Wish – Review

This is what 100 years of artistry has led to.  The Walt Disney Company is a multi-faceted machine that has many branches into different aspects of our pop culture; from movies to theme parks and so much more.  But the core of Disney still remains their now century old animation studio.  Started out of a back room of a law office, Disney quickly grew into the juggernaut of the still maturing animation medium of filmmaking.  They were the industry leaders and the trend setters, and to this day, Disney Animation is still regarded as the gold standard of the art form.  Though the studio has been responsible for many beloved animated projects, what most fans hold the most dear is what is called the Disney Feature Canon.  The canon of animated features dates back to the groundbreaking first, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), which was at the time thought to be an impossible achievement.  But, the success of Snow White proved that animation could indeed hold peoples’ attention for the length of a full feature film, and Walt Disney and his team wasted no time in repeating that achievement.  Before Snow White was even out of theaters, the Disney animators were already at work on two more projects, Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia (1940), with a couple more also in the early pipeline.  Disney has continued to build upon this canon of films, through both good times and bad.  The tools over time have changed as well, with computers replacing the traditional hand drawn method.  With the release of last year’s Strange World (2022), the total number of Animated Features in the Disney canon reached 61.  But, there was a milestone coming up in 2023 as the Animation Studio was about to hit it’s century mark.  And with a huge milestone like 100 years, the Disney animation team needed to figure out a special way to mark the occasion.

Sadly, the 100th anniversary has fallen on a hard time for the Disney company.  The studio has seen a lot of their projects over the last year fall short of expectations, which has led to a significant priority shift.  At the same time, the industry itself is not what it used to be, as the streaming market has put every previous metric of success into flux.  The last couple of years has been a bit of a perfect storm of confusion and bad fortune to fall upon every aspect of Hollywood, but especially at Disney.  The pandemic caused significant disruption across the spectrum of the business, with Disney seeing not just a hit to their box office performance with theater closures, but also lengthy closures of their theme parks as well.  Once the world began to re-open, the problems didn’t go away.  Budgets that ballooned over the course of filming during a pandemic made it harder for them to re-coup at the box office once theaters were re-opened, and a significant shift towards streaming viewership also made it hard for studios to generate excitement for theatrical releases.  This was particularly evident with Disney, as their corporate mandate went aggressively into the streaming market.  Though all animation at Disney was affected, the brunt of this shift was particularly felt at Disney’s sister studio in Emeryville, California; Pixar Animation.  Their movies for over 2 years weren’t even granted a theatrical exhibition, including Soul (2020), Luca (2021) and Turning Red (2022).  Meanwhile, the main animation studio still was able to get theatrical releases, though they didn’t fare much better in the post-pandemic box office.  Since Covid, no Disney Animation film has crossed the $100 million mark at the box office, which is troubling given that before the outbreak in 2019, Frozen II (2019) managed to gross over a billion worldwide.  With the 100th anniversary looming, and pressure mounting to deliver a movie that could reverse the sagging fortunes of Disney Animation, the studio heads decided the right thing to do was to return to basics with their newest animated film called Wish (2023); a traditional fairy tale adventure musical with all the hallmarks of what made Disney the dream machine that it has become over the last 100 years.  The only question is did their wish come true or is a dream too far to reach?

The story of Wish takes place in the mythical kingdom known as Rosas.  The island kingdom has become a place of refuge where residents have come from all over the world to have their greatest dreams come true.  They all come to Rosas because the kingdom is ruled over by a sorcerer turned monarch named King Magnifico (Chris Pine) who has the power to grant wishes, though on a limited basis.  Everyone desires to serve the king and his Queen Amaya (Angelique Cabral) fatihfully in order to have their wish selected and fulfilled.  Chief among them is an eager young woman named Asha (Ariana DeBose), who has been granted an interview to become Magnifico’s apprentice.  Asha has no wish to give herself, but instead she wants to fulfill the wish of her 100 year old grandfather Sabino (Victor Garber).  Upon meeting Magnifico in his palace, she learns that the King is not really granting wishes, but rather hoarding them, picking and choosing a select few to grant each year.  Asha challenges his assertion of what to do with the wishes and it causes her to lose her candidacy for the job.  Distraught, Asha looks for hope in her own wishes, and seeks guidance in the stars above.  To her surprise, a star comes down from the sky towards her.  The Star has a mind of it’s own and begins to spread it’s magic around the forest where Asha has found herself in.  To her surprise, all the creatures touched by the star dust begin to speak, including her pet goat Valentino (Alan Tudyk).  The arrival of the star alarms King Magnifico, who believes it to be a threat to his hold on power over the people of Rosas.  He declares Asha to be a traitor for sheltering the Star, and he promises a wish granted to anyone who rats her out.  Asha seeks the help of her seven friends in the palace, including Dahlia (Jennifer Kumiyama), Gabo (Harvey Guillen), Hal (Niko Vargas), Simon (Evan Peters), Safi (Ramy Youssef), Dario (Jon Rudnitsky), and Bazeema (Della Saba) to assist her in getting Star to the wishes so he can grant them all.  But, they’ll have to act fast once Magnifico has started to delve deeper into his dark, forbidden magic.

As described before, the movie Wish has a lot of heavy lifting to do.  It’s got to help restore Disney’s waning success at the box office while at the same time mark the 100th anniversary of the studio as a whole.  Either is no easy task, but on paper this movie does have the ingredients to make a valiant attempt at the job.  It’s got a charismatic princess type heroine at the heart of its story, vibrant animation, ambitious musical numbers, an unambiguous villainous threat, and plenty of funny talking animals.  It pretty much is every Disney movie you can think of rolled into one.  Unfortunately, the pieces don’t all come together like they should.  Disney’s Wish sadly feels more like a parody of a Disney movie rather than the fleshed out stand alone feature that it aspires to be.  As a life long Disney fan, this movie is especially disheartening in its disappointment because of all those factors that weigh on its shoulder that I described earlier.  It’s the movie that was “100 years in the making” according to the marketing for this film, and this is what we ended up with?  The characters are all shallow imitations of characters we’ve already seen in other, better Disney movies; quite literally in seven specific cases.  The songs are bland and will in no way climb the charts the same way that classics from “When You Wish Upon a Star” to “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” have done in the past.  Even the animation feels woefully generic, especially in contrast to more ambitious films in the last year like Dreamworks’ Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022) and Spider-Man: Across the Spiderverse (2023).  Now, to be fair, I have seen worse from Disney; the abysmal Frozen II comes to mind, as well as the basement dweller Chicken Little (2005).  But the way that Wish squanders all of it’s opportunities just makes the end result feel so frustrating and pretty much a punctuation mark on the lackluster year that Disney gave us to mark their 100 years.  Of course, the studio is aware of it’s shortcomings right now and are taking steps to right the ship, but sadly the occasion of a one hundred year anniversary is one they should have gone the extra length to make particularly special and it’s ultimately a wasted effort.

