I’ve always had very conflicting feelings about Disney’s former Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter. This was even before the frequent sexual harassment claims, which led him to take a six-month sabbatical last year before announcing that he would leave Disney at the end of 2018. In a year that has been full of Disney cracking the whip on any potential controversies, usually for moronic reasons, this resignation flew by under the radar, mostly due to how Lasseter will remain as a consultant at Disney until the end of the year. In other words, he was led out to pasture for his actions. While researching the accusations against Lasseter, I found out that there were hired “minders” who reigned in Lasseter’s more physical impulses with employees, like hugging them or kissing them on the mouth after having a few too many drinks. So… that’s a thing I guess.
But that’s not why I’m happy that Lasseter is leaving Disney and Pixar, though I can’t deny that isn’t a part of it. My excitement comes from the fact that we no longer have to adhere to Lasseter’s iron rule of storytelling. For the past decade, Lasseter has had an executive producer role in nearly all of Disney’s animated projects, meaning that he usually had final say about what stories were told and how they were told. Because of this, one very particular type of story was told constantly at Disney. His removal allows for some variety to finally pop up in their animated movies again.
Now let me get this point right off the bat; I don’t hate the movies that Lasseter either directed or executive produced. The man’s been with Pixar form the very beginning, directing Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Toy Story 2 and executive producing every Pixar movie in the company’s history. You can look at my ungodly Pixar Retrospective from the summer and how I gush over his work to know that I like his movies. But when you watch a director’s work one right after the other, you begin to notice all of their little quirks and ticks. With Lasseter, his quirks were always with his narratives, and that’s where my issue with him lies and why I won’t miss his creative presence at Disney.
I never realized I was annoyed with Lasseter’s storytelling approach until I saw Ralph Breaks the Internet on Black Friday. Yes, it was directed by Rich Moore and Phil Johnston (with Moore having been personally brought into Disney by Lasseter himself), but the stamps of Lasseter’s approach permeated throughout the movie. Lasseter’s movies are about the main characters, using a mismatched duo, discovering themselves while on a huge adventure/journey in order to accomplish a certain task, whether it’s getting home, finding their families, or fulfilling a lifelong dream. The conflict comes from the characters dealing with an emotional problem from their past, uncertainty about their future, society itself, or in the case of Ralph Breaks the Internet, an existential crisis.
And Ralph Breaks the Internet was fine. It was just fine. But as I was driving back from the movie with my friends, I had trouble vocalizing why I was so apathetic towards the film. It wasn’t because of the internet humor, the Disney inside jokes, or even the character drama between Vanellope and Ralph. It wasn’t until my friend said how the finale reminded him of Moana’s ending that it clicked for me. I’ve seen Ralph Breaks the Internet before. Nearly a dozen times actually. Ralph Breaks the Internet is a stitched together Frankenstein’s Monster of every Lasseter trope under the sun, which dilutes the impact the movie could have had.
Lasseter is more fascinated by mining characters for emotional depth than telling a compelling narrative. He’s interested in stories that explore themes and ideas where characters have to confront them head-on but they succeed by finding a personal victory instead of a happy ending for all. There is no direct character v. character confrontation, but instead ideological battles. Sometimes it pays off beautifully like in Zootopia, which is one giant racism allegory, while in others times it doesn’t like in Big Hero 6, where it tries to have the charm and themes of a Disney movie while also being a Marvel action movie and ends up doing both okay. His style is a radical departure from the classic style of Disney animation where there is a clearly defined protagonist and antagonist under a more traditional fairytale structure. In Lasseter’s mind, internal conflict trumps external conflict because internal conflict can lead to stronger character development.
