Impressions de Disneyland

Sleeping Beauty Castle
Last week, we went to Universal Studios Hollywood and Disneyland to celebrate my 44th birthday. It was my third trip to Disneyland this year and no, you’re the one with the problem. I’d never been to Universal in Hollywood, although I’ve been to the Orlando version a few times.

Join me for a magical journey of memories and unsolicited opinions, won’t you?

  • Universal Hollywood is surprisingly fun. “Surprising” because I’ve always been an obnoxious Disney snob and thought of the Universal parks in Orlando as pale imitations. (Except for the Spider-Man ride, which is awesome). I still think it’s fair to judge the Orlando parks on that basis, since I think they’re clearly trying to compete with Walt Disney World. But Hollywood is its own thing, built up around a deservedly famous tram tour and functioning studio, and committed to making its own type of attraction.
  • The studio tour was the best part. I’ve been seeing ads for the tram tour for as long as I can remember — the queue area cleverly shows scenes from ads, promos, and movies that have featured the tour, establishing it as something “historic” in itself — and it didn’t disappoint. The fact that it’s a random assortment of highlights over the past few decades was a feature, not a bug, because it added to its charm. I’d just wanted to see the Bates Motel and Psycho house, so everything else was a bonus. The best aspect of it was that they got the “charmingly cheesy” tone exactly right: they don’t take anything too seriously or oversell it as a fantastic spectacle, but they don’t let it devolve into the Jungle Cruise, either.
  • The Kong 3D section of the tour was amazing. Easily my favorite part of the entire park, and, like the Spider-Man ride in Orlando, one of my favorite attractions at any theme park. The synchronization of the effects and the motion simulator was perfect, and more important than that: the show itself was designed to immerse the guests (and the tram) into the experience completely, with real pacing and an actual climax instead of just a sequence of effects.
  • The Rock gets it. This year’s highlight (and honestly, the main reason we went) was the Fast and the Furious “ride,” which turns out to be not so much a ride as the finale of the tram tour. It was fine, and fun, and appropriately campy, but it seemed a little too enamored of its “story” and effects and special guest stars to really work. The beginning was way too talky to setup what was just “batshit crazy race through LA;” they would’ve been better off going the “King Kong fights monsters, the end” approach. Plus Dwayne Johnson was the only person who seemed to realize it was supposed to be goofy and fun instead of wry and extreme; he was clearly having a blast with it.
  • Universal is still lousy at crowd control. We were warned to get to the park obscenely early because of the Fast & Furious crowds. Being the third group of people waiting in line before the park opened seemed like a waste… until we tried to leave later, and were hit with an unstoppable wave of people just showing up and headed for the studio tour. Going early not only meant we got to avoid the crowds, but we rode everything we wanted to and were done before noon. It gave room for the Despicable Me and Simpsons rides to be charming and fun without having to be Big Event showstoppers. And there’s no way in hell I’m going near the Harry Potter land when it opens in Hollywood. Even in Florida, where they have plenty of space, it still feels overcrowded and claustrophobic; in Hollywood it’s going to be bonkers.
  • Universal should make an effort to take bigger guests into account. It was a lot more jarring and infuriating in Orlando, after being immersed in Disney’s obsession with making rides accessible to absolutely everyone possible, to be confronted with an attraction that took millions of dollars to create but won’t let you ride if you’re too big. But even after going into the Hollywood expecting it, it was still a drag to be jammed into small seats with uncomfortably tight restraining bars. We didn’t even ride the Mummy coaster because the test seats ended up being too tight to be worth it.
  • Disneyland’s 60th Anniversary is more about the shows than the rides. The Matterhorn and Haunted Mansion got some new effects, and the newly-refurbished Peter Pan ride was doing a soft open for annual passholders (that we skipped because the lines were too long). But the highlights are the new World of Color show at DCA, and the fireworks and “Paint the Night” parade at Disneyland.
  • The Hatbox Ghost is excellently done. Granted, it’s something that’s aimed exclusively at Disney nerds, so it’s barely enough to be a draw on its own. But it fits so perfectly that it seems like it’s been there since the ride opened. And it actually kind of hurts the scene with the bride in the attic, which is something I never had any problem with before. But seeing a modern effect done in the art style of the original mansion makes it jarring to see the real photographs and live action video of the previous scene.
  • The fireworks aren’t what I expected, but are still cool. The 50th anniversary fireworks show is still the best fireworks show that Disney’s ever done (even better than Illuminations at Epcot). I’d been hoping that they’d do the same thing for the 60th, focusing on the parks and attractions themselves instead of being a treacly pastiche of songs from the movies. They kept it a collection of songs, but downplayed the usual dreams & wishes of magic and imagination and chose some songs that haven’t yet been overplayed to death, and also “Let it Go.” The architectural projection down Main Street is fantastic; chimney sweeps dance on the roofs in “Step in Time” from Mary Poppins, and the buildings wobble and shrink during “Heffalumps and Woozles” from Winnie the Pooh. The effects are so well done that they threaten to overpower the fireworks themselves — which is really only a problem if you’re only seeing it once instead of over and over again.
  • “Let it Go” has crossed the line to unsettling. As tired as I am of seeing Frozen stuff — the movie was completely charming, but Disney’s over-marketed it past the point of annoyance — including it in a show at the theme park was simultaneously cool and creepy. Being surrounded by dozens of little girls (and young women) (and older women) (and guys too) all singing in unison makes you realize that Disney could totally start a cult army if they wanted.
  • “Paint the Night” is the best nighttime parade they’ve done since the first. You’ve got to feel a little sympathetic to Disney, since they want to keep making new stuff, but the Main Street Electrical Parade (or “The Electric Light Parade” to those of us from the east coast) was so incredible that everybody just wants to keep seeing that. Previous attempts to come up with a replacement have been disappointing at best, but the new show is the first one that didn’t have me missing the old one. The floats and costumes all seem to be shooting for something between SpectroMagic and the Electrical Parade, and they all hit the sweet spot of weird enough to be imaginative but not so weird that they’re creepy. And having the characters ride around on modified versions of the old ladybug cars was a great callback.
  • I’d buy a copy of the “Paint the Night” song. I’m not a fan of the vapid One Direction-ification of Disney music, but if that’s a mandate now, they did as good a job as they possibly can. What impressed me the most is that it’s got enough “Baroque Hoedown” in it to satisfy old farts like myself, but not so much that it just feels like a rehash. And it’s catchy as hell. Asking “When can we do it again?” over and over seems like a slightly less subtle version of the Mount Splashmore song.
    BREAKING NEWS UPDATE: Dave Cobb informs me that the song is already available on the Wreck-it Ralph soundtrack as “When Can I See You Again?” by Owl City. I don’t remember it from the movie (or any of the music from the movie, actually), and I’d assumed it was written specifically for the parade. I’d still like to get a version that’s used in the parade, mixed in with a lot of Baroque Hoedown and other songs.
  • World of Color is what I’d expected the anniversary fireworks to be. It’s more of a history of Disney and Disneyland, and it’s really well done. It does veer a little too far into preaching to the choir and comes off as a marketing push reminding us all how great Disney is. But for people like me who are more fans of the parks than of the studio, it has a section devoted to celebrating the classic attractions, with some new 3D animations projected onto Mickey’s Horror Wheel.
  • If Disney pays 4 billion dollars for something, they’re going to get their money’s worth. The section of the World of Color devoted to Star Tours starts out innocently enough, with the familiar chime and some audio from the ride. Then it inexplicably goes nuts and turns into a full-on ad for the new movie, with TIE Fighters swooping in and BB-8 rolling all over the place and the Millennium Falcon flying across the fountains and lasers and for some reason, a giant fireball. It was completely gratuitous and I loved every single second of it. At the theater in Downtown Disney, they had a teaser poster for The Force Awakens and I felt my heart rate increase along with a sinking feeling in my stomach that oh crap I’m a fan of Star Wars again.
  • It wasn’t that crowded, surprisingly. I’d been planning to wait until after the summer to go to Disneyland again, since I expected the turnout for the 60th Anniversary to be so huge that it’d completely ruin the fun. But seeing all the pictures and videos coming in from the park were just too much for me to wait. As it turned out, it wasn’t all that bad — in line with a busy day at Disneyland, but not obscenely crowded. There was a lot of stuff we didn’t bother riding, since we’d been so recently, but nothing that felt like I was missing out. Still, I wish they’d get moving on the third park that’s been rumored for decades: if the parks are so busy even on weekdays that they’re considering charging extra for peak times, that’s a clear sign that they’re at capacity and it’d be a good investment to expand. (Note to Disney executive staff: I’m available any time to tell you how to run your business. Glad to help).

Inside Out

Inside Out reminds us that we can’t be happy all of the time, an idea that angered, disgusted and frightened me.

It’s taken the better part of 24 hours and three drafts of a blog post, but I finally have to begrudgingly concede that I liked Inside Out.

That’s not a review of the movie, since this isn’t a review. It’s just an unfocused — and completely personal — attempt to sort through the aftermath of the movie.

(And it doesn’t make any attempt to avoid spoilers, so it’s probably best to avoid this if you haven’t seen it).

If I were writing a movie review, I’d just cut-and-paste the review by Dana Stevens on Slate, because I agree with it completely, from the non-hyperbolic “astonishing” all the way to that killer of a closing sentence:

As Inside Out is aware to a degree that’s rare in kids’ movies, growing up is both a grand triumph and an irreversible tragedy.

The only part I’d take issue with is the suggestion that it’s a “kids’ movie,” even if it’s just used for contrast. Maybe that’d help put a little emotional distance between me and a movie, but lumping it in with “kids’ movies,” even in passing, just seems oblivious to what Pixar’s been doing for decades. They’ve built a well-deserved reputation by insisting on making deeply personal movies that try to focus on themes that are completely universal.

