In a recent talk at something called the SIGGRAPH conference (Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques… shouldn’t that be SIGGRIT?), Disney’s chief technical officer Andy Hendrickson said, “People say ‘It’s all about the story.’ When you’re making tent-pole films, bullshit.” Ouch. Hurts, don’t it? The talk was about finance, the film industry and how the studios need to change their approach in a declining economy/streaming and downloading culture. The unasked question Hendrickson was trying to answer was, “How do we get butts in seats?” And I get that, I do. A studio needs to make money in order to keep functioning. Well-crafted inspirational stories brimming with luminous visuals and transcendant performances cannot be made if the studio is broke or belly-up. That’s where the tent-pole comes into play. A few big hits can buoy up a string of more modest films, sure, okay. And the best chance to get butts in the seats is to offer consumers something they can’t get on their monitors or TV screens at home…SPECTACLE. No matter how big your HD TV is, watching brightly-colored explodey things just ain’t the same at home. So I get it, I do. But it still hurts.
You know why? Because Disney used to be synonymous with the magical f*cking art of storytelling, that’s why. Oh you can b*tch about Disney all you like. You can claim they sanitized fairytales and painted a false perception of beauty etc. etc. But tell me, no I’m really curious, tell me, what’s the first movie you remember seeing in the theater? Me? Snow White. Do you remember any movies you owned growing up? I do. All Disney (with the exception of The Wizard of Oz). H*ll, maybe I’m an exception, an aberration. Maybe Disney wasn’t such a big part of your youth. Maybe it’s weird that my childhood crush was a cartoon fox.
So maybe I’d be less irate if the person who said story doesn’t matter hadn’t been a Disney guy. What if it had been someone from 20th Century Fox (producers of Avatar the emptiest, most visually spectacular, highest grossing film of all time)? Well, truth be told, it was rather apropos that Disney’s Andy Hendrickson was the one to throw the mercenary truth in our faces. Of all the most jumbled, most unnecessarily convoluted plots of the last few years, the Disney ones have been among the worst. There’s a particularly clumsy plot phenomenon I’ve noticed that angers me the most. It started with the original Pirates of Caribbean film and it involves the entire cast tromping hither and yon, moving a LOT but getting NOWHERE. This happens again and again in the Pirates iterations, in Tron, in National Treasure, in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in (forgive me, comic book nerds) the Marvel films. How many times did we go back and forth from Isengard? As if the going, the moving, the constant stimulus will make us forget how bored we are. To treat a film as if it were a ride and the back and forth and up and down were all that mattered has become one of Disney’s signature moves. And it’s exhausting.
In his presentation, Hendrickson held up Disney’s financially lucrative sh*tshow, Alice In Wonderland as the perfect example of his hypothesis. “The story isn’t very good, but visual spectacle brought people in droves. And Johnny Depp didn’t hurt.” Oh it hurt, man, it hurt. It hurts that the basis of the film is a beautiful story (Lewis Carroll’s original or even the earlier Disney effort), it hurts that Tim Burton once used to be a visual genius and not a bad storyteller to boot. It hurts that the talents of Helena Bonham Carter, Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska (so good in Jane Eyre), Michael Sheen, Alan Rickman, etc etc etc were wasted. This film won’t be a Disney classic. This film was a nightmare. A bloated, expensive, uninteresting story that comes in as #23 on the Top Grossing Domestic Films of all time. OF ALL TIME.
Is there hope? Yes, well, there’s always Pixar. But then there’s also a slew of Avengers films, Tron 2 & 3, Jungle Cruise, and Magic Kingdom…a film that is literally about the rides in the theme parks. That’s like Disney eating itself. Some Mouse version of the Human Centipede. Trust me, I’m as disgusted as you are. But don’t worry, just turn off your brain, it’s only a movie.
Joanna Robinson is not white-washing Disney’s past. She remembers The Shaggy Dog and Herbie The Love Bug movies as well as you do. The originals.