Animated films often live or die based on their story and characters, so these aspects of film-making should be extremely important to all animators. As an author, storytelling is extremely important to me, and learning to study it is vital. Today we’ll dissect four lessons we can take away from a few of Disney’s latest animated features. The movies may not be perfect, but there are concrete reasons they’ve been successful and you can put those things in your own work as well!
Let’s learn a thing or two from Disney, shall we?
I love Disney’s animated films, but I’ll be the first to admit they’re a bit… formulaic, to put it nicely. Less polite words to describe Disney’s animated canon might be predictable, clichéd, and repetitive. These films have distinctive tropes (storytelling devices) that show up constantly.
For example, in any given Disney movie, one or both of the protagonist’s parents are usually dead. The protagonist probably has an animal sidekick, and the leading lady invariably has a tiny waist. Characters may burst into unrehearsed-yet-perfectly-performed song. Roughly three-quarters of the way through the movie, a conflict or misunderstanding separates the main characters, only for them to be reconciled within ten minutes.
Then there are the princesses—by gosh, there are so many princesses. (There have been, by my latest estimate, roughly 1,876 princesses in animated Disney movies.) Every one of them finds her true love and lives happily ever after in a blaze of fairy-tale romance.
Yes, Disney loves its tropes.
However, the three most recent Disney films—Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, and Big Hero 6—abandon some of these tropes and do things a little differently. Even Frozen, the most Disney-ish of these Disney movies, subverts old conventions.
These films aren’t perfect, but they do a lot of things right. Strap in, dear readers, as we join a video-game bad guy, a pair of princesses, and an inflatable robot for four lessons in great storytelling from Disney’s latest animated movies!
(You don’t need to see any of them to appreciate their lessons, but I highly recommend watching these movies anyway. By the way: Here there be spoilers!)
- Research gives a setting authenticity.
I love video games. The games I’ve played in my twenty-something years outnumber the stars in the sky. (I’m exaggerating, but only a little.) Wreck-It Ralph is a movie about video games, and at first I wasn’t sure it would represent them well. What did Disney bigwigs know about the game industry?
To my great astonishment and even greater delight, Wreck-It Ralph absolutely nailed its game-inspired settings. Sure, there are a few obvious cameos from gaming icons like Bowser and Sonic the Hedgehog, but it goes so much deeper.
Did you know, for example, that the combination King Candy uses to open his vault is the infamous Konami code? Then there’s the graffiti in Game Central Station that reads Aerith Lives: a pun on not only the memorable death of the Final Fantasy VII character, but also the Frodo Lives graffiti of the sixties and seventies.
Wreck-It Ralph is peppered with video game in-jokes, but what matters is that the film’s settings seem like real games. The gaming references are icing on the cake, but the icing wouldn’t matter if there were no cake in the first place! In the case of Wreck-It Ralph, the cake is no lie. (See what I did there? No? Never mind; it’s another gaming in-joke.) Besides its nods to specific games, Wreck-It Ralph is saturated with video game culture and history.
The film’s arcade game Wreck-It Ralph looks like it came straight out of the early eighties. Hero’s Duty seems like an authentic first-person shooter in the vein of Halo and Call of Duty. Sugar Rush is an obvious Mario Kart clone, and its J-pop theme, which plays over the film’s credits, is a hilarious nod to some of the stranger games to come out of Japan.
None of these games are real, but they feel real. I’m a jaded gamer who knows far more about the video game industry than any sane person should, and even I can imagine these games existing in real life.
Wreck-It Ralph did its homework, and it shows. The film’s settings are vibrant, authentic, and completely believable.
To a lesser extent, Big Hero 6 did a phenomenal job of researching its setting. San Fransokyo is a mash-up of Tokyo and San Francisco, and both of its influences show. American architectures have little Japanese touches like pagoda roofs and anime billboards. California meets Kyoto as pink sakura trees line city streets. Maneki-neko (lucky cat figurines) wave their plastic paws in plain, Western-style windows.
Big Hero 6 fused separate cultures and made them click. That takes research.
Look, I hate research. I know it’s a pain, but a setting can make or break a story. If a foundation is bad, the house will collapse; if a setting is bad, the story will fall apart. Research makes a setting seem real.
- Bad guys need reasons for being bad.
Hans from Frozen is a terrible villain. (At any rate, that seems to be the consensus round these parts!) I wonder whether the makers of Frozen felt it needed a clear villain because, you know, all Disney movies have clear villains. (Lilo and Stitch, God bless it, is the exception.) Hans seems shoehorned into the movie: no foreshadowing, no flamboyant villain song, and no motivation beyond a vague hunger for power.