And Inside Out takes that one “irreversible tragedy” that is completely universal and submerges us in an extended metaphor that forces us to confront it head-on. Like the reconditioning scene in A Clockwork Orange, but instead of violence, it’s the loss of childhood.

The Toy Story 3 Scale

When early reviews of the movie started to pop up, I made an only half-joking request that reviewers include an indication of how likely it would reduce us to heaving sobs. Crying in a Pixar movie is all but inevitable — I found myself tearing up at the storyboards for Brave — but I wanted to avoid something like Up‘s completely unfair sucker punch. I suggested a scale from Finding Nemo (bittersweet sniffling) to the finale of Toy Story 3 (complete emotional breakdown).

As it turns out, Inside Out affected me like the end of Toy Story 3, stretched out to feature length. It was too potent. It just left me feeling drained, exhausted, and pretty miserable for the next day.

It didn’t even feel like a cathartic “let it all out” venting, because there wasn’t a devastating but optimistic thanks for the adventure, or even the implied promise of new adventures with a new child and ongoing specials on ABC Family. It’s not that I think Inside Out was poorly structured or manipulative, but just the opposite. The “problem” is that I think it insists on being honest. The actual tear-jerking moments felt earned because they were an inevitable and integral part of the story. Which means that an uplifting “here’s how everything turned out great forever” would’ve felt artificial, too.

So instead, I interpreted it as a celebration of sadness as necessary and inevitable. Which may be true, and surprisingly mature, and exactly what I’ve been asking for as an alternative to what usually tries to substitute for a profound statement in “family movies.” But instead of a promise of adventure, the promise is… life as a relatively well-adjusted adult. I’ve seen how that turns out, more or less, and it’s not that great. There’s even the gag about the looming specter of puberty and the repeated question of “what could go wrong?” that seem — if not dark, exactly, then a little sardonic and defeatist.

“You’re going to be sad. A lot. It’s part of growing up.” It’s entirely possible that it’s just because my own headquarters functions better when Anger and Sadness are kept in check by the happy sprite of Wellbutrin, but I left the movie wishing it had been a more explicit, obvious, and artificial celebration of the grand triumph than an acknowledgement of the irreversible tragedy. That it’d let me keep on enjoying my already ridiculously overextended arrested development, instead of reminding me that “Growing up means that joy and optimism need to learn their place.”

Don’t Spoil Titanic For Me

Instead, they introduced (among other things) the character of Bing Bong, and as soon as it was clear that he was Riley’s imaginary friend, we all knew exactly what was going to happen. Because I’m sitting in the audience, realizing that it’s not just nostalgia for toys that I’ve put away or happy memories from childhood, but I can’t even remember the name of my imaginary friend. It played out less like an abstraction of a growing child’s mind and more like a primary colored version of Final Destination.

There’s more subtle foreshadowing throughout. When we first get a glimpse into the headquarters of Riley’s mom and dad, it’s played for gags but has an undercurrent I felt like a slow-motion punch to the gut as all the implications sunk in. Dad’s mind is run like a submarine in war, dominated by Anger keeping a tight check on any outbursts of emotion. And while the movie is still in the process of answering the question “what is the purpose of having Sadness?” we see inside Mom’s head, where the emotions are sitting around like the hosts of The View, pining over a long-lost potential romantic adventure, and we have to notice that Sadness is clearly in charge of the show.

“Here’s what you have to look forward to, kids! Now let’s get back to the action and find out what could possibly be in store for this little girl’s brightly colored imaginary friend!”

As it turns out, there’s a good bit more to it than that. Using colorful abstractions to tell the story doesn’t just make it universal beyond the experiences of one little girl, but it also allows the movie to make some pretty profound observations without stating them explicitly. So I’m going to do exactly what I’ve resolved not to do, which is to be reductive about the “message” of the movie. Simply because it took me a while to parse through everything I think it says and think it implies.

I also just want to call out some of the decisions that make Inside Out astonishing, since the movie doesn’t draw that much attention to them.

Cartoon Modern

On the technical side, Pixar has progressed to the point where I’m too much of a layman to even identify what’s remarkable. It seems like every feature has required at least one big technical breakthrough, but usually they exploit the hell out of it — if not showing off, then at least making sure they got their money’s worth. So if they’re going to set a movie underwater, you’re going to get a lot of sequences that just show how beautiful the ocean is. Or if they’re going to simulate every hair on Sully’s body, you’re going to see it in close-up. I wouldn’t have noticed the natural lighting effects developed for Monsters University if they hadn’t been pointed out to me, but it makes perfect sense for a story that’s set over the course of a year.

With Inside Out, I initially had a minor mental criticism that Pixar’s gone all-in on its House Style for human characters — they’re fine, but ultimately inoffensive at best, too cartoonish to be realistic but not cartoonish enough to be interesting. I quickly realized that that criticism is missing the point when the “stars” of a movie are toys, fish, bugs, robots, and emotions. In Inside Out, the emotions need to be expressive (obviously), but the humans need to be universal enough that every human in the audience can project herself onto them.

And with the emotions, the character design goes all-in on modernism. That’s possibly not the “correct” term, but it’s referring to the style from the 50s that was more graphic and abstract. So you get the character of Fear, who should only be able to work in two dimensions, and yet he coexists with the others with no obvious cheats. And then we get a sequence that drives the idea home, where the characters are rendered in more and more abstract forms until they’re reduced to a single line.

It’s even more apparent with Joy, who looks like someone took a piece of concept art done in pastels or crayons and said, “We want this, exactly, to be the main character in a feature-length piece of 3D animation.” I can remember only a couple of scenes where the camera’s allowed to linger on them up close, to show off the effect. But much like the animated paintings in Ratatouille, it takes what is steadfastly a static, two-dimensional art style and gives it depth and movement. It insists that the rough speckles aren’t just an artifact of Joy’s concept art, but an integral part of the character.

It seems like a confident decision that could’ve been sacrificed in the name of convenience. The movie’s full of confident decisions that could’ve been sacrificed in the name of “accessibility.” Most obviously, it’s a movie driven by female characters. It’s worth pointing out, even though it’s a shame that it’s worth pointing out, and even though it goes so far into the realm of universally accessible story that it makes the entire question seem irrelevant. Maybe its success will finally put the stupid “debate” — which is itself a modern invention, as a simple scan of centuries of female protagonists would illustrate — to rest.

What interests me a lot more is that there’s no villain. It’s especially astonishing considering that both Up and Frozen were brilliant movies that also took on more subtle and sophisticated themes than usual, and yet each one still suffered from a third act that required a Disney Villain to pop up and cause conflict. Again, maybe it’s optimistic, but I’d hope that the success of Inside Out will finally convince people that you can have a story based entirely on emotional conflict and it’s still completely accessible.

Sunny-Side Up, or, Happy Together

Which gets back to the last confident decision I’ll mention, which is the one that took me a while to get. Because it’s a question that’s asked at the beginning of the movie but isn’t explicitly answered. (At least explicitly enough that I picked up on it).

I read a review of Inside Out that made the minor complaint that the beginning of the movie, where Joy introduces herself and the other characters, was regretfully necessary exposition in an otherwise subtly-told story. But I don’t think it was just exposition. I think it was setting up the central conflict that Joy (and the audience) would spend the rest of the movie — and in my case, the weekend after — trying to figure out.

When Fear, Disgust, and Anger are introduced, we get an illustration of what they do and why they’re there to protect Riley in one way or another. In fact, that assertion that they’re not just manifestations of personality, but deeply invested in making sure she’s okay, is one of the subtle ways that Inside Out makes the complaint “this idea’s been done before!” seem laughably irrelevant. Tasha Robinson’s review on The Dissolve lists more examples of films and TV series that started from the same concept, but in comparison, they feel like gags riffing on a premise instead of a genuine attempt to explore all the deeper implications of a premise.

But instead of just an introduction to the “rules” of how all this stuff works, it asks the movie’s important question: why is Sadness there? For as much as I talk about Pixar being universal instead of just for kids, and how it tackles some mature and sophisticated themes, it could seem like “Why do we feel sad?” is an insipidly childish question. But it’s clearly one we struggle with as adults. Anyone who’s tried to figure out what’s “normal” vs what’s a breakdown in brain chemistry has had to ask it. Anyone who’s been frustrated to be told “stop trying to fix things, I just want to feel sad,” has had to ask it. If you use Facebook, you likely see people struggling with it every day, with self-actualization aphorisms like “Today I Choose Happiness.” How is sadness productive? What practical purpose does it serve?

On the surface, Inside Out seems to suggest an acceptance more than an answer. “Being grown-up is complex, yo.” The age of “pure” emotions doesn’t last long, and our memories are really tinged with a bunch of different emotions. Sadness is just there, and being an adult means learning how to deal with it. At best, it seemed to say, sadness made the joyful memories stronger. The explicit “moral” seemed to be that you can’t suppress it and contain it. You can’t expect to be happy all the time.

That was the part that hit hard with me, because it seemed to be reaching directly into my subconscious and calling me out. Cripes! They’re onto me! They know that I feel like I’m constantly trying to stay content and optimistic and put a positive spin on things when I’d rather just lie on a couch and moan.

And just like the jackasses who call me a “grouch” or “curmudgeon,” or tell me to “smile more” (as if I were a woman in corporate management or running for office!), they’re calling me a charlatan! They’re saying I’m doing a lousy job of it, and they can see right through me.

And if that weren’t bad enough, they’re saying it’s a futile effort in the first place! I just came here to see some bullshit about believing in my dreams; I didn’t come to see a Disney/Pixar movie whose uplifting message was “You are fated to a life of sadness so Deal With It.”

(Ever since I heard multiple men say that The Little Mermaid was exactly what they needed to deal with coming out in the 90s, I’ve made it a point not to under-interpret family movies or resist taking them too personally).

