The Harbinger Online

A Theory of Film Evolution

It’s two in the morning, the credits are finally rolling and my tear ducts have ceased to function.

Every Disney film lately — ahem, “Big Hero 6” — has at least one of those scenes, and no matter how many times I’ve seen it, no matter how little it actually touches me, I’m still vulnerable to Disney’s manufactured tear-inducing moments.

To watch a trailer of “Big Hero 6”:

While Disney animated films rarely lack in bittersweet moments and magical plots and ultimately feel-good endings, they do tend to disappoint in the values they teach. Children and adults alike walk away from films that either subconsciously or very obviously portray questionable ideas.

Admittedly, Disney has tried to improve itself from the days of princesses awaiting a prince that will be captivated by their beauty and solve their problems. The problem with the treatment of females has lessened since the debut of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” in the 30s, but has far from disappeared. “Pocahontas,” like “Mulan,” goes as far as to pull a romantic relationship out of nowhere for a heroine that would have stood just fine by herself. The film also replaces the ugly, real fate of Pocahontas and her people with a version that cheerfully ignores the facts. The Disney mold was fulfilled, and a wonderful story of peace and understanding was told, but the decision to paint over a tragic true story to serve as entertainment is unacceptable.

This is not the only example of Disney’s misrepresentation dealing with race or culture. For example, “Aladdin” and “Lion King” casted passably accurate voices for villains while the heroes are unrealistic and Americanized.

It’s hard to ignore the underlying influence of Disney. No matter what they teach, most of us grew up with these films and the borderline-iconic characters that make their appearances at birthday parties and Halloween nights each year, emblazoned across tiny kindergartener t-shirts and backpacks. At the same time, the evolution of societal values also has a hand in determining the evolution of Disney values.

When we as a public protest and criticize, the media often bends to accommodate the audience. In this 21st century characterized by both new and old social struggles, as well as the voices that speak out against them, Disney is finally breaking through with quality films that are changing and improving in their messages.

Newer movies, while still identifying a hero and a villain, deemphasize the classic premise of ‘good versus evil.’ Even the film industry in general is following the trend of emphasizing character development and ‘man versus self’ instead. Platonic and family relationships are also receiving more attention, which brings me to tears more than “Sleeping Beauty” ever did.

disney infographic

“The Princess and the Frog” is one of Disney’s very best, and Tiana is arguably the strongest female lead out of all Disney leads. She is not a princess by birth, but she is a driven character with dreams and works hard for her own goals. She also — gasp — has an actual 3-D personality, all spunk and determination. The portrayal of African Americans, corrected after many criticisms, is finally a decent outreach towards diversity.

“Big Hero 6,” one of Disney’s latest and most acclaimed works, deals with coping with grief and loss, unlike its predecessors. How many Disney film characters have both their parents alive? Do any go into detail? There are also well-written female characters, and the ‘genius kid’ premise brings in an element of brains over brawn.

“Monsters University” tackles friendship instead of romance or family relationships. It’s also more life-lesson focused: understand who you are and be proud of it, even when you realize that just because you try hard doesn’t always mean you will succeed. Above all, it’s okay to have failed dreams, it’s okay to find new goals. This prequel to “Monsters Inc.” avoids a perfect happily ever after while still ending on the Disney’s branded feel-good note. The premise and plot is altogether unprecedented in major Disney films.

Live adaptations of old animations seems to be Disney’s new trajectory. It might seem like a weak move on Disney’s part, but for me, it’s an act of redemption. While “Cinderella” did not stand out to me, so far “Maleficent” and “Alice in Wonderland” have impressed me with their altered storylines. The new “Alice” presents a story that is finally solid in plot and character construction, and urges viewers to believe in the impossible and be true to themselves against society’s dictation.

“Maleficent” provides a satisfactory retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” with a strong female lead and a prince that’s pretty much useless. This turn of events might also seem like imbalanced gender equality, but makes up for 56 years of an iconic animated film that really should have been named “Phillip”, not “Sleeping Beauty.” The movie deals with regret, personal identity, and different kinds of true love.

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