The Mouse Trap: How Disney got all Tangled up


Tangled is released in the UK this week, supported by a heavy marketing campaign promoting it as the 50th theatrically-released film from Disney Animation Studios. Following in the footsteps of such classics as Snow White & The Seven Dwarves (1938), The Jungle Book (1967) and The Lion King (1994), the film received a special trailer in honour of the occasion, a sequence of fifty clips showing each entry in the studio’s illustrious cinematic pantheon. You can watch that trailer here, or read community user Elemeno P’s superb reviews of Disney’s princess films here and here.

But the occasion has been soured by the news that the film failed to make the Academy Award shortlist for the 2010 Best Animated Feature. Even with the number of nominees limited to three by the lack of viable candidates – fifteen films were put up for the award this year and Academy rules state there must be sixteen for the category to receive a full five-strong shortlist – its exclusion is not only the continuation of a trend that has blighted the past decade for Disney Animation, but highlights an ongoing identity crisis within the studio.

It has been nine years since the creation of the Oscars’ Best Animated Feature category and Disney Animation, once the undisputed standard-bearers in the genre, have yet to claim the statuette. Worse still is that they’ve found themselves playing catch up to Pixar, a subsidiary under the Disney umbrella. It’s not as though they have anyone else to blame either: in competition with the likes of Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away (2002 winner) or Pixar’s Finding Nemo (2003 winner) and Wall-E (2008 winner), they’ve only been able to muster up Lilo & Stitch and Treasure Planet (both 2002), Brother Bear in 2003 and Bolt in 2008. Even their best reviewed film of recent years, The Princess & The Frog, lost out to Pixar’s Up for the 2009 award. It’s not as though they’ve been short of films either, having at least one release in every year of the decade except 2006, which ironically featured the weakest line-up of nominees since the Award’s inception with George Miller’s decent-ish Happy Feet taking the award (even Pixar had an off-year with Cars).

But so what? They’ve hit a bad patch. For a studio going on eighty-years old, it would be unfair to expect an unbroken run of excellence to match their glory days. Hell, we even forgave them the eighties when Black Cauldron was infamously their first animated film to fail to break even. It might even be suggested that they’re on their way back up, with the management team of Ed Catmull, Andrew Millstein and Pixar‘s John Lasseter (who took over the company in 2006 following crisis years under Thomas Schumacher and then David Stainton, which saw huge layoffs and a severe drop in film quality resulting in the likes of 2004’s Home On The Range and cynical cash-ins such as The Jungle Book 2) guiding the studio to their most positive notices in years thanks to Princess & The Frog and Tangled.

But the problem is not so simple as review scores – as mentioned, it would be ridiculous not to expect any studio, let alone one as old as Disney Animation, not to have bad years every now and again. Rather, it’s a long-term question of changing times and Disney’s ongoing failure to adapt to new audiences and be at the forefront of innovation in the way that creator Walt was when he pioneered the fusion of animation and sound with Steamboat Willie (1928).

Where working for Disney might once have been considered the height of an animator’s career, more of the people responsible for the genre’s resurgence over the past decade have either been fired by the company or left of their own accord following creative differences with the management. Brad Bird, director of Warner Bros’ Iron Giant in 1999 and winner of the 2004 Best Animated Feature Oscar for Pixar with The Incredibles, left the company shortly after joining in 1981, having only worked for them on The Fox And The Hound, going on to help develop The Simpsons with Matt Groening. Henry Selick worked for Disney on that same film, then left to become the freelancce stop-motion master behind The Nightmare Before Christmas, James And The Giant Peach and Coraline. John Lasseter, the man who founded Pixar and is now at the helm of Disney’s improved recent output, also departed the company first time around after finding his ideas rejected by management – his proposal for a computer animated feature, which would later go on to be the traditionally drawn The Brave Little Toaster, being dismissed out of hand by executives – and later stating that he believed the studio had been repeating itself since 101 Dalmatians in 1961. (Maybe it’s churlish to mention at this point that the next animated film on Disney’s slate is a new Winnie The Pooh in July). As a final kick in the teeth, the directors of Dreamworks’ How To Train Your Dragon, the film which almost certainly usurped Tangled as third nominee on this year’s Best Animated Feature list, was directed by former Disney men Dean DeBois and Chris Sanders, who had previously worked on Lilo & Stitch before suffering those only-too-common creative differences with the men upstairs.