But then: movie studios don’t stay profitable with an audience of one. And if I were the only person feeling like that, then they wouldn’t have made a movie about it. Maybe the message is that everybody feels the same way, that they’re struggling to stay happy and keep sadness tightly controlled and prevented from leaking out. And it’s not necessarily that I’m doing a bad job of it, but that people can recognize it because they do it themselves.

Which brings back to mind the scene where Sadness helps the imaginary friend* get back on his feet by being able to relate to him, while Joy doesn’t know what to do. [*It’s hard to insist that these are adult, sophisticated concepts that it’s perfectly normal for a 44-year-old not to grasp immediately while talking about Sadness and Bing Bong]. Or the scene where Joy figures it all out, where the revelation isn’t simply that happy memories have an element of sadness to them, but that sadness has a purpose, too. It was sadness that brought the family together and turned the memory into a happy one.

Or the finale, which isn’t the scene showing Riley at hockey practice with all her personality islands back in place. It’s the one just before that, where Angry Dad and Sad Mom tell Riley that they’re sad too. Maybe I would’ve picked up on it faster if they’d included a sequence in which Sadness begins sparkling and magically transforms into Empathy.

But of course they didn’t, and of course the movie is a billion times better for not making it completely explicit. And the peek inside Mom’s mind magically transforms from quietly defeatist foreshadowing of a life dominated by sadness, to one where they’re all cooperating and sharing a happy memory together.

Showtime, Synergy!

Disney Infinity 2.0 shows how charm (and a ludicrous amount of development and marketing money) always win in the end.

I totally bought into the first iteration of Disney Infinity, both financially and philosophically. The toys themselves are well made, and even more significant than that, well designed. They had to create an art direction that would be suitable for a century’s worth of disparate characters — not to mention an indefinitely expanding group of characters as Disney grows to encompass the entirety of human creative output — across multiple media including 2D animation, 3D animation, CG-created characters, and live action actors; and make it look internally consistent.

And on top of that, they had to make the designs suitable for real-world sculpts and reasonable-poly 3D models for games on every platform including tablets. When you see how easily Violet Parr’s head comes loose from her body, since all of her limbs are ridiculously narrow; or how Phineas from Phineas and Ferb was clearly only ever intended to be seen in profile; it makes it clear how daunting a task that must’ve been. And how the complexity of the design doesn’t draw attention to itself.

Plus, the game itself emphasized a “philosophy” that superseded its existence as a platform for selling movie tie-in toys. Infinity is most obviously Disney’s attempt to capitalize on the business model established by Skylanders. But if you play for a while, it becomes clear that it owes just as much to the Lego video games by TT Games. (No relation to Telltale Games). The most cynical take on the Lego franchise is that they’re capitalizing on whatever license that Lego and Warner Bros are able to acquire, with a competent-but-not-groundbreaking platform game. But the cynical take completely misses the appeal of those games: they’re most memorable not for their licenses but for their sense of humor and their charm.

Disney Infinity took the opening scene from Toy Story 3 and turned it into an enormous, all-encompassing platform. Each of the playsets has its own emphasis — racing for Cars, ship battles for Pirates of the Caribbean, pranks for Monsters University — which is impressive, considering how the game mechanics had to be as simple as general-purpose as possible out of necessity. But throughout the story-based playsets and the open-ended Toybox mode, the one constant is that these are unapologetically toys. You’ve grabbed a bunch of figures from your toy box and slammed them together on the living room floor for your own epic story.

There are plenty of products that promise to be about play and creativity — and, especially where Disney is concerned, imagination — but Infinity is one of the few that feels completely sincere.

These Toys Are for My Nephew in Canada

Still, I quickly hit a wall in how much I could enjoy it. The problem wasn’t, surprisingly, having to rationalize being a 42-year-old man and still buying action figures. At some point along the way, I crossed a significant milestone of not caring too much what people think or worrying too much whether something I like is age-appropriate. The problem was that it became impossible to disguise the fact that the game just wasn’t made for me.

The playsets are engaging enough, but they’re always going to be limited. The engine has to favor breadth over depth, so it can’t go too far in tailoring the gameplay around any one specific license. Instead, you get characters that all have a primary attack, a secondary attack, and can ride things. It’s genuinely impressive that they got as much variety out of it as they did, but the games are inevitably going to end up being simple and repetitive, and the characters are all inevitably going to feel mostly the same.

And the infinite expandability of the Toybox mode is clearly intended for someone much younger with more free time and patience than I have. If there’s a single image that sold me on Disney Infinity, it was Stitch driving an Autopia car on a racetrack past Spaceship Earth and the Haunted Mansion. And you can absolutely do that in the Toybox mode. But then what? A pre-teen — or even 20-year-old — might have a million different things in mind. I just want to sit back and watch TV or level up in an MMO.

So I ended up putting the toys in a plastic bin and leaving them under the entertainment center. Where, presumably, Jesse would lead the group in a mournful Sarah MacLachlan song about how no one ever plays with them anymore.

Version 2.0

But Disney continued its relentless assault on my wallet by releasing version 2.0 of the game, coming out swinging with a Marvel Super Heroes set and at least a dozen associated characters. Even if it weren’t inevitable that I’d keep getting Infinity stuff for as long as they put it out, they started with sets based on Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy, two movies that I absolutely loved. (Along with hundreds of millions of other right-thinking people).

The game engine feels like a modest iteration on the last version instead of an entirely new version of the game. There are more bloom effects, and it now allows for interior environments, but there’s also a surprising amount of stuttering and generally poor performance on the Xbox One.

In terms of content, the playsets (at least based on what I’ve seen so far) seems to be aimed for a slightly older audience. (As you’d expect with a Marvel Super Heroes theme). There’s less platforming and more combat, and leveling up a character brings an RPG-like skill tree where you can spend points on different abilities.

One tremendous improvement is that they eliminated the random chance element from “buying” toys for the Toybox mode of the game. Now you unlock them from a tree similar to the skill trees. That means there’s still some since of accomplishment and progression as you unlock more and more stuff, but it’s not frustratingly random. And even better, everything that was unlockable in version 1.0 of the game comes already unlocked in 2.0.

I haven’t actually played with the Toybox mode yet, but it certainly looks like they’ve made plenty of improvements. The possibility of interiors, combined with more stuff to track player progress, and ways to generate text, means it’d be possible to create mini-adventure games. Again, 16-year-old me would be ecstatic at the prospect; 43-year-old asks “who has that kind of time?”

There’s something a little self-defeating about the Toybox mode, though, and it’s the game’s granularity. There’s plenty of stuff that seems as if it were made specifically for me — for just one example, if you have a character drive the Autopia car, it plays the audio from the original Disneyland incarnation of the ride. Like I said, I can plop down a Spaceship Earth or Haunted Mansion and realize that this is as close as I’m probably ever going to get to a real Walt Disney World Tycoon game.

But once you plop down the pieces, they’re mostly inert. I’m skeptical it’ll ever really match the appeal of something like Minecraft, because it emphasizes fidelity over granularity. Nothing in Minecraft ever looks quite like what it’s supposed to, because it’s made out of blocks. But that’s not the point or the appeal; the appeal is being able to build anything you want. All that said: if Infinity ever gave me a complete set of parts to make my own version of the Haunted Mansion or Pirates of the Caribbean, I’d be all over that. Make a “Dark Ride Playset,” please.

When I first popped in the game, and it took me directly to a menu, I was a little disappointed that they’d omitted the charming (if over-long) introduction that came with the first version of the game. It taught you the basic game mechanics while running around chasing a spark through all kinds of different Disney environments, with a voice-over talking about creativity and imagination. And by the end of it, you believed that they were absolutely sincere about creativity and imagination.

As it turns out, there’s a similar semi-interactive introduction in 2.0, but it’s at the bottom of a text menu in the Marvel Super-Heroes edition. Which is fair enough, since there’s a good chance the kids who buy the game to play as Iron Man and the Hulk will have a little patience for running through a semi-interactive movie as Aladdin, Tinkerbell, and Merida. But the whole thing is still charming. It ends up feeling something like a playable version of Mickey’s Philharmagic at the Magic Kingdom, which in my opinion is still one of the best things Disney’s ever made.

Make Theirs Marvel

I was always a fan of DC Comics growing up, so Marvel characters just don’t have the same type of appeal for me. Several of them I just don’t recognize — why is Spider-Man sold with a character called “Nova?” Who’s the woman in the white catsuit? Why are Captain Marvel and The Wasp so prominently featured in the Avengers set? What’s the deal with the “Iron Fist” apart from looking cool? Why do the Guardians of the Galaxy get all their missions from a dog in a spacesuit with a Russian accent? (Actually, the story behind that is super-cool, if you weren’t already familiar with the comics. He just made a brief non-speaking cameo in the movie).

But even though I can tell there’s a level of fandom and love for the characters that’s simply lost on me, it’s absolutely clear that it wasn’t lost on the people making the game. Whether it’s true or not, the game certainly feels as if it’s made by people who love these characters, grew up reading the comics, and have wanted for decades to make a video game featuring the Avengers and Spider-Man.

It’s clear a lot of effort was put into making the characters feel right. A game with super-heroes means flying, so the game tries to convey the feeling of speed and scale that goes along with it. And I’d say they nailed it: when you hover as Iron Man, then press the left trigger to shoot off with a sudden burst of speed, it’s tremendously satisfying. When Thor swings his hammer in a circle before flinging it at an enemy, it’s satisfying. When Captain America flings his shield and it clangs against an enemy before circling back into his hands, it’s satisfying.

