off the land, Moana knows that life isn’t just about surviving and being given “all we need”, but about flourishing, giving back to the natural world, being a part of it, and forging togetherness through the connections the natural world affords.

It’s a concept learned by Clements and Musker on their research trips to the Oceania region. Recounting their experiences in the book ‘The Art of Moana’, the directors describe meetings with island natives where they were told how the ocean isn’t viewed as a great divider of the region’s islands, but as a connector, something that brings all the small and disparate locations together. So Moana’s strength, and her solution to her failure to feel at peace with her community, is to connect not just with her own emotions, but those of all of Oceania, and forge a new identity for her people, one built on a changing relationship with the world. This idea of shifting identities is a theme Disney has returned to time and time again of late and therefore one that merits further investigation.

moana

Just an ordinary demi-guy!
From The Princess and the Frog onwards, Disney has played with concepts of identity: the roles we play to get along in life, the way elements of our being dictate who we are, and the way our entire sense of self can be deconstructed or transformed. We see this most explicitly in the villains the Modern Era of Disney has produced. From Tangled through to Zootopia, Disney has portrayed evil as a slippery force willing to shift its identity in order to get what it wants or needs. Sometimes this villainy is immediately apparent to everyone but the hero (Tangled‘s Mother Gothel), but mostly it’s played as a twist: Hans turns out to be anything but a handsome prince; kindly mentor Callaghan turns out to be the supervillain Yokai; King Candy reveals himself to be game-hopping Turbo; and shy and retiring Bellwether emerges as the mastermind behind the plan to pit herbivores against carnivores.

Such schemes stand in stark contrast to the heroes, who are no less split in their personalities, but are largely unaware of that fact, or at least unable to do anything about it. Rapunzel, for example, doesn’t know she’s a Princess just that she feels curiously connected to the floating lights in the sky. Ralph is a bad guy who longs to be a good guy so he can live a better life, while Vanellope, like Rapunzel, has been denied an identity that’s rightfully her’s and instead is convinced that she’s a glitch. Judy Hopps is an ambitious young policebunny thwarted by her unsuitably cute identity and Nick Wilde is a good guy who feels he needs to play the part of the bad guy because that’s what everyone expects. And, of course, Elsa is fighting against herself in order to save Anna, while Anna herself plays the part of a swooning Princess because she thinks it’ll get her the love she craves.

Big Hero 6, one of the more overlooked modern Disney films, is arguably the studio’s most fascinating deconstruction of identity, if for no other reason than the long history of identity crises in the superhero genre. In the film, Hiro creates superhero alter egos for he and his friends not to serve a higher good, but to serve his own desire to understand his brother’s death and potentially exact revenge upon whoever was responsible for it. In other words, he’s dangerously close to using identity in the same way modern Disney villains do, and in one of the film’s key sequences, he does just that, changing Baymax’s programming to turn him into a killing machine with his sights set firmly on the newly-exposed Callaghan. The rest of the group tear Hiro and Baymax away just in time, but it’s not until the film’s conclusion that Hiro’s identity crisis fully resolves itself, and the Big Hero 6 become a force for good and not just for their leader’s personal vendettas.

Moana never ventures into places so dark, but the film surpasses even Big Hero 6‘s exploration of identity because almost every character in the film is suffering through some form of identity crisis. Alongside our heroine, the film is comprised of four main characters, though intriguingly none can claim to be a core villain. Instead, we have three threats and an ambiguous anti-hero (Maui, who with his ability to shapeshift is a literal identity crisis as well as an emotional one). The three threats are Te Ka (the closest we get to an overall villain, who I’ll touch on in greater detail a little later), the Kakamora and Tamatoa. Though the latter two aren’t on screen for a particularly long time, they shift identities to serve their own ends, just like any other Disney villain. The Kakamora are described as “cute” by Moana when she first sees them, and indeed they are; until they smear on war paint, brandish weaponry, and wage war on Moana and Maui. Never judge a book by its cover, or a monster by its adorable coconut exterior.

