Everyone is probably familiar with the Disney film introduction with flames drawing a half circle over the shining white castle with fireworks exploding as familiar melodies play. Disney animated films gave us childhood dreams and fantasies, and each film remained as a movie that had enormous brand value on its own. This success has extended into newer and more exciting format for Disney films. On Aug. 1, Disney’s live-action movie [Aladdin] attracted more than 12 million viewers and [Lion King] is currently out in theaters. Disney has also announced that they will release various live-action movies, including [Mulan] and [The Little Mermaid]. The Argus analyzed and looked into the elements of Disney animated films that have followed the course of societal changes.
What is Disney?
The Walt Disney Company, commonly known as Disney, is an American diversified multinational mass media and entertainment conglomerate headquartered at the Walt Disney Studios complex in Burbank, California. Disney was originally founded on Oct. 16, 1923 by brothers Walt and Roy O. Disney. The company established itself as a leader in the American animation industry before diversifying into live-action film production, television, and theme parks.
What is Live-action?
Live-action is a concept that contrasts with the artificial movement of animation, which is played by a real actor. Walt Disney first used the live-action in animation. Usually, Disney’s remake of the original animation is called a “live-action” movie.
Disney’s New Movements
Establishment of autonomous female characters
Watching the live-action Disney films, one can realize that the original heroine type, who was passive and vulnerable, has turned into a character with a strong identity. Typical examples are [Aladdin] and [Beauty and the Beast]. Jasmine, who was dependent on her father Sultan and Aladdin in the original, goes against her father’s words, “You can’t be a sultan because you’re a woman.” Then, she eventually becomes the first female sultan in the live-action movie. Jeong Min-ah, a movie critic, said, “The biggest feature of the live-action movie [Aladdin] is the enhanced female narrative. In fact, a female sultan does not exist, but the Aladdin-centric epic was transformed into a Jasmine-centric one by mobilizing the imagination.” [Beauty and the Beast] also builds a self-directed female character. In the live-action movie, Bell appears much more active than in the original release. For example, unlike the animation in which she just watched a fight between the villain Gaston and the Beast, Bell jumps into direct confrontation.
Conscious multiracial casting
The first topical part of Disney live-action movie is probably that of casting. Who reproduces the characters in the animation and how much the external synchronization matches will lead to speculation even before the premiere. The casting of [Aladdin] began in 2017. As a result, Mena Massoud won for Aladdin and Naomi Scott won for Jasmine after competing with 2000-to-1 odds. Mena Massoud is from Egypt, and Naomi Scott is Indian. Marwan Kenzari, who played Jafa, is a Dutch actor of Tunisian descent. Nasim Pedrad, who played Dahlia, the princess’s maid and best friend, is an American actor from Iran. Moreover, Chinese actor Liu Yifei has been cast to play the main character of the [Mulan], due for release in 2020, making headlines. Liu Yifei was cast through a competitive rate of 1,000:1. These cases highlight that the latest Disney productions carry an extremely talented cast made up of very different races and backgrounds.
Changed story lines through the spin-off format
Disney used a spin-off format to bring a whole new storyline in the process of making a live-action movie. A spin-off is the format of creating a new story by taking characters or settings from existing movies, dramas and games. Disney has especially used spin-offs, which shed light on the original villain characters. [Maleficent], the upcoming movie [Maleficent 2] and [Cruella] changed the story flow using a spin-off in which the original villain appears as the main character. The main character of [Maleficent] is Maleficent, the villain in the animation [Sleeping Beauty]. Then [Cruella], which is scheduled to be released in 2020, based on the 1961 release [101 Dalmatians] will feature the original villain Cruella as the main character. Hwang Se-jin, a student of Sookmyung Woman’s University (SMWU) ‘18, said, “I highly praise [Maleficent] for breaking the frame of the idea that a villain cannot be the main character. After watching this movie, it became a habit to imagine when and why a villain character became a villain. I hope Disney continually produces movies that leads to a shift in thinking like this.”
What Made Disney Change?
The proliferation of feminism
Animation is like a double-sided mirror. It reflects the values that hold up fantasy and desire on one side and reality on the other. These days, any Disney movie is considered in step with the trend of the proliferation of feminism, turning former female characters into independent ones. Women who entered into a social career had to stand up against the discrimination of the past and present, and feminism is recognized as a diverse social issue that cannot be ignored any longer. Jeong Min-ah, a movie critic, said, “Disney’s recent introduction of active female characters is a clever strategy that reflects the demands of society as it changes. I believe that Disney is doing its job as a responsible member of the media establishment well in expressing a world of ‘strong female images’ that has not been realized in reality.” Lee Sun-ok, a professor who teaches Women Complex on Cultural Text in SMWU, said, “The recent change in the female character shown by Disney seems positive in that it actively embraces criticism of femininity in a patriarchal society.”