Best of all, by far, is Spider-Man. I’ve never had any real investment in the character, never read the comics, only watched the cartoon series because nothing else was on. So I’d planned to skip the Spider-Man playset, until curiosity overtook me. And swinging around Disney Infinity‘s smaller version of Manhattan is crazy fun. He picks up speed until he’s covering entire city blocks in seconds, spinning around the tops of skyscrapers to land on a corner, clinging to walls before flinging himself off and catching himself with a web at just the right moment — it’s straight-up delightful. The only other game that I’ve played that comes even close to getting it right is Neversoft’s Spider-Man game from 2000, and this feels bigger.

There’s such an enthusiasm for the characters and what makes them cool, that it overwhelms any reservations you might have about this being a revenue-generating machine. It just feels as if the developers are getting to make the super-hero games they’ve wanted to make.

Shadows of the Empire

Back when Disney bought Lucasfilm, I insisted on putting a positive spin on it. (In retrospect, I was doing that as several people I knew were losing their jobs or seeing their projects get canceled, so my timing could’ve been better). I’d said it would be ultimately better for all of us to open up the properties to more development teams. Instead of seeing developers cranking out one title after another, to the point where Star Wars becomes just another license to them, you could see different groups of fans give their take on the license, because they loved it.

I feel like the Marvel stuff in Disney Infinity is the first evidence of that. One of the reasons Marvel’s had so much success with their movies is that they’ve opened up their properties to creators to give their own take. So even if they’re not lifelong fans, they still have something different to bring to the property: Sam Raimi on Spider-Man, Jon Favreau on Iron Man, Joe Johnston on Captain America, Kenneth Brannagh on Thor, and Joss Whedon on The Avengers. So even if I don’t have any particular attachment to the characters, the filmmaker’s own excitement is infectious.(Even for Thor, which works well as bombastic semi-Shakesperean semi-sci-fi opera).

Hollywood’s been so overwhelmed with re-interprations and “re-imaginings” for so long, that it’s easy to forget that they don’t all have to be soulless, creatively bankrupt cash grabs. That’s the central assumption of this essay in The Atlantic which dismisses the new Star Wars movies as just a crass attempt to capitalize on nostalgia. But not only is that needlessly, pre-emptively cynical, it ignores all the evidence to the contrary. JJ Abrams made an unabashed love letter to Steven Spielberg with Super 8, but we’re still supposed to believe that he’s not genuinely excited to be working on Star Wars? Or that the teaser videos from the sets, showing off life-sized spaceships and practical effects, is nothing more than viral marketing?

I’ve long had the opinion that licenses and sequels and adaptations and remakes were inherently inferior to “original IP,” even as I’ve spent my entire career working on licenses and sequels. But I’m gradually starting to think that that’s simple-minded. It misses a crucial component that’s unique to working on a license — the energy and love that goes into unabashed fandom.

Which is a good thing, because it’s not going to stop anytime soon. Disney Infinity 2.0 comes with a poster that shows all the figures and “power discs” that are going to be available, and it’s an overwhelming reminder of just how much stuff Disney owns now. These go from the Infinity Gauntlet to Doctor Strange to The Muppet Show to Gravity Falls, “it’s a small world,” Darkwing Duck, The Rescuers, and Gus, the field-goal kicking mule.

I pretty much gave up on the “power discs” with the last version, since it really does feel more like a shameless money-grab than anything else. But I see now that they have one for Mr. Toad’s car, and a Main Street Electrical Parade float. So those bastards know they have me at their mercy.

And if it’s an overwhelmingly compelling force for consumerism now, it’s only going to get worse. If I can get hooked on Marvel characters I don’t even care about, the inevitable Star Wars expansion is going to be devastating.

The Curious Case of Tow Mater

Pixar sequels and another installment of “How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Multinational Entertainment Conglomerate”

Empire Strikes Back ending shot
Everybody knows that sequels are always worse than the originals.

Except, of course, in the multitude of cases where they’re better (in order of universally regarded as superior, to this one writer’s opinion, which also happens to be objective fact): The Empire Strikes Back, The Wrath of Khan, X2: X-Men United, The Dark Knight, Toy Story 2, Aliens, Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness, Monsters University.

The reason I’m mentioning all of those (two of them Pixar sequels) is because of the announcement of upcoming sequels to The Incredibles and the Cars series. From what I saw, there was a wave of excitement — Incredibles 2 — followed by a backlash of Emperor’s new clothes — Cars 3. I saw several people say roughly the same thing: Why is everyone celebrating more creatively bankrupt cash grabs? If Pixar had remained semi-independent and hadn’t been bought by Disney, they’d still be focusing on original titles instead of churning out franchises.

I’ve been guilty of the mindset that “of course original content is always better, and there’s always an element of creative bankruptcy when sequels or licensed properties are involved.” But now I believe that that’s superficial. Having an adamant “no sequels” policy is at best being overly precious about The Muse, at worst extremely arrogant. Not to mention ignoring the fact that actual geniuses are capable of making something amazing even from a faithful adaptation.

(I should probably point out that my entire career in video games has been essentially that of a professional fan fiction writer. Sequels, spiritual sequels, or video game adaptations, all working with other people’s stuff. So I’ve put quite a bit of thought over the years into the topic of “original IP” vs. licensed content and sequels).

It’s understandable that people would be skeptical, considering that Disney spent several years making uninspired direct-to-video sequels of classic movies. And calling them “uninspired” isn’t a criticism of them in the same way it would be with a real movie, since at no point in the process were they intended to be creative works.

Of course it’s different when you’re talking about real feature releases. On that front, it seems to me that Pixar is just staying the course: sequels to Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Cars 2 have been announced, and so have two original projects. People are cautiously optimistic about Finding Dory, somewhat excited about The Incredibles 2, and calling Cars 3 an unsurprising cash-grab.

But look at the Cars movies. They are:

  1. The worst Pixar movies. (In my opinion. And of course, “worst Pixar movie” still means that they’re technically flawless, have striking concept work, and several clever moments, but are ultimately just “entertainment” instead of instant classics).
  2. The most profitable Pixar movies, by a wide margin.
  3. By all accounts the result (at least the first one) of a very personal, passion project by John Lasseter.

Which suggests to me, as an outsider, a less superficial and more realistic idea of how Pixar works. Any time a studio or production company is presented as a haven for tortured artists to get the resources they need to bring their artistic visions to reality, that’s probably bullshit, coming either from marketing or self-promotion or cynically idealistic fans. What’s a lot more likely is that like any creative business, you get the most success by being able to balance creativity, accessibility, and profitability.

My Singular Artistic Vision would’ve said that casting Larry the Cable Guy as a wacky sidekick in a Pixar movie was the epitome of the cynical marketing-driven cash grab. As it turned out, though, he’s a really good voice actor for animation, and he helped make a genuinely memorable character. Which shouldn’t be that surprising considering that his entire public persona is a fictional character, but still completely counter-intuitive when conventional wisdom said it should’ve been a disaster on the scale of casting Jeff Foxworthy. It still hurts me down to my soul to hear “Git R Done!” in a movie, or anywhere really, but give credit where it’s due.

I used to believe that LucasArts had the perfect can’t-fail business model: have the titles based on a ludicrously successful license which make your money and fund your original, creative titles that build your brand as an independent studio. In retrospect, though, that doesn’t make sense. Instead of being so precious about originality, why not apply creativity and imagination to titles that won’t be mediocre selling critical darlings? The balance got completely out of whack at that company, resulting in 100 variations of the Hoth battle or the Death Star trench run, but something like 1313 seemed to be the right idea. It just came too late to be realized.

Ultimately, if you’re arguing in favor of the creative process, then you have to acknowledge that creativity can come from anywhere.

It’s possible that this really is the beginning of the end for Pixar, their days of cranking out one classic film after another are over, and now that they’re wholly owned by Disney, they’re doomed to start cranking out movies like Planes. I’m extremely skeptical, after seeing not just the talent still at the studio, but seeing Wreck-it Ralph and Frozen. Anything’s possible. But if it does happen, then it won’t be just by virtue of putting out sequels.

For my part, I’m optimistic about Incredibles 2. The first is a movie I’ve always wanted to love but couldn’t. The art direction is amazing, every single environmental design is taken directly from the Book Of Stuff Chuck Likes, and the scene where drones chase Dash around the island is, without exaggeration, one of the best scenes in any movie ever made. If I can get all that without the creepy, didactic, bizarrely defensive, Objectivist message, then that’d be perfect.

Is the Mailman Watching Me?

My take on Walt Disney World’s “magic bands,” which will probably be misinterpreted as a defense of the NSA.

My friend Michael sent me a link to “You don’t want your privacy: Disney and the meat space data race,” an article by John Foreman on GigaOm, and made the mistake of asking my opinion on it. I think it’s a somewhat shallow essay, frankly, but it raises some interesting topics, so in the interest of spreading my private data everywhere on the internet, I’m copy-and-pasting my response from Facebook. Overall, it seems like one of those shallow mass-market-newspaper-talks-about-technology pieces, the kind that breathlessly describes video games as “virtual worlds” in which your “avatar” has the freedom to do “anything he or she chooses.”

For starters, I’m immediately suspicious of anyone who says something like “Never will we take our children to Disney World.” (Assuming they can afford it, of course; considering that the author had just talked about vacationing in Europe and enjoying the stunningly blue waters off crumbling-economy Greece, that’s a safe assumption). Granted, I’m both childless and Disney theme park-obsessed, so my opinion will be instantly and summarily dismissed. But all the paranoia about Disney in general and princesses in particular strikes me less as conscientious parenting and more as fear-based pop-cultural Skinner-boxing. It seems a lot healthier to encourage kids to be smarter than marketing, than to assume that they’re inescapably helpless victims of it. Peaceful co-existence with the multi-billion dollar entertainment conglomerate.

