Why Disney Movies Work

What made the recent film, Tangled, work so well is what makes Disney movies in general work so well. Today, Jason and Caitie compare their thoughts on what top five film components make Disney features stand out from the crowd.


Why Disney Movies WorkWhy Disney Movies Work


CAITIE SAYS

Music
What would a Disney movie be without the fantastic music? The music helps get you into the story and away from life. Sometimes they can be fun songs that break the tension (Under the Sea, Hakuna Matata). Sometimes they tell you what the character wants (Part of that World, Someday My Prince Will Come). Sometimes they tell you what a character is really thinking (Something There, A Whole New World).

There is always a purpose and they always help tell the story and enhance the movie experience. When I was a kid, I was confused when animated movies didn't have songs!

Peter PanPeter Pan

Animation
Whether it is hand-drawn or computer animation, Disney movies have always been the industry standard in animated movies.

We are finally watching How to Train Your Dragon thanks to Netflix. I hear it was great in 3D, but 30 minutes in, we are not impressed with the regular version. The animation in Tangled was much better. Really, the animation in Bolt or Meet the Robinsons was much better, too, and those were years ago!

So much of computer animation looks the same, but Disney just does it better.

The Formula
What Disney critics hate happens to be what consumers love! Disney movies entertain and make us leave the theater smiling (even if they made us cry 15 minutes earlier). "Happily Ever After" works. If people didn't want to see the hope of a happy ending, they wouldn't see movies to escape the every day.

The formula also helps make it easier for kids to understand Disney movies. Three- or four-year-olds can enjoy them because it is easy for them to see what the character wants, what the bad guy does to try to stop it, and how the hero needs friends to help them. It may be formulaic, but when it works and makes great movies, who cares?

CinderellaCinderella

Wide Audience
Everyone can enjoy a Disney movie. Look around a theater, you will often see three generations seeing the movie together, and everyone is enjoying it. You will see teenagers, people with kids, and even solo adults there. Disney movies have the broadest appeal of any other type of movies when it comes to diversity within the audience.

Timelessness
The animated Disney movies are timeless. You can still watch Dumbo or Cinderella today and not miss anything. They don't use pop culture to make jokes. They use so many elements of storytelling that work. This leads to timeless stories and movies that we can watch 50 years after they come out and not lose any enjoyment.

JASON SAYS

Story
As an English teacher, one of the things I always talk about with my students is the importance of story. I talk about how a narrative must flow, how it must make sense, how character motivation must drive the action, how there needs to be a satisfying conclusion to whatever threads of the story are created, how everything must be believable within the world created by the story-teller.

So many movies (and books and TV shows) fail these very basic tests of what makes a story great. Think about how many stories you've experienced where at least one of those elements has been forgotten about. Think about how many times you find yourself wondering "Why did that character do that?" or "Whatever happened to that character?" or, even worse, "How is that even possible " that was just ridiculous!?"

Imagineers know story. They base their attractions in the park around story. They spend months planning the stories for their movies, storyboarding, changing things, making character motivation make sense. If you ever watch the DVD extras on any re-released Disney films of the past few years you'll see them talk about how essential getting the story right is for them. Plain and simple, Disney knows story, and knows how to do it right. I can't remember very many Disney movies, if any, where I've left the theater asking those above questions.

TangledTangled

Characters
You noticed I mentioned characters a lot in the paragraphs above. The fact is, character is even more important to story than plot is. Without memorable characters who feel real to us, it doesn't matter how good the plot is; the story would lie there like so many dead fish.

Take "The Little Mermaid," for instance (I know, it seems inappropriate after that last sentence, but that's just my sense of humor) " if Ariel wasn't curious, spunky, insightful, ambitious, and brave, the film would have been long forgotten by now.

Even the sidekicks get in on the action. Thumper, Flounder, Abu, Mushu, Baloo " the names are instantly recognizable and bring a smile to any Disney fan's face. It's not just that there's one of them, it's that there's a history of greatness here.