The first and foremost problem with Wish is the story, or more appropriately the lack of one.  Again, the ingredients are there for something special, but it just feels like the filmmakers want to speed run us through them.  This was really apparent to me at a point watching the film where I thought the movie was actually beginning to find some dramatic footing but then I realized that it was already heading into its climax.  I was shocked to to see that almost nothing of substance was happening in the lead up to the climax; it’s just a collection of cat and mouse chases and then on to the final battle.  The movie is 95 minutes long, a full 11 minutes longer than Beauty and the Beast (1991) for example at it’s 84 minute length, and yet in the Beauty and the Beast’s case those 84 minutes developed a richly textured love story that grows organically without feeling rushed and even finds time for seven original songs.  Wish never gives the story enough time to breath and allow us to get to know the characters and the world they inhabit.  One obvious problem is that there are simply too many characters.  Not only do you have Asha and King Magnifico, the two characters who we should be learning the most about in the story, but their time on screen has to be shared with Asha’s seven friends, her pet goat, as well as Asha’s grandfather and mother, and also the Queen as well.  The movie has a big problem with balancing all of these characters into the story as a whole, and as a result character development suffers.  This is especially a problem when it comes to Asha, as she should stand out as a more interesting heroine.  We don’t understand her motivations other than standing up to King Magnifico.  Her wants and desires are ultimately surface level and she never exhibits any aspirational qualities.  More useful time used to develop her as a character could have helped, but I guess the filmmakers were desperate to have a song and dance scene with chickens.

Not every aspect of the film fails though.  If there is a silver lining to the film, it would be the voice cast.  While her character development suffers greatly in the movie, Asha still is able to be endearing enough thanks to the soulful performance of Oscar-winner Ariana DeBose in the part.  You can tell she is trying her hardest in the performance to make Asha an appealing character, and it does translate in the film.  There’s a wonderful earnestness in her vocal performance that helps to cut through the lackluster writing.  You can probably tell from Ariana’s performance that voicing a Disney heroine was a dream come true for her, so she definitely seized her moment and made the most of it, especially in the songs that she performs.  Of all the songs in the movie, the one that comes closest to working is the big ballad “This Wish;” your standard Disney “I Want” song.  The song itself is no “Part of Your World,” by a long shot, but Ariana DeBose still crushes it with her angelic, Broadway trained voice.  The other noteworthy vocal performance is from Chris Pine, playing the villainous Magnifico.  You can definitely see that Pine understood the assignment and goes full maniacal Disney villain with his performance.  It’s a little cartoonishly over the top at times, but given the blandness of most of the rest of the movie, his performance is the one thing about the movie that stands out, and as a result he ends up stealing every scene he’s in.  Alan Tudyk has over the years become Disney Animation’s good luck charm, having had a role in every film from the studio since Wreck-It Ralph (2012); much like the role John Ratzenberger has played over at Pixar Animation.  Tudyk’s performance as Valentino the Goat is fine, though not as funny as his past roles, and he’s mainly here just to get a chuckle out of the little kids in the audience, which I guess he does a fine job with.  The rest of the cast don’t stand out much at all, but they aren’t terrible either.  Again, the cast is let down by a poorly written story, and it’s only through the efforts of a talented vocal cast that they movie escapes becoming a complete disaster.

There’s a lot to say about the animation as well.  Wish continues the recent trend of textured animation being applied to 3D computer generated models.  It’s basically CGI trying to emulate the look and feel of something that was hand drawn.  In some cases, we’ve seen a brilliant utilization of this animation style, like with Sony Animation’s  Spiderverse movies.  It’s a trend that is definitely catching on, and Wish is Disney’s first attempt at adopting this style.  While the Spiderverse movies emulated the look of comic books for its art style, Disney delved into its own history to find the right kind of texture to build their palette around.  The art style of Wish is a mixture of the kind watercolor richness of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, but with the angular composition and high detail of Sleeping Beauty (1959).  While the end result does look pleasing to the eye, it also makes the movie feel derivative.  The movie tries too hard to look like a Disney movie, and as a result it lacks its own iconic elements to help it stand out.  All the classic Disney animated features stood out from the pack because they didn’t just copy what had been done before.  That’s why each kingdom is unique in the Disney canon, and why they work with so many diverse cultural influences.  When Disney movies are your cultural inspiration, it just feels like animation cannibalizing itself.  Also, Disney doesn’t fully commit to the textured animation either.  The distinctiveness of the Spiderverse movies is attributable to the way the characters are animated as well, with the animators using choppier frame rates for the characters to make their movements seem more dynamic and hand drawn.  The characters in Wish have the skin and clothing texture of that classic Disney hand drawn style, but they still move with the same fluidity of a computer animated character, making the characters feel a little too plastic.  Perhaps it may have worked better if, you know, Disney actually tried to make this movie the traditional hand drawn way like they used to.  I feel like Disney has been spooked ever since the post-Renaissance decline and the fact that the big hand drawn come back in the late 2000’s, led by The Princess and the Frog (2009) never lit up the box office the way they would’ve liked.  Since then, it’s been all CGI for better and worse.  I know it’s out of their comfort zone now, but I feel Wish would’ve been better served as a return to the traditional hand drawn art style that built the company in the first place, rather than this compromised half-and-half approach that ultimately doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to.

I don’t think that Wish is the end of Disney Animation as we know it as some more doomerist critics have deemed it to be.  It definitely feels like a good idea that unfortunately was squandered by a lot of bad creative decision.  How far up the problems go at Disney Animation I am not sure, but the movie definitely feels like it was the victim of corporate interference as the studio was desperate to have a product out by the end of the year to commemorate an anniversary.  It doesn’t surprise me at all that this was a late Chapek era project, as it has all the hallmarks of a movie made by a committee rather than artists.  The screenplay was co-written by Disney Animation head Jennifer Lee, but her success in the pass with working on classics like Frozen (2013) and more recently Encanto (2021) should say that she’s got enough good creative good sense to see these features through.  Considering that this movie was produced during the turbulent transition from Bob Chapek back to Bob Iger tells me that the film needed more time to fully cook, but it unfortunately had to still hold it’s anniversary release date which meant not giving it enough time to work out all it’s issues.  I just hope that Bob Iger and the top Disney brass takes the disappointment of this movie as a sign that they need to invest less in their animation output.  If anything, this movie shows that the Animation Department at Disney has been neglected these last couple years, and should really be focused on more.  You can still tell that the animators poured their heart and soul into their work.  It’s just that all that great animation ultimately doesn’t stand out with a story that is insultingly flimsy.  Sadly, this is what we ended up with as a touchstone to mark Disney’s 100th anniversary.  We as fans wanted a love letter and all we got was a greeting card.  But, if you are looking for a more rewarding experience to mark Disney’s 100th, check out the short Once Upon a Studio (2023), playing right now on Disney+.  The short is a wonderful celebration of the studio’s history, as all of the animated characters from every film, from Mickey Mouse to Asha, assembles outside the Burbank Studio office to take the ultimate family photo.  It’s a wonderful short that both works as a well crafted piece of animation as well as the love letter to Walt Disney’s legacy that this 100th anniversary deserves.  As for Wish, it sadly will be looked at as a lost opportunity.  Younger audiences unaware of the 100 year legacy may not care as much and will probably enjoy the movie a lot more.  But for adult fans who wanted something more than this, you’re better off wishing for something else.

