“I think that by producing family films we reach the audience which has been dormant at the box office for a long time. I don’t like downbeat pictures and I cannot believe that the average family does either. Personally, when I go to the theater I don’t want to come out depressed. That’s why we make the kind of films so many label “’family type.’” – Walt Disney
Sadly, Disney’s come a long way from Walt’s original vision for his company. See the following.
Disney’s Current Official Statement. “to be one of the world’s leading producers and providers of entertainment and information. Using our portfolio of brands to differentiate our content, services and consumer products, we seek to develop the most creative, innovative and profitable entertainment experiences and related products in the world.”
The focus in this official statement is no surprise: Money. A big difference from a man who once said –
Disney films just aren’t what they used to be. Content levels are going up. “Family friendly” films are being filled with crudity and dark and demented-looking CGI or animation sure to disturb anyone who is not hardened to the bizarre. The powerful storytelling themes that were present as little as a decade ago are dwindling as filmmakers resort to the same cute tricks. Originality has almost disappeared completely under the inexorable march of live-action remakes that are slowly killing us with their lack of freshness.
Nevertheless – Disney is still a force to be reckoned with. “Kid movies” (specifically animated movies) are still raking in the lion’s share at the box office and earning accolades and affection. Disney movies are still advertised as being appropriate for the whole family (and, compared to everything else playing at your local movie theater, they are) and are celebrated hits all around the world.
But if we are honest, we must admit that the quality of these films are slowly devolving, so why are Disney films still such big hits?
Modern Disney is riding on the coat tails of someone else’s creative genius. The live-action remakes wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the classic films they are based on. Disney’s financial success wouldn’t have been a reality if it hadn’t been for the history of quality film making that gives them a free pass in the present. Disney wouldn’t be synonymous with excellence if it weren’t for these old films . . . and for the man that set the bar high almost a hundred years ago – Walt Disney himself.
It is the old classics, the original movies, that make Disney what it is. They are the reason we love Disney in the first place. They are the films that we “teethed on” as children and the ones that made their mark upon us. They are the stories that taught us true storytelling.
What is it about these Disney classics, specifically the animated movies, that makes them so universally appealing?
# 1. CLEANLINESS. Disney animated movies lack the excessive content of other fiction (at least comparatively).
# 2. STRONG THEMES. Theme is one of the most powerful and resonating qualities of storytelling, and Disney animated movies not only have this in spades, they are built around themes that are relatable to everyone.
# 3. ORIGINALITY. They are original, quality stories in a fiction market that is increasingly devoid of originality or quality.
# 4. UNIVERSALLY APPEALING. They can be enjoyed by a wide variety of people and thus, they bring families together.
# 1. CLEANLINESS
Excessive sex, violence, or language is usually the sign of a lazy, unskilled writer. They can be used crutches for someone who has no control over their writing and so they have to revert to tawdry sensationalism to move the story forward.
I could write gratuitous content quite easily and with little effort. It’s not hard for a human being to sink down to a lower level. It is not difficult to wallow in the dregs of humanity or to dwell on the sin of man.
It takes more skill and thought NOT to write about graphic content, and that is part of the reason why Disney films are forced to revert to actual quality. Once sex is removed from the equation, a writer is forced to dive more deeply and meaningfully into other relationships aside from romantic ones. Once swear words are forbidden, the writer is forced to write dialogue that is truly powerful, instead of the mindlessness of foul language. Once graphic violence is removed from the equation, the writer is forced to call upon all their skill to create true action and excitement without cheating their way out by reverting to gore.
Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that there aren’t stories that will require more mature content. There is never an excuse for smut, but some stories will, by definition, be for more mature audiences. For instance, a historical novel about the Holocaust is going to be more gritty (though I maintain that there are tasteful ways to portray content).
My point is simply this: mature content is not REQUIRED to tell a story. Many authors or movie makers are determined to tell us otherwise, but we know the truth. Cleanliness is a strength, not a weakness.
Let’s use Peter Pan as an example.
I love the story of Peter Pan, and have picked up many retellings of the book hoping to prolong the wonder.
Unfortunately, the bulk of the retellings I have looked into have contained everything from boys and girls skinny dipping together to sex scenes.
It takes a special kind of perversion to take something so childlike and wonder-filled and drag it through the gutter. But, in truth, even the original Peter Pan was a dark and disturbing tale at times (the pirate with his hands on backwards is definitely nightmare material)
But that was where Walt came in. He knew how to take a story and make it BETTER. He knew how to take a story and make it GOOD. Not only with good storytelling, but with a moral goodness of traditional values. The 1954 version of Peter Pan is a pure joy. It is funny, adventurous, magical, and wonderfully animated. There’s a childlike heart to it and a lack of grown-up subtext that keeps it innocent. Someone in their late twenties (me) and a five year old fan that I recently discussed the film with can both laugh equally hard over Disney’s Peter Pan and equally enjoy it.
This is powerful. We need to take back the idea that cleanliness will hold us back. On the contrary, clean fiction has opened more doors for me than it has ever closed.
