The Reel: Disney’s bipolar mindset

Disney motion pictures come in two styles; their best films are concoctions of both.


“Moana” (left) and “Zootopia” (right) both received positive reactions from audiences and critics worldwide. (Photos courtesy of the Walt Disney Company)

By Mark Lu, Columnist

Two Disney animations came out in 2016: “Zootopia” and “Moana.” Both are excellent movies with engaging storylines and visuals – but are also jarringly different in their narratives. Earlier this month, I wrote a piece on the effect that “Shrek” had on animation films of the 21st Century, turning the industry’s focus from fantasy to satire. However, frequently, Disney and Pixar deviate from this record and create a story that’s, once again, imaginative and beautiful, featuring trite antagonists and perfection-boasting protagonists.

“Moana” is exactly that – a story centered around characters within a perfect world, facing the threat of purely evil forces – a black dust thing, whatever. The villain exists within a lava monster, giant crab and the characters have no flaws regarding their conscience whatsoever. Contrastingly, in “Zootopia,” Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde are both antiheroes- protagonists without pure mindsets pertaining to the plot, who must overcome their own subconscious in addition to the predicaments facing them throughout the film- a feature that makes it an infinitely superior film to “Moana,” a feel-good ocean adventure within a mythological world with no implied relation to the real one.

So, why does Disney seem to have two styles of which to make movies? They either base a story off of society in which they create and develop flawed characters along the way, or they create an original one with pure, fiction-inspired characters who aren’t developed past several secrets that surprise nobody, nowhere. Based on the tone of the previous sentence, you could say that I’m a fan of flawed heroes with hidden layers, which is completely true. Antiheroes enrich a story more so than the shiny protagonists of adventurous, overcome-the-pure-evil movies, which is why I believe “Zootopia” was a better film. But this does not mean I don’t enjoy adventurous movies – the best animations are the ones that combine the two styles.

My favorite Disney/Pixar movie is “WALL-E.” It’s not exactly of either mindset, because it takes on a combination of the two story styles – except for the fact that rather than being a perfect protagonist, it features a clueless one. This limited point-of-view chosen by director Andrew Stanton is what serves as the driving force of discovery and information- and also what keeps the audience engaged. The characters aboard the Axiom represent more the attitude of society, not a close replica similar to the one in “Zootopia.” Disney’s observations on society and ability to satirize it with humor and likeability combined with their ability to tell a great story about adventure and overcoming challenge are the ingredients for great films with powerful underlying principles.

Meanwhile, films like “Frozen” are exactly why this bipolar attitude sometimes fall flat. Sometimes, a movie can’t decide what to do, which is exactly the case with “Frozen.” Since you’ve all probably watched it already, I’ll just go ahead and discuss the plot:

A girl has the power to conjure/control snow, but she must hide it for reasons undisclosed and glossed over. Her sister is almost the protagonist – she serves as the clueless one, but for some reason, Elsa’s perspective of things is shown as well. These two characters are infinitely different, and the film would have been better off if it had chosen just one. However, the screenplay decides to incorporate an omniscient perspective, so any secrets given later are applied to a soup that contains both broccoli and cauliflower; what are we supposed to feel? The plot twist is unnecessary and forms the villain that everyone hates – the one with no motive other than to be a villain (sort of like the Emperor from “Star Wars” or Scar from “The Lion King”). The film subverts the foundation of good moviemaking but redeems itself with the soundtrack- not necessarily unusual of Disney.

So, Disney has these two personas which they usually separate in their animation films. When they’re sort of combined, the product is either really good or really bad. I feel like Disney already knows this, which is why they’ve tried to polarize the two in their latest releases. It’s honestly a shame because the movies that they make are honestly some of the best – even “Frozen.” No matter how much I rip on perfect protagonists or banal antagonists, they do serve as the ingredients for many a magnificent film. It’s up to you, because in the end, Disney manages to provide a little bit for everybody.

Edit 12/25/2016, 10:52 P.M.: A previous version of this column incorrectly stated that “Zootopia” was a Disney/Pixar film when it was, in fact, a Disney Animation Studios film with no involvement with Pixar.