The following is an installment in an ongoing series of blog posts analyzing contemporary family films that the author has previously resisted seeing. This series is a sequel of sorts to a previous series called Finding Pixar: A Skeptics Journey, which applied the same treatment to the films of the Pixar Animation Studio.
In my last installment of this series I talked about the current state of Disney; about the poor state of the studio’s output during the 2000s and what they were trying to do to solve it. In particular, I focused on Disney’s doubling down on their “Princess” brand; the way they noticed the appeal of the princess as a figure of great interest amongst little girls and how they increased their marketing efforts around them and then added to their library of princesses with new films providing modernized versions of the characters. These films were massive successes, but they were hardly uncharted territory for the company, they simply took an audience that the company already had (little girls) and found new ways to reach (or, less charitably, exploit) that audience. The other more challenging goal that the company has long had was to finally reach another audience that they aren’t so sure they have a grasp of, little boys. This is a market that has proven elusive to Disney (and the wider entertainment industry) for years if not decades, and it has never been a secret.
Looking back I feel like my own experience seemed to back up this situation. I’m not sure why I didn’t notice it before but it’s interesting that the two movies that came out during the window in which I was going to see their films in theaters as a child just happened to be the most masculine success stories out of the Disney Renaissance: Aladdin and The Lion King. But when they put out their next film, Pocahontas, I instantly became less interested. Part of why I skipped that film had to do with the fact that my parents thought the film was disrespectful to Native Americans, but I have a hunch that if I was really truly pumped to see the film I would have talked them into it, but because I thought it was “for girls” I wasn’t going to fight their verdict. By the time they again tried to reach the boys market with The Hunchback of Notre Dame I passed because it looked like a bastardization of Victor Hugo’s novel (though I kind of doubt that was the main reason any of the other nine year olds passed on it) and by the time Hercules came out I felt too old for that shit and moved on. This pattern does seem to jive with the widely held conclusion about boys’ buying habits in this sector. This AP story from 2004 seems to suggest that “Boys are more elusive, in part because they outgrow particular characters more quickly as their attention shifts to sports and other interests.”
The company has certainly found some isolated success in its quest to sell shit to boys. In their Pixar division they had the Toy Story and Cars franchises (both of which were highly merchandisable, it’s no coincidence that they were the Pixar franchises that got sequels) and a handful of other Pixar films like The Incredibles, but there didn’t really seem to be a united formula that they could really exploit out of them. They also had some success in the live action division with Pirates of the Carribean and would eventually try to buy their way to a solution by acquiring Marvel and Lucasfilm. However, as far as Original Recipe Disney went things went a lot less smoothly, in fact many of the company’s woes during the 2000s could be directly attributed to Disney chasing misguided attempts to capture that market.
Their two most notable failed efforts to create masculine action movies out of the Disney Animation formula were Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet, two attempt to movie away from Disney’s usual fairy tale milieu and into science fiction trappings. It didn’t work. Boys looking for science fiction action just shifted their attention to real action fare like Star Wars which gave them what they wanted without the stigma of going to a “baby movie.” Instead of retreating back into princess stuff they just spent the next decade making slightly masculine but ostensibly unisex fare like Home on the Range and Meet the Robinsons while Pixar held fort. But, as was the case in Princess division, things started to change as we moved out of the aughts and into the teens things started to change. John Lasseter started to take things over and while he did restart the production of princess stuff, he wasn’t about to give up on making Disney Animation relevant for boys. From there they started alternating between CGI movies for boys and CGI movies for girls, and while their recent films for boys haven’t been the clear commercial homeruns that their princess movies were they have managed to make some strides where other Disney movies for boys have simply stumbled.
Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
Being as they are always trying to get in on what’s big with “the kids” Disney has long been somewhat interested in videogames. Videogames have been made out of Disney properties as far back as the Atari era and today they have their own video game division in Disney Interactive. The influence has also gone the other way, most noticeably with the interesting-ish 1982 movie Tron. I think part of the reason Disney has remained so interested in video games is their aforementioned inability to reach the boy market. Video games have (for better or worse) long been seen as a rather masculine pursuit and up until fairly recently have been seen as toys for children. The idea, I suppose was to leverage young boy’s interest in video games in order to get them interested in Disney. Makes sense I guess, and Disney had reportedly been working on another film set inside a videogame way back in the late 1980s under various titles like “High Score,” “Joe Jump,” and “Reboot Ralph” but wouldn’t actually be made until 2013 under the title Wreck-It Ralph.
