No Magic: The Wonder of Modern Disney

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“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” said Arthur C Clarke in a famous quote that captures the world-shifting potential of science and discovery. Without wishing to trivilise the quote, it also comes to my mind when I think about Disney’s current era of film. (Yes, I’m being serious.) From 2011’s Tangled to this year’s Zootopia, Disney has earned critical and commercial plaudits for a series of films that have pushed the boundaries in both animation technology and thematic complexity. They’ve adapted their core offering, evolving the magic and wonder we’ve come to expect from them into something both new and old, something distinctly familiar yet undeniably fresh. And it revolves about Clarke’s binary between magic and technology.

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To understand what Disney has become, it’s important to first look back at what it was. Throughout Walt Disney’s life and well beyond his death, Disney films were all about magic, and more often than not, it was magic that delivered the characters what they want, or saved them from some terrible fate. Magical kisses saved Snow White and Princess Aurora from endless sleeps, a fairy godmother saved Cinderella from a life of loneliness and servitude, and the Blue Fairy swept down from the sky to make Pinocchio a real boy. Classic Disney characters exist in an enchanted realm where magic is never far away. It’s as prevalent as air and water is to us, and it’s the thing they all strive for.

That’s not to say that these characters have it easy though; far from it in fact. Snow White and Aurora may be saved by magic, but they’re put in their tragic positions because of it as well, and the Dwarfs and Prince Phillip have to confront the source of that (evil) magic to bring out the good magic. Likewise, Cinderella has to suffer through horrendous and terrifying abuse to get her magic wish to come true, while Pinocchio travels vast lengths, almost drowns, and (shudder) is partly turned into a donkey on the way to his magic intervention. Our Golden Age heroes never had it easy; there wouldn’t be a compelling enough story for audiences if they did.

And yet, magic undeniably exists, and the over-riding message of those classic Disney films is that it is attainable if you have faith that it’s attainable. Just look a the songs. Classic Disney tracks repeatedly tell us to wish upon stars, to believe in what we saw once upon a dream, to have faith that someday our prince will come and that a dream is a wish our hearts make. They’re charming, sweet songs and you’re certainly not going to get any criticism of them from me. As a pathetically naive romantic, I really do believe in all that fantastical stuff and wish the world was as sweet and wonderful as Walt envisioned it in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. But…

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Have faith in your dreams…
Sadly, things aren’t that simple. Dreams are fine, but at some point the dreamer has to wake up. The images fade into distant memory and the real world takes over. How much we, as a society, accept that reality and how much we shy away from it through entertainment depends on how harsh the reality is. Some of the greatest escapism ever committed to celluloid has been created at times of extreme turmoil; but then so has some of the darkest cinema ever made. Sometimes, such as during the 70s, we get a bit of both: incredible dark dramas like Apocalypse Now and Taxi Driver, and wondrous fantasies like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

I’m not looking to turn this article into a treatise on modern society, but it’s safe to say that the modern world is scarier than its been for a while. Murder, corruption, war, and injustice are rife, and thanks to the internet, they seem closer than ever. Whereas before we could ignore tragedies in foreign countries by simply not turning on the news, now those horrible events are just a click or a tap away no matter where they’re happening on the planet. We just log-in to Twitter or scroll through Facebook and – hey presto – there they are. Famines, killings, and terrorist atrocities ready to terrify us as we cradle our coffee on the way into work.

As our culture’s most recognisable producer of magic and dreams (this is, after all, a company that uses When You Wish Upon A Star in their logo), Disney could be forgiven for rallying against this darkness and going back to their Golden Age ethos of realising dreams through faith, trust, and a little bit of pixie dust. Admirably though, they’ve done something different; they’ve gone to great lengths to remove, or at least drastically underplay, the role of enchantment in their films. Now, our Disney heroes don’t achieve their goal through magical intervention, but through hard work and dedication in a cruel world where magical spells are curses and the witches and warlocks are the very people we’re supposed to trust.

Keep Moving Forwards
Before embarking in earnest on an analysis of modern Disney it’s important to establish what exactly modern Disney is, because it’s not that easy to identify. You could convincingly make a case for a number of films marking the start of the modern Disney era. Some would argue it’s The Princess and the Frog because it returned the studio to its fairy tale roots for the first time since the 90s. Others would say it’s Tangled, because it did the same thing but to much greater critical and commercial success. Bolt can make a good claim as well, being the first film to be produced entirely under the guidance of John Lasseter, one of the most significant driving forces behind modern Disney.