Rating: 6.5/10

The Director’s Chair – William Friedkin

There are very few filmmakers out there who left quite the impression that the late William Friedkin had made, both behind the camera and in front.  Part of the young crop of filmmakers that rose up in the late 60’s and early 70’s as part of the “New Hollywood” movement, Friedkin was a maverick in every sense of the word.  His unglamorous, documentarian style was so unlike what the rest of the industry was making, and it grabbed a hold of audiences in a way that took many industry insiders by surprise.  He was also a brash, opinionated auteur who was not afraid of speaking his mind, even when it would burn a bridge or two with other creative collaborators.  But there was no one in all of Hollywood, even among his detractors, who denied Friedkin’s talents as a filmmaker.  He has gone on to become one of the most influential filmmakers of the last half century, with directors like John Singleton singling him out as a particular inspiration in their work.  And though the New Hollywood era came to an end with the dawn of the age of blockbusters in the 1980’s, Friedkin would continually still find work both inside and outside of Hollywood.  In addition to being a part-time film school instructor (including at my own film school Chapman University, though sadly before my time there), Friedkin would continue to direct small films for the big screen as well as for television, and remarkably enough was also a director of operas both in his home base of Los Angeles and for the National Opera in Washington.  Even in his final year, he was still working on what would be his final film, Showtime Network’s The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (2023), showing that even at the age of 87 he remained a tireless storyteller.

Friedkin was born in 1935 in Chicago, Illinois to a family of Jewish Ukrainian emigrants.  Given the person he would become one day, it may be surprising to know that he didn’t see his first film until he was 16.  But the movie that introduced him to the art of cinema would be a profound one and it would shape the course of the rest of his life.  That film was Citizen Kane (1941) by Orson Welles, and anyone familiar with Friedkin’s filmography will undoubtedly find the aura of Kane looming large over Friedkin’s particular style.  Friedkin became a true cineaste afterwards and he spent much of his young adulthood indulging in the masterworks of that time period, both domestic and foreign.  Eventually, upon graduating high school, he gained a position working for the local Chicago WGN television station.  After working his way up from the mail room, he was granted the chance to direct programming for the station.  Friedkin would excel as a documentarian in those years, winning accolades and awards for documentaries like The People vs. Paul Crump (1962) and Mayhem on a Sunday Afternoon (1965).  Eventually, he grabbed the attention of movie studios who were looking to make use of his talents as a director.  He initially started out with a Sonny and Cher movie called Good Times (1965) which he later described as “unwatchable.”  But, this experience did lead him towards directing an adaptation of the Mart Crowley play The Boys in the Band (1970).  Though Friedkin is not gay himself, he is lauded by the LGBTQ community for directing the first mainstream film to contain positive portrayals of queer identity, and Freidkin over the years did consider it one of his own personal favorites.  But, what came after may be one of the best back to back triumphs of any filmmaker in Hollywood ever.  He would go on to direct the crime drama The French Connection (1971), which would be an astounding hit that ended up sweeping the Academy Awards, including a win for Willaim who at the time was the youngest Best Director winner ever at the age of 35.  To follow that up, he directed the horror themed The Exorcist (1973) which even to this day is still one of the highest grossing films in history adjusted for inflation.  Of course, astounding heights soon lead to depressing lows, and Friedkin’s follow-up, Sorcerer (1977), despite being an impressive cinematic achievement was also plagued by production problems and was unable to make-up it’s colossal budget at the box office.  Friedkin’s remaining career would experience ups and downs, but it never quite returned to the height it had in the early 70’s.  But, it never got Freidkin down as he remained active all the way up to his passing earlier this year.  In this article, I will be taking a look at all of the important factors that made a William Friedkin film stand out in the cinematic crowd.



A lot of filmmakers carry the tricks of the trade that they started out with along with them as they create their body of work over time, and William Friedkin is no different.  From a filmmakers style, you can tell if they started off as a commercial director, a television director, or a documentarian before they got into narrative film.  Friedkin was definitely the latter, and it’s that documentarian spirit in his film-making that really makes his style stand out.  Every movie he made has a very voyeuristic feel to them, like the camera has unexpectedly captured a moment.  Friedkin’s films make particularly heavy use of hand held photography, which are especially present in his action scenes.  While Friedkin didn’t invent the first person car chase sequence on film (Bullit had done that back in 1968), his team did take it to the next level.  The car chase in The French Connection is one of the most wild and visceral action sequences ever put on screen, with Friedkin upping the ante by having Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle chasing an commuter train.  The whole sequence has a chaotic feel and that’s because Friedkin is shooting the sequence with any artificiality involved.  Real cars on real roads, with the camera right there in the passenger seat.  For Friedkin, cinema was about getting as close to reality as possible, even if the story was something supernatural like The Exorcist.  And the documentarian in Friedkin’s style can even be found in the quieter dialogue moments, as he often shots his subjects from far away with shallow depths of field, again like he’s catching a moment rather than staging one.  Though the scales of his movies changed over time, Friedkin still would use his documentarian instincts in most of the films he made over the years.  His groundbreaking French Connection car chase scene would inspire similarly impressive action scenes in his later films like To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) and Jade (1995).  Friedkin would also continue to create the occasional documentary, including 2007’s The Painter’s Voice and 2017’s The Devil and Father Amorth.  Documentaries was the language of cinema where he found his voice, and it’s something that he carried with him all the way through his career.



One other thing that comes from a documentary background is the sense of letting the unexpected happen in order to create a magical moment on film.  This is something that certainly has it’s rewards, but also it’s consequences as well on a movie set.  Ever the maverick filmmaker, Friedkin would often make his movies with a sort of reckless abandon, hoping to create very naturalistic results for his film.  In many cases, this would bring his cast and crews dangerously close to the edge.  There are many stories from the sets of his movies of near death experiences and on set injuries.  That previously mentioned car chase from the French Connection was notoriously shot in some instances without a permit, making it illegal and dangerously hazardous to unsuspecting pedestrians that may have gotten a little too close to the shooting location.  There is one shot that made it into the movie where the stunt car has to quickly swerve out of the way of a pedestrian, and you see the car jump a curb, hit a trash can and nearly miss the camera by just a couple feet.  This is a chaotic way to make a film, but the end result is one of the most famous chase sequences in movie history.  Friedkin likewise used some extreme tactics on the set of The Exorcist.  Young Linda Blair experienced minor injuries from the ropes used to flail her around on the bed during her exorcism scene, and actor Jason Miller also violently confronted the director after he fired a gun near his ear in order to get the right startled reaction from him.  These were pretty extreme measures taken in order to create the amount of authenticity that Friedkin desired for his films.  No one would argue with him, as long as the results panned out.  This mode of filmmaking eventually came to a head with the filming of Sorcerer, William Friedkin’s big budget remake of Henri Georges-Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953).  The film is celebrated today as a colossal achievement in filmmaking, but Friedkin’s chaotic instincts got the best of him as the movie’s production turned into an over-budget mess that couldn’t recoup at the box office, showing his limits for the first time in Hollywood.  Most of the movies he made since then would try to replicate the action dynamics of his early years, but he would do so without the same amount of chaos, keeping things smaller and more controlled.



