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Down the Rabbit Hole: Disney Movies, Conspiracy Theories, and Imaginary Puzzles

By Daniel Carlson | Think Pieces | March 26, 2014 |

By Daniel Carlson | Think Pieces | March 26, 2014 |

The headline reads: “After Reading This, You Will Never Watch Frozen, Tangled or The Little Mermaid the Same Way Again.” It’s a bold claim, built on what’s become an unsurprising exploitation of the curiosity gap. The article below the headline walks through a bit of convoluted reasoning that posits that the main characters in Disney’s Tangled appear briefly in Disney’s Frozen, and also that the shipwreck that claims the lives of two supporting characters in Frozen is the very same wreck seen years previous in Disney’s The Little Mermaid. The first idea isn’t outside the realm of possibility — Disney films often include subtle nods to the studio’s other releases — but the second one starts to edge into pie-eyed conspiracy theory. There’s no reason to assume that the ship that sinks in Frozen is intended to be the wreck that the titular character finds in The Little Mermaid; indeed, the whole idea has no basis other than a Tumblr user who noticed that both movies feature shipwrecks and then posited that maybe they’re the same wreck. (She was apparently so shaken by her very own theory that she subsequently ordered Disney to “STOP WITH THE FEELS!!” [sic])

This is just the latest such theory, too. After a Cracked video riffed in 2012 on thematic similarities between Pixar movies, a fan named Jon Negroni assembled the Pixar Theory in 2013, which posits that every Pixar movie actually takes place within the same fictional universe, and that these movies can be plotted along a timeline from the ancient past of Brave to the postapocalyptic world inhabited by the creatures of Monsters, Inc. and A Bug’s Life. And there is also Negroni’s idea that Andy’s mother in the Toy Story films is actually the young girl seen in a flashback sequence in Toy Story 2. It’s not just Disney movies, either. There are wild and unsubstantiated theories about Harry Potter, James Bond, and more. (Cracked churns these out on a regular basis.) In these and so many other instances, fans and writers pore over images they claim to be evidence of dizzyingly complex metatextual connections between multiple movies, insinuating that these disparate works are actually part of the same narrative system. And every one of these pieces winds up sounding basically like this:

Part of the appeal of conspiracy fables like the Pixar Theory or the Ariel Finds Anna and Elsa’s Dead Parents’ Boat Theory is that filmmakers have been dropping Easter eggs into movies for years now. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Steven Spielberg inserted hieroglyphics featuring R2-D2 and C-3PO as a shout-out to George Lucas, who’d helped generate the film’s story. The TV-movie that kicked off the rebooted Battlestar Galactica featured a ship designed to look like the one from Firefly, which had its brief run a year before Battlestar began. And of course there are all the Pixar in-jokes, where the studio calls out its own product.

But the crucial difference is that those little references are just that: references, winks, nods to viewers and other filmmakers as a way of having a little fun. When characters from A Bug’s Life show up in the blooper reel for Toy Story 2, we’re not meant to infer that these fictional worlds co-exist, just that the filmmakers are having fun with the Pixar library and proving funny little callouts for viewers who are familiar with previous movies. Similarly, we’re not meant to come to the conclusion that the historic cultures that hid the Ark of the Covenant also worshipped a pair of robots, nor that the events of Firefly, which unfold in their own narratively distinct universe, are also somehow meant to play out in the universe of Battlestar Galactica. It’s a goof. We’re not even supposed to see half these things. Before home video and frame-by-frame analysis, these were blink-and-you-miss-it gags. What’s with the current obsession with conspiracy theories, then? Why do some viewers think that some movies have a hidden code that, with just a little effort, can be solved?

Part of it is that we, as people, just love conspiracy theories. They’re alluring because they hint at some kind of mind-blowing connection between two things previously assumed to be unconnected, and because they let us feel smart for finding that connection. Conspiracy theories are also notoriously hard to kill, since the absence of proof is given the same weight as its presence. E.g., there’s nothing in Frozen that points to its connection to The Little Mermaid, which is all the more reason for theorists to assume that they actually are connected deep down. Every clue can say what you want it to say, and you never have to be wrong.

It’s also because we’re accustomed to viewing movies as branded product, as pure interchangeable artifact, and not just a story played out on the big screen. There’s a certain kind of sense that conspiracy theories pop up in relation to Disney movies: the studio’s princess branding almost encourages the creation of narrative ties between the films. In addition to that, there’s the Marvel cinematic universe, which is constantly expanding with no end currently in sight. Each current Marvel film is designed to function only in relation to the others. They end on cliffhangers and start in medias res because they’re not meant to stand alone. As a result, we’re used to viewing movies not as ends in themselves but as pieces in a larger puzzle. It’s a small jump from tying together multiple cross-film story threads to inventing new ones for ourselves.

Yet maybe the biggest influence on these movie conspiracies, though, has been the modern renaissance in serialized TV. The event series of today — the must-watches, the pop hits, the shows so popular you don’t even wait to watch them later on the DVR — have inspired their own cottage industry of recaps and theorizing and speculation. That kind of content jumps gleefully down the rabbit hole every week, positing theories and connections that don’t have to pay off because a new episode will come along shortly and send everyone sniffing in a new direction. For some viewers, modern TV shows — mystery or not, regardless of genre — are meant only to be pulled apart and strained for clues. That hunt for twists and surprises can bleed over into the ways we consume other media, as it has with the conspiracy theories about a pair of totally unrelated Disney movies released 24 years apart. We’ve internalized the episodic growth of TV series and tried to apply it to movies, so we expect each movie to somehow tie to another or exist with it, or inside it, or next to it. But there’s an enormous difference between homages and references on one hand and actual signs of connected narrative worlds on the other. The former happens all the time. The latter, almost never.

Films can be many things, and sometimes they’ll even have little jokes or references that remind us we’re viewing a fictional work. But it’s a bad way to live to start thinking that every movie is a puzzle that needs to be solved, and that every film is just a clue to “unlocking” another one. Movies aren’t means to some mystical, conspiracy-laden end. They’re the end in themselves. When we miss that, we miss what makes art so meaningful in the first place.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.

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