moana

A Step in the Right Direction

Something similar did occur at an early juncture in Disney’s most recent animated film, Moana. (I wonder how much of a coincidence it is that the film’s directors, John Musker and Ron Clements, also directed The Princess and the Frog.) In Moana, the title character longs to explore the world beyond the reef of the island where she’s lived her entire life. Her parents are both unwilling to budge. Her more spirited grandmother, who’s filled Moana’s head with stories about the demigod Maui since the teenager was a toddler, not only encourages her to follow her heart, but reveals that Moana’s ancestors were explorers who only landed on the island after years of travel. So naturally, Moana’s grandmother dies about 30 minutes into the film, her passing functioning as the last push that Moana needs to leave the island, find Maui, and save her people in the process. The death of Moana’s grandmother is an emotional moment, to be sure, but there is a vast difference because this feels like a natural loss. Nothing nearly as shocking as wildebeest or a hunter’s shotgun takes Moana’s grandmother down, just old age.

As wonderful a film as Moana is, and as much as the film can be commended for not faking the audience out (Moana’s grandmother returns briefly near the end of the film in spectral form only), the death is not quite as impactful as anything in Bambi or The Lion King. In the 1942 film, although Bambi has a father, he doesn’t realize who his father is until after his mother dies, making it so he feels like an orphan when she’s killed. In The Lion King, while Simba’s parents are both alive at the start, his mother Sarabi is almost a non-entity, getting about as many lines of dialogue throughout as Mufasa has when he shows up to the adult Simba in ghostly form himself.

Still, Moana and The Princess and the Frog deserve credit; in a way, how these films handle death is how more Disney films could do so in the future. Their stories are not reliant on characters dying, as much as their deaths occur as a byproduct of the major action of the story. (Ray the lightning bug in the 2009 film is thoughtlessly swatted away by the antagonistic “shadow man” Dr. Facilier, a moment that’s shocking precisely because of how casually it happens.)

bambi

The Importance of Fear

Both of those films share another tendency that not all new Disney films are willing to engage in: scaring their target audience.

Much of Bambi is quiet and pleasant and low-key, punctuated by unexpected moments of violence (even the fight that the older Bambi has with a fellow male deer seemingly comes out of nowhere) that can terrify the kids watching it. The Lion King has plenty of colorful, upbeat, and exciting sequences, such as the “Hakuna Matata” number at the midpoint, but it also has Scar, a slew of goose-stepping hyenas, Mufasa’s death scene, and the intense climactic battle between nephew and uncle. Neither Moana nor The Princess and the Frog are quite as dark or grim, but they both have visceral and sometimes surreal sequences that go beyond the traditional structures of a “Disney movie.” Both of those films’ villains, in particular, have striking and distinct musical sequences visualized in ways that hearken back to the psychedelic and neon-hued colors of the “Pink Elephants on Parade” hallucination in Dumbo.

All of these films, specifically Bambi and The Lion King, are willing to be haunting, creepy, and disturbing, at least as much as the House of Mouse would allow.

Bambi and The Lion King remain among the most primally entertaining films from the Walt Disney Animation Studios canon. (I hadn’t seen the latter in a couple years before my recent theatrical viewing, and I’d forgotten how excellent the film is at its highs, mostly in the first half. The second half is a bit underwritten, but that first half is a hell of a thing.) More than any other Disney film, including the countless ones where the lead character loses a parent or both parents before the movie begins or during an off-screen time-jump of some kind, Bambi and The Lion King represent two of the most daring films the studio’s ever released. The former, turning 75 this month, only became a hit after multiple re-releases, largely because it was released as the United States was entering World War II and box-office receipts were down. But The Lion King remains one of Disney’s most massive box-office successes, one that will no doubt be replicated when Jon Favreau’s computer-animated remake is released in 2019.

That alone should be an important lesson for Disney executives. (It’s possible that Disney animators are the ones who are wary to tell darker stories, but I kind of doubt it.) A film that depicts a death the way that The Lion King does may scare audiences, and represent a seminal moment for many kids in theaters, but it can also be very successful. These two films are forever going to be inextricably linked, for good reason. They should serve as reminders to Disney that going down a darker route, as opposed to teasing one before backing off, can pay off incredibly well.

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