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I, however, would place the start of modern Disney in 2007 with Meet the Robinsons, a sweet and charming film that – significantly – was made during Disney’s acquisition of Pixar and Lasseter’s switch from the latter to the former. Under Lasseter’s guidance, huge chunks of Meet the Robinsons were redone, which isn’t something done lightly with animation and proves Lasseter’s desire to shake things up immediately. Tellingly, the film closes with a quote from Walt Disney:

“Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious… and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

It’s a wonderful way to close a film about a young inventor and a family of misfits who are always willing to try new things in the name of discovery, but it also acted as a mission statement for Lasseter’s Disney. Picking up where he left off at Pixar, Lasseter would reinstate Disney’s position as a cinematic innovator, a studio always willing to push the boundaries of storytelling and technology and keep moving forwards. He would do this by looking back for only the briefest of moments, enough time to understand and respect what had gone before and use that as a compass to guide the studio’s way through new doors, new ideas, and new paths.

And magic would be the first thing to tread this new path.

Fairytales can come true/You gotta make ’em happen
Bolt and The Princess and the Frog were the first films produced under Lasseter’s guidance, and while they’re very different (one a fairy tale, the other a semi-superhero story with cuddly animals) they’re bonded by their common focus on fantasy. In Bolt, our hero (a dog who’s unaware he’s not actually the super powered pup he plays in a TV show that bears his name) has to experience the real world in order to embrace it and ditch his cosy, but closeted, life as an unwitting TV star. In The Princess and the Frog, our hero is hardworking waitress Tiana who dreams of setting up her own restaurant, only to be magically turned into a frog.

In both cases, the problem is the fantasy. Bolt’s TV show may not be magic, but it’s a construct that prevents him from living the life, and enjoying all the pleasures, that a normal dog would. Tiana’s struggle is most certainly one against magic, of course, and it comes about through a neat twist on the old fairy tale: when she kisses a prince who’s been turned into a frog, not only does he not revert back to his human state, but she becomes a frog too. Magic is cruel and unpredictable, not a thing to be trifled with, and in modern Disney (Pixar too considering Merida learns a similar lesson in Brave) it’s often the cause of, rather than solution to, our troubles.

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Yet, this is still Disney and as Tiana’s father told her, fairy tales can come true – but you’ve got to make them happen. Which is exactly what she and other modern Disney heroes do. In Tangled, Rapunzel finds herself locked in a tower by Mother Gothel. She’s essentially a modern Cinderella: subjugated, bullied, and forced to live a miserable life. However, while magic saves Cinderella (1), it enslaves Rapunzel; the only reason Gothel kidnapped her was because of her hair’s magical properties. Yet even in her tower, Rapunzel works, creating grand paintings and elaborate crafts. She may not be able to be physically active, but her mind remains very active indeed, and it’s that that allows her to identify the lanterns that draw her to her true heritage as more than just stars (as Gothel tries to tell her) and this instigates her life-changing journey.

Fittingly as it sits at the epicentre of modern Disney, Frozen captures this move away from magic and reconfiguration of the fairy tale better than any other film I’ll mention here. Magic is at the very heart of Frozen, but it’s a magic laced with tragedy. Elsa’s ice powers are the source of her pain throughout and not only does the film suggest there’s no magical way to put an end to this enchantment (the trolls can neither take her remove it nor save Anna if Elsa accidentally strikes her again), it asks why you’d want to.

The film’s key song (indeed, perhaps the most important song of any in modern Disney) is ‘Fixer-Upper’, in which the trolls essentially deliver the film’s thesis and utterly dismiss the concept of magical interventions. During the song, the trolls analyse the characters of Kristoff and Anna. Kristoff, we’re told, is “clumpy” and “grumpy”, a bit of a misanthrope whose “socially impaired”. And yet, he’s also a “sensitive and sweet” person who just needs a bit of love. Likewise, Anna’s “brain’s a bit betwixt”, but she too is a fixer upper who can be set on the right track in the right conditions.

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So the song’s about change, yet also, brilliantly, it rejects the possibility of change. “We’re not saying you can change him, because people don’t really change,” one of the trolls sings in a line so significant that I’ll repeat it and italicise it:

“We’re not saying you can change him, because people don’t really change.”

So much populist entertainment is based around the concept of change. It’s what makes good drama. Our heroes start off in one place and experience events during the two hour course of a film that makes them see themselves, those around them, and the world as a whole in a different (often more positive) way. They change. Because, Hollywood tells us, people can and do change.