Which is both none of my business and a digression, except for one thing: I really do think that that mindset is what causes a lot of shallow takes on the Disney phenomenon, which are based in the assumption that people can’t see past the artificiality and enforced whimsy, so an edgier, “counter-culture” take on Disney is showing them something they haven’t seen before. It also causes the kind of paranoia about Disney that describes it as if it were an oppressive government, and not a corporation whose survival depends on mutually beneficial business transactions.

There’s no doubt that Disney wants to get more data on park guests, but that essay’s extrapolations of what they’ll actually DO with that data are implausibly silly. They’re all based on the idea that Disney would spend a ton of money to more efficiently collect a ton of data aggregated for weeks across tens of thousands of customers, and then devote all that money and effort to develop creepily specific experiences for individuals.

It’s telling that Foreman compares Disney’s magic bands to the NSA, since I think the complaints miss the point in the same way. People freak out that the government has all kinds of data on them, when the reality is that the government has all kinds of data on millions of people. The value of your anonymity isn’t that your information is private; it’s that your information is boring. All your private stuff is out there, but it’s still a burden to collate all of it into something meaningful to anyone.

This absolutely is not an attempt to excuse the NSA, by any stretch. The NSA’s breaches are a gross violation, but the violation isn’t that they’re collecting the data, so much as that they’re collecting the data against our will and without our knowledge.

Anything Disney does with the Magic Band data, at least in the next ten years or so, is going to be 1) trend-based instead of individual based, and 2) opt-in. For instance, they’ve already announced that characters can know your name and about special events like birthdays, but they’re only going to use something like that at a character meet-and-greet. For example, you’ve specifically gone to see Mickey Mouse, and he’ll be able to greet you by name and wish you a Happy Anniversary or whatever. Characters seeking you out specifically is just impractical; the park has already had enough trouble figuring out how to manage the fact that tens of thousands of people all want to get some individual time with the characters. The same goes for the bit about “modifying” a billion-dollar roller coaster based on the data they get from magic bands; it’s just as silly as assuming that you could remove floors from a skyscraper that weren’t getting frequented enough by the elevators.

It’s absolutely going to be marketing driven; anybody who says otherwise doesn’t get how Disney works. But I think it’s going to be more benign. Walt Disney World as a whole just doesn’t care about a single guest or a single family when they’ve got millions of people to worry about every day. So they can make more detailed correlations like “people who stay at the All Star resorts don’t spend time at the water parks” and adjust their advertising campaigns accordingly, or “adults 25-40 with no children spend x amount of time in Epcot.” But the most custom-tailored experience — at least, without your opting in by spending extra — is going to be something like, at most, coming back to your hotel room to find a birthday card waiting for you.

The creepier and more intrusive ideas aren’t going to happen. Not because the company’s averse to profiting from them, but because they’re too impractical to make a profit.

Wicked Cold

Frozen is ridiculously charming and makes me optimistic about a resurgence in Disney Feature Animation

Frozen annakristoff
I was surprised to see so many people saying how much they enjoyed Frozen. From what I’d seen, it looked as if it’d be basically interchangeable with Tangled, which was perfectly competent and entertaining, with fine-but-forgettable songs that technically didn’t need to be there.

And a lot of Frozen does seem familiar — similar character designs, similar characters, replace the non-talking sidekick horse with a non-talking sidekick reindeer — but it somehow manages to do it a little better. My brain kept wanting to put the movie in the “competent but nothing exceptional, don’t get too attached” category, but every time I tried, the movie would do something else to win me over.

There’s a lot of singing, and one of the main characters is voiced by Idina Menzel, who sings everything very hard. I sometimes get the impression that she knows I’m not a huge fan, so she’s trying to win me over in sheer volume. (I don’t feel particularly bad saying I’m not a fan, since there are billions of people in her target audience, like for instance my mother, who think she’s the best). And apparently Kristen Bell does all her own singing, which makes me wonder why she doesn’t sing more often in stuff.

But here’s the thing: the songs were forgettable, but they didn’t really feel like filler. They did what musical theater is supposed to do, which is advance the story with music and lyrics. I wouldn’t say that the songs were “classic” musical theater, like what Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were shooting for, but they did seem stronger. Everything in Tangled seemed to be shooting for some nebulous Disney Radio pop audience; Frozen‘s songs seemed targeted directly at fans of Wicked. (Not that I’ve actually seen more than a couple of scenes from Wicked, so take my assessment with a big old salt lick).

All of the character designs were really appealing, and if that’s what they’re sticking to as Standard Disney Animated Feature Model, I’m all for it. The environmental design was terrific, never threatening to take attention away from the characters but delivering some fantastic imagery (the Ice Castle you’d expect, the sailing vessels tumbling in cracking ice that you might not expect).

And something you just don’t expect from a Disney animated feature: the dialogue was excellent. Dialogue in these things is supposed to be serviceable, setting up the next scene or the next punchline and making sure to get the 42 required mentions of being true to your dreams. Here, the lines seemed to transition effortlessly between modern romantic comedy and Disney fairy tale, more often than not sounding like something actual human beings would say. Alan Tudyk was great as the Duke of Weasel-town; much like I completely didn’t recognize him in Wreck-It Ralph, I had no idea it was him voicing this character as opposed to someone who’d been an established voice actor for decades. Josh Gad was a wacky sidekick who, incomprehensibly, was actually genuinely funny. And I think Kristen Bell can pretty much do no wrong.

Since I knew little about the movie going in, and I wasn’t familiar with the Hans Christian Andersen story it was “inspired by,” I spent most of the movie having no idea what was going to happen. Which is another unusual thing for even live-action romantic comedies, much less Disney animated ones — you’re supposed to be following along looking for minor variations in the standard formula, not wondering how the situation’s going to play out exactly. One of the reasons I liked Brave was that it was so unapologetically weird for a formula movie; Frozen isn’t nearly as strange, but it has its moments.

In fact, my only gripes about it are that the troll characters, once they’re given an entire scene with accompany musical number, are pretty predictable “animated movie side characters.” That whole segment felt more like TV animation to me, and it seemed strangely out of place. My other complaint is that a villain is introduced towards the end, and it seemed predictable and unnecessary. There was a ton of opportunity for purely character-driven conflict; I think it would’ve been more interesting to see it play out without having someone practically come out and declare evil intentions.

But apart from that, I couldn’t help but love it. And the really imaginative Mickey Mouse short beforehand, too, which seemed like something that would play in the Disney parks, with all of the in-theater water effects. The short did what the best animated gag-heavy shorts do: take an idea and run with it, exploring all the different possibilities. I would’ve thought it was impossible to make Mickey Mouse interesting again, but with things like that and the new 2D Mickey Mouse shorts, it seems like they’re actually doing it.

And with Wreck-It Ralph and now Frozen, it seems like Disney Feature Animation is re-establishing itself as the makers of modern classics. They were in danger of getting their “brand” muddled — while shooting for Pixar, they could’ve ended up more like Dreamworks. Instead, they’ve landed at distinct other place, which feels modern, but can still trace its heritage back at least to Sleeping Beauty.

Also: stay through the credits, not just because it’s polite but because there’s a brief post-credits sequence. And look for the disclaimer message in the credits scroll, about the opinions that don’t necessarily reflect that of the Walt Disney company.

Gorilla Filmmaking

On Escape from Tomorrow, how Disney works, and why more people seriously need to read David Foster Wallace already.

Junglecruise gorillas wdw2007ah(Image of the Jungle Cruise from Werner Weiss’s excellent site)

There’s a movie called Escape from Tomorrow that’s coming out soon, and holy crap is it edgy and in your face. Apparently it’s about a man having an American Beauty-style mid-life crisis freak-out at Walt Disney World-but-also-Disneyland-somehow. It’s notable because it was made using “guerrilla filmmaking” techniques, i.e. using digital SLRs inside the parks without permission. The marketing page has a Mickey hand dripping with blood and animated GIFs of a woman saying “I HATE YOU” with a version of the Walt Disney’s signature font, and a man totally doing it with the words “HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH” super-imposed, so as you can tell they are seriously sticking it to The Mouse.

Plus there’s this puff piece preview of the movie on The Daily Beast that describes it as “Disney’s Worst Nightmare” and “the film that Disney doesn’t want you to see.”

Now, I understand, more or less, how movie promotion works. And I know that drumming up controversy is one of the best ways to sell something, short of actually making it good. But let’s all be clear on one thing: the only film that Disney doesn’t want you to see is whatever film is playing against Frozen on opening weekend.

A movie like this is only going to increase the aura and allure around Disney parks; the only way a project like this would’ve been any kind of a threat to Disney is if it’d been set at Universal Studios, and it implied that those parks have the same cultural cachet as Disney World. But then, it never would’ve been set at Universal, because making fun of Universal isn’t A Thing. The people involved in the promotion of this movie don’t seem to realize that Disney had already “won” before the movie was even made. Having a brand that’s iconic enough to make people want to tear it down means that the brand is working as intended.

That Daily Beast article describes a little bit of the process of making the movie.

Season passes for Disney World and Disneyland were purchased for the cast and crew, and filming commenced in September 2010. Worried that someone would leave a script in the bathroom and they’d be discovered, the cast and crew stored scripts and shot lists for the film on their iPhones. To create the illusion that they were tourists, two cameramen filmed using the video mode of digital single-lens reflex cameras. […] On a given day, the covert crew would range from eight to 15 people, including Moore, two cameramen, the assistant director, the actors, the child actors—each accompanied by a real-life parent—and a PA carrying water, “because water is a thousand dollars a bottle there,” jokes Moore.

The message that’s supposed to stand out to readers is, “Those filmmakers risked a lot to really put one over on the greedy Disney fat cats.” The message that stands out to Disney is, “Those filmmakers bought annual passes for both resorts for the entire cast and crew.”