It’s a shame, because Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6 make their villains believably evil. Driven by his lust for the spotlight, King Candy is desperate to reclaim his fame as a popular video game hero. The masked villain of Big Hero 6 chooses vengeance as a way to cope with loss—more on that later.
In many ways, villains are just as important as protagonists. However bad they are, they deserve good characterization—or at the very least, a good reason for being bad.
- Not every love story needs to be a romance.
There are different kinds of love. C.S. Lewis named at least four: divine charity, affection, romantic love, and friendship. I must add a fifth: love of coffee. (By one of those five definitions, I am an extremely loving person.)
Each of Disney’s three latest animated films is a love story, but not in a wibbly-wobbly, mushy-gooshy way. Wreck-It Ralph is about friendship; Frozen is about brotherly love; Big Hero 6 is about both of these things.
When I recall older Disney films, I think of princesses, kisses, love songs, magic carpet rides, and other romantic fluff. Those movies are the same story over and over: the guy gets the girl—or occasionally, for variety, the girl gets the guy.
Wreck-It Ralph has a romance, but the courtship of Fix-It Felix and Sgt. Calhoun is incidental to the story. The spotlight is squarely on Ralph and his unlikely friendships with Felix and Vanellope von Schweetz. The film depicts Ralph’s journey from a misunderstood loner to a dear friend, and there’s no hint of romance in his search for love.
Frozen has a princess—heck, it has two—but it neatly subverts the whole love-at-first-sight trope by making Hans, Princess Anna’s crush, a dastardly (albeit bland) villain. The real love story of Frozen is the brotherly—sorry; sisterly—love between Anna and her sister Elsa.
Big Hero 6 brings together both kinds of love stories. When Hiro loses his beloved brother Tadashi, he finds comfort and strength in friendship. Big Hero 6 isn’t just a superhero team, but also a band of friends.
There’s nothing wrong with romance, but the media obsesses over it. Not every love story is romantic. I’m tired of princesses and love at first sight. May we have more tales of affection, friendship, and brotherly love?
- Characters and their struggles, not plotlines, are the heart of many great stories.
So many stories are driven by plot. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the events of a story are hardly ever as compelling as the characters caught up in those events. Here’s a little secret: Characters matter more to most viewers than plotlines. In a story, the events of the plot are meaningful because of the characters involved.
Wreck-It Ralph begins when Ralph, dissatisfied by his life as a video game villain, goes in search of friendship and respect. Frozen revolves around Elsa and Anna’s struggles to escape isolation and figure out where they belong. Big Hero 6 is the tale of a boy coping with the death of his older brother.
These films are special because each of them revolves around a character’s inner struggle. The heroes save the day in each of these stories, sure, but what resonates most with viewers is that the heroes overcome their own struggles.
Wreck-It Ralph prevents the destruction of the games in his arcade, but his greatest triumph is finding friends and earning respect. The kingdom in Frozen is saved from everlasting winter, but we’re more interested in seeing Elsa and Anna reconciled. The eponymous superheroes of Big Hero 6 rescue San Fransokyo from the masked man, but it’s far more satisfying to see Hiro find comfort in his new friends.
Heck, even the villains in a couple of these movies are driven by their inner struggles.
As previously mentioned, King Candy is the villain of Wreck-It Ralph because of his longing to recover the fame he had as a successful video game character: a desire that mirrors Ralph’s longing for adoration and respect. The masked villain of Big Hero 6 is driven by the rage of losing his daughter; revenge is how he tries to cope with his loss. Hiro struggles with anger after losing his brother, but chooses forgiveness over vengeance.
(Hans apparently has no inner conflict whatsoever, which is part of what makes him a lousy villain.)
Do you see a pattern here? The protagonists’ inner struggles not only drive the stories of these films, but also reflect (in two of the three movies) the very things that make the bad guys bad. What sets the heroes apart from the villains is how they choose to respond to their struggles.
That’s good storytelling, guys.
Disney isn’t perfect, but among its reasons for many decades of success is that its filmmakers know a thing or two about good storytelling. We can learn from Disney. As it turns out, a video-game bad guy, a pair of princesses, and an inflatable robot have quite a lot to teach us after all!
Today’s guest post was written by Adam Stück, published author and professional storyteller. You can read more from Adam regarding the art of story, writing, and the many mysteries of the English language at his personal blog found here.