Later we encounter Tamatoa, a gigantic crab with a love for everything gold, glittery, and Bowie-esque. It’s Tamatoa who has the honour of contributing to the long line of excellent Disney villain songs with his number ‘Shiny’, and it’s through this that Miranda zeroes in on identity again. Tamatoa begins by lamenting how he “hasn’t always been this glam,” telling us he was “a drab little crab once”. He brags to Moana – disguised as a crustacean in an attempt to sneak up on her foe – of his joy at being so superficial and delights in telling her how Gramma Tala’s advice that she listen to what’s inside is wrong. It’s all about surface with this guy; he’d rather dazzle on the outside because that’s what drives fish to his lair and gives him the food to live a simple, hassle-free life. (3)

As the song progresses, Tamatoa discovers Maui and his plan to retrieve his lost fish hook, which has now found a home on the crab’s shell. Suddenly, the song shifts focus. No longer just a boast of Tamatoa’s external prowess, ‘Shiny’ becomes an attack on Maui as we learn more about the demigod and his tragic history. As Maui explains in greater detail later in the film, he’s been abandoned by his creators and forced to go through life alone. He creates the sky, sea, and land that he boasted about so much in ‘You’re Welcome’ not simply to prove how brilliant he is, but as a gift to humans who, as Tamatoa points out with glee, have since abandoned him too. He sings:

Send your armies but they’ll never be enough
My shell’s too tough, Maui man

You could try, try, try
But you can’t expect a demigod
To beat a decapod, give it up,
You will die, die, die
Now it’s time for me to take apart
Your aching heart

Far from the ones who abandoned you
Chasing the love of
These humans who made you feel wanted
You tried to be tough
But your armour’s just not hard enough

It’s a tremendous feat of songwriting from Miranda and it shines a new light on ‘You’re Welcome’, which like ‘Let It Go’ before it (4), becomes an act of self-deception. Maui’s boasts are a shell, a false identity built to distract people from his true self. (5) He and Tamatoa are essentially the same: monoliths who have shifted from one static identity to the other and got stuck, both emotionally and literally. Before meeting Moana, Maui was no less able to move from his position than Tamatoa is, and while his fish hook may grant him magical powers to shift forms, it’s as much a gift as a curse (6). He’s come to rely on its power as much as Tamatoa has come to rely on his shiny shell, and when the fish hook is lost or broken, Maui loses his sense of identity.

It’s fitting that when we last see these characters (Maui in the film’s final scene, Tamatoa in an amusing post-credit sting) the two are in very different positions. His power (and more importantly, connection to his inner self) restored, Maui is flying high, able once again to shapeshift into an eagle and come and go as he pleases. Tamatoa, meanwhile, is stuck on his back at the bottom of the ocean, his shininess dulled, his chances of getting back on his feet almost non-existent. While Maui has learned from Moana and come to understand the importance of listening to one’s heart and exploring the world around you, Tamatoa hasn’t had the benefit of her emotional intelligence. Only those who listen to Moana’s inner strength can succeed, and that idea sets up the remarkable final act in which our heroine finally confronts Te Ka the lava monster, and achieves her I Want Song goal.

te-ka

I am everything I’ve learned and more
Before battle commences, we get something I can’t ever recall seeing in a Disney Princess film before: a second, entirely unique reprise of the I Want Song: an ‘I Nearly Have’ Song, if you will. Having fallen out with Maui, Moana is at her lowest ebb and ready to give up when Gramma Tala returns in spirit form to duet with her grand-daughter on ‘I Am Moana (Song of the Ancestors’). It acts as a reassertion of Moana’s determination, but also a reminder of the multitudinous aspects of her identity: her family, her island, the ocean, and the natural world as a whole. Tala begins by telling Moana about failure and how no successes can be achieved without it. “Sometimes the world seems against you/The journey may leave a scar/But scars can heal and reveal just/Where you are,” she tells her grandaughter, asserting that “the things you have learned will guide you.” Again, like all Princesses, Moana is the sum of her failures and the lessons she’s learned from them.