Letting those talents slip through the net has almost certainly cost the company not only in terms of creative output, but box-office too. How To Train Your Dragon made almost half a billion dollars on a $165m budget: The Princess & The Frog, Disney’s return to traditional animation, barely scored over half that number, while Tangled is still roughly $75m short following its US run and as the most expensive animated film in history, cost almost $100m more to make.

Where Dragon is a film for the post-modern generation, with outsiders celebrated and conformists left in their wake (the geek has inherited the earth, as Jesus almost said), even in Disney’s supposed resurgence they’ve stuck to the fairytales and princesses formula that is perceived to be the bedrock of their former glory. The truth behind this statement is debatable at best: no-one would deny the prevailing popularity of Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Beauty & The Beast, but those are four films from the studio’s self-selected canon of fifty – add Tangled if you like as a fifth, but my feeling is that it’ll endure about as long in the public imagination as Princess & The Frog, whose sole claim to relevance today is the long overdue arrival of a black Disney princess. (But doesn’t the big deal they made of that fact kind of invalidate its worth? I digress).

I’d argue that the majority of their most popular films, including Bambi, Pinocchio, Peter Pan, Jungle Book, The Lion King and Aladdin (yes, there’s a princess in it, but she’s hardly the focus) are successful more for their adventurous spirit, good humour and mythic storytelling quality than fulfilling fantasies about regal role-models who are painfully outdated to anyone over the age of ten. Disney’s creative droughts appear to coincide with each time their films forget the importance of those common values, rather than the absence of princesses. Anyone remember the name of the princess in Black Cauldron? Didn’t think so. It seems unlikely that the teenagers and adults who flocked to Toy Story 3 and Dragon wouldn’t look upon the posters for Princess & The Frog or Tangled without a certain degree of disdain.

There are even misfires in Disney’s attempts to update those tropes for today’s audiences’ post-modern sensibilities: Tangled‘s wicked stepmother figure is Gothel, who makes daughter Rapunzel suffer by emotional manipulation rather than dark magic. Speaking objectively, it’s a truthful and intelligent piece of character writing. But while Disney have – quite rightly – never shied away from putting evil before the eyes of its young audience, there is some question as to the need or merit to show it in such sophisticated form. In Shere Khan, Ursula or Scar, children were given easily understandable analogues for evil’s existence but reassured that while terrifying, they were ultimately conquerable by good people working together: a simple message communicating a truthful part of grown-up life without making it too cruel or complicated. As cleverly conceived as it is, is Gothel’s brand of manipulation not too complex and easily misunderstood by Tangled‘s young audience? A scary villain has a great deal of entertainment value for children (especially in groups) but Gothel seems to tip into the upsetting rather than fun kind of scary. Of course as an adult male, I’m far from the right person to be making that judgment. But I can’t imagine myself having such fond memories watching Gothel tweaking Rapunzel’s self-doubt as I did trembling when Mowgli finally came face to face with Shere Khan.

If Harry Knowles’ report on Disneyland’s rumoured decision to stop its character mascots wandering freely around the park in order to further monetise a photography service is correct, the rot eating away at Disney’s heart would appear to go even deeper than its dearth of Oscars or misplaced confidence in an abundance of princesses. Its management team of Lasseter, Catmull and Millstein need to give serious thought to what they want a 21st century Disney to represent and put that focus at the heart of everything it does. Right now, the studio seems trapped between trying to keep up with their competitors, many of which are driven by people who found themselves alienated from the company at the start of their careers, and trying to stay true to a set of antiquated values that may not even have been what made the Disney name great in the first place. Just as Nintendo, whose position in the videogame industry is similar in many ways to that of Disney, had to take a step back from their traditional way of thinking to attract a new set of followers and stay on top without compromising their beloved legacy, so too must Disney find a place for themselves in a new world. Harry Knowles says that his fondest memory from childhood is being told by Mickey that no-one is lost in Disneyland. Even he would think twice about saying such a thing today.