The Disney brand is synonymous with animation.
From “Steamboat Willie” to “Frozen,” the Mouse House ruled the animated arts for decades. The Disney aesthetic helped make that possible. Disney animators excelled at beautiful motion, gorgeous scenery and sidekicks who nestled their way into our hearts.
- Jiminy Cricket
Times change, and so does the culture.
Now, Disney animation is in flux, beholden to one side in the Culture Wars. Movies like “Lightyear” and “Strange World,” two of last year’s most stunning flops, forced cultural messaging into their stories.
It mirrors the company’s overall push into political waters, shattering a reputation built by founder Walt Disney.
- Entertain the masses
- Deliver clean, uplifting stories
- Tell tales suitable for the very young and old
Now, Disney+ shows promote trans issues betwixt the cuddly characters and executives brag about injecting gender-based material into their stories.
And audiences aren’t buying it. They’re flocking to the Mouse House’s main competitor instead.
Illumination Entertainment is less than two decades old, but it stands atop the animation world. Founded by Chris Meledandri in 2007, the company is responsible for several popular franchises (“Minions,” “Sing,” “The Secret Life of Pets”) and its newest property, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie.”
That film earned an astonishing $204 million in its opening, extended weekend. That’s not all. Its global haul – $375 million – shattered a record previously set by Disney’s “Frozen 2.”
Suffice to say we haven’t seen the last of Mario, Luigi and Princess Peach.
DreamWorks Animation also enjoyed a Disney-like hit last year. The studio’s “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” opened poorly, with just $12 million. Some worried the lingering pandemic might keep it from reaching its full fiscal potential. Others figured the “Puss in Boots” franchise, spun from the “Shrek” saga, didn’t have the cultural heft of other properties.
Word of mouth soon kicked in, and “The Last Wish” topped out at an impressive $185 million, plus a global tally of $480 million.
What do the aforementioned Illumination films, plus “Puss in Boots,” have in common?
They’re not woke, for starters. The various titles focus on childlike glee, wacky characters and lovable heroes. The company hasn’t followed in Disney’s cultural footsteps.
Disney previously stumbled in the 1970s, a time when the company’s animated fare failed to delight the masses. That so-called “dark era” extended into the Reagan era, with tales like “The Black Cauldron” and “The Great Mouse Detective” under-performing at the box office.
The “dark” label applied to both the brand’s decline and Disney’s eagerness to tell stories with a more grim, realistic sensibility.
The 1989 smash “The Little Mermaid” reversed the company’s fortunes.
Disney has plenty of ways to regain its standing atop the animation world. The company just announced belated sequels to two of its biggest properties – “Toy Story” and “Frozen.” Plus, its Pixar division can still uncork some of the loveliest films in all of animation.
It also helps to have decades of beloved IPs to draw upon, including this year’s live-action “Little Mermaid” feature and a new “Moana” in the works.
None of that may matter if Disney puts more energy, and focus, on sending messages with their films.
Editor’s Note/Correction: Illumination’s Chris Meledandri is helping DreamWorks animation expand the “Shrek” franchise moving forward, and “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” was co-produced by Meledandri.