There is of course one huge obstacle that anyone needs to deal with when trying to appeal to gamers: video game fans are extremely distrustful of outsiders and know a poser when they see one. I recently read the book “Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation” by Blake J. Harris and remember an anecdote from it where an advertising agency was focus testing a commercial they’d developed for “Sonic the Hedgehog” with the basic premise of taunting the kids’ parents for the fact that they couldn’t get past the fourth level of the game. To the advertisers’ surprise they were told in no uncertain terms by the gamers that the ad “sucked” in part because they noticed that the footage in the ad wasn’t from the fourth level, it was from the first level. The takeaway was that it was insulting to the market they were trying to reach that the people putting together the ad couldn’t tell the difference between different levels in the game. In other words, if you want to reach gamers you damn well better know games and that’s a big part of why it probably took so long to get this movie out of development: they needed to wait for the video game generation to come of age so they could finally have a qualified director. The director they went with was named Rich Moore, who interestingly was not a homegrown Disney talent but rather someone who came from a geekier branch of the animation world: “The Simpsons” and “Futurama.”
The film is certainly not shy about showing off its gamer bona fieds and fills itself to the brim with references and jokes about actual videogames. The three main games that the movie focuses on (“Fix-It Felix, Jr.,” “Hero’s Duty,” and “Sugar Rush”) are clear parodies of actual game genres but are none the less fictional. Just about everything else in the world of the movie, however, is taken from an actual video game. It’s filled with “cameos” by actual game characters like Bowser, Kano, and Q-Bert and other little Easter eggs like a scene where someone’s password is the famous Konami code. The thing is, a lot of these references seem to be a bit past their sell-by date and its not all that clear if the people writing this really know much of anything about videogames made after 1992. That’s no small thing because this film’s target audience consists of people who were, you know, born long after that year. I’m sure rights issues had something to do with why there weren’t any cameos by modern game characters, but the disconnect does run a little deeper and probably starts with the fact that the movie is ostensibly set at t goddam arcade. Arcades are dead, like, deader than Blockbuster Video. You can still find a couple of old cabinets in movie theaters and laundromats I suppose and I’m sure there are a couple of arcades out there serving the retro market but to have kids casually going to a video arcade in 2013 is a little hard to swallow. There are a couple of other moments that ring false as well, like the fact that “Hero’s Duty” is a full-on First Person Shooter even though those have never been part of the arcade scene (the thing is a light-gun game, those don’t feature hands holding guns onscreen) or the fact that they seem to think that Zangief from “Street Fighter II” is a villain.
I’ve focused mainly on the Videogame reference part of this because, well, that’s kind of the only thing about this movie that’s really interesting. Below that surface this is at best a really average family movie. It follows the usual CGI cartoon formula pretty closely: establish a high concept world, send protagonist on a quest, end with an action scene, make sure everyone learns some sappy insincere message about self-acceptance. Speaking of that message… it’s kind of lost on me. The movie starts with Ralph being depressed about his role as the bad guy in a videogame and about the stigma that’s been attached to him. By the end of the movie he’s decided that he should be happy in his role as villain (you know, because he makes life interesting or something) and I guess people have decided to be nicer to him now that he’s saved the day. What is this a metaphor for and what is its relevance in the real world? Videogames are pretty much the only field in existence where being a villain actually makes things more fun for anyone so I don’t think that has much relevance. If I’m being really really charitable I suppose that this could be a metaphor for people working in disrespected blue collar jobs, but “be content with your shitty job” isn’t exactly an uplifting message. I suppose you could say that the film shows how (inadvertently) going on strike for a couple of days can make your employer realize how much they need you and lead to better treatment, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the intended message and if it was that would seem like an odd point to be making in media intended for eight year olds.
Of course there is a more obvious message that emerges in the film’s second half, but that’s kind of a problem of its own. After a silly but somewhat enjoyable first half where the film goes from video game to video game and reference to reference it suddenly gets bogged down for an hour in a single game cart racing called “Sugar Rush.” Here he meets a rather annoying side character named Vanellope von Schweetz, who has been ostracized because she glitches. It’s clearly a disability allegory, it ends with her turning her disability into an asset and proving it’s “alright” to be difference and to accept yourself yada yada yada… it’s pretty standard kid movie stuff but it feels particularly awkward because it doesn’t start until an hour into the movie and kind of feels like a movie within a movie. From there we’re introduced to a bug infestation that carried over from “Hero’s Duty” (interesting that while Ralph gets to be misunderstood, these bugs are depicted as truly horrible even though they’re both villains) so there can be a climactic battle at the end.