It’s far more likely that Disney security was concerned about the crew filming because of its potential to create a dangerous situation for guests, resulting in a lawsuit; or that the crew was taking video of backstage areas or ride operation, which could be used in corporate espionage. The threat that their brand would be tarnished, that this crew would expose the dark secrets behind the magic, was I’m sure the farthest thing from their minds.

In “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”, David Foster Wallace’s astoundingly prescient essay, he writes about how the medium of television has become impervious to criticism because it is incapable of looking inward. It exists solely to be watched, so ascribing any other kind of agenda or motivation to it betrays a failure to understand how it works.

Of course, Disney’s a corporation and not an entire medium (although I’m sure they’re working on that), so the comparison isn’t perfect. But the basic idea is the same: Disney is so large and so well known that it’s not threatened by cultural criticism or parody. In fact, it feeds off of it.

It’s not even that subtle a concept. In MuppetVision 3D, which is now over 20 years old, Rizzo the Rat comes out during the pre-show dressed as Mickey Mouse and humming the Mickey Mouse Club theme. The climax of the movie — “A Salute to All Nations But Mostly America” — has characters from “it’s a small world” firing guns and cannons at each other and the audience while a version of the small world ride’s theme plays. Statler and Waldorf make jokes about being animatronics. On the Jungle Cruise, one of the standard Disney-approved gags is about how children left behind on the boats are captured and made to work in the “it’s a small world” ride.

In other words, Disney has been making fun of itself and its wholesome image for a long time. And even if there was a period where the company was ultra-uptight about anything that could threaten the brand, now in 2013 they’re more open to mash-ups and re-imaginings and re-interpretations than ever before. The company still caters to the people who are as reverent to the parks as to any religion, and to the people whose eyes glaze over when they talk about “The Magic,” but it’s astoundingly naive to believe that a company could grow that large targeting such a relatively small audience of obsessives.

Even the people who do unabashedly love Disney still make fun of the enforced whimsy and the preoccupation with the magic of dreams and imagination. Actually, we probably make fun of it more often, since we’re more often seeing children having complete meltdowns when surrounded by characters with smiling, wide-eyed faces.

To be clear, I’m probably going to check out Escape from Tomorrow at some point. If only to see CGI used around so many Disney landmarks, and because the guy with the Spaceship Earth head is kind of a neat image. I’m not protesting the movie; I’m protesting the idea that it’s in any way controversial or threatening or even novel. “Counter-culture” has spent decades going after Disney as a representation of everything Mainstream Capitalist America, by making fun of the rides or drawing the characters screwing or Mickey Mouse giving the finger. It just seems facile, and even more juvenile and infantilizing than “it’s a small world.”

I expect to do a lot of eye-rolling when I actually see the movie, though. Unless the marketing team is completely independent of the filmmaking team, which seems unlikely based on the quotes about “a team of Disney lawyers descending on your home” in that Daily Beast article. The tone behind it, and that whole website, seem like a much more blatantly dishonest attempt to manipulate the audience than anything I’ve ever seen in a Disney parade or fireworks show.

P.S. The title of this post made a lot more sense when I was thinking of describing Disney as a 900-pound gorilla, but then I forgot to make the metaphor. Whoops.

Force Majeure

Disney buying Lucasfilm is a good thing.

I can’t say I was all that surprised by the news a while ago that Disney was buying Lucasfilm. It’s not that I had any kind of insider info, of course, or that I’m all that savvy about the entertainment business. It just didn’t surprise me because it felt inevitable.

What did surprise me was seeing the reaction from people on the Internet, who acted like it came out of nowhere. Maybe it’s just because I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time in Disney parks over the last several years, but it’s seemed like Disney had already become de facto stewards of the Star Wars franchise. Disney buying Marvel was kind of a shocker. Disney buying Lucasfilm is like getting a wedding invitation from an inseparable couple who’ve been living together for over a decade.

Most bizarre were all the parody ideas and images that people kept tweeting or slapping together in Photoshop. Like Disneyfying quotes from the movies, or replacing Spaceship Earth at Epcot with the Death Star, or showing the Death Star with Mickey ears. They were bizarre because the people seemed completely unaware that these are all already officially licensed products. Do a Google Image search for Star Wars Weekends (which is an annual event at Hollywood Studios) and you’ll see that pretty much every possible variation on the theme of Disney + Star Wars has already been done. They have parades; and T-shirts with Darth Vader riding the carousel at the Magic Kingdom with the quote “This will be a day long remembered;” and Mickey ears that look like R2-D2’s head; and figures that mash-up Star Wars with Disney characters and the Muppets; and they sell it all near the Rock and Roller Coaster in a big warehouse they call the Darth Mall.

Sure, some of it borders on unfortunate. Even though I’ve been burned several times, I’m still just reverent enough of Star Wars that it bothers me to see a big dance party with Stormtroopers and Darth Vader. Especially when the music stops and Darth Vader says “Now witness the power of this fully operational dance floor.” But even that shows that Disney gets the tone right: mocking it as completely silly would feel off, but so would taking it too seriously.

The prime examples of it are absolutely great, though. The new Star Tours is a ton of fun, is filled with clever references, and makes the settings and designs from the prequels actually seem interesting. Plus, it feels even more fitting in the Star Wars universe than the original version of the ride did — you’re actually riding with C-3PO and R2-D2 on new adventures, instead of tagging along on the Death Star trench run and asteroid field with Pee-Wee Herman. (No offense to the original; after all, it was only his first flight).

And the Jedi Training Academy, a live show at Disneyland and Hollywood Studios, is fantastic. Kids are given padawan robes and a lightsaber, and they fight against Darth Vader himself. The kids love it, seeing Darth Vader and Stormtroopers showing up in Disneyland is always cool, and the Jedi trainer narrates the entire thing with a tone somewhere between Qui-gon Jinn and a Jungle Cruise skipper.

So what I’m saying is that Star Wars is in the best hands. I can all but guarantee that we won’t see anything like the Star Wars Christmas Special again, but it’s entirely possible we’ll see a better-animated equivalent to the Boba Fett short in the Christmas Special. And the rumors around the new movies — which were a complete surprise to me — make it sound as if they’re ignoring the “expanded universe” stuff in favor of a new story. I’m still not sure whether I can let myself get excited about Star Wars movies again, but I’m at least glad that we won’t have to see pheremone-spewing genius space admirals, or people carrying around sloths that have evolved to repel the Force.

When talking about hits and misses, Lucasfilm licensing has had a much worse track record than Disney. There have been a couple of stand-outs — both Genndy Tartakovsky’s and the more recent CG series of The Clone Wars are both excellent — but for the most part, it’s been pretty dire.

For years, the internet’s been full of people who go apoplectic at the sight of George Lucas in a “Han Shot First” T-shirt. They’ve convinced themselves that Lucas — nay, every artist — has an obligation to his fans, that the fans “own” Star Wars at least as much as he does. I think that’s complete and total BS, but in a sense, they’ve gotten their way. Whatever happens going forward won’t be a case of Lucas making only what he wants (or more accurately, what he believes kids want). It’ll be a bunch of Star Wars fans making the stuff they’ve always wanted to see.

Concern Tron

Wreck It Ralph is by every measure a movie that only Disney could’ve made, and it’s the best movie to come out of Disney Animation Studios in years.

It’s not minor praise to say that Wreck-It Ralph is the best movie that Disney Animation Studios has done in years; Tangled was surprisingly good, and The Princess and the Frog was excellent. But The Princess and the Frog was more than anything else a love letter to Disney animation itself, and Tangled was a pretty traditional fairy tale story Pixar-ified (and unnecessarily made a musical).

You can tell that Wreck-It Ralph was built out of a bunch of pre-fabricated components; it certainly doesn’t feel like the lifelong dream of somebody who’s had a story he’s just been dying to tell. Watching it is a little like examining the parts of a perfectly-constructed pop culture engine: here’s the traditional Disney story structure where the misfit finds redemption and acceptance. Over by the fuel tank is the 8-bit nostalgia craze that’s going to get man children like myself into the theater, but it’s a more modernized, hybrid engine that runs off Halo and Mario Kart as well. Covering everything is the Pixar sheen of aggressively detailed world-building, and an abundance of references and sight gags. And right here, just at the end, is where the princess fits in.

What’s amazing is how well it all works, and even I can tell it’s harder to pull off a movie like this than it looks. From the trailer, I’d expected it to be a flimsy framing story covering an hour and a half’s worth of video game references. (And don’t get me wrong, I still would’ve been first in line to see that). The initial reviews started coming in, and almost all said that the movie takes an “unexpected turn” — which I’m assuming is the fact that it doesn’t hop around from game to game, but instead spends the bulk of its time in an overly cute cart-racing game called Sugar Rush. In retrospect, though, keeping the focus smaller was probably the best decision they could have possibly made — an uninterrupted string of video game references would get tiresome quickly, and it wouldn’t take long for the delight of “Oh, cool! Zangief!” to turn into the disappointment of “YES FINE IT’S THE JUNGLE KING WE GET IT LET’S MOVE ON.”

Instead, they get it out of their system pretty quickly, and instead focus on just three games, using other cameos where they make sense. (I especially liked the graffiti in Game Central Station; I spotted “Leeroy Jenkins” and “Aerith Lives!”).

World-Buying and World-Building

When I say that only Disney could’ve made it, I don’t just mean in the way it manages to take the standard Disney formula and make it feel genuine again. I’m talking about the number of references, cameos, and licensing issues that only an enormous multinational entertainment corporation would’ve been able to afford. It feels as if the filmmakers were given free rein to reference anything and everything they wanted — did they really need a cameo from Beard Papa, for example? — and seeing a movie with that much freedom was actually kind of exhilarating. After years of seeing 555 telephone numbers and carefully-hidden brand names, it’s just neat to have a movie that says, “Yes, we really did pay to have both Dig Dug and Chun-Li for all of five seconds of screen time.”

