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Pop Off: Disney is in a slump

By Brendon Field
On February 10, 2014

I think it's safe to say that for the first decade of the millennium, Disney Animated Features were in a slump. Their first ventures into digital animation fell well short of the standards set by Pixar and Dreamworks. Their traditional films also failed to meet the expectations set by themselves in the 1990s. But their last two major releases, "Tangled" and "Frozen" ("Winnie the Pooh" was a minor effort that won't be considered here), have been financial and critical successes; with "Frozen" still raking in over $6 million on its 12th weekend of release. The consensus seems to be Disney has found its stride again. But I wasn't overly fond of either "Frozen" or "Tangled," and I think both are strong examples of how Disney is running out of steam.
The first problem with both is the animation. Not to say that either film looks bad, both have scenes that are gorgeous. But what sets Disney beneath other digital animation studios is the way it design people. All the human characters are designed to look like dolls, probably because most are intended to be sold as dolls. Because there is no acting presence in animation beyond the voice, the character designs should convey as much personality as possible. When given designs of generic beauty, the characters of "Frozen" and "Tangled" don't give off much of an impression. Designing characters that are seamless and perfectly cut is what Disney has been doing for decades, but it works much better in the smoother and more expressive realm of traditional animation. That is why all the characters in "The Princess and the Frog" were superior than the casts of "Frozen" and "Tangled."
Both "Frozen" and "Tangled" are adaptations of the classic fairy tales, "The Snow Queen" and "Rapunzel," respectively. But when Disney adapts the classic story, it always has to throw in a basket of clichés, which are more prominent in the two films of discussion than most of Disney catalogue. Both rely heavily on misunderstandings, which Disney uses far too often to turn its heroes against each other only to learn the truth and reconcile later. It's aggrevating that none of the characters have a shred of insight. I refuse to believe that nobody could communicate to Anna that Elsa was isolated because she has magical powers that are dangerous. Rapunzel had a sheltered childhood and wants more out of life than what she has, just as Ariel, Belle and Jasmine before her. Additionally, "Frozen" also, completely unnecessarily, utilizes the dead parents cliché, and both have the obvious false death.
The other issue is the music. Disney scores are always made with the intent to sell as many soundtracks as possible. I own several, so I'm certainly not above the show tune. But the music for "Tangled" and "Frozen" is nothing more than super polished, bland, boring, pop. In the past Disney at least fused in other musical styles. "The Lion King" had the over the top stylings of Elton John, "Robin Hood" had rustic folk and "Hercules" had gospel, for some reason. While all Disney music falls into the genre of pop, it at least always had a lot of flavor. Now not only is the music as flavorful as black coffee, it all the sounds the same. "Let It Go", which I think is the only good song in "Frozen," stood out because of Idina Menzel's performance, not the music itself. If you want proof, listen to the Demi Lovato version.
I wanted to like "Frozen," and "Tangled," I really did. Disney movies have brought me a lot of joy, and I hope to walk out of all of their films beaming and uplifted. But they've been using the same storytelling devices for so long it's a distraction, and their focus needs to be more on the film, not how much money they can make off of merchandise. Many may think they have witnessed the dawning of Disney's next golden age, but I'm still waiting for it.

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