The Tried-and-True Formula for Real Disney Magic

By  · Published on November 17th, 2014

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We’ve all felt it – that innate sense of happy that comes from consuming anything Disney. A vanilla ice cream bar with a chocolate coating tastes like vanilla ice cream with a chocolate coating. At least, until you mold it into the shape of Mickey Mouse’s face, then it tastes like a a smiling, satisfied inner child. We may never be able to explain the ice cream part (either it’s because Mickey Mouse-shaped ice cream is only sold in Disney Parks, or because they’re lacing the vanilla with heroin) but we can at least explain how it works with Disney movies.

What is it about a Disney film that so consistently gives us the warm and fuzzies? Is it just nostalgia? Well, yes and no. If we look to the Disney films of the late ’80s through the ’90s – commonly referred to as the Disney Renaissance — a pattern emerges. A formula, if you will.

Oh, and here’s a quick primer, for those not willing to click over to Wikipedia. The Disney Renaissance is comprised of ten films: The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers Down Under, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan and Tarzan.

Within those ten films are four defining and very specific traits. Four elements, repeated in film after film, that draw the entire body of work together into a big homogenous blend. See one Disney flick, and your brain absorbs the formula. See a second, and you recognize (whether consciously or unconsciously) that this is essentially the same film as the one before. It’s comforting. It’s familiar. It’s Disney.

Repeat the pattern over ten years, and it’s that unrelenting, Mickey Mouse ice cream pull, manipulating nostalgia into something so much more powerful. Disney Magic.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

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There’s no better way to tie a decade of films together than to give them the same damn storyline. And that’s the case – out of the ten Disney Renaissance films, seven of them base their story around someone being mistaken for another someone. Most of the time, there’s royalty on at least one side of the switch-up (most Disney characters are princesses, after all), but there are one or two exceptions.

The Little Mermaid: Ariel, a mermaid princess, is mistaken for an ordinary, flipperless human.

Beauty and the Beast: the Beast, in reality a handsome prince, is mistaken for a hideous hairy lionbull.

Aladdin: Aladdin, a lowly beggar boy, is mistaken for Prince Ali Ababwa.

The Lion King: Simba, the true king of Pride Rock, is mistaken for an ordinary lion by Timon and Pumbaa.

Hercules: Hercules, a Greek deity, is mistaken for an average peasant boy.

Mulan: Mulan, a girl who must pour tea and be some guy’s wife, is mistaken for a boy who should spit and fight be all macho.

Tarzan: Tarzan, a man, is mistaken for an ape (and yeah, every gorilla in the jungle knows he’s not really an ape, but thematically it gets the job done).

A Villain Who Suffers a Grisly Death That’s Entirely His/Her Own Fault

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Disney is not big on moral ambiguity. Good guys are good, bad guys are bad, and bad guys suffer the consequences of their actions with a swift and graphic undoing. What better way to dissuade the children from wrongdoing, then by showing wrongdoers impaled or eaten alive?

Oh, and for obvious reasons, said impalements have to be accidental, and the villain’s own fault. Having the hero bloody his hands might give kids the wrong impression.

The Little Mermaid: Ursula, impaled on one of the ships she drudged up from the deep, in the whirlpool she created (even if Eric’s the one who actually steers the ship towards her).

Beauty and the Beast: Gaston can’t help but take one last lunge at the Beast- and in doing so, goes toppling off of the castle.

Aladdin: Jafar happily wishes to become a genie, not realizing that he’s condemned himself to an eternity in an itty bitty living space.

The Lion King: Scar might have made it through The Lion King if he hadn’t thrown the hyenas under the bus- but because he blamed them for Mufasa’s death, they repay the favor and cheerily maul him to death.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame: Instead of hauling himself entire to safety, Frollo stops to take a final swing at Quasimodo and Esmerlda. Too bad he didn’t pick a sturdier spot- the gargoyle cracks and Frollo plunges into a vat of molten copper.

Tarzan: Clayton is so desperate to put his machete into Tarzan, he never realizes he’s hacked the vines around his neck into a conveniently placed noose.

