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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Watching Disney Movies as a Writer (Revised)

Found on Google Images as "labeled for commercial reuse"
Will remove upon request.
A revised and polished version of an older post.

In honor of the trip I’ll be taking to Disneyland this weekend, I thought I would power-navel-gaze about the value one can get out of watching Disney movies as a writer. Also, this will probably not be a particularly long entry, as C-3PO and Indiana Jones await.

Wait. What? Disney movies? Seriously Chris?

Are you talking about those movies that are notorious for perpetuating racial stereotypes like the crows in Dumbo, the “hot crustacean band” in The Little Mermaid, the natives in Peter Pan, the Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp, pretty much every character in Aladdin, (seriously I could go on), and that's if we sort of pretend The Song of the South didn't really happen. The same Disney where the bad guys are almost always effeminate and darker skinned than the good guys (even when they’re both supposed to be from the Middle East…or are…ya know…lions)? Are you talking about the same Disney that indoctrinates legions of young women that beauty is their prime asset, to be completely submissive in courtship and let the men come to them even if it means waiting around for life to just serve you up by magic that your prince will come, and frankly it’s probably just best if they sleep most of the time anyway, abusive guys have a heart of gold inside if you just Stockholm syndrome their beast into submission, and that even if you kill every last motherfucking Hun in China, your big achievement is still if the barrel chested hot guy likes you. Are you talking about the same Disney that indoctrinates legions of young men that they must solve their conflicts with violence, and to be “manly,” they must be a barrel-chested Adonis and fight for their woman—who must be an object of beauty and pleasure because that’s what matters. Are you talking about the same Disney that indoctrinates legions of young people into the belief that there is “One True Love” out there, who is identifiable on sight, who you should leave everything you know and love to be with, and is so preposterously repetitive with their “love conquers all” narrative that they white wash over things like North American colonialism? The same Disney movies that has a generation of kids thinking Hercules’s real mom was Hera and the Little Mermaid ends in a wedding instead of foamy?

Heteronormative, sexist, racist, Bechdel-failing, status quo supporting Disney? Is that what you're talking about?

And yes, this article was written before Frozen and yes, I realize that a few of these tropes have (finally) been challenged by the more modern films.

Yeah. That would be the movies I'm talking about.

Hold the phone, though. I didn’t say they were good movies. I certainly didn't say they were great didactic movies. I said that they could be valuable to watch as a writer. Let’s say if you’re one of those people who thinks Disney movies are still so totally enchanting that you let your kids watch them over and over and over and over again and you figure that images bombarding them fifty or sixty times a year when they’re five won’t have the same effect as a meaningful conversation or two about gender roles when they’re teen-agers. Or maybe you think that at least your kid isn’t watching Jersey Shore.

Edit: or maybe you just think “Oh my god, this will distract them for 90 minutes while I have a chance to do laundry and have a bowel movement of longer than thirty seconds. Pixar isn't TOO bad. At least it's not Cinderella.”

However, I’ve already received death threats from my fellow barrel-chested white males for threatening to mess up the steady supply of subservient women, and this is usually about where the people who think Disney isn’t so bad start to rise up with pitchforks and torches, and the people who hate Disney for all the reasons above are polishing their Awl Pikes for our next encounter because how dare I derive anything of value from something so patently sexist, racist, and everything-else-ist.

And there I am, standing in the middle of a scene from Braveheart, except the two sides want to kill me instead of each other. So let me just say this:

I think Disney movies suffer from being easily accessible and recognizable pop culture icons that everyone has seen and become an easy way to critique the larger culture. If half of us memorized every line from every James Bond movie, we’d probably pick those movies to talk about misogyny or colonialist racism…and we’d probably have even more to talk about if we did. Anything mainstream media puts out would be just as problematic to essentially put on an auto repeat loop, and we go after Disney because it is such a recognizable icon. For all its faults, Disney tends to at least be conscious of some the social progression of our society. Many of its latest movies have even social progressives saying (well, this last one wasn't SO bad). The problem is many of its classic and iconic movies date back to more problematic times. It is even possible to say that one of the reasons many Disney movies achieve such a popular state is because they twang the cultural chord that many people in our society WANT TO HEAR. The really great exceptions to all this bullshit are usually not the movies every little kid knows by heart. And given the reaction that Disney DOES get from enraged fans about anything that isn’t perfectly sweet and antiseptic for the kiddies, it’s probably a wonder they don’t actually have everyone make up and have hot coco at the end of every movie.