Apart from his attraction to darker themed movies, Friedkin also was drawn to stories centered around imperfect characters.  While a lot of Hollywood dramas wanted to leave the viewer with a good sense of good triumphing over evil, Friedkin liked to view the deeds of people who operate within shades of gray.  The main characters in his movies are often people just skirting on the edge of the right side of the law and are not so easy to root for from the start.  No character better exemplifies this than Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle from The French Connection, brilliantly portrayed by Gene Hackman in an Oscar-winning performance.  Hackman plays Doyle as a brash, unorthodox cop with violent tendencies and often a very racist attitude.  At the same time, we also see that he is the best person for the job in hunting down the villainous French drug kingpins that are plaguing his city.  Most of Friedkin’s movies would follow along with main characters that exemplify these moral gray areas, because in Friedkin’s worldview, there is no such thing as a pure hero.  These are real characters and like all real people, they have character flaws that make them far more interesting and individualistic.  The story then becomes how well the characters overcome their flaws in order to succeed in the end.  This is definitely true of all the characters in Sorcerer, where their initial motivation is greed but ultimately by the end it becomes about survival.  Some of Friedkin’s characters in the later part of his career also fall on different sides of that moral gray area.  In The Hunted (2003), the movie comes down to a battle of wits between two battle weary killers played by Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro.  Matthew McConaughey plays both sides of the law in Killer Joe (2011), as both a cop and an assassin.  Even the purer characters in his movies carry some kind of baggage with them that keep them from being just purely good and moral.  That’s true of the two priests in The Exorcist, Father Karras and Father Merrin (Jason Miller and Max Von Sydow respectively), as both are experiencing their own crises of faith in their own way as they try to summon the strength to battle an otherworldly evil.  It’s clear that Friedkin was never interested in the traditional standard of characterization from Hollywood, where good and evil was so black and white.  And that’s why he’s so celebrated now as a storyteller as his characters stand out as uniquely amoral.



There is something in William Friedkin’s style that very much owes a lot to classic Hollywood, and it’s something that harkens back to the movie that made him from the very beginning.  To his dying day, William Friedkin stated that Citizen Kane was his all time favorite film, and it shows very much in his body of work.  In particular, there’s something within Friedkin’s movies which has become known as a “Citizen Kane” shot.  In Citizen Kane, Orson Welles would accentuate the largeness of his character by shooting many scenes from low angles; so low in fact that special trenches had to be dug on the set for the cameraman to get as low to the floor as possible.  As a result, you see something in Citizen Kane that is often out of view in most movies, which is the ceiling.  William Friedkin loved this kind of camera angle so much that he frequently used in most of his films.  When the camera isn’t handheld in a scene to accentuate the action, Friedkin will often have it still and low to the floor, helping to still maintain that voyeuristic element.  While there is at least one of this kind of shot in the majority of his movies, it’s The Exorcist where you see the “Citizen Kane” shot deployed the most.  He keeps the camera low for most of the movie, which may have been a necessity given the fact that they were shooting in a real home for most of the movie as opposed to a soundstage set so space was likely limited.  At the same time, it gives an extra sense of claustrophobia as the visible ceiling boxes the scene of the exorcism in all that much more.  That confined feeling really elevates the violence on screen too, as the demonic paranormal activity of things flying around the room feel reminiscent of Charles Foster Kane’s violent outburst at the end of Citizen Kane, again with the low angle making the moment feel all the more visceral for the viewer who feels trapped.  It is beautiful to see the full circle of cinema as one cinematic classic is responsible for inspiring another in an unexpected way.



Violence is another crucial ingredient in William Friedkin’s movies.  But, unlike a lot of other action movie directors, he never once glamorizes his violence.  If anything, he wants the viewer to experience how truly ugly violence really is.  In his films, every violent act is shocking and brutal, even if it isn’t always bloody.  This is definitely true of the controlled chaotic movies of his early career, where there is a crazed manic energy to the violence in those films.  The most violent parts of The Exorcist achieve the effect that Friedkin desired, which is to make you feel uneasy and afraid.  It was reported at the time that many people would faint in the theater watching The Exorcist because of the sheer amount of unrelenting shock the viewer would go through in the movie.  As film standards loosened around what was acceptable with on screen violence, Friedkin would continue to push the boundaries to their limit.  His late career films are a great example of how he was trying to go as far as he could with on screen violence.  The Hunted features some very visceral moments of violence, particularly in the climatic riverside brawl between Jones and Del Toro.  Bug (2006) brought in the kind of claustrophobic insanity that you can find him recalling the close quarter violence of scenes from The Exorcist.  And Killer Joe became that rare movie to be slapped with an NC-17 rating for it’s violence.  But never once does Friedkin try to indulge and glamorize in any of that violence.  It’s always treated as an ugly action, and his use of it within his movies is part of his attempt to capture a sense of realism within his scenes.  There really is no other director out there who makes the spilling of blood on screen feel more real and personal than William Friedkin and it’s something that really has made him stand out as an influential filmmaker.

I have talked before on this site many times about my attendance for many years at the annual TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood.  While there are many memories that I cherish from my time at the festival, some of my favorite moments are the ones that William Friedkin was a part of.  I feel so fortunate to have seen William Friedkin live in person at the festival not once but twice, for screenings of The French Connection and The Exorcist especially.  The Exorcist screening in particular stands out as one of my all time favorite festival experiences, as Mr. Friedkin shared an hour’s worth of stories and anecdotes from his experience working on the movie.  It was amazing seeing this filmmaker well into his eighties still manage to captivate an audience just through telling his own story on stage.  He was long winded to be sure, but we the audience didn’t care, because his stories were just so fascinating to listen to.  There is no doubt that he lived a wild life, and that is clear from the movies that he left behind.  He certainly was not a perfect human being, given some the controversial ways he made his movies, but at the same time perfection was never something he valued.  He was perhaps the best personification of what we knew as “New Hollywood;” a filmmaker who sought to break all the old rules and turn cinema into something different for a new generation.  At the same time, he was a man that still had a reverence for classic cinema; in particular for the films of Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock.  He remained a champion for the movies all his life, and it’s satisfying to see that he did indeed leave an impact.  So many action films today owe a debt to the innovations he made as a filmmaker, especially with the documentarian, in the middle of it style that he applied to the violent moments within his movies.  It’s also worth revisiting a lot of his film analysis from his scholarly years, especially when you see him getting especially salty in some interviews.  The man was just as much of a character in real life as the ones he put up on screen.  I will definitely miss his presence at the festival screenings, and I feel honored to have been there for the ones that I did see him attend.  He was certainly a giant in the history of cinema, and he thankfully never grew out of his reputation of being a maverick filmmaker.

