On Disney’s Mastery of the Crowd-Pleaser

I cannot help but feel a mixture of admiration and dread whenever I look at Disney’s spate of upcoming blockbusters. There is something amazing about how the company has seemingly perfected the science of creating a corporate production line of crowd pleasing tentpole films that not only make significant amounts of money, but also succeed in winning over the majority of critics. At the same time however, there is something almost horrifying in how efficient they are in polishing their products.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Disney has in recent years succeeded in producing a bunch of big-budget flicks that make make money on command while also getting fresh Rotten Tomatoes scores. The movies are spectacles in many senses of the word, if often forgettable; good but not great, but rarely bad due to being well executed on a technical level. They’re also safe and polished in their mediocrity so that while they won’t find themselves on lists of the greatest films of all time due to their lack of ambition, their aforementioned polish should at least ensure that few critics give negative reviews. They provide audiences their money’s worth, so viewers are unlikely to think poorly of the product even if they won’t remember it within a few years, if not a few months. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a family-friendly restaurant franchise.

These movies, while not original properties, do succeed in part because of their nature as continuations of franchises. They can take the form of live-action remakes (although the upcoming Lion King is taking a step further by presumably being an animated remake of the original film), entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the newly restored Star Wars Cinematic Universe.

The live-action remakes appeal to adults who wish to engage in nostalgia alongside their children and recapture their lost youths, rolling out in a format that is more appropriate for grown-ups too embarrassed to admit they enjoy animated movies for children (as they likely never emotionally developed past the adolescent phase wherein a teenager shuns the childish things they enjoy lest they be seen as anything other than ‘adult.’ Not to say that all adults who watch these movies are like this. Others might just be overgrown children who seek nostalgia and escapism to forget just how much they hate their lives).

The MCU is as assembly line as it gets. We get the standard three acts of most Hollywood screenplays for almost every introductory film: protagonist failing to meet their full potential comes across a (likely expendable) mentor or some other supportive figure who helps them achieve their potential (becoming a superhero). Hero battles and defeats forgettable villain, while somehow winning the love of a forgettable love interest. Cue sequel hook and tie-ins to the rest of the MCU.

This isn’t to say that I hate the MCU’s content. I rather liked Iron Man and even appreciated the pulpy period war movie that was the first Captain America. The first Avengers was a lot of fun, and the second CA movie was pretty good too. But even then, once you notice the formula (and don’t throw any bullshit about “different genres” with a superhero skin my way), it starts to get old fast.

Not only that, but there is often a lack of heart or a distinctive voice to the products. Compare that to one of the earlier superhero film series: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films. The series was often corny, quirky, and melodramatic, yet was capable of genuine moments of heart and actual drama. The ending shot to the second film is more meaningful in leaving an impression about the true darkness lying underneath an otherwise happy ending than the ending of Civil War, which alleges darkness, but just can’t resist plugging future movies and showing viewers that the adventure will continue in its final shot. To stick to comparisons with SM2, I recall reading somewhere that the MCU wanted to create a more ‘realistic’ home for the Parkers by having them live in an apartment. Now sure, this is more realistic in the sense that they probably couldn’t afford a house with their meager income, but a similar thing was done with much more impact on both the characters and the audience in SM2. In that movie, focus is given to the reality of trying to be a superhero while trying to live a normal life outside the costume, something that has never come up in the lighthearted MCU. Furthermore, the Parkers’ living situation actually comes up in that movie, which has Aunt May losing the house. And let’s not get into the part when Aunt May gives money to a reluctant Peter. That right there is actual human drama of the sort that the MCU only pretends to engage in. Even the third SM film, while a weak point in the series, at least was bold enough to end things ambiguously in regards to the state of Peter and Mary Jane’s relationship. The closest thing to that sort of darkness in the endings of any MCU films happens in the first Captain America movie (which might help explain why I’m so fond of it).