And yet, here’s Frozen saying that people don’t really change. Frozen: a film by the Walt Disney Studio. The same Walt Disney Studio that for decades has thrived on the concept of change, of people literally being changed: Snow White into a princess, Pinocchio into a real boy, Cinderella into the belle of the ball. So if Frozen is rejecting that potential for change, isn’t this all a bit anti-Disney? Isn’t it all a bit, well, depressing?

The only fixer upper that can fix a fixer upper…
No, not really. ‘Fixer-Upper’ makes it clear that although people can’t change, that’s perfectly ok. It’s a song not of transformation, but acceptance. “People make bad choices if they’re mad or scared or stressed,” we’re told. “But throw a little love their way, and you’ll bring out their best. True love brings out the best.”

It’s a single verse in a single song in a single film, but it’s Disney’s new mantra in a nutshell. True love still exists and all the wonderful things associated with magic, transformation and change still exist too, but there’ll be no spells. Instead, simple compassion is the way forward, because accepting someone for who they are is so much more powerful than seeking to transform them into something else. It’s why Elsa and Anna make such compelling heroes in Frozen, the former making utterly terrible decisions out of fear but never straying from our affections (2), the latter never wavering in her acceptance of her sister (3). Both communicate what all current Disney characters do: that magic isn’t an external force that exists at the end of a wand: it’s within us, and delivered through humanity, acceptance and hard work.

This moral is also seen in their three non-fairy tale films: Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia (Zootropolis if you’re outside of the US and Disney bafflingly want to ruin a perfectly good pun). All three films feature some kind of fantasy or transformation. Ralph wants to transform himself from a bad guy into a good guy, Hiro wants to transform he and his friends from regular citizens into superheroes, and Judy Hopps wants to visit the perfect world of Zootopia so she can achieve her dream of being the city’s first bunny cop. Of our three heroes, two achieve their dream, so let’s tackle the one who doesn’t first of all: Ralph.

Wreck-It Ralph was co-written by Frozen writer/co-director Jennifer Lee and directed by Zootopia co-director Rich Moore, so it’s little surprise that it shares many common bonds with other modern Disney films. Like so many other characters, Ralph “has a dream” and firmly believes there’s a quick and magical way to transform himself from bad guy to good guy: win a medal and that’s it. Poof! Ralph’s the good guy. He gets the medal, but realises that things aren’t quite as simple as he believed and that in trying to do the right thing, he often ends up causing hurt.

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He’s joined in his quest by another broken soul looking for something that always seems just out of reach: Vanellope. The former queen of racing game Sugar Rush, she finds herself cast out by the villainous King Candy and infected with a glitch that means she can’t ever leave the game – quite a problem when the game gets overtaken with bugs intent on destroying everything in their path. The only way to remedy this problem is for her to win a race, which becomes her key goal during the film. If she does this, she’ll rid herself of her glitch and transform into who she’s always meant to be.

So we have two characters seeking transformation, but both are approaching their lives in the wrong way. Neither needs to change. Ralph shouldn’t see himself in good/bad binaries; he can be a good guy while playing the bad guy role because his outer image doesn’t define him. Vanellope, meanwhile, comes to see that her glitch is more a superpower than a problem. She learns to control it, uses it to win the all-important race, and by the end of the film has firmly embraced it, making it a fundamental part of her being. Moreover, by winning the race, the whole game is reset, and she’s revealed to be Sugar Rush’s Queen to its previously amnesia-ridden inhabitants. She’s surrounded in Cinderella-like sparkles and her hoody and jeans combo is transformed into a gown – which she promptly rejects. Once again, magical transformations are out, acceptance of who and what you are is in.

Change starts with you
Of the two most current Disney films, Zootopia and Big Hero 6, let’s start with Zootopia first as even by modern Disney’s high standards it’s one of the studio’s most ambitious and socially relevant recent offerings. Taking on racism and social injustice, the film seeks to explode the idea of perfect, utopian places, and by extension perfect people. Our hero, budding cop Judy Hopps, travels to Zootopia hoping to find the perfect world she’s heard of, but instead uncovers a place filled with corruption, prejudice, and injustice. In other words, a world sadly much like our own, where prejudice exists in cute little ice cream parlours and plots to subjugate entire sections of society are perpetrated by those in government.

