Genuine Storytelling Versus Naked Commercialism

Almost all films are a commercial venture to some extent but not all are created equal, as the films of Hayao Miyazaki and Disney demonstrate. Both make successful films, but only one does it to genuinely tell stories.

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Disney went all-out for thie commercial version of the Little Mermain. Miyazaki went in an alternative direction. Via: The Null Set
Disney went all-out for their commercial version of the Little Mermaid. Miyazaki went in an alternative, creative direction.
Via: The Null Set

The impetus for this post comes courtesy of the Geek Dad blog and Erik Wecks, whose recent post comparing the female role models in films from Miyazaki and Disney also highlight the underlying reason why both studios make films.

To be sure, we’ve all heard of this quote:

“We don’t make movies to make money.
We make money to make more movies.”

Yes, Walt Disney certainly had his priorities straight, but could the contemporary Disney company be said to embody that ideal? Well, no.

While Weck’s concerns revolve more around the portrayal of female characters, he bases his arguments on the Disney Princess brand and the pervasive nature by which it instils itself into young girls’ lives.

This bring up the ugly truth that Disney’s films aren’t really made to tell stores any more. Miyazaki makes the films he wants to make. He takes on simple tales like Ponyo but isn’t afraid to also portray the creators of weapons either; as his latest film demonstrates.

Lets compare that to Disney’s latest output. Tangled was a princess film in the tried and true mold which was avowed to be the last of the genre. It was followed by Wreck-It-Ralph which was a step in a different direction story-wise, but used a host of existing video game characters. The latest film, Frozen, is the exact kind of film that Disney swore they were done with but Tangled’s decent gross put paid to that.

The difference is that Miyazaki’s films are phenomenally successful regardless of their plot. Miyazaki is a master storyteller and each one of his films conveys a sincere desire to create them. Each success funds the next one and while the merchandising empire does exist, it does not dictate the creative output of the studio.

In stark contrast, Disney’s films by virtue of their vast cost, are required to earn their keep through all of the company’s various channels. That means that a Disney film can’t just sell merchandise, it must be able to be placed in the theme parks, it must be adaptable to TV, it must, above all these days, produce a franchise that can be extended indefinitely.

Hence we come back to the Disney Princesses. This lifestyle brand already encompasses a large group of characters in a manner that has nothing to do with their original films. It’s a massively successful venture for Disney and rivals their Cars effort that focuses on boys.

Just like Cars though, it requires new input every so often to keep things fresh. Cars got a direct sequel but the Disney Princesses get new films instead. Honestly, does anyone believe that Frozen was revived for any reason other than that it would make a perfect addition to the Princess lineup? Don’t believe the PR hogwash about wanting to tell a story; the Ice Queen languished within the studio for decades. If they wanted to tell it bad enough, it would have been done long before now.

The film was also outed as a shoe-in for a Broadway adaptation too. Thus cementing it’s commercial viability within the overall Disney machine.

Which brings us back again to Walt’s quote. Does his studio really embody that ethos today? Is every Disney film released today really done so to tell a story and to support the next film? What about Miyazaki’s films? It should be easy to see which studio engages in true storytelling versus [essentially] money grabbing.

5 thoughts on “Genuine Storytelling Versus Naked Commercialism”

  1. I admit that I’ve seen very little of the Disney or Pixar product in the past 20 years, but from what I have seen their shouts of “STORY FIRST!” are loudly proclaimed to cover up their scripts’ narrative failures.

    A good comparison is “Up!” against, say, “Spirited Away”. Even though the latter happens in a magical world nothing happens through magical convenience. “Up!” on the other hand, is riddled with things that happen simply because the writers want them to happen. Couple that with ungrounded emotional exploitation (again compare the opening sequences of the two films to see the depth of one against the shallowness of the other) and you’ve got a formula for sucking the allowances out of pre-teen pockets.

    1. Well said Richard. I’ve come to the conclusion that Pixar’s films have great concepts but have a bad habit of relying on tricks like the montage in Up to manufacture emotions within the viewer, and that a large part of the success of the their more recent films have been because of it rather than in spite of it. They’re as commercially driven as Disney which is no coincidence given they are one and the same now.

  2. Since we’re on the subject of genuine storytelling, would you comment on somewhat obscure masterpieces like Petrov’s work or on other underrecognised artists? Miyazaki is a true master of the craft, no doubt, but it bothers me a little that his name seems to be the only one to come up in these conversations when there are so many others.

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