They’re sentiments Moana heeds. She takes over the song in its second half and begins by reaffirming the split elements of her identity, saying she’s “the girl who loves my island… the girl who loves the sea”. Again, she’s speaking of her own wants versus the wants of her father, something she touches on as the song progresses, adding that she remains “the daughter of the village chief” but also insisting that “we are descended from voyagers”. Echoing Tala’s thoughts, she says that she’s “everything I’ve learned and more”, and what she’s learned is that her and her father’s wants are one and the same: a love of her island is a love of the sea, being the village chief’s daughter requires her to be a voyager. While other Princesses have shunned their societies to fulfil their needs,  Moana’s simply changed the rules, flowed like the sea and created a new identity (and new I  Want Song) based on change and the fluxing nature of identity, heritage, and family. Bringing the song to an end, she sings:

“The call isn’t out there at all, it’s inside me
It’s like the tide; always falling and rising
I will carry you here in my heart you’ll remind me
That come what may
I know the way
I am Moana!”

This themes turn into literal truth in the film’s finale as Moana returns the heart to Te Fiti not by destroying Te Ka in the action packed set piece we’ve been set up to expect, but by having maturity, morality, and emotional intelligence enough to understand that Te Ka is Te Fiti. The island lives and after Maui took its heart from her, she turned into a monster whose warped identity comes to infect the entire world. (7)

Again, it’s Miranda’s songwriting that illuminates the moment by having Moana sing another new song (‘Know Who You Are’) that’s based on one we’ve previously heard (‘An Innocent Warrior’). As she parts the sea and confronts Te Ka, she tells the monster that though “they have stolen the heart from inside you” this absence “does not define you/This is not who you are/You know who you are.” Truly Moana has become the innocent warrior, a young woman possessing a warrior’s courage and an innocent’s clarity, intelligence, and faith in goodness. She returns the heart, and Te Ka, in one of the most remarkable moments of animation in this most beautiful of films, becomes Te Fiti once more, a lush green island of life and warmth. The threat over, Moana and Maui stand on Te Fiti’s hills and look out across the ocean to a world given a second chance.

Moana’s saved the day, and saved the world by connecting herself to it, opening herself to the opportunity of it changing her, and finding a way to change it, rather than simply feeding off what it provides. Identities change, they ebb and slow like oceans. Only by understanding that can you understand who you are.

disney-princesses

We know who we are
To round up this piece, I want to return to Princesses as a whole because while Moana has a unique identity of her own, Maui is right with that jokey line about dresses and sidekicks: she is, at her heart, a Princess.

We must always hold Disney to account on their presentation of these characters, both on screen and in merchandising, but we must also commend them when they get it as right as they have with Moana and other recent Princess films. We must also acknowledge that ‘Princess’ is not a dirty word. Moana is a compassionate, intelligent, sensitive, courageous young woman, as the other Princesses are, as many of the films’ audience is. To dismiss Princesses is to dismiss scores of smart, wonderful young women who find something valuable in these films.

Strength isn’t just about physicality. As we’re seeing in society every day, strength is about possessing the emotional intelligence to understand who you are, the flexibility to change with it, and the courage to express it, whether that identity be a result of your culture, race, sexuality, or gender. Moana is a perfect film for our times because that’s what it expresses. That’s what Frozen expressed. And Tangled. And Mulan. And The Little Mermaid… Name a Princess film, and you’ll find that concept shouted out loud and clear. We just seem to struggle to see past the dresses and glitter and magical fantasy of it all.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, and when thinking about Disney Princesses, I find The Switch Sisters’ comments about finding feminist messages in these films particularly compelling.

Although we women-types have a long way to go in this and all other forms of media (as well as in real life), it’s important to seek out positive feminist messages in the things that girls actually like. Not that all girls like princesses. But when we do, maybe take us seriously. Why do we like them? What do we like about them? Why does dressing up as princesses give girls so much empowerment? Why do girls get so much joy from singing I Want Songs?

