The Nostalgia Machine: How Disney Keeps Roping You In

No matter how many times you try to get out, Disney will always pull you back in.

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Complex Original

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Last year I auditioned to become a cast member for Tokyo Disney. 

I’m not a dancer. I’m not a singer. But I do have facial hair that could be fashioned to sort of look like Captain Jack Sparrow’s. I spent a week practicing Johnny Depp’s voice and mannerisms. I needn’t have bothered.

Inside a sweaty dance studio in North Hollywood, I encountered a small horde of Disney Divas, an obsessed subculture of boys and girls who all wanted to be Princes and Princesses and acted the part. They all couldn’t wait to be king (or queen). Nostalgia wasn’t just their engine; it was their happily ever after, even if it involved becoming a fictional character for minimum wage.  

I loved and grew up with Disney movies (we all did), but these young men and women wanted to live Disney, with aspirations of Broadway, voice-acting, and selling popcorn to children in a Simba costume ingrained in them since watching The Lion King, sparking a bizarre circle of life. 

I was reminded of my spectacularly brief foray into the world of Disneyland this past weekend at the fourth biennial D23 EXPO in Anaheim, a celebration of the past, present, and future of Disney, as if those things are clearly delineated. Considering the presentations for Toy Story 4 and live action versions of The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s past, present, and future look indecipherable. 

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But that’s by design—that’s branding, the staggering dream-making machine that is Disney, whistling while it works. This is a corporation, quite clearly manipulating and capitalizing on our childhoods, brokering off their own legacy. But, somehow, it doesn’t feel like that (completely). Or for whatever reason, we don’t care. I wasn’t the only one at D23 brushing away tears during sizzle reels of old Disney films.

With global box office success predicated upon nostalgia, it’s easy to see Disney as Patient Zero for the phenomenon. Disney ushered in a whole new world by adapting and modernizing the old one. Every Disney animated and live action feature is an attempt to update a classic tale by putting a modern spin on it. This mirrors Hollywood as a whole, as studios are banking on reboots, remakes, adaptations, “reimaginings” or whatever buzz word they can use that doesn’t immediately imply cash grab. Yet Disney seems to be doing it the right way. Or it gets a hall pass at least.

When it comes to Disney, fandom is less a choice than a birthright, a love impressed on us from the very beginning, synched by VHS-laden slumber parties. We were all Simba, Ariel, and Mulan, adopting their stories as our own.

The enthusiasm for Disney’s portfolio extends beyond the collective of fans with Peter Pan syndrome who refuse to grow up. If you were drinking every time an animator, actor, or filmmaker revealed at D23 it was a "dream come true" to work for Disney and "join the Disney family" this weekend, you’d be lying in a ditch somewhere in Anaheim.

There was Emma Watson speaking the magic words in a pre-taped segment: it’s a "dream come true" to play Belle in the forthcoming live action version of Beauty and the Beast. Live action Jungle Book director Jon Favreau confessed he grew up with the 1967 original. Even Dwayne Johnson admitted he had similar aspirations: When starting in the film industry Dwayne Johnson’s goal was to "be part of the Disney family." Now that he’s starring in the South Pacific fairy tale Moana, "we’re all family now." Drink twice!

What’s clear is that everybody, from The Rock and Pixar-Disney Animation Chief John Lasseter to actress Rashida Jones, co-scripting Toy Story 4, means it. This is a dream come true.

Why? What makes Disney special? It seems stupid to even ask that because it’s seemingly always been the case, certainly since I’ve been alive, and certainly since Walt Disney opened Disneyland 60 years ago. Disneyland was and is magic, Shangri-La with a FastPass.

The only thing that approaches the reverence people have for Disney is the reverence people have for Star Wars, and now they’re one and the same. 

At the end of the Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens teaser that broke the internet, an elder Han Solo says to his bestie, "Chewie, we’re home." The scruffy looking hero of everyone’s childhood, now a part of the Disney family, was speaking for everyone at the D23 EXPO and around the world listening to the Aladdin soundtrack on Spotify.

When it comes to Disney, these lost boys and lost girls are found. Disney is home, Disney is their childhood, and while this can be traced back to Mickey Mouse and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the turning point was the early 90’s, when it inspired a generation of kids who are now dictating the fate of Hollywood blockbusters. 

The ground zero of Disney’s comeback was The Little Mermaid (1989), which was followed by Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King and [insert movie you’d be upset at me not mentioning here]. The Little Mermaid was the second feature from co-directors John Musker and Ron Clements, who would go on to direct Aladdin and Hercules (and are returning to the Disney family with Moana). The Little Mermaid was also the first Disney film scored by Alan Menken, who would go on to compose for Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Hercules, Tangled, etc. Menken’s arrival signaled a return of the Oscar-winning superstar songwriters and performers to Disney’s ranks. Menken was quickly joined by Hans Zimmer and Elton John (The Lion King), Randy Newman (Toy Story) and Phil Collins (Tarzan).

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The next step in the '90s animated blitz was sparked by the incomparable Robin Williams. While big names had been drawn to animation from the very beginning, it was Robin Williams' life-affirming turn as Genie in Aladdin that helped make animated movies a star-studded affair. Two years later, Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, Whoopi Goldberg, Rowan Atkinson, and Nathan Lane added star-power to The Lion King. Today that’s a ho-hum cast for animated fare. 

The '90s were also a time of technological advancement, with the evolution of computer animation and the first completely digitally animated feature film, Pixar’s Toy Story in 1995. While Toy Story and its sequel, along with A Bug’s Life, were produced and distributed by Disney, the two companies weren’t merged until 2006. There were never more studios in the animation game than in the '90s. FOX Animation produced Pagemaster and FernGully: The Last Rainforest. Universal had the Land Before Time franchise. WB made Space Jam and Iron Giant. Steven Spielberg’s Amblimation came the closest to capturing the Disney magic with An American Tail, before helping start Dreamworks, which created Prince of Egypt, and were on the cusp of 2001’s Shrek. Even the Samuel Goldwyn Company had Glen Campbell’s Rock-a-Doodle. This competition forced Disney to up their game, producing the studio’s third golden age.

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It’s been twenty years since the first Toy Story. A Goofy Movie was similarly celebrating its 20th anniversary this weekend. Aladdin is getting the Blu-Ray treatment in October, 23 years later. 

I feel old.

Walt Disney Studios is 92 years old, but the appeal of Disney hasn’t aged a bit, and the reason for that is simple: Disney’s enthusiasm, emotion, and love are genuine. Disney’s own employees and stars grew up with Disney, and their heart remains intact thanks to their filmmakers, led by the Hawaiian shirt-wearing Lasseter, blessedly gifted with a dose of Peter Pan syndrome just as strong as his devotees.

This warmth was on display throughout D23. In a scene from the upcoming The Good Dinosaur Arlo the Apatosaurus and his companion Spot the Human bond over the loss of family, forging an inseparable bond that spans a language and species barrier. Disney is universal.

It’s easy to be cynical about the state of pop culture and the stagnancy of original properties, and to write off everything heard at D23 as corporate speak. Certainly whatever comes out of Chairman Alan Horn’s mouth is. But when Horn says that Disney is "stronger now than ever," it’s indisputable.

The allure of a happy ending never goes away, and it’s little surprise that it’s stronger now than ever in a world filled with mounting dread. 

Disney has devoted its considerable stock profile to the ethereal concept of nostalgia, marketing the legacy of its past. Disney doesn’t just refuse to grow up; it’s their mission statement. And it’s clearly working for them.

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