Four Lessons in Storytelling from Disney’s Latest Animated Films

Four story lessons from Disney's latest Animated Feature Films
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 predictableclichéd, 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.

Disney Princesses #278-288
Disney Princesses #278-288

Yes, Disney loves its tropes.

However, the three most recent Disney films—Wreck-It RalphFrozen, 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!

These are pretty great movies.
These are pretty great 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!)

  1. 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 DutySugar 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 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.

I want to visit this place.
I want to visit this place.

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

After watching this tale of friendship, I was indeed “satisfied with my care.”
After watching this tale of friendship, I was indeed “satisfied with my care.”

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?

  1. 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.

We usually care more about characters than we do the stuff happening around them.
We usually care more about characters than we do the stuff happening around them.

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.

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Toonio
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Toonio

Don’t forget villains are smart, and fall victims of their own genius.

The bad guy from big hero 6 is an idiot. He sends his daughter into a capsulse, for whatever forsaken reason, and goes into a convoluted campaign to avenge her, instead of researching how to get her back to get some closure. Not so smart indeed.

The best Disney villains are quite smart.

J.K. Riki
Admin

I also thought he was a completely idiotic villain. The guy has technology that can do pretty much anything (it’s based on telekinesis) and he can’t kill a handful of teenagers? It’s ridiculous. At one point he has at least one of the BH6 totally surrounded by the bots and squeezing in, but he just leaves it like that instead of using a single one in that moment as a bullet and taking them out once and for all. He also gets distracted near instantly. Smart people don’t fall for “hey look over here” when facing six different heroes. They… Read more »

Landon Kemp
Guest

I love Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6. Frozen, not so much. Not only because of the hype surrounding it, but also because it’s really not that good of a film, when you get down to it. And of course, there’s that god-awful attempt at making Hans into a villain. They really weren’t on their A-Game when they made THAT movie. But they at least made up for most of their flaws with Olaf, who is downright enjoyable. Great article, by the way. I especially agree with the “Characters matter more to most viewers than plot lines” statement, because there’s… Read more »

rbtck
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rbtck

I beg to differ. Among the films listed here Frozen is the objectively superior one. You are right, Disney wasn’t on their A-Game when they created the film, they were on their A+ Game. Wreck-It Ralph is a good B-movie while BH6 is a fine example of a C- game. What about Hans’s motivations didn’t make sense to you? He was the only realistic villain among the lot, and he was portrayed as an excellent sociopath with a functional brain which is more than can be said for BH6 and trash like The Lion King and Aladdin, all of which… Read more »

mari humphrey
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mari humphrey

Disney has always been so good about doing research first. I watched a documentary on YouTube where they went to South America for just a little short film! Amazing!

Sabina K
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Sabina K

”Bad guys need reasons for being bad” YES. I think that THIS is a very important thing that a lot of movies don’t cover. Sometimes you can see so clearly that a villain was added just for the sake of having a villain. And even when his/her motive makes sense it’s not believable and it doesn’t convince me at all. And most often than not I don’t know a thing about those villains. Very little screen time. All I know is that whenever he/she shows up there’s gonna be a fight and the hero will win in the end. I… Read more »

Brittney
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Brittney

Fantastic analysis of three amazing films. 😀

yahoozie79
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yahoozie79

Here the only thing is, they all had too happy endings where every thing magically worked out. Real life isn’t like that and I think Disney movies should reflect that more times. For example in Big Hero at the end Baymax mysteriously planted his brain chip in Hero’s pocket and that was so forced. It was a very moving moment when he made the sacrifice but then he didn’t even make any sacrifice at all! Also the guy in the dragon costume was dumb, how did he not die like instantly? He should have been killed, he had no real… Read more »

J.K. Riki
Admin

I certainly understand your points, but also keep in mind these are technically films made for kids. They have happy endings much of the time because parents would not take their youngsters to films with depressing conclusions! 🙂

As for Fred, he was a lot of comic relief, and you generally don’t kill off the comic relief. Plus in super hero films the good guy generally wins. Unless it’s some dark brooding super hero movie, of which there are plenty!

deClan McNeal
Guest

a great addition into the animator island library. nice article.

burninMan
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burninMan

I’m not sure I understand how do you research a fake place?

The reason I ask is because your example is of “video games” but those aren’t real video games. How do you research a fake video game world? Or like make the Tokyo and San Fransisco place real?

dongbar
Guest
dongbar

Heya my first time here. I found this article and it helped me a lot to think about the deeper stories of these movies I loved. I don’t agree that Hans was a bad villain tho. He was perfect. You did not see it coming that he was the bad guy! I wish all movies were that clever and sneaky.

chestion
Guest
chestion

Merci! Je t’aime! Faites attention.

Mitchell
Guest

Great article Adam. I think you did a really great job at breaking down these three fantastic films. Nice work! I totally agree about Hans from Frozen. His reveal is just so strange and right out of left field. I think Ralph had the best villain, not only for his wackiness, but the build-up to the character worked wonderfully, not just spinning around the entire story in a single moment like Frozen did. Hans has a driving point, but there’s no build-up to this. It comes out of nowhere and we’re expected to go with it. I noticed you left… Read more »

rakuten
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rakuten

Wow, truly epic. I would love to see something like this done on earlier animated films, like Bambi or The Iron Giant? Pretty please?

samsonzilla
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samsonzilla

Excellent read, and great points to keep in mind as we are coming up with new stories and the next generation of animated films and shorts. Thanks.

Jaden
Guest
Jaden

Now do one about how much Dreamworks sucks lol.

francisco f.
Guest
francisco f.

Hello my friend!! I want to say that this article is amazing, nicely written and includes almost everything I could think of myself. 😀

Linda
Guest
Linda

Very nice post. I think the recent Disney movies have been a return to the things that made the old ones so good.

GRAPLETOPS
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Royalty Free Music
Guest

Hey Ferdinand,

I just got confused when you wrote “Hans from Frozen is a terrible villain.”

Maybe your message would be more clear if you wrote “lousy” instead of “terrible”.

Just an idea.

Keep it up!
Aaron, the Custom Music Guy