In lieu of the magical qualities the earth and sea have in Moana, the emphasis is on us to be each other’s “wind in the sail on the sea” and drive each other to the line on the horizon that Moana pines for. It’s a journey that begins, as Moana’s does, with listening to the call: the call of the world, the call inside ourselves, and more than anything else, the call inside others.

Footnotes

  1. It’ll be interesting to see how Moana is viewed through a feminist lens. When Anna struggled to get to climb a mountain in Frozen, the film attracted criticism for mocking her strength and making her look stupid. Moana offers its hero many more opportunities to display her physical strength and adventuring aptitude, and grants her the opportunity to succeed, but it’s not afraid to show her struggling like Anna and play such moments for laughs. Is Moana an improvement on Frozen in this regard?
  2. Tala sings: “Sometimes the world seems against you/The journey may leave a scar/
    But scars can heal and reveal just/Where you are/The people you love will change you/The things you have learned will guide you”
  3. While the film stops short of associating Tamatoa with Moana’s island, there’s not a huge difference between the isolationist policies of Montenui and Tamatoa. Both use what they’ve been provided with to stay put; living off the land, rather than giving back to it.
  4. Check out three’s fantastic post about ‘Let It Go’ as a song of empowerment for a good rebuttal of my own piece.
  5. Dwayne Johnson continues to be one of the most interesting, and important, male screen presences in modern Hollywood. He has an exceptional eye for picking his roles, understanding his celebrity persona and often subverting it. His last film, Central Intelligence, found him playing a rogue CIA agent with a love for effeminate pop songs and dancing. Maui’s struggles here speak to the concept of masculinity in crisis, struggling with emotional problems but being unable to speak about them. Having been open about his own difficulties with depression, you suspect Johnson related to Maui’s journey through Moana, and I hope it connects with young men in the audience the way Elsa’s difficulties connected with young women.
  6. For more on modern Disney’s depiction of magic, check out my essay ‘No Magic’.
  7. There’s a nice evolution from Frozen here. If Elsa had a frozen heart that threw Arendelle into an eternal winter, Te Fiti has an absent heart that throws the world into a potentially eternal darkness.

Moana: First, Spoiler-Free Thoughts

I had the pleasure of seeing Moana at a special preview at the National Film Theatre in London earlier today, and it was a wonderful experience. Not only was the film great, but there was a (sadly very short as they had prior commitments) Q&A with Ron Clements, John Musker, producer Osnat Shurer, and Moana herself Auli’i Cravalho.I also met lovely new people, which was a big step forwards for me. 

No Disney film passes my eyes without an extended pretentious blog, and Moana will definitely be getting that. But as the film isn’t out yet, I wanted to get some brief, non-spoilery thoughts down first. So here they are.

– The film is terrific. Funny, exciting, and deeply moving, it has something to offer everyone and should do huge business over the Thanksgiving and Christmas period.

– Moana herself is a tremendous character, and you’ll likely hear in reviews how different she is from other Princess characters. She is, in a sense, but as I’ll explain in my longer post, what’s important in Princess characters is their inner strength, and that’s what defines Moana as much as, if not more than, her action heroics.

– That said, it’s a joy to see a Princess character fight creepy coconut dudes, battle giant crabs, and dodge poison tipped blow darts. Moana’s a fighter and I’m excited by the prospect of young girls and women being inspired by that.

– Auli’i Cravalho gives a performance of remarkable confidence. She’s just 15 years old and has never acted before, but carries the film beautifully, sings with incredble passion, and has fantastic comic chemistry with Dwayne Johnson. Much of Moana‘s success is down to her.

– Johnson treads a very fine line with Maui, who comes off as the demigod of mansplaining early in the film. He’s an arrogant character, not a million miles away from Gaston, but can’t be too arrogant as he’s not the villain and develops in some pretty profound ways as the film progresses. It’s a tough balance, but Johnson nails it. Got a great voice too.

