Nostalgia is big business. Even the toughest cynics can’t deny the warm feeling of undiluted pleasure that accompanies revisiting the stories that comforted and delighted you as a child and discovering they still hold up to the scrutiny of bitter adulthood. Now, as the internet makes everyone crave the simpler times of four years ago or even less, everything is up for the glow of nostalgic consideration. Honestly, as a 27 year old, I still think of the 90s as an era that only just happened, which makes endless Buzzfeed lists about crimped hair and your favourite Backstreet Boys song all the more unnerving to me. Still, even I’m not averse to indulging in the languish relief of nostalgia, as evidence by my YouTube history being chock full of bad quality videos of the TV shows I obsessively watched as a kid. There’s money to be made in 90s themed club nights, the return of goth-esque chokers and the entirety of Disney’s back-catalogue undergoing live-action remakes, and it does provide us lowly pop culture hot take merchants with an easy pitch, of which I will shamelessly partake in today!
The rose-tinted glasses work for many things, but to this day, there are nostalgic beats I totally missed, and films adored by my friends and the internet at large whose sudden status as childhood classics utterly eludes me. I didn’t like them then, I don’t like them now, and I do not get how we’ve been able to perpetuate this problem for as long as we have. I’m not looking to poop on anyone’s party, I just don’t get these particular examples. Feel free to add your own missed boats of pop culture nostalgia in the comments, or just tell me (in a non-dick manner) how I’m wrong.
I grew up very close to Peter Pan territory, as J.M. Barrie’s birthplace was a common choice in our district for cheap school trips, but from a young age I have always had a fondness for the original book, as wildly problematic as it is (oh god, the racism). What makes Barrie’s story so affecting is its emotional bleakness: We all know the line of “To die would be an awfully big adventure” but remembering it’s a literal child saying it carries a whole new level of sadness. Everyone’s got their favourite version of the story, be it the Disney movie or the Mary Martin starring musical or even the pretty solid Jason Isaacs live-action take from 2003. Few of these examples stick to the emotional core of the book, but they all have their merits. Hook, to me, has none of that. It’s pure saccharine of the most toothache-inducing kind. When people talk about the worst excesses of Spielberg’s sugary sentimentality and ever-present daddy issues, this is where both of those elements scream from the rooftops. The inclusion of the ‘workaholic dad who ignores his bratty kids’ subplot is a death kneel in any movie, but to do it in Peter Pan is just bonkers. No amount of great production design can disguise how twee and gimmicky this all is, and none of the emotions are earned because the spectacle is too busy trying to imagine how this would all look in a theme park setting. It’s especially sad because Spielberg could probably nail a simpler adaptation of the book, as evidenced by his underrated work on The BFG. Even Spielberg doesn’t like Hook!
Don Bluth is an undisputed master of 20th century animation. At a time when Disney were struggling to define themselves after Walt’s death and there was a gap in the market for deftly handled, complex and inspiring children’s animation, Bluth paved the way. The Secret of NIMH is a gorgeous and unabashedly weird film that doesn’t try to talk down to kids or pretend to be something it isn’t. Right up to All Dogs Go To Heaven, Bluth’s company made the kind of stories Disney would never have touched, even in their prime. After that, things fell apart and their star fell as Disney’s rose. Watching Anastasia is like watching Bluth say, ‘Oh screw it, let’s just copy Disney then’, and drag out the tracing paper from the attic. Unsurprisingly, the film was a success, because it’s basically a Disney princess movie but with less consistent animation and a slightly more adult romantic subplot. Even if you can get over the absolute butchering of history and politics, turning a truly bleak era of Russia’s past into a toe-tapping inspirational white-wash, it doesn’t help that the whitewash itself is so half-assed. The problem with copying a well-defined style and tone is that inevitably some of the magic will be absent. Maybe it’s because the villain song sucks (actually, all the songs suck aside for Once Upon A December), or because the forced supernatural elements somehow makes the story less interesting. That this film has endured so long in the public imagination, to the point where it has a Broadway musical, baffles me. Bluth has done so much better.
Look, I’m not judging anyone here for their respective tastes in Disney. I’m the freak who considers The Hunchback of Notre Dame to not only be their favourite Disney film but one of the studio’s most accomplished artistic achievements. Disney wields an incredible level of power over the childhoods of millions, to the point where they’ve ingratiated their brand into the very essence of being a child. It’s evil genius with a glittery veneer and I salute them. Still, there’s really no excuse for pretending Treasure Planet is anything beyond ‘just okay’. It’s fascinating to know that this is the movie Ron Clements and John Musker, two of the architects of the Disney Renaissance, wanted to make their entire careers, because you’d think the guys who made The Little Mermaid and Aladdin would have a better hold on what makes a story exciting. Everything about Treasure Planet feels like a poorly thought out gimmick. Sure, there are some interesting visuals and the voice-cast are mostly strong, but everything about it feels like two artists going through the motions with little interest in making it work beyond the merchandising potential. This is Disney trying to be ‘cool’, and it falls painfully flat, even before you get to the groan-inducing songs by that guy from the Goo Goo Dolls. It’s no wonder the film was such a catastrophic flop on release but it now has a second life on the wave of nostalgia that leaves even more questions to be answered, and not all of them are variations on ‘Why?’