In the end, when this world that we live in has passed away, ALL stories will be made pure, ALL stories will have a happily ever after, ALL of them will be clean. We’d better learn to like clean and happy stories, because these are the only stories that will exist some day.
# 2. STRONG THEMES
It is theme that really makes a story memorable. It is theme, not plots, that impacts our hearts. It is theme, not characterization, that provides the narration for our own lives and struggles.
Toy Story taught us about the danger of jealousy, and the empowerment of letting go.
Monsters Inc taught us that maybe the thing we’re frightened of isn’t really scary, and that those smaller than us should be protected and nurtured, not bullied.
Beauty and the Beast (1991) taught us not to be deceived by appearances and that true beauty shines from within.
Cinderella (1954) taught us to be kind and courageous, no matter how we are treated – and that what goes around comes around.
The Jungle Book (1967) taught us that no matter what false label we try to put on ourselves – we cannot hide from the truth of what and who we truly are.
Peter Pan told us to keep the magic of childlike wonder alive inside of us – no matter how old we become.
Frozen taught us that sacrifice is the ultimate expression of love.
Theme is an important part of storytelling and, perhaps, the most memorable. These lessons are valuable in our daily lives and deeply impact us because they are universal problems and truths that are relatable to anyone. Real people aren’t trying to hone their ability in throwing spider webs or climbing walls, but they do deal with jealousy, fear, sacrifice, and growing up.
Place powerful themes on top of clean content – and what is the take away?
Stories don’t have to be gritty to change you. Stories don’t have to be racy to ignite your emotions. Stories don’t have to be shocking to educate you. Stories don’t have to be dirty to expand your knowledge. Stories don’t have to be dark to be powerful.
# 3. ORIGINALITY
It is a grave error to think that animated movies (or children’s books) are silly or just for children. I know many people (myself included) who still read middle grade books or watch children’s movies – because nowadays the only real originality in storytelling resides almost solely in this market.
The adult market for both film and books have a tendency to be homogenized and repackaged repeats of every other adult film and book. No one knows how to write original stories for adults anymore (yet another explanation for why Disney keeps remaking its classic animated films).
Admittedly, in the end, originality comes down to this. There are no truly original ideas, only original repackaging. Endless variety can be found when talented creators re-purpose old ideas and pull them into unique combinations with such skill that they feel completely new. And Disney could once do this like no other creator.
During Disney’s golden era, most of Walt Disney’s animated films and live action films were based on fairy tales or classic novels such as Treasure Island and relatively unknown novels such as That Darn Cat. The unknown novels and fairy tales, in particular, were the signature stamp of Disney. He truly knew how to take the core of an idea, what made a story intriguing, pluck it from the less-than-impressive trappings of its original form, and revamp it into something truly original and wonderful.
Some of Disney’s best live-action films (movies such as Candleshoe, Emil and the Detectives, or The Parent Trap) were based off of oddly written and often-bizarre foreign books that had the gem of an idea that the Disney company seized upon and restyled so thoroughly, the movies are almost unrecognizable from the original source material, save for that one tiny piece of brilliance that they were clever enough to detect and fully utilize.
One of my favorite live-action Disney movies, Blackbeard’s Ghost, was originally a strange horror story for boys. In the hands of Disney, it became a ludicrously funny comedy / sports movie that explores the hilarity of pairing a duplicitous and piratical ghost with a scrupulously moral and nervously uptight track coach in a charming buddy movie.
Once upon a time, Disney didn’t keep remaking the same film over and over, they took a seed of an idea and cultivated a unique and incomparable bloom – and, in doing so, created something exciting and new.
# 4. Universally Appealing
Stories are meant to be a form of socializing, where you want your entire crowd with you. But how can we enjoy a story together when many of them demand that we have to leave the children at home, or even that very sensitive family member? Sure, The Patriot might be a powerful movie and one of my favorite films of all time – but I can only share it with a limited pool of people. It’s too intense for some of my family and friends.
On the other hand, with classic Disney films, I can share those with everyone – and sharing a story is always special. The joy of a good story INCREASES when it is shared, more so than when it is experienced alone.
Disney’s original dream was to produce stories that UNITED a family, stories that brought them together with mutual wonder and enjoyment. Sadly, Disney is now chopping up it’s categories into animated movies too stupid for older kids and adults, or more adult movies that are too scary and mature for children.
This rabid subdivision of age groups is not just the earmark of Disney – but of every publisher and producer. It has even taken over the Christian fiction market. All markets (even Christian ones) are steamrolling towards the goal of SUBDIVIDING a family, instead of UNITING them through good stories.
I think, in the beginning, that all stories were originally designed to be for everyone – there was none of this talk about niches and knowing your market.
Stories were always meant to be a form of socializing, a form of group therapy, even a classroom of sorts. Stories weren’t meant to be chopped up into individual prepped meals. I believe stories are meant to be a feast enjoyed and shared by everyone in the room.