The more non-Pixar family movies I watch the more a lot of them seem kind of the same except with certain superficial differences to give them the illusion of originality. Wreck it Ralph seems like a good example of this. The whole video game motif gives the movie a certain amount of flavor but otherwise it’s animated kids’ movie 101. What’s more, the film feels very decidedly un-Disney. A few more fart jokes and it would have been virtually indistinguishable from something Dreamworks would have made. It’s not a bad movie so much as an excessively mediocre one. With a $189 million domestic gross (plus $281 million international) the movie certainly made money at the box office when it came out in 2012 but it wasn’t a phenomenon. It was the twelfth highest grossing movie of the year but only the fourth highest grossing animated movie of the year after Pixar’s Brave, Dreamworks’ Madagascar 3, and Universal’s The Lorax. I suppose Brave has some relevance in pop culture but it is definitely viewed as lesser Pixar and those other two movies were largely dismissed irrelevancies. That’s Disney’s big effort came in behind this kind of competition showed that they still had a lot of work to do if they wanted to return to being the leader in the field.
Big Hero 6 (2014)
The elephant in the room whenever people talk about Disney trying to reassert their dominance of the boys market is that in many ways the larger Disney corporation already solved their weaknesses in that Market the second they bought Marvel Comic and probably solidified it further when they bought Lucasfilm. At this point Disney is in many ways only making male skewing animated movies so that their main brand doesn’t get to be so identified with princesses that it comes to be seen as a girly brand like Barbie. The big question of course was whether or not Disney Animation was ever going to try to take a piece of that Marvel pie or whether they were just going to let Marvel Studios keep doing their own thing. This was a pretty big predicament because the people at Marvel Studios almost certainly didn’t want another division screwing up one of their marquee characters and even if the Animation division was guaranteed to do a great job they’d still potentially be sidelining a character that could otherwise be used to headline a live action film and fit into the Avengers universe. Also, they had the added pressure that any CGI animated superhero movie was probably going to have to live in the shadow of Pixar’s The Incredibles. The solution they eventually reached was to let the animation division make a movie based on a Marvel character but one that was even more obscure than Guardians of the Galaxy and to de-emphasize the properties Marvel origins during the promotion of the film. In fact, if you look at the film’s trailer you find that it downplays the superhero material almost entirely and sells the film almost entirely as a sort of science fiction/adventure film.
The comic book the film is loosely based on was a minor Marvel title from the late 90s about a group of Japanese superheroes built around a character called The Silver Samurai. That character (who was depicted in the movie The Wolverine) was the only element of that group I’d heard of and he’s not even in this movie… in fact as far as I can tell very little of this movie was actually taken from the comic book, but that’s not a big deal. The film is set in a city called San Fransokyo, presumably envisioning some sort of future where trans-Pacific borders have been blurred. We know from Blade Runner that this fusion of East and West created a dark hellscape in L.A. but Northern California seems to have taken to their Japanese overlords better. The city looks cool and I also like the sci-fi elements that the filmmakers bring to the table. The film is set in a world where fourteen year olds can theoretically graduate from college young and be accepted into a group of college aged inventors… yeah, definitely some wish fulfilment there for the kids in the audience, but there’s nothing too wrong with that and I like the way the film makes its child protagonist into something of a streetwise punk at the beginning. As the movie opens this kid is doing the futuristic equivalent of poolhall hustling, and isn’t really something you’d expect from the usual squeaky clear Disney protagonist.
I was a little less fond of the film’s supporting characters, specifically the rest of the film’s superhero team which are built out of the members of the protagonist’s engineering team. Normally in movies like this it’s the children who are annoying but, in keeping with the film’s wish fulfillment bent, here it’s the older characters who are kind of insufferable. There’s the nerd pseudo-stoner named Fred, then there’s Wasabi who is characterized by his general cowardice when faced with the comic book craziness around him, and Honey Lemon who is this sort of neurotic nerd girl and is just generally kind of annoying. Then of course there’s a character named GoGo, a tough no-nonsense action hero in the middle of an engineering team who frankly just seems like a really strained attempt to wedged a strong female characterTM into a group that is otherwise unable to keep up with a fourteen year old kid. I was a bit more fond of the robot Baymax, who was nicely able to inject humor into the movie without resorting to the kind of obnoxiousness that usually characterizes comedic sidekicks in family movies. I also loved the movie’s villain, who just looks incredibly dope wearing all black and sporting a tough looking kabuki mask. Just one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in an animated family movie.