It's not just the heroes, though. Disney films are only as good as their villains. Here's a little test. Think about each of these villains and the first thing that comes to mind for each: Captain Hook, the Evil Queen, Ursula, Frollo, Jafar, Cruella De Vil. Each one is a specific character with, and here's the key, a driving force behind their motivations. Captain Hook wants revenge. Snow White's stepmother is jealous. Ursula is a combination of the two. Frollo (strange for a Disney villain) hates his own lust. Jafar wants power. Cruella, well, she just wants a nice coat, but the point is that each villain is specific and well designed. Sure, other films have great villains, but again, it's the track record that makes Disney the winner.

The Lion KingThe Lion King

Theme
I've been in "teacher" mode long enough here. I'm not going to belabor the point, but Disney movies set out with a purpose and a message, and as Caitie said, those messages are universal.

I think the company has gotten better at it since the early days of rescuing damsels in distress, but the movies are wholesome with just enough tint of reality and the fears that come with being a child to make them appeal to generations. When I think of some of the best Disney films, the themes that come to mind include bravery, curiosity, independence, ambition, love, safety, ingenuity, and friendship. All timeless, all important, all easily recognizable by even the youngest audience members.

Humor
The fact is, Disney has been doing comedy since the early movies. The dwarves in Snow White are funny. Peter Pan has a wit about him that makes audiences love him. Cogsworth is the classic stuffy butler type that was making people laugh in Shakespeare's time (think Malvolio in "Twelfth Night").

Humor often comes from a recognition of something in ourselves " either being thankful we're not the person we're laughing at, or a recognition of our own flaws and foibles in someone else. I'm no expert on animation, but I'm always amazed how the animators can give some pencil and ink marks on a paper expression to the point that we can see ourselves in them.

Aside from the purely physical humor, Disney's script writing is top-notch. Their jokes, as opposed to many other studio's films, tend to land. "Tangled" had Caitie and me in stitches most of the movie.

The Little MermaidThe Little Mermaid

The humor isn't just juvenile either, but often lands on several levels. There were scenes in "Tangled" when it was quite clear only the adults were laughing. There were some physical bits the adults chuckled at, but the kids found hilarious. Again, Disney has a long history with this " it's not an easy thing to get right (there are any number of failed comedies filling the warehouse shelves in Netflix HQ).

Music
If you've been reading the column all along, you knew this was where Caitie and I were going to overlap. We love musicals " we met because of musicals " so how can this NOT be on our lists? I don't have much to add to what she said, other than this:

When The Beatles music became available on iTunes, Caitie and I had a conversation about all time best musical artists. I devised a half-brained formula to figure out how much someone could say they liked an artist: take the number of songs you like by an artist, and divide it by the total amount of songs written or performed by that artist. That number will be a percentage that will tell you how much you enjoy any given performer. Granted, doing that is a lot of work, but you could get a rough estimate pretty easily.

I don't need to tell you how high a number the "Songs from Disney Movies" would be for us, or, I'd imagine, anyone else reading this column.

These are just some of the things that make Disney movies so great. What did we miss? Let us know in the comments.

dsoup wrote on Thu, 02/10/2011 - 21:12:

dsoup's picture

My favorite thing about Disney movies (at least the best ones) is that they don't pander. They usually have relatively complex stories and challenge the audience a little bit. Great post guys!

Annie wrote on Thu, 02/10/2011 - 22:21:

Annie's picture

I love that you mentioned the timelessness of the films. That's so true. Lots of Dreamworks and other studios depend on crass or current events humor to push their movies. I love that I can watch Little Mermaid or Snow White and have them be just as current as any other films out today.

Something else that's really interesting is how many of the villains are women -- especially in the older films! Would love to hear what you guys think about that.

teacherdrama wrote on Thu, 02/10/2011 - 23:02:

teacherdrama's picture

Annie - I completely agree with your point about the timelessness of the movies. I watched Snow White maybe a year or two ago and was amazed at the fact that the movie, animation aside, could be done NOW and it wouldn't be any different (not that the animation is anything less than stellar, it's just different from modern animation).

It IS interesting that so many villains are women. I've talked to my students about this before. When we talk about what makes someone scary, we talk about how the fear of safety being ripped away is about the scariest thing thing you can have. The original fairy tales many of these stories played off of use this exact thing -- Snow White, Cinderella, Little Mermaid -- older women usually represent comfort and safety, but in these cases the older woman is the source of fear. (I left off Sleeping Beauty because she actually does have a mother, plus the three fairy godmothers so it doesn't quite work). Cruella De Vil would be looked at as just NASTY if she was a man -- could you have a man going after puppies?