This isn’t to say that it’s wrong for the MCU to strike a light tone. It’s not a bad thing to be fun, even if the movies do get rather samey after a certain point, and the character arcs of the heroes often suffer. Remember how Tony Stark finally seemed to be moving forward with his life at the end of Iron Man 3? Unfortunately, because the studio likes money, and because the nature of comic book story arcs means that the adventure can never end, this happy ending was short-lived.

And then there’s Star Wars. The two movies released thus far can be summed up as fanservice and pandering. Fanservice and pandering. The scene with Darth Vader at the end of Rogue One was not enough to save a mediocre movie and you know it. The Force Awakens succeeded in spite of its script, and even then, there were little things that made it sometimes come off as less a SW film than a pastiche. I’m personally not hoping for too much from The Last Jedi (cripes that sounds more like a title for the final part of a trilogy than the middle section), and fully expecting the Han Solo film to be crammed with fanservice (and maybe show us the whole “12 parsecs” thing that should have just remained a cock-and-bull story that he was trying to pull on what he thought were a couple of yokels) and a story that undermines his character arc in A New Hope because the studio is afraid of having a proper anti-hero as its protagonist (which means we’ll be getting a jerk with a heart of gold who does the right thing at the end).

Hopefully, I’m wrong about at least one of these two movies in the best way possible.

Not that such descriptors apply to only those three products rolling out of the Disney factory. One can see this in their animated movies as well. Moana, which I actually liked, was as perfunctorily executed as it gets. The plot was standard, the heroine followed a basic outline, and the story beats could be seen from a nautical mile away. One can see the laziness of Disney’s factory-like efficiency in how they treat the predictable moment when a supporting character leaves only to come back near the end to aid the protagonist a la Han Solo. The moment is poorly built up, with the reasons for it being hinted as it occurs, but not before (unlike in the case of Han, where we get a brief scene that foreshadows his return at the heroes’ darkest hour). Zootopia (a movie so predictable that I correctly predicted exactly what lines would be said and how they would be delivered at several points) somehow won an Oscar despite the story and the characters being far less interesting than the themes and the world presented in it.

Still, for all my criticism, I would like to make it clear once again that there’s nothing wrong with what Disney is doing. They’ve figured out a formula that works for their business. Their movies please crowds and make money. Not only that, but since they can reliably pull of the former, the latter is more likely to happen. Even someone as cynical of their process as me has to admit to having liked some of their recent movies. The fact is, you don’t always need great art. Sometimes, people just want to escape the dreariness of daily life and the latest neorealist art film isn’t an ideal means for doing so. Fluff might be fluff, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyable. The subject matter of much of this blog is proof of that.

It’s just that sometimes I wish Disney would take a real chance rather than putting on the appearance of doing so. Aim for the stars even if it means increasing the likelihood of falling into the mud. But then again, that’s not good business, and who am I to tell the people swimming in cash what they should be doing?

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Why ‘Maleficent’ Failed to Do Its Titular Character Justice

While I am of a rather mixed to negative opinion of Disney’s rebooting of their classic films, one particular bone I have to pick has to do with last year’s spin on Sleeping Beauty, the Angelina Jolie vehicle Maleficent. While the movie came out last year, I was kind of reluctant to see it, and only really managed to watch the whole thing not that long ago. Honestly, looking at it, I felt that it not only failed to capture just why the character is such an icon among Disney villains, but also created a weaker character than the original classic villain despite attempting to strengthen it by adding depth to her.

Maleficent is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Disney villains within the animated canon. Alongside the three good fairies, she manages to almost completely steal the show in the original animated feature. What makes her so delightful to watch, what gave her a rather dark charm, is the fact that she is pure evil, and she loves it. She’s so over-the-top in how malefic she is, so theatrically charismatic, that you can’t take your eyes off her. Whether she’s being just plain malevolent to good people or expressing how infuriated she is with her incompetent subordinates, the character is a ball to watch. The scene where she reveals her great scheme to Prince Philip reveals the depths of her cruelty, as she outlines her intention to create a sick and twisted parody of fairy tales like the one the audience is watching (it’s a surprisingly meta moment from classic Disney) in a manner so mocking that if she went any further with it, she’d literally be chewing the scenery.

