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Why Disney Is At War With Its Own Image

Why Disney Is At War With Its Own Image

Editor’s note: A version of this essay was originally published last weekend through Indiewire’s partnership with USA Today.

There are many familiar ingredients in “Frozen,” the 3-D animated Disney musical that opened this week: singing princesses, dangerous spells, calculated villains eager to usurp the crown and the power of love to save the day.

Yet even while “Frozen” often feels like a charming throwback to old-school Disney productions, directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee infuse much of the material with contemporary qualities: Aside from the use of computer-generated imagery, a standard approach now for well over a decade, the plot repeatedly approaches certain clichés before dancing around them.

In this story, there are two princesses, neither of them inherently evil, and the male characters largely take on supporting roles. The villainy comes from an unexpected source, as does the resolution to the story’s main conundrum. It’s as if the filmmakers realized the boundaries of Disney tradition and decided the best way to upend it was to start with the usual stuff before carefully deconstructing it.

At the end of the day, “Frozen” is still a pretty conventional if disarmingly fun-for-all-ages story about the aforementioned princesses, Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel), who grow up as orphans kept apart by a deep secret: Elsa possesses the power to create ice and snow out of thin air, and she’s told in her childhood that Anna must never know about it, lest the power get out of control.

But that’s exactly what happens when the two grow up and get into a spat over Anna’s abrupt desire to marry a visiting prince (Santino Fontana) and Elsa inadvertently freezes the entire kingdom before fleeing it in shame. Anna’s mission to subdue her sister, eventually with the help of jolly ice merchant Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and an adorable talking snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad), turns “Frozen” into a fairy-tale take on sibling rivalry.

The surprise twists mark a noticeable shift for Disney, in contrast to its last movie in this vein, the antiquated 2-D animated musical “The Princess and the Frog” (which was mildly progressive for focusing on an African American princess but otherwise felt pretty run of the mill). More than that, it points to the way one of the most prominent storytelling factories in modern times has begun to grapple with its legacy in the public eye.

Next week, Walt Disney Studios will release “Saving Mr. Banks,” a partially fictionalized treatment of the efforts by a crafty Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) to wrestle the film rights to “Mary Poppins” from novelist P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson). While not exactly an indictment of Walt Disney’s business tactics, the subject of the movie — essentially the signing of a contract — brings to the foreground the backroom politics of Disney’s dream factory in a manner that the company has largely obscured for much of its history.

But today’s skeptical audiences are far too conscious of Disney’s global weight to simply take the brand at face value. Aside from churning out animated features, the company’s ownership of Marvel studios puts it in control of several major superhero franchises, arguably making it more influential than it was when Walt Disney still ran the ship.

That degree of power over mainstream products can have a dark and even ominous quality to anyone watching it from the outside. As a result, it’s not just Disney that’s wrestling with its legacy.

Released on video-on-demand platforms and in a handful of cities last month, the micro-budget guerrilla production “Escape From Tomorrow” portrays a family man losing his mind while on vacation with his wife and kids at Disney World. Shooting in black-and-white and using the real theme-park rides as set pieces without permission, writer/director Randy Moore managed to turn Disney’s iconography against itself: As the Disney characters take on villainous connotations, “Escape From Tomorrow” arrives at the implication that a wealthy conglomerate has the power to inject characters and situations into the minds of millions of consumers with unnerving subliminal prowess.

Moore’s subversive perspective could never get produced by any major studio, let alone Disney, but its relationship to the company’s corporatized mythology isn’t so far off from the elements in play throughout Frozen. In both cases, audiences are expected to bring a certain historical understanding to the table while experiencing various narrative ingredients rooted in Disney’s long-standing output.

Of course, “Frozen” still embraces Disney’s looming authority over the state of fantasy at the multiplex, while “Escape From Tomorrow” interrogates it. Whether you prefer one over the other is largely a matter of taste — or perhaps, given the context, fear.

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