Disney’s Postmodern Period

Walt Disney Animation Studio is arguably the most prolific studio of its type that exists. Since 1937 it has released 53 animated films with another one on the way this November. Because of this prolific stature, there are certain period that are now definable when looking back at the 77 year history of the studio. Luckily for the ongoing debate, these periods are all fluid because of how Disney films are produced. Taking multiple years from conception to release, one period can begin and a film from the previous period can then be released. For clarities sake, here are the main periods.

1937 – 1942 – Classical Disney Part 1 (Snow White to Bambi)
1942 – 1949 – The Package Films (Saludos Amigos to Ichabod and Mr. Toad)
1950 – 1970 – Classical Disney Part 2 (Cinderella to The Aristocats)
1973 – 1986 – The Lost Years (Robin Hood to The Great Mouse Detectives)
1988 – 1999 – The Renaissance (Oliver and Company to Fantasia 2000)
2000 – 2008 – Digital Experiments (Dinosaur to Bolt)

As mentioned above there are problem films. Stylistically, The Sword in the Stone fits more with The Lost Years than with Classical Disney. Oliver and Company is often not listed among the Renaissance films even though it has more in common with them than The Rescuers Down Under which is chronologically part of the period but also fits The Lost Years style. Some people don’t include Fantasia 2000 in the renaissance because it isn’t a musical in the style of other renaissance films even though it also has little in common with the following period.

Mike Rugnetta of PBS Idea Channel recently made a video about the most recent WDAS film, Frozen, and how it’s popularity can, in part, be attributed to how it deconstructs the classical fairy tale.

In the following video he highlighted a comment that brought up an interesting problem in the narrative of Disney’s history. If Frozen is deconstructing the classical fairy tale as found in Disney’s classical and renaissance periods, what period is Frozen a part of?

Rugnetta then agrees with the commenter in saying that Frozen and Tangled are part of a neoclassical period of Disney films and asks when Disney will reach a post-modern period. That presents an issue for Disney scholars to fight over because of how vastly divergent the last five films from WDAS have been. The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Winnie the Pooh, Wreck-it-Ralph, and Frozen are wildly different from each other. The Princess and the Frog and Winnie the Pooh both broke from Disney’s experimentation with digital filmmaking with traditionally-animated musicals, while Tangled, Wreck-it-Ralph, and Frozen returned to digital animation but presented different takes on their genres.

While Mike wonders when Disney will enter a postmodern period, there is evidence that we are already in that period and it is just masquerading as neo-classicism. Tangled, Wreck-it-Ralph, and Frozen are all aesthetically post-modern especially when viewed against the obviously neo-classical Princess and the Frog. All three of these films deconstruct meta-narratives of heroism, love, and relationships.

Tangled takes the metanarrative of the mother-daughter relationship and demonstrates how love and power complicate it. Rapunzel may not be the real daughter of Mother Gothel, but she still loves her to an extent. Rapunzel respects parental power and influence until external powers show how abusive that relationship is. The character of Flynn is also used to complicate the metanarrative of heroism with his story and revelations deconstructing what heroes in a fairy tale are made of. Tangled’s best example of this is in the song I’ve Got a Dream where thugs show they are more complicated than they are often made out to be.

Wreck-it-Ralph is really an extension of the moral of that song. The support group in the beginning of the film is for villains and features the following affirmation – “I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be than me.” From the studio that brought such famous baddies one-dimensional baddies as Gaston, Ursula, Captain Hook, and Doctor Facilier – Wreck-it-Ralph asks the audience to reimagine the metanarratives of heroism and villainy through making its heroes the villains of their contexts and its villain a complex character who’s backstory explains his villainy.

Frozen simply continues these ideas through its use of the fairy tale narrative while editing and complicating all the moving parts to a critical end (for more details revisit Rugnetta’s video above). And it doesn’t look like WDAS is going to stop any time soon. This fall has Big Hero 6 which even in concept complicates the idea of what a superhero film is.

Disney briefly entertained a neo-classical notion in its refrain from Digital filmmaking but has since created three post-modern animations which have all received more acclaim and attention than their neo-classical counterparts. Disney Animation has learned the lesson from Pixar that bravery is often rewarded by the public and that change, while occasionally controversial, is a good business model. We are in the age of postmodern Disney films – embrace the meta.


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