For much of the film’s runtime it doesn’t really seem to be a superhero movie at all, and I actually kind of wish it had stayed that way. The superhero material in the movie isn’t terrible exactly but we aren’t really lacking for superhero movies right now and I’m not exactly sure that we needed another one and the superhero elements in this one are a little weak. I certainly like the way that the animators were able to show light reflecting out of the heroes armor, but otherwise that armor looked kind of lame, they kind of looked like some kind of roller derby team and the stoner dude’s dinosaur looking costume doesn’t really fit that well. I also found the origin of the group a bit rushed. The heroes all acclimate to their powers over the course of a single montage which seemingly takes place over an afternoon, which is just way too easy. That said the actual superhero actions scenes aren’t half bad, at least by animation standards.
Looking back I feel like the big difference between the Disney that gave us Wreck-It Ralph and the Disney that gave us Big Hero 6 is that the former studio was taking a lot of its cues from Dreamworks and the latter studio was getting more of its cues from Pixar. You can see it right in the voice casting. The former movie is loaded to the brims with celebrity stunt casting while the biggest names in the latter are Maya Rudolph, James Cromwell (or, “that guy,” as he’s known to the public), and a second generation Wayans Brother. More importantly the film doesn’t indulge in Dreamworks style obligatory moralizing. Yeah, there is perhaps some messages to be found in the movie about the correct way to handle grief, and about friendship, and about rising up to your potential, and whatever, but the movie never paints this stuff on too thickly. For the most part it’s content to just be an adventure movie which is probably its biggest strength and its biggest weakness. The film does remind me a bit of how I felt about the other famous CGI animated superhero movie, The Incredibles, in that I thought it was a pretty well-conceived action movie that nonetheless kind of lacked that additional depth to really push it into the realm of the truly special.
Domestically, Big Hero 6 actually only made about $30 million more than Wreck-It Wralph but it certainly felt like a bigger success. Part of that might have been that it won the Oscar for Best Animated Film (albeit in a victory that was arguably marred by the surprise omission of The Lego Movie from that year’s list of nominees), another part might be that the movie grossed more than any other animated movie that year aside from the aforementioned The Lego Movie. Also, the movie was even a bigger success at the international box office where it made close to $200 million more than Wreck-It Ralph but still never got to the point where it was making Frozen money. Still, $600 million dollars is nothing to scoff at under any circumstances, more importantly the film is an obvious and drastic improvement in quality. The movie certainly didn’t have quite what it took to function as some sort of Disney classic and also isn’t particularly creative but it executes on a really high level and is pretty damn entertaining.
The trajectory of these two “Disney for Boys” movies was certainly not unlike the trajectory I noticed when looking at the recent “Disney Princess Movies.” They put out one rather shaky effort that didn’t do enough to elevate itself from the animated movie pack and another one that felt more like something special. Of the two “improved efforts” I liked Big Hero 6 more than Frozen but I also get why the latter was a grand slam with the public while the former was more of a ground rule double. For all its flaws, Frozen felt a lot more in line with the Disney legacy and had a certain gradeur to it because of it which Big Hero 6 lacked. For all their attempts to encroach on the boys market Disney still hasn’t really established what a Disney film marketed to boys is supposed to look like. With Wreck-It Ralph they borrowed a lot from Dreamworks, with Big Hero 6 they borrowed from Pixar, but they never really broke the code for how they could bridge the Disney of old with the modern tastes of ten year old boys. I’m not exactly sure how they could fix that or if they’re even going to try, but I’m sure they’re going to keep experimenting. Walt Disney Animation studios doesn’t have anything on the docket this year, but they’re planning to put out two movies in 2016, one seemingly directed towards each gender. The non-princess movie is called Zootopia and has something to do with a city populated by talking animals and the other movie is a musical about the adventures of a Princess in a South Pacific tribe called Moana. I’d say the latter film sounds a little more promising, but we’ll see.