Even better, they kept the licensed material to cameos and let the team go nuts with world-building for everything else. The inspiration for the different games couldn’t be clearer, but it makes all the difference that it’s Fix-It Felix, Jr and not Donkey Kong or Rampage, and Hero’s Duty instead of Halo or Gears of War. You’re not simply waiting to see when the next recognizable reference is going to pop up; you’re dropped into a familiar-but-not-too-familiar environment and shown how these games might work from the inside.

It’s inevitably going to get compared to Toy Story — and for one thing, that’s great company to be in; and for another, Toy Story is an obvious inspiration. But I think it’s worth pointing out the subtle ways they steered the story of Wreck-It Ralph in a different direction, and what a huge difference it makes in the overall tone.

The Toy Story movies built their plots around the premise of toys existing in the real world. They built most of the gags and references on the premise that each of the toys has its own personality. It’s worked for three features and at least two brilliant shorts, so they did something right.

It would’ve been easy for Wreck-It Ralph to do one or the other: pull all of its video game characters into the real world, or just have a series of gags based on “what if Bowser and Clyde from Pac-Man hung out together outside the game?” like the trailer promised. Really, either one of those would’ve made for an entertaining movie. But instead, they kept that stuff on the surface, spending most of their time exploring how the individual game worlds worked, and what would happen if you took a few key characters from one and dropped them into another. (I think the reason the Sugar Rush stuff seems so incongruous is that it turned into a ton of candy references, as if there wasn’t enough in the world of video games to play off of).

The result is more similar to the fantastic parts of the Toy Story series: when they show an episode of “Woody’s Roundup” to introduce all the new characters, or when they show Buzz Lightyear fighting Emperor Zerg, or when they have all the characters playing different roles in a kid’s fantasy. It ends up making Wreck-It Ralph a lot more about getting into the video game world than pulling the video game into ours. Even when translated into 3D, a character that only has 3 or 4 frames of animation is still going to move a certain way.

When I talked about Brave, I said that no matter how fantastic the premise, Pixar movies are all ultimately about people. That’s a huge part of why I think Wreck-It Ralph fits squarely in the realm of Disney Feature Animation; while there’s certainly a real-world message in there, the movie is ultimately about fantasy.

It Gets Blitter

That said, the real-world message was another nice surprise. We’ve been beaten down with the “Believe in Yourself!” message for so long, that it stopped having any relevance long ago. One of the reasons I liked The Princess and the Frog so much is that it turned the usual princess moral on its head: its ultimate message was actually “Hang on, don’t believe in your dreams too much; you might be missing out on what you already have.”

Wreck-It Ralph obviously has the story of the misunderstood villain who wants something more out of life; that’s baked into the premise. And it’s got the off-beat little girl who gets bullied but stays true to herself and eventually (spoiler!) comes out on top. I don’t want to sound too dismissive; the dialogue and voice acting are terrific, and everything feels genuine and not the least bit maudlin or insincere. If they’d left it at that, it all would’ve worked fine, and the only thing wrong with it would’ve been that it’s not all that original.

But what is original, at least as far as I’ve seen, is that the weightiest conflict in Wreck-It Ralph is a message about Concern Trolling.

Genuine spoilers follow. The Candy King convinces Ralph — and, I’ll be honest, he had me convinced for a while as well — that he’s not just picking on Vanellope because she’s different, but that he’s doing it for her own benefit. He doesn’t have a problem with her being a “glitch;” he’s just concerned about what other people will think. Players won’t understand, he says, and it’ll end up with the entire game being shut down. It’s not selfish; all the other characters will be fine, but Vanellope will never be able to leave the game. And it throws Ralph completely off course. Until then, he’d been a misfit who’d found another misfit who understood exactly what he was going through, and working together, they were going to finally earn the respect and acceptance they’d both always wanted. Now, he’d gotten exactly what he wanted, but had to ruin everything for someone else, all the while believing that he was making the tough but adult choice for her own good.

It’s actually pretty heartbreaking. And what’s this? A genuine, nuanced, and actually relevant message about bullying and the pressures of conformity, in a movie aimed at pre-adolescents? Characters doing the wrong thing not because they’re evil, but simply because they’ve made a bad decision? A case of someone having the best of intentions and still doing something horrible? And more than that, it’s all a message delivered by a character called the Candy King?!

Even though the movie pretty quickly rebounds into a more predictable structure, it still has those fantastic few minutes where it’s telling kids (and adults!) how bullying really works, in a way that’s not completely obvious and by the numbers. And even though it ends with a princess, it still has the more significant moment where the princess decides that being a “glitch” is an essential part of what made her cool. (It doesn’t explain why the non-Princess “glitch” version would’ve been painted on the side of the cabinet in the first place, but you can’t have everything).

So: great concept, tons of references, great voice performances, terrific animation, imaginative world-building, and a relevant, non-pandering message. Plus, the Paperman short before the movie is completely charming, and a beautiful combination of 3D and 2D animation that proves you don’t have to abandon the hand-drawn style of traditional cel animation to make a 3D movie. I would absolutely love it if this turns out to be as big a deal for Disney animation as The Little Mermaid was, and we get to see Pixar and Disney competing year after year to top each other.

Variations on a Queen

Or, “Maybe I’m Just Like My Mother.” Brave is a Pixar movie that doesn’t behave like people want or expect it to. Unmarked spoilers.

Brave merida elinor
I don’t think I really understood Brave when I saw it. I’d been lucky to see a rough cut a few months earlier, and I still went away from the final release thinking, “That wasn’t what I expected.” It’s not just that the movie is unabashedly weird, it’s that it maintains its weirdness while keeping up the appearance of being a completely conventional Disney movie.

It wasn’t until I read an outstanding essay by Lili Loofbourow on The New Inquiry, titled “Just Another Princess Movie”, that I started to really understand it. Not only does that essay explain exactly what it is about Brave that defies expectations, it might be the most insightful thing I’ve read about any Pixar movie. I think the author does herself a little bit of disservice with the preamble, in which she says that growing up having to make do with movies for girls prepared her to look for slight variations on predictable themes, and find the little bits of honesty amidst all the pandering. After all, if all the insight in that piece were just due to her gender, or her exposure to years of mediocre entertainment, then how did so many seasoned film critics, both female and male, manage to completely underestimate the depth and miss the true message of Brave?

Audiences had already reached a consensus on Brave weeks before the movie actually opened: Here was Pixar, the boys club, after years of making movies aimed at boys and dads-who-are-still-boys, finally a wholly-owned Disney subsidiary and finally making a movie with a female protagonist. So of course, she’s a princess. But they split the difference by making her an action princess, so that Disney can sell plastic bows and arrows along with all the dolls and dresses (and wigs!), and not completely alienate the boys in the audience. While technically and artistically beautiful, it’s all a conventional fairy tale story with the standard mixed message socialization inherent to every princess story: “be true to yourself and live your dreams!” and “wouldn’t it be great to be a princess so your life would actually be meaningful?”

I’d read a lengthy and vehement blog post decrying the movie as the death of Pixar’s integrity, based solely on one of the gags from the trailer. And once the movie was actually released, the majority of critics gave it a perfunctory screening and checked it off as their assumptions confirmed.

Jaclyn Friedman in The Guardian laments that “not even the sparkling minds at Pixar can imagine their way out of the princess paradigm.” And Roger Ebert’s almost completely insight-free review ends with this astoundingly misguided conclusion:

But Merida is far from being a typical fairy-tale princess. Having flatly rejected the three suitors proposed by her family, she is apparently prepared to go through life quite happily without a husband, and we can imagine her in later years, a weathered and indomitable Amazon queen, sort of a Boudica for the Scots. “Brave” seems at a loss to deal with her as a girl and makes her a sort of honorary boy.

That’s right, ladies. If you have aspirations that don’t involve settling down with the right man, then you might as well be a boy.

You’ve got to give most of the reviewers a break (well, except Ebert), because the movie practically begs for misinterpretation. As Loofbourow describes it, Brave pulls an elaborate bait-and-switch on the audience starting with the first scene:

…there’s a voiceover at the beginning and the end that goes on about changing your fate and your destiny living within you and whatnot. And that’s fine, and it’s true in complicated ways, but it’s also a classic case of misdirection. By supplying an apparently easy message you barely listen to, the film actually gives the more complex one room to breathe. You might leave unconvinced by the explicit sermon on fate, but quite converted to the quiet redefinition of bravery, barely aware that you’ve been worked on.

The premise, setting, character types, situations, and even entire scenes in Brave are familiar enough for us to accept them without much mental processing. It’s shorthand. We see the princess, and we automatically know basically how the story’s going to play out. She’s an impetuous, free spirit who wants a different life for herself, you know, kind of like Ariel. We get the big, goofy, and kind-hearted dad and the imperious mom who actually keeps everything together. We recognize the King who bears a lifelong grudge against a force of nature like Moby Dick, the contest from Robin Hood, the old witch and the magic spell that goes awry, even the transformation that teaches a mom and daughter to understand each other from Freaky Friday.

We also recognize whenever a story deviates from the standard; we’re used to remakes, re-imaginings, re-interpretations, mash-ups, and twists. She’s not just a princess; she’s an action princess, who can shoot a bow and ride a horse as well as any man!

But I don’t think it’s as simple as that, because I don’t think that Brave is going for the simple change-up. It’s going for myth-making. It roots the story in the familiar to give it the resonance of a new type of fairy tale.

Brave still works on the emotional level that the best Pixar movies do: you don’t understand it so much as feel it. There’s a moment at the end that reliably triggers the tears in me, just like flipping a switch. But it’d be a mistake to assume that there’s nothing more to the movie than our gut response and a collection of familiar ideas from storybooks.