I think the idea is tapping into a psychological fear children have of losing their mother. Notice - Captain Hook, good character, not really that scary. Even Jafar (at least until the end) -- not that scary.

Come to think of it, are ANY of the male villains as scary as the women?

JeffC wrote on Fri, 02/11/2011 - 00:52:

JeffC's picture

I think the characters and the animation make it for me. But the point about timelessness is a really good one. There are very few movies I'll watch twice, but through a Disney animated movie in front of me and I'll watch it a dozen times.

Great article! Thanks!!!

cdub wrote on Fri, 02/11/2011 - 22:46:

cdub's picture

I think that it's the lack of low-lights. Every part of them is pretty good, there's very little to nitpick (at least in the classics).

AmyKB wrote on Sat, 02/12/2011 - 05:19:

AmyKB's picture

excellent point about the scary female villains... I mean, the scariest of the males might be Ratigan, LoL.

J.P. wrote on Mon, 02/14/2011 - 03:14:

J.P.'s picture

I love how adult humour was brought up. I love rewatching Disney movies to see what jokes I missed as a kid. One of my favourite adult humour moments was in Cars during the trial in Radiator Springs. If you listen closely, or turn on subtitles, you can hear the crowd at the trial yelling things like "facist" and "commie".

Jared Klanke wrote on Mon, 04/08/2013 - 13:20:

Jared Klanke's picture

What made the recent film, Tangled, work so well is what makes Disney movies in general work so well. Today, Jason and Caitie compare their thoughts on what top five film components make Disney features stand out from the crowd.
CAITIE SAYS
Music
What would a Disney movie be without the fantastic music? The music helps get you into the story and away from life. Sometimes they can be fun songs that break the tension (Under the Sea, Hakuna Matata). Sometimes they tell you what the character wants (Part of that World, Someday My Prince Will Come). Sometimes they tell you what a character is really thinking (Something There, A Whole New World).
There is always a purpose and they always help tell the story and enhance the movie experience. When I was a kid, I was confused when animated movies didn't have songs!

Peter Pan
Animation
Whether it is hand-drawn or computer animation, Disney movies have always been the industry standard in animated movies.
We are finally watching How to Train Your Dragon thanks to Netflix. I hear it was great in 3D, but 30 minutes in, we are not impressed with the regular version. The animation in Tangled was much better. Really, the animation in Bolt or Meet the Robinsons was much better, too, and those were years ago!
So much of computer animation looks the same, but Disney just does it better.
The Formula
What Disney critics hate happens to be what consumers love! Disney movies entertain and make us leave the theater smiling (even if they made us cry 15 minutes earlier). "Happily Ever After" works. If people didn't want to see the hope of a happy ending, they wouldn't see movies to escape the every day.
The formula also helps make it easier for kids to understand Disney movies. Three- or four-year-olds can enjoy them because it is easy for them to see what the character wants, what the bad guy does to try to stop it, and how the hero needs friends to help them. It may be formulaic, but when it works and makes great movies, who cares?

Cinderella
Wide Audience
Everyone can enjoy a Disney movie. Look around a theater, you will often see three generations seeing the movie together, and everyone is enjoying it. You will see teenagers, people with kids, and even solo adults there. Disney movies have the broadest appeal of any other type of movies when it comes to diversity within the audience.
Timelessness
The animated Disney movies are timeless. You can still watch Dumbo or Cinderella today and not miss anything. They don't use pop culture to make jokes. They use so many elements of storytelling that work. This leads to timeless stories and movies that we can watch 50 years after they come out and not lose any enjoyment.
JASON SAYS
Story
As an English teacher, one of the things I always talk about with my students is the importance of story. I talk about how a narrative must flow, how it must make sense, how character motivation must drive the action, how there needs to be a satisfying conclusion to whatever threads of the story are created, how everything must be believable within the world created by the story-teller.
So many movies (and books and TV shows) fail these very basic tests of what makes a story great. Think about how many stories you've experienced where at least one of those elements has been forgotten about. Think about how many times you find yourself wondering "Why did that character do that?" or "Whatever happened to that character?" or, even worse, "How is that even possible " that was just ridiculous!?"
Imagineers know story. They base their attractions in the park around story. They spend months planning the stories for their movies, storyboarding, changing things, making character motivation make sense. If you ever watch the DVD extras on any re-released Disney films of the past few years you'll see them talk about how essential getting the story right is for them. Plain and simple, Disney knows story, and knows how to do it right. I can't remember very many Disney movies, if any, where I've left the theater asking those above questions.