Most remarkably, the film undermines the sweet and lovable Hopps by making her a part of all that injustice. Inadvertently revealing her underlying prejudice against carnivores (who come to represent ethnic minorities in Zootopia’s racism metaphor), she hurts her new friend Nick Wilde and sets off panic across the city. Neither she, nor Zootopia, are perfect because, as Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph showed, perfection is a romantic ideal that simply doesn’t exist, and there are no magic wands to make it happen. Unlike Frozen and Ralph, however, Zootopia does acknowledge that change and transformation can happen, it’s just that you have to work for it rather than have it magically bestowed upon you.

Big Hero 6 espouses the same view. A significant change of pace for Disney, the film was the studio’s first superhero offering and also its first Marvel adaptation since its acquisition of the comic book company. Fittingly for a new occurrence, it approached the genre with a unique slant. Big Hero 6 is a superhero film without superpowers. Neither Hiro nor any members of the team he and his friends create can fly, cling to walls, or use super strength. If we take superpowers as the superhero equivalent of magic, magic is entirely absent from the world of Big Hero 6.

Instead, the team’s powers come from themselves and their intellect. Scientific geniuses, they create their super suits and use their specific scientific fields to devise superpowers they can use to defeat the bad guys. It’s like a literal interpretation of Zootopia‘s message that change begins with you. Sure, you can transform (again, unlike Frozen and Ralph, change is possible in the world of Big Hero 6), but it’s something you must action. It’s not something you’ll simply be given.

Indeed, Big Hero 6 makes the connection to the Arthur C. Clarke quote I opened this piece with explicit. Technology may seem magical – we may be able to push a few buttons and be connected with someone on the other side of the world in a way that would have seemed impossible just a few decades ago – but it’s the byproduct of many millions of hours of hard work – it doesn’t simply emerge out of a wand. Whether it’s a piece of new technology or a change in a way a person is seen or sees themselves, transformation is a long and tough process, but one that can have genuinely magical results.

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Dreamers Wanted
And so we end with one of Disney’s most fascinating modern films. It may not be animated, but Tomorrowland captures so much of what the studio is achieving at the moment. A story of scientific endeavour, corruption, and a perfect world gone awry, it explicitly (too explicitly for some critics who – unfairly in my opinion – suggested the film lacked subtlety) says that dreaming is necessary and useful, but only if those dreams are accompanied by a will to actually do something to make them happen.

It ends with the sight of the young hero Casey seeking out anyone and everyone with an idea and the courage to pursue. The final shot finds these people transported to a vast corn field, looking towards a city with a tremendous tower at its centre. It’s Tomorrowland, but it could just as easily be the Magic Kingdom, and that tower could very well be the spire of the castle in the Disney logo. It’s an appropriate comparison because Tomorrowland asks its audience to do what Disney as a whole has been asking its audience to do since Lasseter took over.

Look forward and dream, but remember that the only true magic is created by hard work, passion, and dedication. You are your own fairy godmother. Go out and make your magic happen.

FOOTNOTES

(1) It’s interesting to note the small shift in Kenneth Branagh’s otherwise very respectful live action adaptation of Cinderella. While the animated Cinderella has faith that her dreams will come true if she just believes in them, the live action Cinderella has to have faith in something much more difficult: the fundamental goodness of people. “Have courage and be kind,” her dying mother tells her at the start of the movie, and she complies, despite the monstrous people she has to live with. She’s rewarded with magical intervention in the shape of the Fairy Godmother, but the Godmother tests her, meeting Ella at her lowest ebb and posing as a decrepit old woman who needs water. Ella gives the Godmother what she needs and the Godmother returns the favour. But this reward comes not through faith in magic, but proof of her faith in goodness and humanity.

(2) ‘Let It Go’ is a fascinating song for how it’s been received. Audiences took to the song because they saw it as a statement on emancipation and self-actualisation. Elsa flees the world, lets go of her fear, and finds freedom. But, in the context of the film, the precise opposite happens. Far from being a happy song, ‘Let It Go’ is an utterly depressing story of a character refusing to deal with her problems and accept who she is. What she’s letting go of isn’t really her worries about hurting her sister, but her connection to the world and the people she loves. Her insistence that the cold doesn’t bother her isn’t just an affirmation that she’ll be fine on her own, but also a acknowledgement that, well, she’s on her own. She may not believe that it’ll bother her, but it will. It would bother anyone.

(3) It’s telling that ‘Life’s Too Short’, a song in which Anna tries to get Elsa to come back to Arendelle, was cut. That’s not Anna’s story here. She’s a fixer upper (as everyone in the film is), but also one who fixes, the embodiment of the true, accepting love the film treasures.

What do you think of Disney’s current films and what they have to say about magic? Let me know in the comments!