All that said, you might still think I’m insane for suggesting that Disney could be valuable for a writer to examine. Those stories are trite. They are simplistic. They are formulaic. They are almost all the same with only a few cosmetic variations. They are the movie versions of a four chord song.

Yes. Exactly.

Because their greatest weakness is also their greatest strength.

Disney Movies can be very useful to a writer precisely BECAUSE they are formulaic. I know a lot of people look at Disney movies and vow that they will never write something so simplistic, so predictable, and so shockingly laden with tropes and cliches. That's good.

But like many things in life, it's very difficult to break the rules if you don't know what the rules are.  Ever seen someone who talks about how they are breaking the rules of grammar for effect, but it's pretty clear they just don't know how to join two clauses? Yeah it's like that. It's impossible to write against the grain of a Disney movie if you don't know what that grain really is.

Most people have their stories rejected not because they lacked complex literary elements–in fact most people do a PRETTY good job of knowing what level their writing is at and what sorts of magazines to send them to. According to editors I've spoken to and what I've read, most people have their stories rejected because they lack a plot. Nothing really happens. "This is a poignant character sketch of an intense moment, but it is a vignette not a STORY," is shockingly common feedback for new writers.

I witnessed this phenomenon time and time again throughout my writing program and even in some of the graduate work I had a chance to see. Amazing writing with fantastic descriptions, exquisite significant detail, care paid to setting, and simply gorgeous characterization would all fall flat on the page because nothing would HAPPEN. No rising tension--no tension at all. Just someone wallowing in their emotional state for a few pages. Often there was an antiseptic reveal that I know was intended to be a plot twist but wasn't because there was no plot to twist.

Some writers try to pass this off as "character driven." Usually they don't really know what that means, they just think it sounds highbrow and means they're NOT "plot driven." But even if this weren't pretentious bullshit, they have confused "character driven" with "no discernible plot." In a character driven story, the characters aren't reacting; they want something. And it is their desires that are driving the action forth.

There is no driving to speak of in 80-90% of young writers' fiction–plot or character driven. Publishers know it and Creative Writing instructors know it. And instead of working on writing good, compelling stories, most programs are still focusing on elements they've deemed more important to
"literary" writing.

Most writers would actually do well to understand plot, and going back to the basics is a good place to start. Disney movies are masters at the basic plot. You can't overly burden a four-year-old with intense complexity and subtle motivations. You might be able to slip in some adult humor, but the basics of the story have to be basic. Yes, a Disney movie is formulaic, but that formula is something people must know long before they can successfully break it. Disney movies have the story arc down pat–rising tension, complication, climax, denouement. Most of them follow The Hero's Journey (despite its flaws and criticisms) so closely, that it would only take you a few seconds to figure out who the "mentor character" is in a list of ten or fifteen Disney movies. (Go ahead; try it: Hercules, Cars, Lion King, Aladdin, Mulan, Finding Nemo.) Most Disney protagonists burn with what they want and what they need.

Sure it's sophomoric to have them say "I want to win that race more than anything!" within the first five seconds of being on screen, but it beats ten kinds of pants off a story where you're not sure WHAT the hell a character actually wants, which is a big problem with much new fiction.

What Disney demonstrates unswerving skill at over and over is telling a story. And for all their flaws and simplicity, examining them for what they're doing well is a great way to avoid stories without plots.

So if you have problems with plot, you could do worse than to suffer through a few Disney movies. Learn to walk before you fly...to infinity and beyond. (Sorry, I had to.)

Now, I must go to see a mouse about a thing.  But work on your "four chords" in the meantime, and enjoy the Official Video with several more examples:

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