Tangled
Characters
You noticed I mentioned characters a lot in the paragraphs above. The fact is, character is even more important to story than plot is. Without memorable characters who feel real to us, it doesn't matter how good the plot is; the story would lie there like so many dead fish.
Take "The Little Mermaid," for instance (I know, it seems inappropriate after that last sentence, but that's just my sense of humor) " if Ariel wasn't curious, spunky, insightful, ambitious, and brave, the film would have been long forgotten by now.
Even the sidekicks get in on the action. Thumper, Flounder, Abu, Mushu, Baloo " the names are instantly recognizable and bring a smile to any Disney fan's face. It's not just that there's one of them, it's that there's a history of greatness here.
It's not just the heroes, though. Disney films are only as good as their villains. Here's a little test. Think about each of these villains and the first thing that comes to mind for each: Captain Hook, the Evil Queen, Ursula, Frollo, Jafar, Cruella De Vil. Each one is a specific character with, and here's the key, a driving force behind their motivations. Captain Hook wants revenge. Snow White's stepmother is jealous. Ursula is a combination of the two. Frollo (strange for a Disney villain) hates his own lust. Jafar wants power. Cruella, well, she just wants a nice coat, but the point is that each villain is specific and well designed. Sure, other films have great villains, but again, it's the track record that makes Disney the winner.

The Lion King
Theme
I've been in "teacher" mode long enough here. I'm not going to belabor the point, but Disney movies set out with a purpose and a message, and as Caitie said, those messages are universal.
I think the company has gotten better at it since the early days of rescuing damsels in distress, but the movies are wholesome with just enough tint of reality and the fears that come with being a child to make them appeal to generations. When I think of some of the best Disney films, the themes that come to mind include bravery, curiosity, independence, ambition, love, safety, ingenuity, and friendship. All timeless, all important, all easily recognizable by even the youngest audience members.
Humor
The fact is, Disney has been doing comedy since the early movies. The dwarves in Snow White are funny. Peter Pan has a wit about him that makes audiences love him. Cogsworth is the classic stuffy butler type that was making people laugh in Shakespeare's time (think Malvolio in "Twelfth Night").
Humor often comes from a recognition of something in ourselves " either being thankful we're not the person we're laughing at, or a recognition of our own flaws and foibles in someone else. I'm no expert on animation, but I'm always amazed how the animators can give some pencil and ink marks on a paper expression to the point that we can see ourselves in them.
Aside from the purely physical humor, Disney's script writing is top-notch. Their jokes, as opposed to many other studio's films, tend to land. "Tangled" had Caitie and me in stitches most of the movie.

The Little Mermaid
The humor isn't just juvenile either, but often lands on several levels. There were scenes in "Tangled" when it was quite clear only the adults were laughing. There were some physical bits the adults chuckled at, but the kids found hilarious. Again, Disney has a long history with this " it's not an easy thing to get right (there are any number of failed comedies filling the warehouse shelves in Netflix HQ).
Music
If you've been reading the column all along, you knew this was where Caitie and I were going to overlap. We love musicals " we met because of musicals " so how can this NOT be on our lists? I don't have much to add to what she said, other than this:
When The Beatles music became available on iTunes, Caitie and I had a conversation about all time best musical artists. I devised a half-brained formula to figure out how much someone could say they liked an artist: take the number of songs you like by an artist, and divide it by the total amount of songs written or performed by that artist. That number will be a percentage that will tell you how much you enjoy any given performer. Granted, doing that is a lot of work, but you could get a rough estimate pretty easily.
I don't need to tell you how high a number the "Songs from Disney Movies" would be for us, or, I'd imagine, anyone else reading this column.

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