The Marvels – Review

There is no doubt that the 2010’s belonged to Marvel Studios at the box office.  The comic book movie machine dominated the multiplexes, creating the most lucrative franchise in Hollywood history with a connected universe of super hero franchises all contributing to a grander narrative while also working perfectly well on their own.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe reshaped the way stories could be told on the big screen, and suddenly every other studio was looking for their own cinematic universe to mine gold from.  But few if any could do what Marvel had done.  Under the leadership of studio head Kevin Feige, and with the deep pockets of their parent company Disney, they managed to build upon each movie they put out, making each one more profitable than the last.  But of course, all roads must lead somewhere, and the culmination of all of these connected stories in their movie train had to have a satisfying conclusion to justify the audiences’ time and money spent watching them.  The collection of Avengers movies in Marvel’s first three phases made excellent destination points to drive the story towards, creating monumental adventures that loom large over all the other stories told up to that point, but also satisfying our desire to see all threads woven together and having all of our heroes sharing the screen together.  The first decade of Marvel’s master plan culminated in the two part saga of Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019), and given how well Marvel mastered their storytelling craft over those ten years, audiences were overwhelmingly ecstatic with the results.  What became known as the Infinity Saga is a masterclass in franchise building over multiple individual story arcs with many different star characters.  Marvel managed to successfully wrap their colossal story up in a thoroughly satisfying manner, defying all conventional wisdom.  But, once you’ve successfully done the impossible, you are then expected to do it again.

It’s not uncommon on the comic book page to start another chapter after completing a big, universe changing event.  It is however untried territory in cinema.  Kevin Feige and his team did turn to one such crossover event to begin a new phase of their Cinematic Universe; one that involved the concept of the Multiverse.  Much like how all the connecting threads of the Infinity Stones in Marvel’s first three phases led down a road to a confrontation with the fearsome Thanos, the Multiverse would be woven into multiple storylines in the MCU, eventually culminating with the multiverse’s biggest menace from the comic books; Kang the Conqueror.  A sound plan on paper, but harder to achieve in reality as it turns out.  Marvel, more or less, has struggled to keep their post-Endgame momentum going.  Some of it certainly has been due to external forces (Covid, economic uncertainty, the strikes) which have disrupted Marvel’s release plans numerous times.  The inclusion of projects meant exclusively for streaming on Disney+ has also increased the workflow of Marvel to a point where the studio is starting to buckle under the massive burden on their shoulders.  In the span of only 3 years, Marvel has released double the amount of film and television projects that they had in any of the previous phases.  And audiences who loyally kept up with the MCU for the last 15 years are now starting to feel burned out.  Sure, there are still highlights here and there (Spider-Man: No Way Home, Wandavision, Loki, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3), but a lot more are just okay (Moon Night, Multiverse of Madness, Hawkeye) or a couple that are just downright bad (Black Widow, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Secret Invasion).  For the first time in it’s history, Marvel Studios seems to have lost it’s luster as the good is being outweighed by the bad.  And into this cloud of uncertainty, Marvel is releasing what has reported to be one of their most troubled productions; the big budget sequel to Captain Marvel (2019) titled simply The Marvels (2023).  Is The Marvels another harbinger in Marvel’s collapse, or is it a surprising bright spot in an otherwise bad situation?

The Marvels has to juggle quite a few story elements that may be hard to follow if you haven’t seen any of the Disney+ shows.  Captain Marvel herself, Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) is out patrolling deep space when she receives a message from her contact on Earth, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).  Fury is on the Earth orbiting Space Station S.A.B.R.E where another super powered agent named Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) is also stationed.  Fury is concerned over an anomaly found at a intergalactic portal point near Earth.  He asks Carol to investigate the portal’s exit point while Monica checks the other end.  When the two come into contact with the portal, the energy causes a reaction.  Suddenly Carol and Monica are warped into different locations, but they are also not alone.  Someone else has been caught in this entanglement as well; a super-powered teenager from Jersey City named Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), aka Ms. Marvel.  After the trio have to deal with the dilemma of their displacement, they come together to assess what is happening to them.  There is a lot of baggage coming into the meeting on these heroines; Carol was best friends with Monica’s mother, but her 30 year absence after gaining her super powers has chilled their once affectionate friendship, especially after Monica’s mother Maria (Lashana Lynch) passed away.  On top of this, Kamala is a massive fan girl of Captain Marvel, which makes her extremely overwhelmed in her presence.  They all realize that they’ve been connected together based on their light based super powers and any time they try to use them, they’ll warp into the other’s place, which can be major problem when one of the heroes can’t fly.  Though reluctant at first, given Carol’s preferred isolation, Captain Marvel decides to have the other two follow her along as she unravels the mystery surrounding the broken portals.  She soon learns that the havoc is being caused by a Kree warrior named Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton) who has gained possession of a powerful weapon, a bangle identical to the one that gave Kamala her powers.  Dar-Benn is hell bent on targeting Captain Marvel personally, calling her the “Destroyer” after Carol had been responsible for the downfall of her home world.  Can the three heroines manage to work around their unfortunate entanglement to save multiple worlds affected by Dar-Benn’s actions, and even more so, can they become better heroes as a team rather than by themselves.

The Marvels unfortunately has to carry a lot of baggage with it into theaters.  It’s coming into theaters at an unfortunate time, with both Marvel and Disney having struggled all year long with multiple disappointing results at the box office and in the streaming ratings.  The discourse around this film has also become unfortunately negative, and in some corners toxic.  It stems back to when the original Captain Marvel released into theaters.  Actress Brie Larson made some comments in the past about diversity mattering in film criticism (not even about her own film, but instead about the reception of the 2018 movie A Wrinkle in Time) and this caused an uproar from people online.  Critics of Brie Larson labeled her (wrongly) as being anti-man and began a crusade online to attack her at every turn no matter what she said or did as a means of putting her back in her place.  Thankfully, Captain Marvel managed to rise above the hatred directed at it’s star and became a billion dollar hit at the box office.  But the trolls didn’t go away and continued to hound Brie Larson for her perceived crimes in their eyes.  There are dozens of channels on YouTube alone that are devoted to solely condemning Brie Larson or any cultural figure that expresses any feminist opinion on their own, and sadly these channels are the ones that the algorithm drives traffic towards because negativity creates more engagement.  With the financial woes of Disney and Marvel, and the unfair “culture war” negativity placed upon it, The Marvels seems to have been put into this no-win situation as it has become a lightning rod for the state of the industry and the culture itself.  With all that going on, the outlook is not a positive one for the movie, but even still I tried my best to leave all that baggage at the door and just judge the movie based on it’s own merits.  And surprisingly I found myself actually having a good time.  The Marvels, despite all the burdens laid on it’s shoulders, actually managed to do what Marvel does at it’s best: entertain.