– One of the truly great achievements of the film is its visuals. The naturalistic CG animation sparkles, but we also get some wonderful stylised work and some lovely 2D thanks to Eric Goldberg’s animation of Maui’s tattoos. It’s a true feast for the eyes.

– As this is a Ron and John film there are clear links to The Little Mermaid, but there’s also a bit of Hercules, Tangled, Frozen, and Mulan in there too. It makes for a wonderful mixture.

– Hei Hei, an idiotic chicken voiced by Alan Tudyk, is the hero we didn’t know we needed. He wins the biggest laugh (a gag of extended nonsense that gets funnier as it goes on) and has a moment late on that’s surprisingly emotional. 

Moana touches on many things (storytelling, the natural world, coming of age) but perhaps its most important theme is identity: not just knowing who you are in your culture, but knowing how your culture fits into the world. 

– It’s tempting to read everything through a post-Trump lens now, but while Moana certainly wasn’t influenced by his campaign, it feels like a perfect antidote to it. There’s more to life than what you know: get out there and discover what you don’t.

The Great Disney ‘I Want Song’ Poll

Following the immense scientific success of The Great Disney Princess Vote, I’ve decided to run another poll tournament, this time one that is actually scientific and properly run and everything. Fancy that.

This poll will focus on I Want songs – those ditties Disney characters sing to help us appreciate their hopes and wishes. They’re often the musical highlights of their films, and recent examples include For The First Time In Forever and When Will My Life Begin.

The tournament will consist of 16 songs, so we’ll start with eight polls, then four in the quarter finals, then two in the semi finals, then of course, the final.

The competing songs are:

When Will My Life Begin (Tangled)
Reflection (Mulan)
Someday My Prince Will Come (Snow White)
Once Upon A Dream (Sleeping Beauty)
A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes (Cinderella)
For the First Time in Forever (Frozen)
Just Around the River Bend (Pochahantas)
I Can Go The Distance (Hercules)
Belle (Beauty and the Beast)
Just Can’t Wait to be King (The Lion King)
Strangers Like Me (Tarzan)
Almost There (Princess and the Frog)
Out There (Hunchback of Notre Dame)
Part of Your World (The Little Mermaid)
True Love’s Kiss (Enchanted)
I’m Wishing (Snow White)

And the first round is

A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes (Cinderella) v I Can Go The Distance (Hercules)
Strangers Like Me (Tarzan) v Out There (Hunchback of Notre Dame)
Just Can’t Wait to be King (The Lion King) v I’m Wishing (Snow White)
Reflection (Mulan) v True Love’s Kiss (Enchanted)
When Will My Life Begin (Tangled) v Belle (Beauty and the Beast)
Part of Your World (The Little Mermaid) Almost There (Princess and the Frog)
For the First Time in Forever (Frozen) v Once Upon A Dream (Sleeping Beauty)
Just Around the River Bend (Pochahantas) v Some Day My Prince Will Come (Snow White)

The Quarter Finals:

I Can Go The Distance (Hercules) v Out There (Hunchback of Notre Dame)
Just Can’t Wait to be King (The Lion King) v Reflection (Mulan)
Belle (Beauty and the Beast) v Part of Your World (The Little Mermaid)
Once Upon A Dream (Sleeping Beauty) v Just Around the River Bend (Pochahantas)

The Semi Finals:
I Can Go The Distance (Hercules) v Just Can’t Wait to Be King (The Lion King)
Once Upon A Dream (Sleeping Beauty) v Part of Your World (The Little Mermaid)

Moana Month

You may have heard that I quite like Disney films. They’re cool, and you should quite like them too. Gladly, any non-believers have the opportunity to learn the error of their ways in November when Disney’s latest animated masterpiece, Moana, hits screens.