The woman is a B-I-T-C-H, and we love her for it.

Heck, even her death scene is preceded by her turning into a fire-breathing dragon, giving Philip the fight of his life, and then going down in a moment that truly feels more climactic than anything in the more recent live-action film. Among the various climaxes throughout the Disney animated canon, this is easily one of my favorites, providing an amazing sense of catharsis once it ends, with the film concluding not long afterward so that it doesn’t wind up going too far past the peak of the viewer’s interest.

Meanwhile, the only moment in Maleficent that really captures the essence of the character is the one where she appears at the royal court and sneers out a “well, well.”

Despite the rest of the film’s shortcomings, Jolie has the physical presence and persona down pat in that scene, and had the rest of the movie given us this Maleficent, I probably wouldn’t have nearly as much to complain about. However, by giving Maleficent the Wicked treatment and attempting to make her sympathetic, the filmmakers wound up completely missing the point of just why the character is so popular within the Disney canon decades after Sleeping Beauty first came out, and in the process also created a Maleficent that is far less memorable in their attempts at fleshing her out.

Part of the problems with Maleficent stem from its hackneyed script, which wants to be a Disney version of Wicked, but just falls flat in terms of writing and overall direction.* In attempting to tell a more “feminist” version of the story, the movie weakens the stronger female characters of the original film, the three good fairies, and reduces Maleficent herself to yet another victim of a terrible man’s betrayal. Such insipid clichés and attempts at “depth” made for a less than interesting character, and it didn’t help that Maleficent’s powers seemed to come and go as the story required them to. I’m pretty sure that the original Disney villain could have singlehandedly taken out at least a good chunk of the kingdom’s defenses herself with or without wings (I’d say that Maleficent didn’t need visible wings save for when she transformed, hence her lack of them in the older film. Plus she clearly didn’t need them to get around quickly). It all comes off as a propaganda film commissioned by the evil fairy herself (I’d consider that my head canon if it wasn’t for the fact that Maleficent loved being evil and openly boasted of just how horrible of a person she was).

Adding insult to injury, Maleficent doesn’t even get to turn into a dragon. No, that honor goes to her sometimes raven sidekick (because the film needed another hot guy to attract female viewers). I mean, what kind of film is supposed to be about Maleficent but doesn’t even let her utilize her hellish powers to deliver fiery beat-downs to anyone foolish enough to cross her?

In the end, what makes Maleficent so memorable in the original Disney movie is that she is a proactive and petty witch who finds oppressing others out of a sick mixture of spite and her own amusement a good thing. She makes no excuses for herself—she’s evil—and she revels in it, with everything from her design to her personality making it so that we do too. By trying to make her sympathetic, the makers of the later film not only missed the point of just why she’s such a great villain, but also create an iteration of the character that failed to connect with audiences to the same extent that the original did and still does despite trying to capitalize off the very appeal of said original. There’s nothing wrong with having a flat or rounded character by him or her or itself. What does matter, however, is what you do with said character. That, dear reader, is why Maleficent the film not only fails to step outside of the shadow of Sleeping Beauty’s iconic villain, but is also a prominent factor in why it falls short of being much more than mediocre in its own right.

* As for some of the other problems with the movie, in contrast to Wicked, which retold the same story from a different point of view, changing up our views of various characters, and also asked questions about the setting of the story, giving it the room needed to take the story in its own direction separate from the work that inspired it. Maleficent changes up too much, and while it has some interesting ideas, it also weakens much of what made the original so great while also turning in a rather flat tale with so many flat characters despite trying to give new dimensions to it. One example of this is King Stefan. In another contrast to Wicked, which took a flawed supporting character in the original story and gave him an unexpected reason to be even more relevant to things (while still making sense to some extent), Maleficent turns a well-meaning and loving, if occasionally bumbling, father and king into a ranting and raving villain with no real redeeming traits just so that they can make Maleficent into the unambiguously positive protagonist once she moves on from the pain he inflicted on her in the past.