Of course, The Marvels isn’t perfect either.  It does have a fair share of problems; particularly with it’s story.  The narrative in this movie is pretty scattershot, with what seems like a bunch of ideas thrown at the wall hoping to have something stick.  It becomes even more complicated when the movie has to incorporate back story completely disconnected from what we’ve seen from Carol Danvers story up to now.  Somebody who has watched only this and the previous Captain Marvel will be completely lost.  Not only is there a 30 year gap between the stories in each film, but Monica and Kamala’s backstories require information from the shows Wandavision and Ms. Marvel to understand, especially regarding how each got their powers.  The Marvels doesn’t feel in any way like a sequel to Captain Marvel, and instead just feels like an episode of the ongoing MCU series that now spans several more hours of view time since we last followed Carol’s story.  It’s a lot to unpack, and it doesn’t really give adequate time to newcomers to catch up with the story.  On top of that, the story that we do get is pretty flimsy, especially when it comes to the villain’s plot and how they overcome it.  So, why isn’t the movie any worse for that.  Well, as sloppy as the story is with it’s story, it manages to overcome it by having a good vibe to the flow of the story.  At 105 minutes, this is the shortest MCU film ever, and I think that brisk run time helps the movie out immensely.  It doesn’t try to force any more weight on the story than it needs, which has become more of a problem recently with Marvel’s output, and just lets the vibe of watching these characters interact carry the movie along.  The pacing is on point as a result, and more of the gags land better.  I think a lot of the success of finding that right balance comes from director Nia DaCosta.  She’s not trying to shake-up the MCU as we know it, but instead manages to find the heart of the story that she’s been assigned to tell.

There is little doubt, even from the most ardent critics, that the movie’s best asset is the cast.  In particular, the three leads.  Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris, and Iman Vellani have remarkable chemistry, and it’s their interaction on screen that helps to propel this movie past it’s shortcomings.  For one thing, I actually think this is the best we’ve seen Brie Larson in this role ever.  She didn’t quite have the grasp of the character in Captain Marvel, and she wasn’t given a whole lot of screen time to develop more in Avengers: Endgame.  Here, we actually see her make Carol Danvers much more relatable than before.  She conveys the lonely existence that she’s lived over 30 years (Earth time) as essentially a galactic beat cop, and being forced to work as part of the team opens up new avenues of her character we have yet to see.  Where we see her become disarmed and regretful of the actions of her past are some of the best character moments yet that Brie has displayed in her run as the character.  Teyonah Parris picks right up from her excellent  performance as Monica Rambeau in the Wandavision series and she has some of the best reactions in the movie when the film goes into some of it’s weirder moments.  But the star of the film is undoubtedly Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan.  She steals every scene she is in, and her infectious bubbly personality is a big reason why this movie has such a strong vibe to it.  Given that Iman is a true comic book nerd in real life, it’s especially fun to see her playing Kamala as this hyper fan girl in Captain Marvel’s presence, knowing that it’s not a far cry from who she really is in person.  The movie also does a great job of incorporating the whole Khan family into the story, including Kamala’s mother, father, and brother (played by Zenobia Shroff, Mohan Kapur, and Saagar Shaikh respectively).  There’s a couple great sequences where they are even involved in the action, which leads to some very crowd pleasing moments.  Samuel L. Jackson doesn’t get much to do as Nick Fury, and he’s probably just here as a holdover because of his history with Captain Marvel, but he does manage to make the most of his short time and even gets some of the best one-liners in the movie.  If there was a weak spot in the cast, it’s the villain Dar-Benn.  Zawe Ashton isn’t bad in her performance, it’s just that her character is a bland stock villain overall that she really can’t do much with.

There’s been a lot of discussion regarding the way Marvel has used their visual effects in recent years.  A lot of complaints have arisen over the fact that Marvel had been over-burdening their visual effects teams, leading to a lot of burn out in the industry with artists working long hours for little extra pay.  This has been a industry wide problem for the most part, but Marvel has been one of the worst offenders.  The mismanagement of this situation even led to the firing of longtime Marvel executive Victoria Alonso, who was one of the overseers of the visual effects department.  This has all led to what many people have seen as a downgrade in the quality of visual effects from recent Marvel projects, especially in films like Thor: Love and Thunder (2022) and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023), which looked like they released in theaters with unpolished effects.  It’s a mess in the ever crucial effects department, and this has led to effects artist beginning to unionize for the first time at the major studios.  With all that going on, how did it affect the visuals in The Marvels.  Well, there are a couple effects that did look rushed and unfinished at times, but they are thankfully not as distracting as the ones found in the other movies.  In one aspect, the lighter vibe of the movie actually makes some of the more cartoonish effects shots feel not too out of place.  This is true about a sequence involving cats that I won’t spoil too much, but I will say that the fact that the visual effects didn’t look completely naturalistic in that scene actually helped to make it a whole lot funnier, and it’s to the movie’s benefit.  When the movie calls for a stand out effects sequence, it does deliver and credit to the visual effects team for doing the best they could under the circumstances.  It probably helped that Nia DaCosta had a clearer sense of the tone she wanted to set, which meant that there was more leeway to be creative in the process.  This movie knows it’s not an Avengers level project and it wants to treat the audience to a more fun romp by comparison.  I don’t know if there was trouble involved behind the scenes when it came to making the movie look the way it does, but you definitely aren’t made aware of it while watching the movie.

Sadly, the discourse surrounding this movie is going to get ugly for the next few weeks.  The trolls are going to make a lot of noise and claim victory for their cause after the movie doesn’t perform well.  Of course, there are other factors contributing to the low box office projections for this movie, including Disney’s cost-cutting affecting it’s marketing as well as the actors not being able to promote the film because of the strike that only just ended days before the premiere, that are completely unrelated to the “culture war” narrative that the trolls are trying to shoehorn this movie’s fortunes into.  I dare say, those factors are more than likely what’s causing The Marvel’s problems right now, and much less what the trolls think of Brie Larson.  I think that it’s unfortunate that all of this baggage has had to fall on the shoulders of this movie.  Too many people are saying that the future of Marvel rests solely on the box office performance of this one movie, and that it’s failure at the box office will mean the end of the MCU.  This of course is ridiculous.  Marvel, and for that matter Disney, are going to come out of this fine.  Marvel already is making adjustments for a post-strike roll out that will likely see them improve in the years to come, especially with their next film in theaters being the highly anticipated Deadpool 3.  What worries me is that the discourse will be hurting the creatives behind the film more.  Nia DaCosta and the three leading ladies did an admirable job here and helped to elevate the film above it’s issues, leading to an overall enjoyable experience.  Same with all the hard working crew.  But all of that is going to get buried under a whole lot of negativity in the coming days and weeks.  My hope is that when the discourse dies down that people actually judge the movie based on it’s own merits and not on how it fits into a cultural and political narrative.  I know it’s not going to be for everyone, and it’s still likely going to be a divisive film no matter what.  But please, if you are going to see this movie (which I heartily recommend) do so with an open mind and with all of the discourse noise filtered out.  Tune out the pundits and the apologists and the trolls, and just let the movie speak for itself.  If you don’t, you may in fact be robbing yourself of a good time in the theater.  I watched this with a semi-full theater, and this movie had the best response I’ve seen to a Marvel film in a long time, with the audience laughing and cheering like they did at the Marvel movies of old.  And that’s certainly something to marvel at after all is said and done.

