Like pretty much every American born within the past 50-plus years, I grew up on the works of Disney, my days filled with colorful, bubblegum-sweet images of princesses, cuddly animals and gift-wrapped-with-a-bow-on-top happy endings. I remember watching The Lion King and Aladdin (and, more shamefully, their sequels) on an endless loop, and I knew all the lyrics to songs like “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”, “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid and Mulan’s “Reflection”. I’ve visited every single Disney theme park in the world, except for the one in Paris; I’ve been to a couple of them multiple times, since I’m a spoiled, extremely lucky brat. Just thinking about Toy Story still sends a shiver of nostalgic delight up my spine.
Yet, despite these fond feelings, I've realized that Disney isn't quite the perfect, carefree utopia we like to imagine it is as kids. Even when I was younger, I didn’t particularly care for The Jungle Book or Snow White, though for the latter, that was as much because I thought the Evil Queen was scary as any discomfort over its depiction of women. I’m well aware that, like any other company, Disney has a more cynical corporate side that’s concerned more with marketing and branding than storytelling integrity. Still, it really wasn’t until certain recent developments that my mental image of the Disney/Pixar offices as some kind of magical paradise, a veritable playground for the imagination, finally and completely shattered.
To start with a more subjective gripe, there’s the fact that their recent output feels drained of any ingenuity, consisting almost entirely of run-of-the-mill adaptations and sequels. Pixar, not long ago so renowned for their earnest creativity that the studio’s name was enough to get people flocking to their movies, has succumbed to the lure of lucrative merchandising and lazy sequels that pander to their audiences. I still can’t believe I actually paid to see the unfortunate dreck that was Cars 2, and I say that as someone who finds the first one highly underrated. While they’re still releasing original films and apparently plan to emphasize them going forward, even those lack the freshness that Pixar works had only a few years ago, and it’s disconcerting that they feel the need to keep up the sequel trend at all, especially since they appear to have no plans for the one non-Toy Story flick that actually could be good sequel/prequel/spinoff material.
I mean, come ON! It could be totally epic, I’m telling you.
And then came the whole Brenda Chapman fiasco. A director getting booted off a project isn’t inherently cause for concern, as it apparently happens pretty regularly for animated films, whose directors aren’t as protected by guilds and unions as their live-action colleagues; after all, Pixar itself had previously replaced Jan Pinkava with Brad Bird on Ratatouille, and it’s already kicked Bob Peterson off next year’s The Good Dinosaur. However, seeing Brenda Chapman lose control of Brave was infuriating not only because it meant Pixar had replaced its first-ever female director with a man, but also because she supposedly had such an intimate, personal connection to the story. It seems Pixar trusted a dude to make a tale of female empowerment and mother/daughter relationships, instead of the woman who dreamed up the idea in the first place. Although we’ll never know what the movie would’ve looked like if they’d allowed her to stay on board, I wish we got to see her complete vision; it’s not like the version we did get was particularly impressive or even memorable. All the change of directors did was draw attention to just how much of a boys’ club Pixar is.