Out of the 62 animated films from the Walt Disney Company, only 8 are original ideas, and 2 of those were propaganda films made during WWII to help strengthen our relationship with South America. Everything else was based on either a book, mythology, poems, folk tales, or a piece of classical music. So why do we complain when Disney remakes their movies when the “originals” are remakes of older stories? Was Walt Disney a thief? A fraud? Just another Hollywood executive that recycled stories for a quick cash grab? Not so fast. After all, as I previously wrote, you don’t want to write an original story, but a timeless story. So, let’s take a look at what writers can learn from Walt Disney.
While it could be easy to credit Walt’s genius to his use of animation, I think this is only scratching the surface. Sure, the story of Snow White had never been told through animation (unless you count a Betty Boop short, which I do not). It was a new medium for film. So, as Disney moved down the line of fairy tales, it was new and exciting to see what the House of Mouse’s take would be. However, that only gets you the excitement of one generation. For a story to truly last, there has to be something timeless about it. As we have seen far too often, new technology only covers up bad storytelling for one generation. No matter what bells and whistles you add to your story, be that technology, really cool illustrations, or fanciful writing, the story has to stand on its own.
Much needed changes.
You could also claim that by telling old fairy tales, Disney was already working with tried and true stories. All he had to do was animate it, throw some music in there, and voila! People would eat it up. But Dumbo was a little known kid’s Roll-A-Book, and if you’ve read the original stories, you know that they are much darker than Disney’s version. The seven dwarfs didn’t have names or personalities. Pinocchio was crucified like a scarecrow. There were no talking animals in Cinderella. Not only did he change elements of a story, but he morphed these tales to fit the American world he lived in. Dumbo is drafted into the war. Peter Pan and Winnie-the-Pooh have American accents. Mary Poppins is much nicer and does not punish the children by shrinking them and placing them inside jars. For all the criticism Disney movies have of giving children nightmares (and I’m living proof of that), more often than not, Disney made the stories lighter than the originals.
So, what does make a Disney film stand the test of time? Is it the cute factor? The teardrop for every laughter? Well, if I’m being honest, I don’t think these stories are timeless. I’ll go even further and say the quiet thing out loud: I think these stories have aged poorly, and I think Disney knows it. While the company keeps getting criticized for trying to cash in on nostalgia, I think there is something else going on. I think as Disney began making their streaming service available with their whole library, they realized something: some of these movies will get us cancelled! “What makes the red man red?” in Peter Pan. The Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp. The crows in Dumbo. This is more than just about making money twice off of one story: this is about saving a legacy. Because if there is one thing that is timeless, it’s that racism always goes out of style.
Same story. Different angle.
This is where I may ruffle some feathers. People want to defend these older films and accuse the Disney company of giving into the “woke agenda.” But I’m not here to talk politics. I’m here to talk about what Disney did, and what his company is continuing to do. Because while you may think that the Disney company has strayed from Walt himself, they are using the same strategy he used: retell the old stories in a way that resonates with people today.
What writers can learn from Walt Disney, is that when we retell stories that are timeless, we sometimes have to update them. Sometimes it’s due to technology. Other times, it’s due to changes in culture, or location. Pinocchio did not address what was going on in Italy during the late 1930s, but what was happening in America. Winnie-the-Pooh didn’t retain any of his British identity. Bambi did not take place in Austria like the original book. Walt took stories from around the world, and changed them to reflect the values of the America he lived in and he did it in such a way that his versions became the definitive version of the story. So, when you’re adapting, keep in mind your audience. Don’t just adjust the story to fit the modern times, improve upon it. Innovate with it. But whatever else you do, please! Don’t put racist jokes in upbeat songs. Learn not only from Disney’s success but also his mistakes.
Kyle Morgan is a fulltime college student at Grand Canyon University, where he is majoring in Professional Writing for New Media. The youngest of three boys, Kyle is the final bird in his parent’s nest in the ever-growing state of Idaho. On his blog Cranial Flatulence – A comedy blog. (wordpress.com), he recounts his hilarious, and often embarrassing adventures of being a homeschool fundamentalist in the Pacific Northwest. You can follow him on his Facebook page or follow him on Twitter.