Rating: 8/10

100 Years of Wonder – The Walt Disney Studios’ First Century and the Highs and Lows of the Magic Kingdom

The name Disney is undeniably a potent one in our culture.  No other media company in the world has risen to the heights that they have while at the same time maintaining it’s independence as a brand.  It is the only one of the “big five” movie studios in Hollywood to have never been owned by a larger conglomerate, and in fact it has grown to a point where they were able to acquire one of their former rivals in the marketplace (the formerly known 20th Century Fox).  That massive growth has also come with it’s own problems, as Disney has become such an omnipresent presence in our culture that it’s drawn scrutiny from critics who say that they are (sometimes rightly or wrongly) a menace to society.  The Disney Company is many things to many people, but the undeniable fact is that it has been a continual presence in most of the lives of the people who live today.  I guarantee that for most people the first movie they ever saw had the Disney name on it.  Most of us probably owned a Disney branded toy at some point in our childhood, and a good many people probably have had happy childhood memories of visiting either Disneyland or Disney World.  Whether you like them or not, the Disney Company has played a part in the shaping our lives, from childhood on.  And the story of how they got to this point in our culture is one that could be indicative of the story of Hollywood as a whole; a convergence of incredible talent, perseverance through adversity, and just a whole lot of good luck.  As they celebrate their 100th year, let’s take a look at the tumultuous journey the Walt Disney Company took from one man’s dream to the Magical Kingdom that we celebrate as a whole today.

Walt Disney was certainly a unique figure to emerge out of the early part of the 20th Century.  He started off as an amateur artist who worked his way into this emerging new artform called animation.  Only a few years removed from the innovations of Windsor McKay and his groundbreaking short Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), the young Walt foresaw the potential of what moving drawings could do, and even more importantly, he had the special ability to sell others on his ideas.  Walt quit the Laugh O’Gram animated shorts studio in Kansas City, Missouri that he had been forging his skills at and took up an offer from his brother Roy to move out to Los Angeles.  Once there, Walt convinced Roy to help him establish a new independent studio out there in the shadow of Hollywood.  But instead of doing the same educational or slice of life shorts that he was working on at Laugh O’Grams, they would be innovating with the artform, creating unique characters and stories that pushed beyond the boundaries of the medium.  Assisting Walt with that mission was a fellow artist that he had befriended back in Kansas City named Ub Iwerks.  Iwerks was a mechanical genius who was interested in experimental camera tricks that he wanted to bring into animation.  The trio set out to start this bold plan and on October 16, 1923, the day we have commemorated this year, Roy and Walt signed the LLC paperwork to officially begin what was then called the Disney Brothers Studio.  The newly formed company consisted of only three employees on day one (Walt, Roy and Ub) and was run out of a back room in a small law office in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles.  Not even Walt could have foreseen how these humble beginnings would grow into the giant empire that Disney has become a full century later.  But, the story of Disney Animation began here and immediately the trio of young innovators were ready to shake the world up with what they were dreaming.

Roy of course would run the business end while Walt and Ub took on the creative side.  Over time, Walt realized that he couldn’t match Ub’s ability to animate with incredible speed and artistry, so he evolved more into a producer and story writer role in those early days.  Over time, Walt hired on more artists, as well as a secretary named Lillian, who would in a couple years become the future Ms. Disney.  Though they didn’t have the budget and infrastructure in place that other animation studios at the time had, they managed to stand out due to the fact that they were experimenting with newer techniques.  One of the great innovations that Ub Iwerks had put into practice at the studio was the blending of live action photography with animation.  This breakthrough (one which Disney would revisit many times throughout their history) gained them immediate attention in Hollywood circles, with many people being in awe of how they were able to put live action characters in an animated world.  These Alice shorts (loosely based on the story of Alice in Wonderland) were what initially put Disney on the map, and they were able to secure a new lucrative distribution deal with the Charles Mintz company at Universal Studios.  With the new deal in place, Walt was ready to create a series of shorts centered around a character that he hoped would be as popular as Felix the Cat or Max Fleischer’s Koko the Clown.  That character would be a rabbit named Oswald.  The Disney Brothers Studio completed a number of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit shorts before Walt was called out to New York to meet with Charles Mintz directly.  What Walt didn’t expect going into that meeting was that Mintz had locked away the rights to the Oswald character and hired away all of the Disney artists, cutting him out of the deal, believing that the animators were the sole reason for the studio’s success.  Only Ub refused to sign with Mintz.  Walt was devastated.  He had lost everything he had built over those five short years; his staff, the rights to his own characters, and his reputation.  But, as would be a reoccurring theme throughout the history of the Disney Company, bad fortune would end up leading to a better future.  On the train ride back to California, Walt began to brainstorm his next step.  He no longer had the rights to Oswald, but he was free to create a character from scratch.  That’s when he began to dream up a cartoon mouse who he would later give the name Mickey.  And out of all the moments in Walt Disney’s life that mattered the most, this was the most important of them all.

Walt Disney, no matter how successful he became afterwards, would always return to the same conclusion about how he got to where he was, “It was all started by a mouse.”  Mickey Mouse is above all else the heart of the Walt Disney Company.  While it can be said that there wasn’t much of a shift between Mickey and Oswald (all they did was swap bunny ears with mouse ears), there certainly was a shift in how seriously Walt took the character.  The incident with Charles Mintz was a pivotal lesson for Walt, and from then on he was never going to take anything he made for granted.  Through Mickey Mouse, Walt went from being an animator to a showman.  People would see the name Walt Disney on a Mickey Mouse short and know that this was a different kind of animation from all the rest.  And it was through Mickey Mouse’s debut on the big screen, that Walt Disney would shake the world again with another innovation; sound.  Steamboat Willie (1928) was the first ever short with synchronized sound, which not only gained Walt renewed notoriety, but it turn Mickey Mouse into a household name across the country and the world.  It was around that time that Roy insisted they change the name to the Walt Disney Studios, recognizing that Walt’s showman instincts made him a better public face for the company.  Over the next couple years, the Walt Disney Studios grew exponentially, adding more and more artists to studio roster, though he also lost Ub during this time, as he was set on establishing his own studio.  Along with Mickey Mouse, the company was also adding to even more sidekick characters that themselves grew into stars of their own like Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy.  They also created a new line of one-off shorts called the Silly Symphonies, where the artists would try out experimental ideas that wouldn’t fit in the mainline Mickey cartoons.  Only a couple years after Charles Mintz had pulled the rug out from under Walt Disney’s legs, Walt was not only still standing but thriving.  There weren’t even any Oswald shorts being made anymore and Mintz soon lost his contract with Universal.