Except, that’s not always true. While I do believe that creating stories around characters developing and growing through their own self-doubt, identity issues, fears, and whatnot are important, they shouldn’t be the only kind of stories told. If all of Disney’s movies follow the same story structure then it becomes dull. When Hans is revealed to be the villain in Frozen what’s there to separate him from the villains of Zootopia, Moana, Incredibles 2, Big Hero 6, and Coco, who all have surprise villain reveals that are more often than not handled poorly? It’s a new trend that leaves me miffed the same way that Disney now lampoons itself for its princess tropes in Ralph Breaks the Internet.
At the start of this article, I was planning on dovetailing this into a need to return to the classic approach from the Disney Rennaissance to get some fresh air in the studio, but as I kept writing this I don’t think that approach would work as well as I thought it would. The Disney Rennaissance was a fantastic time for Disney and gave us some of their most beloved movies, but it had plenty of tropes too. Don’t forget that Disney animation was in a rough place in the 2000’s because audiences were sick of the tropes that they had seen for over a decade. If you want a more thorough look into the subject, check out Lindsey Ellis’ video on the lack of modern Disney villains, which kind of sums up the problems with the Disney Rennaissance and brings up the idea that audiences may grow tired of Disney’s new model of storytelling under Lasseter.
I’ve gotten bored with new Disney movies. Yes, they make millions upon millions of dollars at the box office, but I haven’t seen much discussion about them online or with hardcore Disney fans. I don’t see Disney fans talking about any of the modern Disney movies in the same way that classic films like Beauty and the Beast, Lion King, or even Hercules are brought up. I don’t really think it’s because modern Disney movies aren’t popular, but because they’ve started to blend in with each other. If you’re telling the same story again and again, but putting it through a different filter, it isn’t facilitating growth. And what especially isn’t healthy is the subtext that’s implied through Lasseter’s approach of the “surprise villain.”
Coco and Frozen are the best examples of the potential toxicity of this trope, which ironically echoes with Lasseter’s own fall from grace. In both movies, the villains start out as being incredibly likable and trustworthy. They can be a role model to our hero in Coco’s case or a love interest to our protagonist in Frozen. For the majority of the movie, Ernesto de la Cruz and Hans seem like genuinely nice people, only for the rug to be pulled out from under us at how insidious they are. Hans is a power hungry sociopath that is willing to murder Anna to attain his goal, while Ernesto is a greedy egomaniac that is willing to leave a kid and his best friend to die in order to keep his reputation. In both instances, we have characters that betray our heroes and only cause them emotional, psychological, and physical harm in the name of their own selfish goals. Moral of the story; never trust anyone because they will betray you. People will hurt you and you can never fully trust anyone because they can and will hurt you.
Seems a little dark when you think about it, right? I admit that children probably won’t be thinking about that as they watch Frozen or Coco, but it’s still a theme that I’m ethically repulsed by. Once is a unique twist. Twice is a pattern. Three times is a general philosophy that Lasseter has dictated during his time as Cheif Creative Officer at Disney, and I’m frankly done with his take on Disney. I miss the Disney villains. I miss the simpler approach to storytelling that Disney was so well known for. I miss the dynamic side characters that have all but vanished in favor of more well developed main characters. I miss the tropes that Disney is now prone to mocking and making fun of for enjoying despite them being fun and creative back in the Disney Rennaissance.
It might seem like I’m calling for a regression of Disney animation, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m calling for a balance of the old and the new. Disney can still have stories about heroes overcoming internal conflicts as well as external conflicts. We can have classic Disney villains while also making them more complex like Frollo was in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. We can also have movies where the villains are barely present in favor of a character discovering their place in the world like in Inside Out. The key word is balance.
The last movie that Lasseter is credited in at Disney is going to be Frozen 2, which will release next year. In that time, Jennifer Lee, the director of Frozen and Frozen 2, will take the helm as the Chief Creative Officer. I have no idea if this will facilitate a whole new era of Disney animation, a continuation of Lasseter’s philosophy, or if it’ll be a return to form of classic Disney storytelling, but change is coming. I want to be surprised by Disney movies again and not roll my eyes at how they’re trying to subvert your expectations while paradoxically being predictable as hell.