Disney Derivatives: The Role of the Artifact in Disney’s Marketing

You might recall a pretty epic shot from Mulan where Shan Yu’s falcon soars across the aftermath of an avalanche, soaring past the camera and down into a valley. The shot only lasts about twenty seconds, yet it required diagram upon diagram of reference for the dozens of artists involved in making it come to life, including detailed charts for the multiplane camera which needed five different setups and seventeen separate layers all moving in tandem to make this single shot happen in realtime. As I surveyed these graphs of technical ingenuity, I looked up to see a plastic figurine of Mulan that looked like it came straight from a McDonald’s Happy Meal, with some of the paint rubbed off from old age and the faint outline that comes from the imperfect factory mold running all up and down its side. The graphs seem almost opposite to the figurine, being carefully curated and original rather than mass-produced and imitative. But in the eyes of the Mouse, they are both equally vital to the life of Mulan – the graphs as its ancestor, and the figurine as its descendant.

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A poster for the event

This was the charm of Collectibility: Art and Commodity in the Disney Renaissance, curated by Ph.D. Candidate Mery-et Lescher. The exhibit, assembled in the William Johnston Building, showcased real work from behind the scenes of classic Disney films – such as the aforementioned diagrams, a painted cel of Ariel and Flounder from the production of The Little Mermaid, and a clay sculpture from Tarzan that animators used as visual reference to bring to life the title character, just to name a few – providing insight on the arduous process of creating a feature-length animated film. However, a majority of the pieces on display did not come from the animator’s studio – they came instead from the assembly lines and factories. Coffee cups shaped like gargoyles from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a holographic poster for Lilo & Stitch, pencils tattooed with Mickey Mouse heads. The exhibit showed that while the Disney Company facilitated a revolution in animation technology by incorporating CGI and other methods of computer processing, so did they revolutionize their films’ advertising campaigns through the rising role of promotional artifacts.

To see all these different iterations of a film’s world come together is absolutely bizarre. In a single case of the Collectibility exhibit, you could see the preproduction concept art of Mulan riding her horse through a purple-and-blue mountain range in the style of traditional Chinese watercolor – then look over to see the actual painted cel of Mulan sitting with her father under a canopy of pink flowers – and turn once more to see an aging plush toy of Mushu the Dragon that looks straight out of the Magic Kingdom gift shop. Each one is a derivative work from the other – the vision that inspires the craft that inspires the artifact – and each an equally important part of the artistic process.

At least, that’s what Disney’s marketing strategies seem to imply. For the last several decades, the Disney Company has shown that the Corporate Mouse is just as important to their operation as the Creative Mouse, if not more. Whether you visit the stores in Walt Disney World or drive down to your local Walmart, you’ll find hundreds of products that have the latest-and-greatest Disney blockbusters plastered all over them – Elsa and Anna from Frozen dominating the girls’ clothing sections, gigantic plush toys of Baymax from Big Hero 6, even Lego sets of the scenes and characters from Pixar’s Toy Story trilogy. It has now become vital for the worlds and characters of the latest Disney releases to have an extended life far outside the confines of the film, making their mark in shopping centers worldwide.

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A few of the artifacts from the display

While we might tire of all this product placement from time to time, it’s important to note just how good Disney has become at subliminally soaking our minds in their movie worlds. You only need to look backs to the early 2000s to see how much they’ve improved in getting results from their advertising. The early 90s brought some Disney classics that were enormously successful, with Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King coming out back-to-back – films that made a killing at the box office while also raising the bar for the art and craft of animation. This period is affectionately known as the Disney Renaissance, and while these successes continued through Mulan and Tarzan in the late 90s, the turn of the century left Disney in a rut. Movies like Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet, and Brother Bear were box office disasters (at least compared to the previous decade’s work) and were met with shrugs from the theater-goers, even though the majority these films’ creative directors came from the same studios that had dazzled the audiences with their 90s hits.

So what changed? Of course, there are many factors at play, but perhaps the largest factor came from the life that these movies had in the real world. Disney overwhelmed the public with sweeping media campaigns, and while some of these were charming (i.e. the teasers for Lilo & Stitch, where Stitch would invade famous scenes from films of the Disney Renaissance), most of them simply lacked intrigue, trying to impress audiences by bombarding them with action sequences rather than showing the heart and mystery that Disney was known for. Films like Atlantis and Treasure Planet, which are only now being recognized for their groundbreaking synthesis of 2D and CG elements, were not appreciated during their time simply because audiences were too exhausted to receive them.

So it’s no wonder that the Disney Company puts so much stake into its merchandise – the quality and frequency of these derivative products is vital to a good public image for their film, and a good public image is going to get more people to see the movie in theaters, thus improving the film’s longevity and increasing the value of derivative products. Perhaps the public has become more open to the concept of artifact culture too, choosing to embrace products that bring their favorite Disney worlds and characters into their daily lives. The simple truth is that the success of most Disney movies now (and for other studios as well) is based on the image they create with their advertising – not just on our TVs, but in our stores as well. I think the exhibits curator Ms. Lescher put it best when she told me her take on the situation: “these Disney films are 25% art and 75% artifact.”
It would be tempting to jump to a negative conclusion, implying a world where film corporations have let their imitative products outgrow the actual creative works they are imitating. But to create universes that capture people’s imaginations even when they leave the theater, fictional worlds that people choose to represent themselves in their day-to-day lives – that’s its own kind of creativity, albeit a mass-distributed one. I must admit, it was hard for me to look into the smiling face of the exhibit’s stuffed Simba without being transported to that same fuzzy feeling that The Lion King brought out in me as a child – and that feeling will persist no matter how many of those Simbas are out there.

JAMIE BLACKBAND / Contributing Writer

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