On this day, 90 years ago, brothers Roy and Walt Disney started their first project: a series entitled the Alice Comedies. These featured a live actor with a cartoon backdrop, and involved humour about little girls being tied to logs at sawmills and the Ku Klux Klan making sausages out of dogs. Needless to say, Disney has come a long way since then. With various theme parks, a long list of successful movies, and the recently acquired Star Wars rights, they are on top of the world. There probably isn’t a soul in the modern world who hasn’t heard of Mickey Mouse, or seen at least one of their cartoon movies.
But what makes Disney such a beloved franchise? How can the films that bewitched us as children still make us smile and feel warm inside now we’re older? Let’s face it, the Disney classics are predictable, cheesy and simple. Yet I still love them as much as I did when I thought being a princess was a realistic career option. Why though?
Could it be because of the plots? Disney films do have some imaginative stories. A mermaid sells her voice to a sea-witch to become human. A girl joins the army under the guise of a man to save her father. A boy finds a magic lamp containing a genie who will grant him three wishes. Although most of these plots are based on novels, Disney definitely gives their own spin to these tales. Would we enjoy The Hunchback of Notre Dame as much if Esmerelda was hung at the end, or would little girls everywhere dream of being The Little Mermaid if the prince didn’t fall in love with her? Of course not! I don’t think Pinocchio would be so lovable if we knew he killed Jiminy Cricket with a hammer either. Disney takes these classic stories and makes them suitable for children. If not for them, I don’t think many people would be as familiar with these characters, or the morals they preach. But there are plenty of other children’s films with good plots and characters, and they don’t shine with the same magic as Disney. So it can’t be that.
Perhaps it’s the cute animal side-kicks then? Everyone loves seeing a friendly critter aiding their heroine or hero. Aladdin had Abu, Cinderella had the mice and birds, and even the more recent creation Rapunzel from Tangled had the incredibly cute Pascal. It is certainly the case that sometimes the animal side-kick can make the film. I don’t think Mulan would have been nearly as enjoyable without Mushu. The proof of this is in the merchandise. When you go to the Disney Store and look at the stuffed toys, you don’t see cuddly princesses. It’s all about the animals! But once again, there are plenty of films with animal side-kicks, and those animals just don’t make you squeal like Pascal or Mushu does.
It must be the Disney songs then! Of course! After all, the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of a Disney film is the incredibly catchy music. ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’, ‘The Circle of Life’, ‘Under the Sea’, ‘Be Our Guest’, ‘Colours of the Wind’, ‘A Whole New World’… I think it’s crystal clear where the success lies. I’m sure if asked, anyone can hum a line of a Disney song. You don’t see many characters singing in modern films, unless they’re musicals, because the second a character bursts into song, everyone cringes. I’ve still not fully recovered from the hours-long song that was Les Misérables. But for some reason, Disney seems to be exempt from this. Has anyone ever cringed when a Disney character begins singing? No. And it can’t be because they’re cartoons. Rio was an animated film, and those songs completely lacked the Disney-esque thrill. However, there are a great number of Disney films that don’t have songs in. Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc, Up, and most other Disney Pixar films have no singing, yet they still give us those warm Disney feelings when we watch them. It can’t be the songs then either.
Sadly, it seems that we will never be able to pinpoint exactly what makes Disney films so special. After all, it has been 76 years since the first Disney film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, was released, and no one else has ever been able to replicate the Disney formula in one of their films. Personally, I think the magic comes from the fact that Disney isn’t just a bunch of films. When you’re a child, it’s an entire world full of happy endings. Without Disney, would any girl have a hope that one day her prince will come?
So happy 90th birthday Disney! May you continue to delight both children and adults alike in the years to come. And thanks for the childhood.