3e233a812f08e87f3fa41fcaa7d3d882

To celebrate, I think I’m going to launch a little month in Disney’s honour: Moana Month. I’m not sure of the exact content at the moment, but as Moana is the latest Disney Princess, it’ll definitely focus on the Princesses. Because they, like Disney, are cool.

I’m definitely going to write an in-depth piece about my personal love for the Princesses, and probably do a Top 5 Princess films countdown. There’ll be other little bits and pieces too. Like I said, I haven’t really planned it out. Leave me alone, ok!!

As ever on Kids Riding Bicycles, this is very much a participation piece, so please feel free to comment and get involved. It’s what the Princesses would do.

The Great Disney Princess Poll

Across the last couple of weeks, I’ve been using the power of Twitter polls to scientifically prove beyond all doubt which Disney Princess is the best of them all. Spoiler alert: it’s Rapunzel…

3298362t939zntcj5

 

My methodology for this highly important poll was utterly and hopelessly unscientific, which is a bit of a problem when you’re scientifically proving something beyond all doubt. First, I stuck up a poll about the best Renaissance Princess. That was quite fun, I thought, so then I did another one about the best Modern Princess. Also fun, so I did a third one, this time focusing on Classic Princesses. “Hey,” I figured. “There’s a chance here for a tournament.” So I made up some Princesses to complete a round of Quarter Finals, and the tournament was set!

Science is fun!

Check out this staggering act of scientific genius in full below…

Ok, yes, this was the worst act of sciencing ever, and I wish I’d had it all mapped out in my head before starting. I pretty much saw it as an individual poll when I started that first one; no follow-ups, no tournament. Just a one-off. If I were to do it again, I’d split the Princesses into batches of two, rather than four, and go from there. I’d probably randomise them, pitting different generations against each other, rather than keeping the eras together in groups. But hey, science is hard, and I got, I think, a C in it at CGSE. So screw it!

The results are genuinely interesting, I think, particularly the popularity of Mulan. Sure she’s a great character, but when we think of the Renaissance period, we generally tend to think of Ariel, Belle, or Jasmine. Mulan’s generally overlooked. But the years have been kind to her, and maybe there’s a good reason for that, as brilliantly articulated by Cat Lester, a PhD student who I follow on Twitter and who has written brilliantly on Frozen.

capture1

 

capture2

 

This makes total sense and the forthcoming live action remake will be fascinating to follow when viewed through the prism of social development since 1998. Mulan, it seems, was ahead of her time and now that the rest of the world has caught up, she’s finally getting the due she deserves.

The other surprise was the early elimination of Anna and Elsa, and this is where my decision-making really falls down. Had I thought about it more clearly, I’d have split the Sisters of Arendelle up, ensuring that the popularity/unpopularity of one didn’t affect judgement of the other. three of the Sisters Switch rightly pointed out that this could have been a major contributing factor.

I wonder what would have happened had I split them up and divided the tournament into several smaller polls? I also wonder what the results would have been had younger kids been voting on it. Rapunzel seems to fly well with teens and early 20-somethings, perhaps because her “when will my life begin” refrain chimes with an age group that’s starting to fly solo itself. They can obviously relate to Elsa too, but ‘Let It Go’ has become such a sing along anthem, and that sparkly gown such a dress-up favourite, that she seems a favourite of the young in a way she simply isn’t with teens and young adults.

Either way, Rapunzel’s progress to the final didn’t surprise me as she’s a great character; indeed, I personally favour her over Mulan, so part of me was pleased to see her take the crown. But, I was quietly willing Mulan on, if I’m honest. Her success was so unexpected and so significant that it felt right that she should win. More than that, it would have put paid to the nonsense that Princesses are all weak, passive waifs who offer nothing to society and are bad role models for young girls.

Alas, it wasn’t to be, but it hardly diminishes the significance of Mulan, or the Princesses as a whole. My poll may have been the least scientifically sound thing in the history of science, but it underlined what I wanted it to underline: that the Princesses are cool, popular, and relevant. Long may they reign.