A Tubby Sidekick With a Gravelly Voice

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Every hero (sometimes villains, too) needs someone on the sidelines to cheer him/her on. And in Disney, those characters have A: a significant amount of paunch, and B: the distinctive, gravel-throated voice of a crazy person.

Aladdin: Iago, voiced by Gilbert Gottfried.

The Lion King: Pumbaa, voiced by Ernie Sabella.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame: Hugo, voiced by Jason Alexander.

Pocahontas: Ben, voiced by Billy Connolly.

Hercules: Phil, voiced by Danny DeVito, and Pain, voiced by Bobcat Goldthwait.

Mulan: Yao, voiced by Harvey Fierstein.

Tarzan: Terk, voiced by Rosie O’Donnell.

A Soundtrack in a Specific Genre (Except for the Required Disney Ballad)

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When it comes down to it, Disney Renaissance movies are just Broadway musicals – but not all musicals go with a traditional Broadway songbook. Neither does Disney, because hearing the same general style of showtune would get a little dull after the sixth or seventh film. So in the Disney Renaissance, individual films have individual styles of music.

However, if one of these Disney movies happens to feature a show-stopping ballad where our hero yearns for something just out of reach, throw the genre aside and do it like classic Broadway.

The Little Mermaid: Calypso (except for “Part of Your World”).

Aladdin: Big band swing (except for “A Whole New World”).

Hercules: Motown (except for “I Can Go the Distance”).

Tarzan: Phil Collins synth-rock (sorry, no “Tarzan yearns for something” number here).

— –

Neat, right? While every film might not hit every category, there are enough checks in enough boxes to make the pattern pretty apparent. For an instant dash of Disney, just throw in some graphic violence, a character switcheroo and a lovable sidekick with some chub and a voice like sandpaper. Except, with the recent outings from the House of Mouse, the formula doesn’t seem to apply. With the recent resurgence of Disney films actually worth seeing (unlike that dark times that gave us Home on the Range and Chicken Little), people have been quick to name the 2010s as a new Disney Renaissance.

It definitely fits? Frozen, Tangled, Wreck-it-Ralph. Wonderful films (well, having been forced through “Let it Go” 16,000 times, I will happily admit that Frozen is both a very enjoyable movie and also an abomination that must be torched to the ground). But if you’ve ever felt that this new Disney output, however fun and family-friendly, doesn’t quite live up to the classics…here’s why.

There’s almost no “Disney Magic™” in Frozen-era Disney.

Big Hero 6 sort of oonches its way into one category – the mistaken identity (we’re convinced the villain is one character, when it’s actually someone else!) – but nothing more.

Frozen was clearly going for the pudgy sidekick with Olaf, but we’ll have to dock a few points for his lack of voice-gravel. Nothing else here.

Wreck-it-Ralph also puts its villain into the mistaken identity category, but fails to check any other boxes.

Winnie the Pooh is off doing its own thing and doesn’t really count (besides, Pooh doesn’t need any secret recipe to give people Disney butterflies).

Tangled, though, hits two – Rapunzel is mistaken for a non-Princess, and Mother Gothel’s undoing is her own obsession with fantasy-world plastic surgery.

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And Princess and the Frog checks all four. Prince mistaken for frog, villain who takes out too many loans from the spirit world and is dragged away to Hell, portly jazz alligator with throat-grit and a zydeco/blues-inspired soundtrack. Kind of unexpected, given how Princess and the Frog is probably the weakest of this lineup. Nothing against it, but that whole “work hard and your dreams will come true” moral is really beaten into the ground.

This is the start of an unfortunate pattern – as far as the Disney Princesses go, we’ve gone from a four (Princess and the Frog) to a two (Tangled) to a nothing (Frozen). Studio hot streaks don’t last forever (just ask Pixar), and the Disney Renaissance has been done for more than a decade. But the formula works- leaning on it a little more in the future certainly couldn’t hurt. And admit it, Hans probably deserved horrific death via ice-crushing. Guy was a sociopath princess-murderer, and all you do is punch him and put him in jail? Boo.

We’ll see what happens with Moana in 2016. Disney Princess, ancient South Pacific setting… it’s a promising start. Throw in a sea turtle with the voice of Tom Waits and we’ll be set.