Monday, August 1, 2011

Rebirth of the Disney Empire (Disney Films: Part III)

I've waited quite a while since the first two posts, much like the gap between Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3, but it's finally time to finish up my dynastological view of the last decade of Disney animated features. While it was not a strong decade for monarchical films, it also could have been much worse. In any case, the past three years especially have shown that the monarchical tendencies of Disney continue to this day. Let's move on...


40. The Emperor's New Groove (2000) – Disney's first monarchical film of the new millennium tells the tale of the young Incan emperor, Kuzco, who is turned into a llama by his chief advisor. Despite starring an emperor as its main character, there is very little in the way of monarchical commentary in this film other than a glaringly obvious one: greed. Kuzco is a very greedy and wealthy emperor and he wants to build a new summer retreat on the site of a peasant's home. The peasant, Pancha, and the emperor-turned-llama then go on a long adventure to turn the emperor back into a llama and humble him a bit. Again, not a lot on the way of monarchical commentary. The emperor turns out to be a better man in the end and everyone lives happily ever after, except the chief advisor. There is no mention of parents, marriage, or children, and even discussion over the empire itself is kept to a minimum. In other words, this is a fun Disney comedy with little in the way of dynasticism.

41. Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) — In contrast, Atlantis proved to be all about monarchy. Like The Emperor's New Grove, Atlantis takes place in an empire, albeit an underwater one. Atlantis is ruled by an ancient king who has lived since the empire sank beneath the waves. "Empire" is a loose term in this film since Atlantis is no larger than a volcanic island in the middle of a molten sea far beneath the Earth's surface. Still, the king's daughter, Kida, helps an expedition that discovers Atlantis. She and the expedition's chief scientific advisor, Milo, fall in love and Milo helps decipher Atlantean text so the lost knowledge of Atlantis can be relearned. In the process, though, the militant contingent of the expedition turns greedy and tries to use the knowledge to become rich. Kida becomes an imprisoned heir, trapped within an ancient jewel. Milo, with the help of some of the expedition members and the now-ailing king, rescues the imprisoned princess and restores Atlantis to its former glory. The story has many twists and, though it seems at times like a damsel-in-distress story, it proves to be quite different. It is the heiress, imbued with the power of her ancestors, who saves Atlantis. The king lives on, but it is strongly implied that his daughter and heir, Kida, will be the one that restores the glory of Atlantis, and Milo will be there all along the way as the royal consort to the Queen. A rich film with dynastic depth, Atlantis: The Lost Empire is perhaps one of Disney's best animated features though it is also one of its darkest.


49. The Princess and the Frog (2009) — The first Disney princess film since Beauty and the Beast, this unique biography of a 1920s New Orleans African-American waitress is interesting all on its own. Tiana has a dream to create her own restaurant along the riverfront. Meanwhile, Prince Naveen of Maldonia is a penniless, unskilled daydreamer seeking to find a wealthy bride in the American South. Where Maldonia is is never stated, but it is said that his father does not want a beggar for a son. Like most Disney movies, Tiana becomes a princess through marriage. Naveen is the true-born prince, the son of the King of Maldonia. When the film nears its conclusion, the couple are still frogs who miss their chance to kiss at midnight, thereby remaining frogs. Their failure to kiss seems to suggest that their love and marriage at the end of the film will be rather Shrek-like. Yet upon their marriage kiss, Tiana "becomes" a princess and the curse finally lifts. I found this a bit anticlimactic because they had decided they were content with being frogs yet they still were cured. Sure that meant Tiana and Naveen could open their own restaurant, but the underlying message—"be content with who you are or become"—seems lost. Also, while it is never entirely clear if Naveen is the heir, it seems certain that he will never become king since he remains in New Orleans, the co-owner of a popular restaurant. Nevertheless, this film ends up being a rather fun twist on the usual princess formula, while still following the standard dynastic patterns of Disney films.

50. Tangled (2010) — Returning back to the roots of Disney, Tangled, formerly known as Rapunzel, tells the tale of a true-born princess stolen by an evil woman while still an infant. The reason she was taken was a special property in her hair which allowed her to heal the sick and injured. To maintain this power, though, Rapunzel could never cut her hair. The woman, Gothel, imprisoned the princess in a tower and raised Rapunzel as her own daughter, never telling her of her parents. Meanwhile, her parents annually hold a festival of mourning during which they release thousands of lighted candles into the air in the hope that Rapunzel may one day see them and return to her parents. Rapunzel can see these from her tower and wishes to see them up close, not knowing their purpose, but Gothel refuses. After a long story known as the plot, Rapunzel loses her hair but saves her new boyfriend, Flynn. She is reunited with her parents, who seem to have not produced any other children other than Rapunzel. The film then jumps ahead a number of years to show Rapunzel and Flynn getting married, thereby making Flynn the prince-by-marriage. Disney did some unusual things in this film. First, it is only the second film where there is a prince-by-marriage. In all the other films where there is a true-born princess except Aladdin, the true-blood princess ends up finding a true-blood prince. The only other formula thus far was the non-royal woman marrying the true-blood prince. Secondly, the woman has a magical power. To my knowledge, no other Disney princess has a magical power, except perhaps Pocahontas who can talk to nature. In other respects, the film is fairly similar to Sleeping Beauty and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, with a princess-in-exile not knowing her parents. This film was definitely an interesting flick with new songs and decent graphics.

As for other films during this time, there is not much in the way of monarchy. Like Oliver & Company, Disney's Treasure Planet (2002) does not take place in a monarchical universe but derives from a story written in a monarchical universe, namely Hanoverian Great Britain. The author of the original story, Robert Louis Stevenson, wrote during the reign of Queen Victoria, but the story takes place during the reign of King George II in the mid-1700s. Disney's other films produced during the 2000s—Fantasia 2000 (1999), Dinosaur (2000), Lilo & Stitch (2002), Brother Bear (2003), Home on the Range (2004), Chicken Little (2005), Meet the Robinsons (2007), Bolt (2008), Winnie the Pooh (2011), Wreck-It Ralph (2012)—all lack any obvious connection to monarchies. Dinosaur contains some latent paternal tribalism, but nothing more serious. Disney's 2013 film, The King of the Elves, suggests that Disney has not yet given up on its monarchical aspirations and is progressing in a similar vein as it has for the past eighty years. Thus monarchies remain an important and even integral part of the animators' and story-tellers' canon.

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