Disney movies assert nobility with nostalgic magnetism

What film last weekend swatted away the heavy hitter Moneyball, took down the family adventure Dolphin Tale and proved girls would pick wild fauna over Taylor Lautner?

The Lion King, of course.

Disney’s 3-D re-release of the 1994 classic, which has netted $66.4 million so far, has cast such a siren song over the country that a family of four has no problem shelling out more than $60 for the 3-D experience, not including popcorn. Memory is worth the price, it seems, even in a rocky economy.

How has a movie that came out when we were watching Nickelodeon have the power to leave us spellbound? Welcome to the infinite magic of classic Disney.

Disney magic is a subtle, seductive creature. It is far from omnipotent — the box office bomb of 2002’s Treasure Planet caused a corporate slaughter, and few remember 2001’s lukewarm Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

When the magic does work, Disney’s alchemy ingrains itself in pop culture, sleeps in our collective conscience and recreates a vivid dream of childhood. Kiddos who grew up in the late ’80s and early ’90s encountered the Disney Renaissance, which produced classics such as Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King.

Doctors and sociologists have written full-fledged books on the psychological impact of Disney films. But at its bare bones, the magic can be explained more simply.

For children, Disney films had it all — they were sweeping, melodic and simple. The details of real life imagery were toned down, making it easy for young eyes to track the action. The voices were pitched slightly higher and closer to a child’s own.

And anyone could get the story. No one needs to see the Hamlet parallels to understand The Lion King. No one needs to hear all the other thousand stories of Arabian Nights to get behind 1992’s Aladdin.

Sometimes, bold strokes speak louder than subtle ones. By breaking a story down to basic components — characters, motivations and conflicts — directors can find more success by telling a simple story well than by telling a complex story poorly.

For all of us, the opening strains of Arabian Nights are enough to send us back to childhood, a time everyone perceives as simpler. Childhood did not have taxes, midterms or car insurance. The childlike nature of Disney films allows everyone to remember a time of right and wrong instead of intimidating ambiguity.

Parents have also had reasons to like the films; Disney classics provided the perfect family outing once the kids could be trusted not to screech or throw popcorn in public. They presented a way to bond as a family without parents needing to referee. And as some parents would argue, Disney has displayed strong moral lessons and positive role models.

Thankfully, simple stories are not necessarily simple-minded. There is plenty for adults to admire in the striking art of 1991’s Beauty and the Beast or hilarious lyrics such as Gaston’s “I use antlers in all of my decorating!” In an age where kids’ humor is synonymous with fart jokes, Disney films carry their own nobility.

Today, in a world with a rocky economy and bleak news stories, being able to take the kids to a fun family film with substance might well be worth the stiff price of admission.

One might argue, however, that by perfecting the Disney formula, Disney stunted its own growth. Audiences were so used to a formula of starkly different virtuous good and impersonal evil that later films caused a dissonance. Though 1995’s Pocahontas performed decently at the box office, the film earned many negative reviews from critics and parents for its fierce, busty heroine and misrepresentation of Native Americans.

1996’s Hunchback of Notre Dame received heaps of critical praise but drew the ire of parents, most likely because of the villain’s rape-assuming ditty about the heroine or his neck-snapping murder of the hero’s mother. The dancing gargoyles kept grown-ups from seeing it as an adult drama but the lusty, tormented Frollo was too dark for some to consider it a kid’s film.

In the present counter-culture, some consider these films to be some of the most intriguing in Disney’s stable. Pocahontas was a visual and musical marvel and captured a touching, rather melancholy romance between its main characters. Hunchback of Notre Dame was praised for its artwork, darker nature and guts — for using “hell” in a song.

Still, it’s hard to know whether or not the Disney movies of yesteryear work in today’s more cynical era. Are kids today enjoying the re-release of The Lion King just as much as their older siblings did back in the age of Kenan & Kel and Goosebumps? The box office numbers, at least, seem to say yes.

In that sense, this re-release experiment might be one Disney wants to continue. Aladdin’s “A Friend Like Me” would be epic.


Mimi Honeycutt is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism. Her column “Cut to Frame” runs Fridays.

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