Since rediscovering and posting my little essay on the problem with having a big bad, I’ve been thinking on how this relates to the problems in Disney “cheapquels” and their more modern animated works like The Princess and the Frog and Tangled.
For those who haven’t seen the film, Tangled is Disney’s take on the fairy tale, Rapunzel. It’s a 3D-animated film and they do it with a degree of panache and flair that makes me think of the second Shrek movie and, in some ways, makes it a candidate for their best animated feature ever… except for one small thing: Mother Gothel (the witch who kidnaps Rapunzel)
While the movie’s characterization is excellent everywhere else (Including Rapunzel doing a pretty good job at being clever, resourceful, and not being a damsel in distress more than her circumstances would demand), Mother Gothel is conspicuous by how uncomplicated her character is.
In fact, compared to Lady Tremaine (Cinderella’s wicked stepmother) who has two daughters of her own to care for (and who, it’s possible, harbors some sort of personal resentment for Cinderella) or characters like Maleficent or Ursula who not only have no reason to care for the heroine, but are also inhuman enough to at least get the benefit of the doubt, Mother Gothel is so circumscribed by the needs of her role that, for someone used to seeing nuance in entertainment, the shallowness of her character can be downright grating compared to the rest of the cast.
Despite raising Rapunzel for 18 years and, supposedly, spending that time alone with her, Mother Gothel is still portrayed as caring only for the youth-giving magic of Rapunzel’s hair. Now, while there are certainly many people in the world that sociopathic, casting one as the villain in a story that is otherwise so well-polished just doesn’t work.
Rather than (admittedly very clever) lines like “You want me to be the bad guy? Ok. Now I’m the bad guy” and Disney’s signature cliché “villain falls to their death” scene, a more fitting end could have at least involved some sign of raising Rapunzel alone in the woods having affected her.
But, in the end, the plot calls for an evil witch of a villain, so Mother Gothel is forced to remain nothing but a “big bad”. She can’t grow as a character; she can’t have a “rock and a hard place” moment where her fear of age and death battle with a desire for the happiness of the girl she raised and unintentionally grew attached to. She can’t even hesitate or show regret that things could have played out differently. She’s just an evil old witch, hurting and lying to others for unexplored selfish desires because, if she’s human, then the viewers might not want her to die… and obviously a villain’s only purpose is to be defeated in a dramatic fashion (and serve as a blind attempt at continuing a pattern that worked in the past).
This interpretation becomes even more obvious with all of the themes and twists which feel borrowed from other Disney successes, like the post-death save by an admission of love from Beauty and the Beast. I worry that, if this trend continues, Disney may take the dubious honor of being the first studio to not just milk a franchise dry, but combine so much character talent and so little talent for plots that they milk an entire class of plots dry. (Their excessive investment in female royalty, as one person put it, and the associated preconceptions about what plots to use don’t help)
Fundamentally, Disney’s big problem seems to be that their skills lie very firmly in the ground-level details like how to write entertaining characters and good comedy while, when they have to construct plot details on their own, they fall flat.
This is most clearly shown in their “cheapquel” sequels like The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride or The Little Mermaid 2: Return to the Sea. When borrowing a good, time-tested plot, they can enhance it to classic status by replacing the traditionally simplistic characters with more entertaining, personable ones. However, when they need to cook up their own plots or, as with Tangled or Peter Pan 2: Return to Never Land (more on that in a moment), expand an existing plot too simple for a feature film, their efforts fall flat.
This may be because they put up a wall between their high-level plot and their low-level details through which ideas can only flow in one direction. They do an excellent job on the little details and characters can affect plot points that are unimportant… but when push comes to shove, the plot has veto power over the characterization. If you look at something like Lion King 2, there’s almost a direct inverse correlation between a character’s importance to the plot and how interesting they are… The less the plot is yanking the character around, the more interesting they are.
Peter Pan 2 is actually an interesting example because, while it is a “cheapquel”, like Tangled, it wasn’t created from whole cloth. Rather, a few years after the original Peter Pan play had gained success, J.M. Barrie wrote an additional scene titled An Afterthought (essentially an epilogue) in which Peter Pan returns when Wendy has children of her own. It is that scene which, like the Rapunzel fairy tale, Disney inflated into a feature-length film and, with only the budget of a cheapquel behind it, Return to Never Land feels as if the Disney magic is going “putt-putt sputter, putt-putt cough” as the mix of borrowed and created plot elements constantly changes.
I’m very happy to see that Disney is still very capable of producing good films and I’m also happy to see them receptive to the idea of realistic female leads for the 21st century, but a truly good story has to be character-driven, with a free flow of influence back and forth between the plot and characters, not locked-down so the characters become little more than marionettes. If Disney wants to continue their tradition of casting a nasty, selfish woman as their main antagonist, they’re going to have to work at least as hard on her as they do with everyone else in the cast.
Note: The portions of this regarding Peter Pan 2: Return to Never Land were originally written near the end of October of 2009 and were rediscovered alongside my previous two posts on writing, but weren’t complete enough to be posted on their own. Thankfully, my brother’s less wordy commentary several months ago on Mother Gothel’s motivations and death scene came to mind and, once I’d pulled out Tangled and watched it, the rest was easy.
Update 2011-08-21: The Noah’s Ark segment of Fantasia 2000 is a good, simple example of how the Disney magic works when it really works. A proven plot which is spiced up with distinctive, memorable art, characters, and music as appropriate to the type of project.