Loofbourow does a great job of highlighting the aspects that distinguish Brave from “just another princess movie;” I wouldn’t do a particularly job of covering those without repetition. I’m most interested in two areas where Brave takes a turn for the unexpected, and those give the story more layers and meaning than even another action princess story.

Ms. Finding Nemo

One of the first signs that Merida isn’t like other Disney princesses is that she has both of her parents. Not only are they both alive, but they both play a crucial role in the story.

Obviously, it’s a story about a mother reconnecting with her teenage daughter. But it’s not simply Finding Nemo for Her. That movie was all about Marlin accepting the fact that his son has to grow up. In Brave, Elinor does end the story having learned that she’s got to respect Merida’s independence and stop being so controlling; as we see her on horseback at the end of the movie, she’s loosened up and learned to appreciate life outside the walls of the castle. Loofbourow makes note of how much significance is embedded in Elinor’s new hairstyle.

But Finding Nemo ultimately wasn’t about Nemo; Brave is about both Merida and Elinor. And at the end, Merida’s changed, too. Her hair might not be any more under control, but she’s more poised. Every time we’ve seen her on horseback in the rest of the movie, it’s been out of escape or rebellion. At the end, she’s not running away. She’s just enjoying the kingdom, right next to the person who represented everything she’d been running away from. The lesson isn’t simply that Elinor had to give Merida the freedom to choose her fate follow her dreams and explore a whole new world and believe in the dreams of imagination. Merida had to learn about responsibility and, to make good on the new title, true bravery.

The first place the movie takes a dramatically weird turn is at the end of the archery contest. Until then, it’d been standard storybook set-up. We can see it all playing out according to schedule, including the impossible bulls-eye finale. But as Loofbourow describes, it’s not even remotely a victory for Merida:

…there is a crowd in that scene, all gasping ecstatically as each silly prince takes his shot, but that crowd does not go wild when Merida wins. This proves not to be the triumphant moment of female empowerment Hollywood likes to deliver when it remembers that women are watching.

The crowd instead does something much more likely: it goes weird.

Things get awkward.

This was the point at which I began to suspect that Pixar was outsmarting me.

Merida doesn’t win anything by winning the contest; in fact, it’s the event that sets off every conflict in the rest of the story. When Robin Hood did it, sure he got outed by the Sheriff of Nottingham, but what’s key is he proved beyond all doubt that he’s the best archer in the kingdom. Merida proved she could out-shoot any man, but it accomplishes nothing apart from alienating everyone.

So you could compare it to one of the best movies of all time, the “women can kick ass too” kung fu comedy Wing Chun. Wing Chun proves she’s a better fighter than any man in her village, but it just results in her becoming a lonely spinster and lots of comical misunderstandings on her course to true love. Know your place, ladies. The patriarchy is preserved! Leave the men’s work to the men.

But Brave spends so much of its time showing how ineffectual the “men’s work” actually is. The warriors spend most of the movie comically bumbling around the castle and occasionally bearing their asses. Later on, when it’s Mor’du-killin’ time: it’s not Fergus, the Bear King, who finally defeats his lifelong enemy; and it’s not Merida’s arrow that undoes her mistake. It’s Elinor, the diplomat, who saves the day. And not even in her “feral” form; she does it in “mom mode,” while protecting her daughter. Merida’s skill at archery isn’t in dispute, but it ultimately doesn’t solve anything. It’s just something she happens to be really good at.

Again, Loofbourow nails it: the movie’s full of storybook examples of bravery, but none of it accomplishes anything. There’s a sense that the time of warriors has passed, and the kingdom is entering the time of diplomats. The type of bravery that interests Brave is shown by Merida, long before the climax at the ring of stones. It’s when she steps up and takes on the responsibility of keeping the kingdom united, even at the risk of losing her freedom.

And Mor’du isn’t just some arbitrary, external villain with no motivation. His back story makes clear how little the story values raw strength. His wish was for the strength of ten men, but it ended tearing apart the kingdom and cursing him for years. He’d lost his humanity and become a monster.

By that measure, it’s too simplistic to look at the relationship between Fergus, Elinor, and Merida as an example of how gender roles work. Saying that Fergus represents the masculine while Elinor represents the feminine might be true, but it’s not particularly interesting.

What’s more interesting is to notice that Fergus represents independence and freedom, while Elinor represents duty and responsibility. The kingdom would fall without the influence of both. And Merida’s strength comes not just from her father, and not just from her mother, but from both parents.

The Witch’s Cottage and the Boys Club

As if it weren’t bad enough that Brave rejects the gender roles and “believe in your dreams!” moral that fairy tale movies are supposed to have, it also ignores the rules about how magic works in these stories. There’s no clear moral or motivation. The supernatural is just weird and alien, and none of it makes sense.

When I first saw the movie, I didn’t really understand what the will-o-the-wisps were all about. I’m still not entirely sure I understand. Are they good or bad? Considering how much the movie’s explicit message is about changing your fate, I’ve got to assume that they function like the wisps in the traditional folk stories: they lead travelers off their current path. They don’t represent good or evil, but change.

It’s not any easier to figure out the Witch’s motivations. When I first heard the story, I thought it was obvious: the Witch was teaching Merida a lesson. Magic in fairy tale stories always has a moral attached: be careful what you wish for. Riches and power don’t guarantee happiness. The real magic lives within you. Always let your conscience be your guide.

When Mor’du went to the Witch and asked for a spell to give him the strength of ten men, she granted that wish, but it came with a cost: he turned into a monster. So when Merida asked for the Witch’s help, the Witch knew that transforming Elinor into a bear would teach them both how valuable their relationship was, and it was only by returning to a state of nature that they’d realize how much they depend on civilization, and…

…and wait, that doesn’t really make sense at all. The final version of the first scene in the cottage makes it pretty clear that this isn’t a wicked old witch, or a kindly Fairy Godmother, or even a genie teaching Merida about the ironic downside to magic spells. It’s pretty clear that she’s just a crazy old woman with a bizarre fixation on bears.

Merida’s first discovery of the cottage isn’t played up with skulls, chains, and cobwebs like the Wicked Queen. And it’s not played for laughs, like the goofy anachronisms of Merlin’s magic in The Sword in the Stone. It’s more like, well, a more comical version of The Shining. What is all this stuff? Did I really see that? What does it mean?! It’s all just weird. It’s even more unsettling for the audience than it is for Merida, because Merida’s not going in with as many assumptions about how these situations are supposed to play out.

(The scene works so well, in fact, that it kind of ruins a clever gag later on in the Witch’s hut. Using potions as a medieval voice-mail menu would be a perfectly fine referential joke in any other Pixar movie; it’s exactly the kind of gag that the Toy Story movies use in the background. In Brave, though, it’s just kind of jarring, because everything else in the film works in fairy tale language, not “their world is a lot like ours” language).

One of the things that’s been lost from all the attempts to modernize fairy tales is the simple fact that magic isn’t supposed to make sense. It’s supposed to be alien, dangerous, and unpredictable. An ambivalent witch is somehow creepier that one who’s downright malicious — Merida discovers that solving her problem isn’t as simple as just sewing a tapestry back together. Without an identifiable villain to defeat and an understandable spell to break, the solution is a lot more mature and a lot less predictable. It requires understanding, not magic.

More than anything else, that’s what moves Brave away from being “just another Disney fairy tale” and squarely back into Pixar territory. Ultimately, it’s character that drives the story, not magic. We should be skeptical of any plot development that reduces to “a wizard did it,” and we should be skeptical of any story with an easily-digestible moral. Pixar movies have always seemed to have a focus on honesty — the gags in Toy Story come from nostalgia and a recognition that “this is how this world would really work.” The emotional moments in Finding Nemo come from giving two fish the emotions of a father and son. The comedy in Up comes from having a kid who really behaves like a kid, and dogs that really think like dogs, whether or not they can fly planes and talk.

Over the years I’ve grown to appreciate the importance of representation in the media. (If TV had more than just Paul Lynde and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, it would’ve made my 20s and early 30s go a lot more smoothly). But I never gave much credence to the allegation that Pixar’s movies have been too male-dominated. I’ve never gotten the impression that Pixar was making movies for boys or for girls; it’s just always seemed that they’re going for stories that are universal.

I’m not a dad, but I still found myself bawling at Finding Nemo. I’ve never lost (or had) a spouse, but I still found myself bawling at Up. They’ve always seemed more focused on honesty than on demographics.

It’s fantastic for girls to be able to recognize themselves in a hero of a well-made movie. When I was at Walt Disney World, I loved seeing some girls lining up to get an autograph from Merida, and other girls carrying around toy bows and arrows. But after seeing so much preoccupation with what message the movie is sending to girls, I have to wonder whether people put more emphasis on the message than on the honesty underneath it. Are we selling princesses too hard, or are we telling them that it’s wrong to be so wrapped up in “princess stuff,” and they have to be interested in archery and horseback riding if they want to be interesting?

I’ve been deliberately staying ignorant of the details behind the production of Brave, so I’m not even going to speculate about how difficult it is for women to get into feature animation. And I don’t for a second believe it’s necessary to have a female protagonist or female director to make a movie with a female protagonist that has the kind of “honesty” I’m talking about. So hopefully it won’t be long before female characters are so commonplace that there’s no need to make such an issue of it.

Then we can change the focus from what message are we sending to girls and look deeper into the question of what message we’re sending to kids — okay, adults and, incidentally, any kids who happen to be in the audience. A simple twist on a stereotype isn’t much better than the stereotype itself. Saying “believe in yourself” isn’t considerably more helpful than “find the right magic spell.” The review of Brave in the Guardian says that Pixar makes movies about toys, bugs, monsters, cars, fish, super-heroes, rats, robots, talking dogs, and now princesses; I say they’ve always just been in the business of making movies about people.