What do you think of the newer Disney movies compared to the older ones? Are they all just products of their times? Are the artists/writers trying to actually change or influence the lives of chgildten? Has this changed since Disney became more and more popular?
Dear Rainbow Connection,
For the purposes of this discussion, I think it would be best to confine the topic to pure Disney movies, not focusing on subsidiaries like Lucasfilm or Marvel, since those were acquired relatively recently and therefore lack the rich history of classic Disney animated features.
My favorite story about Walt Disney is a rather famous one, but I love it nonetheless. Walt had two daughters, and when they were children he would dedicate his Saturdays to spending time with them. However, he often found himself sitting on a bench while his daughters rode a carousel, watching them have fun. It was on one of these outings that Walt Disney got the inspiration for Disneyland, as he thought to himself, "And sitting there, alone, I felt there should be something built, some kind of family park where parents and children could have fun together.”
That sentiment didn't merely inspire the theme park division of the company, it extends to every aspect of the Disney universe. And Disney as a whole has one particular gift that should be the envy of every corporation: they know how to market their products to a mass audience. Take Moana, for example. A Disney princess film is going to be seen by millions of children and millions of families, which says a lot about its influence in the first place. But featuring music by Lin-Manuel Miranda is going to bring in a much wider audience, especially young millennials who were enamored by Hamilton. As another example, Disney just announced that the Crystal Palace (a character buffet in Magic Kingdom) is going to start serving alcohol. That may not be seen as good news by some, but it definitely adds adult appeal to a theme park sometimes seen as more kid-friendly than adult oriented.
Disney movies are going to be seen by people of all ages and all backgrounds, which adds a lot of pressure to the endeavor. Despite its attempts to make films which will appeal to everyone, cartoons are generally viewed as meant for children, which means facing immense pressure regarding the content of the films. People and especially parents are going to be upset if a Disney film features anything other than wholesome values and uplifting sentiments. People are going to be upset if Disney is perceived as taking a social or political stand on an issue, such as the inclusion of openly gay characters in the live-action version of Beauty and the Beast. Some people will celebrate it, and others will be offended and won't want their children to be exposed to content like that. Simply put, as hard as Disney may try, there's no way to please everyone.
However, Disney understands those expectations and does its very best to create stories and films that will inspire children. Its idea of inspiration may differ from that of individual parents, but on the whole it features strong characters who make hard but good decisions and have a happy ending. However, the circumstances and stories surrounding those characters have evolved with changing times to reflect shifting American values. Cinderella is certainly an uplifting character, one who values kindness and hard work. But her happy ending is derived by a man, which may have been culturally celebrated when it was released in 1950, but wouldn't necessarily jive with the feminist rhetoric of the 21st century. In contrast, recent films like Frozen and Zootopia have unique and powerful female leads who may be influenced by the men in their lives, but don't need to be saved by them.
So to answer most of your question, Disney definitely does try to influence the lives of children, but because of the widespread influence it already holds, it does so cautiously. While Disney is cutting-edge in many ways, I don't think it's going to start championing controversial positions anytime soon, because to do so could in theory undermine its popularity and limit its audience.
As to what I think of the more recent movies, that's a complicated question. I've never walked out of a Disney movie and thought it was terrible, excepting the most recent Pirates of the Caribbean movie, which was terrible. But some of the films of recent years haven't blown me away. I did enjoy Moana and Pete's Dragon and Big Hero Six, but I don't feel the need to watch them again. However, working at Walt Disney World has shown me that younger generations ADORE Moana, and that new films are highly celebrated with character meet and greets and merchandise and music. During Happily Ever After, Magic Kingdom's nighttime spectacular, you can feel the energy that swells during the Moana section.
Examples like that have led me to conclude that Disney movies, while ultimately universal, do have a particular generation appeal. Have you seen the memes floating around the internet about The Incredibles 2, and the suggestions that the movie is really for adults and not kids? That's because the first movie came out 14 years ago, and those of us who were children when we first saw it in theaters are still enamored of it. Likewise, when back in March that Disney movie bracket was trending on Facebook, I saw some of my younger friends ending up with Tangled or Frozen at the top of their list, and I was scandalized that they would put anything before The Lion King. The movies that came out and were popular in the years surrounding my childhood like The Little Mermaid, Pocahontas, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame are always going to stand out to me as more classic Disney than newer films.
Thus to expound on your question a bit, it's not that Disney movies are products of their times necessarily, because all the live-action remakes suggest that the films definitely do have appeal even 50+ years later. However, in terms of popularity in the public consciousness, I see it more as people being products of their times, therefore the films that were influential during their childhoods are going to have greater nostalgia and appeal than the latest and greatest piece of Disney animation.