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Jim On Film
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by Jim Miles (archives)
February 7, 2002
Jim Miles takes a look at the successes and failures of recent animated features and gives some advice to the Walt Disney Company and Hollywood "insiders".

Walt Disney Feature Animation as an Entity Beyond Hollywood:
An Open Letter to Walt Disney Enterprises

by Jim Miles

Dear Walt Disney Enterprises,

In the late 1980s, when Disney feature animation began to once again gain the artistic respect of the Hollywood community and the financial backing of movie-viewers throughout the world, other people took notice for other reasons. One group, feminists, took the opportunity to challenge the position of the Disney princess as role model to girls and questioned the matured figure of teenaged Ariel from The Little Mermaid. They lambasted previous Disney princesses Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora for being too passive, too accepting of what others did to them, and too strongly desiring a man to take them away from their problems. With their following films, Disney still retained the Ariel-esque physique but made sure to accompany publicity for its films with reference to how strong these new Disney women were. I clearly remember an excerpt of Irene Bedard, from a publicity kit for Pocahontas, talking about how her character, Pocahontas, was such a strong character. With one piece of publicity for Hercules, they stressed that Meg was not overly thin but that her shape was inspired by Greecian vases, no doubt included by Disney in order to ward off bad press and to encourage mothers of children to take their girls to see the movie.

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(c) Disney

Now this is all well and good. In fact, I think what makes Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, and all the Disney women after them such great characters is that they are strong women. Hercules would be a much different film if Meg wasn’t there to liven things up. However, through all this, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was twice released on video and once on DVD to best-selling numbers and critical acclaim. Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty too found great financial and critical success on video with both film critics and the thousands of people who bought them. The bottom line is that while Disney was ensuring that audiences knew their female characters were strong and independent, parents didn’t care. They wanted quality films to take their children to, films where they might find themselves entertained as well, like the ones they remembered as youngsters. The teens and childless adults who attended the films went because the previews, reviews, and word-of-mouth news was good. Nobody came to see Beauty and the Beast because Belle was such a strong character--they came because it was an excellent film; they loved Belle, they loved the Beast, they loved all the characters in the castle who sang and danced and made them laugh. And this is what you, Disney, may have forgotten, that your films exist beyond the block of this earth named Hollywood, that the success of your films go past trends, the PC Police, interest groups, and the analysis of the entertainment reporters who are all trying to top each other with the inside view on the latest moves in audience tastes.

In the mid 1990s, another wave of animation analysis washed over Disney’s feature animation department. As each film after The Lion King failed to make $300+ million, supposed Hollywood insiders began speculation. Pocahontas, despite rivaling the domestic take of Beauty and the Beast ($145 million), was deemed a failure because it only made $141 million. The Hunchback of Notre Dame made just over $100 million, another dip in domestic take. The insiders speculated another failure--only a measly $100 million! Uh-oh, they predicted, a problem in the House of Mouse. Following that, Hercules too made just over $100 million, and those clever insiders, never really telling anyone on what they based their opinions, claimed that audiences were tiring of the Disney musical. With the release of Mulan, there was another Disney musical, but it made a respectful $120 million domestically. More than just blockbuster numbers, the film earned more than The Little Mermaid’s $84 million; however, it was dubbed a failure because it earned less than the rare number achieved by The Lion King (one must ask where Tom Hanks would be if everyone criticized his career because his post-Forrest Gump movies didn’t top the $300 million mark). In the same breath, critics quoted the Disney films as not living up to the successes of the earlier films, including The Little Mermaid. Tarzan opened even stronger than Mulan and went on the make $171 million domestically. An amazing take for any film, it was once again deemed a failure by the "insiders."

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