Faith Based Fail

My friend Phil Cooke linked to this article on why faith based movies suck so badly fail to reach their full potential. In a nutshell:  Simplistic technique, simplistic aesthetics, simplistic themes.

I wondered if there was a parallel in mainstream films & realized there was:  Disney live action movies.

When Disney began producing their own live action features, they started off with Song Of The South (1946), based on Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus stories.[1]

This was a gutsy move on Disney’s part.  The Uncle Remus stories were the first introduction to white America of black America’s rich folk culture, specifically folk tales adapted from their African origins to the American South.  And in 1946 it was the rare major studio release that had an African-American in a prominent role, much less the lead.

On the other hand, there’s plenty to find offensive in Song Of the South as well.  “Patronizing” is the nicest criticism one can level against it, and the implication that African-Americans were happy with their lot as slaves on the Old South is repugnant.

Nor is this criticism anything new:  It was heard loud and clear when the film was released.

Disney learned his lesson:  After Song Of The South, he only made films based on stories by white people about white people and for white people, the safest possible route in that time and culture.

The best of his early live action features was 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954), widely regarded as the best Jules Verne adaptation ever.

The cast for was A-list (Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Peter Lorre), the script by an established pro (Earl Felton), the director a rising new talent (Richard Fleischer[2]).

It stands out not only for those reasons but also because it pioneered a sub-genre of sci-fi now referred to as steampunk.  20,000 Leagues was able to hold its own against other 1950s sci-fi classics as The Day The Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet.

But Disney’s next original features lacked the innovative edge of 20,000 Leagues.  His writers and directors tended to be competent professional craftsmen, but not artists.[3] As often as not, it seemed his movies starred actors of the caliber of Fess Parker who, while a nice fellow and an ingratiating performer, certainly was no threat to Kirk Douglas.[4]

Mary Poppins (1964) was the last live action film Walt Disney was personally involved in that stands on its own.  Again, it played things safe instead exploring the more challenging aspects of the source material (self-involved parents, the women’s suffragette movement), relying of the charm of its cast, the appeal of its music, and a technical tour de force combination of animation and live action.

After Disney’s death, the studio continued to play it safe with their live action features.  With the exception of a handful of co-productions with other studios, there are no exceptional films from Disney Productions.  In fact, if it wasn’t for Jerry Bruckheimer, Disney live action features would be in a pretty sorry mess (likewise, if it wasn’t for Pixar, their digital animation would be underwhelming as well).

Has Disney been making bad pictures all this time?  Certainly not, but they haven’t made any really notable features, either.  Typically they have a high technical standard (though many of their product look more like elongated TV shows than feature films).  Their performers are (mostly) competent, but outside of Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow none of them are particularly memorable.  The stories range from the trite to the safe, with no room for truly challenging themes.

Do they make money?  Of course they do, but are they making memories?  By that I mean:  Are they sticking in the hearts and minds of their viewers or are they just eye candy?

They’re certainly filling a demand, but historically it’s a demand by people looking for exactly the type of films Disney was making; because of that, Disney’s audience shrank for many years until the studio realized they needed outside help and began co-producing films with others.

It has only been with their co-productions that they’ve broken away in any form from the traditional Disney mold.

They really aren’t edgy, they’re still identifiably Disney films, but they’re sure more in tune with contemporary films than previous Disney movies.

The parallels to faith based films are clear:  If you want to do something exceptional, you can’t be afraid of criticism. If you play only to your strengths, they quickly turn into weaknesses.  If you limit your audience to people who accept whatever you put out regardless of quality, you soon won’t have any quality at all.  And if you want people to remember you, you have to take them someplace they haven’t been before.

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[1]  I’m counting any film with more live action than animation to be a live action feature.  It’s my blog, I get to make the rules.

[2] When Disney offered Richard the job of directing 20,000 Leagues, Richard asked him if he knew he was the son of Max Fleischer, producer of the Popeye & Betty Boop cartoons, and a bitter rival of Disney’s.  Disney said, “I knew” then explained whatever conflict he had with the elder Fleischer, it did not extend to his family.  When Max Fleischer heard this, he was so touched by Disney’s lack of bias that he called Walt personally.  The two buried the hatchet and became friends after decades of animosity.

[3] And not-so-competent:  Westward Ho, The Wagons! was directed by the infamous William “One Shot” Beaudine, who cilminated his career by directing Billy The Kid Vs. Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter.

[4]  Truth be told, Parker wasn’t even a threat to Peter Lorre…

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