Not so very long ago families didn’t split up to go to their room with their own private Kindle reader or Netflix subscription. They gathered in one group to enjoy stories TOGETHER. Stories have been universal entertainment ever since the creation of man, this was how families and communities entertain themselves – as a whole. From camp fires to stoves to kitchen tables to parlors, people were designed to gather. But stories used to be designed and told with EVERYONE in mind. The toddlers weren’t in one corner watching cartoons while the teenagers hide in their room with Netflix and the parents retire to the family room with an R movie.
This is not how I grew up. Movies (and books) were a form of socializing for me and my family. We talk during films and exchange ideas over what we are watching. The minute a book is closed or completed (if it wasn’t read aloud) we find the nearest family member and discuss what we read.
Stories are a way of digesting the world around us and of receiving deeper truths, and it is inherent to the human makeup to share these truths with others. We WANT to share stories with everyone.
Sadly, our world has changed, and niches and target audiences are a hard reality for the modern writer (though, that is one of the reasons I am independently publishing my books, to allow myself more freedom with target audiences). But could it be, in some instances, our audience is as simple as this?
People. Of all kinds.
Please note: This is not an exhortation for writers to rebel and throw out all the rules of publishing. If we want to be traditionally published, we have to adhere to the guidelines and respect the parameters of that playing field. This is merely a CONCEPT that I am sharing, not a rule. It is simply one of the reasons I self-published.
So, what can we take away from all this reminiscing and theorizing?
Cleanliness: Clearly, people want more content-free storytelling. Clean and cute can be understood by people around the world. Family-friendly is not lost in the translation. Families want to experience stories TOGETHER and can only do that happily if there are more clean stories.
Strong Themes: Everything in our life has a deeper theme, and so people crave strong themes like they crave air or water. People want to come to terms with the themes in their own lives through the power of quality storytelling.
Originality: People want unique and ORIGINAL stories that ignite the imagination.
Universally Appealing: Should we write what people want to read? By all means, create stories that sell! And, clearly, family-friendly fiction that focuses on quality storytelling sells and is universally appealing.
I have the distinct feeling that someone might comment telling me that I made some kind of error in this blog post.
You might believe that I made an error regarding Disney’s official statement. You might think I am a prude that doesn’t know how to handle “real life” and “real problems” in fiction, etc, because of my stance on clean fiction.
Not to worry, I’ve got you covered!
# 1 – Sometime soon, I’m going to be doing a blog post about how to write all kinds of content in a powerful but tasteful way.
# 2 – in case I misquoted Disney or possibly didn’t include all of their mission statement, I will now use a source that I am the ultimate authority on – my own writing!
Not all of my writing has the “Disney spin” – (my short story, The Key to the Chains, is pretty gritty) but my series of fairy tale retellings, The Tales of Ambia, definitely does. They are clean, full of larger than life characters, and have a generous dose of humor.
When I first started writing this series, I had originally thought it would be most appropriate for YA audiences (specifically, a female audience), simply because most of the characters are young adults or even married couples.
But, as I was editing it, it suddenly came to my attention that far younger children were going to be reading my novella.
Because it is deeply important to me that middle grade readers have clean and innocent fiction, I reedited The Reluctant Godfather with them in mind, making sure it was appropriate even for a 9 year old while still being entertaining for young adults.
I was shocked after publication that there was not just a couple of middle graders reading my book, but a considerable number. But it wasn’t just middle graders who liked it, teenagers enjoyed it too. Adults in their thirties were also enjoying it. It wasn’t just girls who were enjoying it, but boys.
Words cannot describe my joy in not only seeing people enjoying The Reluctant Godfather, but to have unconsciously replicated the Disney movies of my childhood by possibly producing a story that was appealing to people of every description.
My joy was complete when I got feedback on my Tales of Ambia and found out that it was being read aloud! A young mother was reading it aloud to her sisters and even her Army Ranger husband was listening along from the next room and laughing. Teens were reading it aloud to younger siblings. Sisters and daughters were reading it aloud to their entire family.
Maybe my dream of being a fairy godmother can be a reality after all – because if this isn’t magic, I don’t know what is. Families representing a wide spread of ages and backgrounds were laughing over and enjoying Ambia . . . together!
Will all my writing and stories be like this? No – some of them will be for more mature audiences. Some of my novels I hope to submit to traditional publishers, in which case, I shall respect their parameters and ensure that my story is tightly focused on a specific age / target group.
But these stories, my Tales of Ambia series, will always hold a special place in my heart for the way they have appealed to families. People – of every age and background – will always be my favorite target group.
This is my vision, this is my dream. This, to me, is success. To create a story that cannot be defined by age group. To produce characters that appeal to everyone. To weave a world that entertains an entire family.
Thank you, Walt, for inspiring me in my writing and reminding me that even a simple fairy tale that is good and clean and decent helps keep the darkness at bay.
Thank you for the example of what storytelling ought to be and for reminding me to never forget the most important audience an author can ever entertain.