Do they want “story”? Really?

You can’t go anywhere online these days, it seems, without reading something about the current woes facing the Disney company — their traditionally animated movies keep faltering, while the Pixar movies keep packing in the business. Michael Eisner’s management of the company is falling apart, obviously, and he’s got rebellions going all over the place. But there’s one meme I keep encountering in all of this, and it’s that Disney has forgotten story and Pixar hasn’t. Disney’s 2D animated films tell lackluster stories, which is why they’ve been box-office disappointments for some years now. (Two examples: Oliver Willis, and this AICN article with requisite teeth-gnashing in the Talkbacks.)

But I’m just not sure if the whole “story” excuse works. It sounds nice, and at first glance it seems to fit, because the Pixar movies really do tend to feature superb and witty writing. But there have been plenty of traditional, 2D-animated movies in recent years that told good stories, not just Disney’s, and they all tanked at the box office. The Iron Giant is the biggest example. Lilo and Stitch deserved a better fate, and so did The Emperor’s New Groove, which in my mind if the most unjustly-ignored movie of the last five years. I’ve heard good things about this year’s Sinbad movie (which I didn’t see). The only one that was a real hit was Tarzan. There have been clunkers, to be sure — I enjoyed Atlantis, but I’ve read a lot of bad reviews of it, and Treasure Planet was pretty lame — but I really don’t think the idea that Disney movies have abandoned good storytelling really holds up.

So what’s the difference? Why are the Pixar movies doing so well? I actually do suspect that the novelty of the computer animation has something to do with it, but I don’t know, really — and I don’t think that anyone does. When a movie with a great story succeeds, everyone says “See, the public still likes great stories!” But there are still movies with great stories that fail, and movies with bad stories that succeed. I don’t know what people want, and I don’t think anyone else does, either. Someone on the AICN talkback I link above says that “The success of anime proves that 2D animation isn’t dead!” Well, maybe — but how many people actually did see Spirited Away last year? How big is the anime community, really? It’s growing, certainly, but it’s nowhere near a mainstream thing yet.

I suspect that sometimes the public decides it’s in the mood for a great story, and at other times, they don’t care. And there’s no predicting when that’s going to happen, any more than I can predict when I’m going to get the hankering for a nice, juicy steak. (This probably ties into my growing suspicion these days that marketing is a completely bogus enterprise, but my thoughts on that aren’t even half-baked right now, so I’ll leave off.)

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