Sense of controversy over white washing
Disney has long been mired in controversy over white washing. As the controversy continues and criticism mounts, Disney consciously casts actors of various races in its live-action movies. The definition of “white washing” originally meaning “covering something or cleaning it up,” has changed. However, in the modern cultural context, it means the Hollywood community’s practice of casting white people in non-white character roles. In the 2010 Disney movie [Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time], white actor Jake Gyllenhaal played Prince Dastan of Persia. It became controversial, Disney casting an American actor for the character of the Persian prince, a prince of ancient Iranian region. Criticism intensified under the fact that Disney put tanning lotion on Gyllenhaal’s body while filming because his white skin did not fit the character’s roots. In September, 2016, it was revealed that a white actor named Jennifer Lawrence was nominated for the main role in the Disney live-action movie [Mulan]. As a result of this casting, a petition stating, “I don’t want a white-washed Mulan” topped 112,000 signatures, and social networking sites spread the hashtag “#MakeMulanRight.” Also, in September, 2017, Disney announced that white actor Billie Magnusson will play Prince Anders in the live-action movie [Aladdin]. However, Prince Anders is a character that does not exist in the original [Aladdin]. Therefore, Disney was accused of creating a new character simply to cast a white actor. Eventually the casting was canceled.
A breakaway from good triumphs over evil story line
As the public has come to analyze characters with more realistic eyes over time, curiosity about the villain character has also increased. This kind of flow, coupled with criticism that Disney animations stick to the stereotypical story line, led Disney to try to break away from the existing system of Good triumphs over Evil. Lee Sun-ok, a professor of SMWU, said, “Depending on social trends, it seems clear that Disney animations are moving away from the dichotomous confrontation between traditional good (passive innocent women) and evil (capable witch villain).” Hwang Se-jin, a student of SMWU ‘18, said, “When I had a narrow range of thoughts in the past, I was immersed in the main character’s story, adversity and emotions. So, I felt uncomfortable and irritated whenever there was a villain. However, this idea has changed little by little with the recent emergence of an attractive and historical villain.” Today, Disney is trying to erase its weakness of a typical story line in with these social demands.
Critics of passive feminism
On Disney’s attempt to transform former female characters into autonomous ones, some say Disney has become too liberal. In contrast, however, some critics state that Disney only accepted the minimum amount of feminism according to social demand. In other words, Disney only tries to follow the feminism flow rather than lead. Jang Mi-young, a professor of Research Institute of Asian Women, opined, “The challenge and achievement of female characters in the story has moved forward, but the scheme of using women as scapegoats for men’s well-being and growth still remains as a task,” and added “For example, Bell in [Beauty and the Beast] is a character for the well-being of her father and growth of the Beast. Jasmine in [Aladdin] also has a limit in that Aladdin makes the final solution to the problem.” Jeong Min-ah, a movie critic, said “Since the stratum of audience is large, it will be difficult to find a middle ground to satisfy all audiences in terms of making movies. Some audiences argue that the aggressive feminism could make some feel uncomfortable and some audience who do not have any interest in feminism could also feel uncomfortable for other reasons.”
Black washing and synchronization controversy
Disney has cast various races to avoid the white washing controversy, but this was also criticized for being excessive in an effort to avoid criticism. Therefore, the black washing controversy came out. “Black washing” is a neologism coined against white washing, in which a black person plays a character originally set as white. It flared up after Halle Bailey was cast in Disney live-action movie, [The Little Mermaid], which is scheduled to be released on March 27, 2020. Ariel, the main character of the original animation [The Little Mermaid], released in 1989, is a white woman with red hair. However, 19-year-old black singer and actor Halle Bailey has been selected for the role of Ariel in the live-action movie. Some netizens expressed their anger at Disney by spreading hashtags such as #NotMyAriel #Blackwashing because of this casting. In response, Disney left a message on its affiliated channel “Freeform” on Instagram that Princess Mermaid could be black. This is one example that has intensified the debate about casting.
A sense of divergence between original and live-action
Disney’s switch to live-action movies has not only received positive reviews. Some films were also criticized by fans for a lack of connectivity with the original. Disney starred a villain in [Sleeping Beauty] in its live-action movie [Maleficent], but a lot of old fans of Disney were disappointed because the setting of the Maleficent character was so different. In the live-action movie, Maleficent appears not as a witch, but as a fairy captain, and has a kind heart that cares about her own world, unlike the original version. [Alice in Wonderland], directed by Tim Burton, is also a live-action movie that differs greatly from the original. Movie critic Jeong Min-ah, said, “Among the live-action movies, [Alice in Wonderland] has developed a more likely story than the original, explaining the fantasy space in the original film through human psychology. However, I personally think this development hurt the originality of the story, creating a gap between the original and live-action.”
It is positive that Disney, a 100-year-old conglomerate, is trying to make a change according to the needs of the day. However, “dreaming” of change should be stopped by the past when we are consumed by the Disney animations of the 1900s. We should now “turn another dream into reality” through brand-new Disney live-action movies. The Argus hopes that readers will continue to critically analyze differences between Disney’s original animation and live-action movies, instead of spending their interest on live-action movies just for entertainment.
By Choi Yun-jeong
Staff Reporter of Culture Section