People are ecstatic about Frozen. Everyone’s going nuts about it. Fans are excited because in today’s age, a new Disney movie doesn’t just generate excitement for the film itself, but for the chance to see Disney’s storytellers grow more and more with each release.
So we know that we like Disney. Critics’ approval (or lack thereof) can be gauged by a movie’s Rotten Tomatoes score. Audience reaction can be appropriated by the release’s box-office receipts. But how do we know when a studio likes its own work? How do we identify when a company takes pride in its product? More specifically, how do we know that Walt Disney Animation Studios views the present as another Disney Renaissance just as much as its fans do?
With Disney, the answer comes in a simple but overlooked observation: presence in theme parks.
Granted, promotion here and there comes with every new animated release. Posters are plastered throughout Disney property and characters from the new films appear for meet & greets during their movie’s theatrical run and DVD debut. That’s standard fare. But after that cycle is over—once the newness wears off—is when we see the real value of a movie in its position within the Disney legacy.
If Imagineers choose to develop a permanent representation of a film in the Disney theme parks, that means, to them, it stacks up. It works. It’s worthy of the Disney name and can be counted on to endure for generations to come. That is where we find the answer to our Renaissance inquiry. And if the use of the most recent Disney films as they are depicted in the parks—after years of absence of anything new in the parks based on Disney Animation—the answer is a resounding “YES.”
Disney was nearly beside itself when The Princess and the Frog released in 2009. As a return to both hand-drawn animation and the musical genre, all arms of the company hyped publicity like crazy, seemingly happier to just have a quality product to work with than they were to promote the film. Its publicity efforts highlighted a return to Disney tradition, not a plea to head to the movies. Even though PATF wasn’t a resounding blockbuster, it did perform well and its inclusion of Tiana into the princess line was enough to cement the film into the way it lives on today.
No, PATF didn’t spawn any big-budget attraction, but its validity rests in the simple fact that its characters and themes now blend in with its Disney siblings as part of the overall park experience. Characters from the movie dance along with live jazz bands in Disneyland’s New Orleans Square. The song “Down in New Orleans” plays as the riverboat comes around the bend. Tiana rides aboard her own parade float. The film is part of the family just as much as any Disney classic, and maybe that’s more confirmation than anything of Disney’s satisfaction with it.
With Tangled in 2010 came an absolute smash-hit, pleasing audiences and critics, and propelling Rapunzel into the position of the new Disney Princess poster child. Perhaps the biggest affinity for Disney’s approval of Tangled (aside from the line that extends hours upon hours to meet Rapunzel) is a surprise area of the recent New Fantasyland expansion at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom that no one knew was coming until it simply popped up.
Unarguably the most elaborate restrooms to ever see the light of day, what has been dubbed by guests as “the Tangled potties” is just that: bathrooms dressed to the nines with extreme detail, complete with a full-blown construction of Rapunzel’s tower and a quaint version of the kingdom’s village from the film. Purple flags wave, a majestic waterfall splashes softly, and Alan Menken’s score permeates the air as background music. Guests are transported into the world the movie just as much as they are in the neighboring new areas themed to Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid.
When night falls, another feat of breathtaking Tangled magic is found in Celebrate the Magic, a projection show that uses Cinderella Castle as its screen. Various moments from Disney films are depicted, and among them is Tangled (again, we see the motif of new movies feeling comfortable alongside the old). But not just any scene from the movie—the one in which Rapunzel’s parents release the first lanterns into the night sky, followed by the kingdom citizens doing the same. The result is a beautiful assemblage of lanterns all over the castle. It’s impressive on video, and in person it’s impossible to not get chills.
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z8yeajMwkGc?rel=0] Video by Roy Cartelli.
In the same show, we see another instance of the modern era being embraced: the castle also substitutes for the game Fix-It Felix, Jr. from Wreck-It Ralph. Felix, Ralph, and the Nicelanders scurry about the turrets of the building in a very fun sequence.
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F1dh7IRzOMk?rel=0] Video by CharacterGamer.
But just as much as any of these clues—maybe even more so—that Disney Animation is back for good is the poster released just today for Frozen. The top reads, “From the creators of Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph.” That same marketing tactic could not have been used a few years ago. Among the pages of Disney history between Lilo & Stitch and The Princess and the Frog, almost nothing is left except faint memories. Disney is now in a place where it can leverage its new successes just as much as it can its library of films that is decades old. It’s a nice position to be in, and one that assures us that they’re getting it right.