As the story of the Disney Company evolved over the next few years, we see where the element of luck played a key role in their success.  The Walt Disney Company was one of the few companies to blossom during the height of the Great Depression.  The country was in need of something to bring the spirits of the people up, and Mickey Mouse was that one thing.  Disney was also the beneficiary of having a bunch of hungry and bold-thinking artist who were desperate for work, and the key players who would shape the next few decades of the Disney company came to work for Walt during these pivotal years.  But even despite this success, Walt was still a gambler who was willing to put up a lot at stake in order to see a dream become a reality.  Despite the fact that the Mickey Mouse shorts made them a lot of money, it was also off-set somewhat by the enormous costs of making the increasingly complex projects they were working on.  Disney was innovating at a speed and scale that other animation studios couldn’t match, and that was expensive to maintain.  One thing that certainly tested Roy Disney’s management over the coffers of the company was Walt’s dream of full length animated feature.  Despite misgivings, Walt was able to convince Roy and his team of artists that such a thing could be done, and the next few years were spent seeing this colossal dream come true.  Often dubbed Walt’s Folly by the industry, Walt invested his future on this idea, even putting up his home and studio up as collateral to get the bank loans need to pay for it.  But, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), like Mickey Mouse nearly a decade before, became an overwhelming success.  Roy was able to pay off all the loans, and the extra profits went into the construction of a new studio campus in Burbank, California, where the Disney Company still calls home to this day.  But, even with all that, Walt still never rested on his laurels, and he continued to bet big.  This often clashed in the face of reality sometimes, like with the onset of World War II, where the European market was cut off and expensive projects like Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia (1940) failed to make their investment back.  The boom and bust pattern is one that is consistently present throughout Disney’s history, but one other thing that is persistent about the Disney company is that like Walt himself, they learn valuable lessons from their failures.

This was true especially in the later part of Walt Disney’s life.  In 1955, Walt embarked on his most ambitious project yet; opening a theme park named Disneyland.  And while Disneyland has grown to become one of the world’s most cherished vacation destinations, it had it’s struggles right from the beginning.  One of the things that Walt wished he had thought through better when it came to Disneyland was to have more control over the land around it.  Disneyland quickly was surrounded on all sides by businesses that popped up to capitalize on the park, including cheap motels and restaurants.  Walt’s true vision was to create a true place to leave the world behind, which led him to envision something on a more massive scale.  Through a clever use of shell companies, Walt and Roy bought up over 40 square miles of swampland in central Florida.  After it was discovered that the Disney company was behind this land grab, Walt determined that he was ready to tell the world what he was planning.  “The Florida Project” as he called it would be a vast resort destination with it’s own version of Disneyland, plus an urban planning initiative that his team of Imagineers were calling an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or EPCOT for short.  Sadly, this would be the last great dream of Walt Disney.  Walt died of lung cancer on December 15, 1966 at the age of 65.  The suddenness of his passing left a huge void at the company that he built.  Ambitious projects that he was personally involved with, like the movie The Jungle Book (1967) and the rides Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion (all of which would become legendary in their own right), had to press on without Walt’s guidance.  Roy Disney, having always looked out for his little brother over the years, took over as best he could in the years that followed.  Perhaps his own greatest legacy was seeing Walt’s final dream come true with the opening of Walt Disney World in Florida in 1971.  Roy himself would pass away a mere two months later.

Without the two Disney brothers there to guide the company, the future of Disney was uncertain.  From here on, the history of the company falls into different eras that like Walt’s time represented a pattern of busts and booms.  The 1970’s are considered to be the Dark Ages for Disney.  Walt’s son-in-law Ron Miller eventually rose to the level of CEO during this time, and he tried his best to carve out a positive future for the company, but it was very clear that he didn’t have the same magic touch that Walt had.  The Animation Department, the foundational heart of the company, even faced permanent closure in the early 80’s after the box office failure of The Black Cauldron (1985).  There was a hostile takeover bid conducted by financier Saul Steinberg which threatened to destroy the company as a whole, before a rescue effort was led by Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney.  The younger Roy, who maintained a seat on the board, convinced the company to hire outside executives who would bring a new vision to the company.  In from Paramount Pictures came Michael Eisner and Frank Wells as CEO and CFO, having overseen a golden age at that studio, including the creation of the Indiana Jones franchise.  Eisner and Wells brought an ambitious vision to the company to help it grow while at the same time honoring the character of the studio that Walt had cultivated during his time.  The best part of this new era was that they were able to salvage the animation department, which led to what is now known as the Disney Renaissance, creating brand new classics like The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994).  Sadly, the sudden death of Frank Wells in 1994 hit the company hard.  Eisner lost his partner in crime, and he began to drawback most of the ambitious plans that the two had dreamed up for the future of Disney.  Again, the company hit hard times as Eisner began to mismanage the priorities of the company, chasing cheap short term gains instead of building the brand long term.  Threats of another take over, this time by cable giant Comcast, began to emergeEisner, seeing patience growing short with stockholders, decided to step down in 2006.  His successor would be the head of Disney’s ABC division, Bob Iger, who would indeed breath new life into the company.  Iger’s tenure was a period of rapid expansion for the Disney company, with acquisitions of valuable of IP’s like Marvel and Lucasfilm happening on his watch.  He even convinced Universal to give them back the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, bringing Mickey’s predecessor back home after 80 years.  In the late 2010’s, Disney was at the peak of it’s powers; a media juggernaut unlike anything Hollywood had ever seen.  But, as we’ve learned from Disney’s history, it wasn’t going to last forever.

Ironically, as Disney is celebrating it’s 100 year anniversary, it is also having to contend with one of it’s most tumultuous years ever as well.  Disney has had one unfortunate event after another all falling into their lap this year.  Big box office disappointments from the likes of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023), Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (2023) and Haunted Mansion (2023) have dented their reputation as a box office champ.  Disney+, their ambitious streaming channel, is also not generating enough money in subscriptions to offset the cost of the money spent on shows and movies premiering on the platform.  And while theme parks are holding up okay, ticket sale are still below what they were at the height pre-pandemic.  All of this has led to Disney’s stock value reaching a decade long low.  A lot of the problems have been attributed to the mismanagement of Iger’s successor Bob Chapek, who was fired from the CEO position after only 2 tumultuous years, leading to the immediate return of Iger.  But, many people are saying that Disney has become a victim of it’s own success as well.  It’s grown too fast and many believe it’s unsustainable in it’s current state as a company.  Rumors are that Iger’s second tenure may include a sell off of different underperforming parts of the company, or perhaps a complete sale of Disney as whole to an even bigger company like Apple (as has been rumored).  One hopes this isn’t the case.  It’s easy to look at this year alone and feel like Disney is cooked and it’s days are numbered.  But, looking at the history of Disney as a whole shows that they have faced adversity before and have come out of it stronger.  At the end of the day, it’s the core of the Disney Company (it’s imagination and the will to see the impossible become a reality) that has always endured, and the example that Walt Disney himself left behind has helped that legacy endure even through the dark times.  Walt never forgot that all important lesson when he lost the rights to Oswald, that failure sparks ingenuity and that you have to keep moving forward.  As much as we dislike some of the directions Disney has taken recently, we all wish to feel that same spark of joy again when they are performing at their best.  We all grew up with a little bit of Disney in our lives, and most of us would like them to bring back a little bit of that wonder into our lives again, even as we get older.  My belief is that this time of adversity will help shape a brighter future for Disney ahead.  Some may be cheering on Disney’s demise and believe they can do their job better.  That’s a mistake that many adversaries have made before, from Charles Mintz to Ron DeSantis, and they have gone on to regret it too.   Walt Disney and the many dreamers that have come through the Disney company over the years have continually been underestimated and as a result they all collectively have made many dreams come true.