When was the last time a major Disney produced made you feel uncomfortable?
I’m not asking when was the last time a major Disney film made you feel sad. Jyn Erso dying at the end of Rogue One was sad. Captain American and Iron man arguing and splitting their friendship in Civil Warwas sad. Watching Judy Hopps fail over and over in Zootopiawas sad.
The question is, “When did the last major Disney release make you uncomfortable?”
Recently on Story in Media, we covered The Importance of Weirdness in Writing. In past decades, bold and daring films succeeded or failed, but they weren’t afraid to make audiences feel uncomfortable. They weren’t afraid to scare children. Even beloved children’s author, Marice Sendak, wrote that “Children surviving childhood is my obsessive theme and my life’s concern.” Sendak, who wrote the children’s classic tale, Where the Wild Things Are, felt that presenting scary things in a controlled context was important to helping kids cope with fearful things as adults.
Cartoons in the 1980s were full of things that could be considered nightmare fuel. The Care Bears Movie II featured a small girl selling her soul to a shape shifting demon so she could become better at sports. The Real Ghostbusters cartoon on the USA Network featured regular nightmare fuel, including a nightmarish incarnation of The Boogieman that can still inspire terror today. Even obscure properties, like The Adventures of Mark Twain, brought Satan to life to reminisce on the meaningless nature of life and the uncaring nature of the universe that brings death to us all.
It wasn’t just kids cartoons that dared to make viewers uncomfortable. While horror films have long been the dumping ground of uncomfortable or unsettling material, non-horror films still produced content that made audiences shift in their seats, even if ever so slightly. A ghost gives Ray Stanz a blowjob in the original Ghostbusters film, Jennifer Lopez sleeps with her character’s own father in U Turn, and will there ever be another movie like The ‘Burbs, a supposed comedy in which Tom Hanks spies on his neighbors only to find out they’re a Satanic cult killing neighbors for their rituals?
There are several things that stand out about many of these films. Genres blended, with comedy often mixing with horror. Sexual innuendo was flaunted in children’s films. Sexual encounters were scrubbed from films. Movies were made that enthralled children while also terrifying them. Obscure, philosophical ideals were searched in movies meant for younger audiences.
Today, you know what you’re going to get when you step into a film. A movie featuring Seth Green will be written to be mostly dirty humor and focus strictly on drawing laughter. Horror movies are designed to spill gore. Kids films explore themes of growing up but do their best to avoid anything that would make them feel afraid. Every audience is segmented and all of our writing is targeted to maximize how many members of a very specific audience the narrative can capture. Overlapping audiences don’t occur and narratives don’t dare to tread outside of their genres.
Disneyfication is about more than making films inoffensive. It’s about ensuring films don’t tread outside of specified market genres. Original Disney films, while archaic in many of their tropes, went outside of their genres because those genres hadn’t become stagnant yet. Sleeping Beautyspends an hour with dancing fairy godmothers and a light-hearted princess before turning to the villain Malificent, who turns into a dragon that gets stabbed through the heart. The Disney film, The Black Cauldron, is a rarely watched and mostly forgotten movie featuring the walking undead resurrected by an evil sorcerer named The Horned King. The Black Hole showcases several minutes of psychedelic, pulsating light strobes before plunging into visions of a robot inhabited Hell (not to mention the adorable talking robot sidekick dies 3/4s of the way into the movie).
And what exactly can we call A Nightmare Before Christmas, a movie appropriate for both Halloween and Christmas that manages to be both heart warming in its message and slightly terrifying in its presentation?
Over adherence to genre segmentation is a death-blow to good writing. It makes any piece of media too predictable, too sanitized. It leads to us deciding, in advance, what we can and cannot include based on whether it earns us more of a specific audience. We write to the number of readers or viewers we can grab within a specific niche rather than pushing the boundaries of our work.
Writing that dares to go beyond the prescribed limits of a genre is risky. It risks alienating certain readers or viewers who want to feel comfortable sticking within the tropes of a specific genre. It certainly risks offending someone. It’s writing that goes where the creative impulse leads, indulges in that impulse, and doesn’t tailor itself to market expectations.
FLOOR 21 was something I wrote that was inspired by horror and dystopian science fiction. It began with the idea of a society trapped at the top of a tower in a post apocalyptic setting, with no idea of how to get to ground floor, having been trapped there for untold years. The lower floors were deadly because of a disease called the Creep that caused people to hallucinate, with increasing fear giving the Creep increasing strength, until it could manifest and kill its targets by consuming them.
It was told through the voice of a 17 year old who talked like a current day teenager but involved solving a mystery of where humanity came from. In the sequels, it adopted both psychological horror elements and superhero elements. The book most certainly lost a few readers along the way, but it retained a steady core of readers who enjoyed the strong central characterization.
The point is this: Have a vision and tell the story you want to write. Tailor your writing to your audience to a degree, but never shy away from pushing the boundaries of your genre and experimenting with your material. Homogenous writing is forgettable writing, after all.
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