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The Disney Divide

The Disney Divide

January 22, 2024

What happens when you pit team members against one another? Does it drive everyone to bring their A game or does it simply create division? Disney found out the hard way.

Sibling rivalries can be ugly things. Small surface level tensions can grow to spiteful barbs and eventually resentment. The same is true for artists and creatives. When multiple projects are on the go, it’s impossible not to play favourites, based on the initial brief or the team working on it. Who doesn’t want to work on the coolest sounding project with the most skilled teammates who have all the fun? Well in 2015 it came out that this exact sort of rivalry burrowed its way into arguably the biggest animation studio of all time. Disney.

To explain, we need to go back around thirty years, to the early 1990s. It may not seem like it now, but at the time Disney was only starting to reaffirm itself as the definitive animation powerhouse. Largely due to their 80s releases being a mixed bag of darker projects, that didn’t gel with wider audiences.

A new era

It was only with the release of The Little Mermaid in 1989 that the so-called ‘Disney Renaissance’ began. Meaning we transitioned from lesser known stories like The Black Cauldron and Oliver & Company to blockbuster hits such as Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.

And once they had a taste of glory – including the first animated film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture – it was important for Disney to capitalise on this momentum. To secure their place as king; if you’ll forgive the pun and blatant foreshadowing. The immediate effect of this was an increase in schedule, in a bold attempt to release a supercharged animated film each year.

Putting the pedal to the metal

So let’s put ourselves in the shoes of Disney’s animators at the time. You’re working for a revered studio, on the cusp of one of the greatest periods in the company’s history. And then you learn there will be two projects simultaneously in development. The excitement must have been palpable. But it wouldn’t last.

To explain, these projects were headed up by a man named Jeffrey Katzenberg: Disney big whig and, up until a point, a contender to be the new CEO. According to various individuals working on these projects, Katzenberg called a meeting to announce both concepts and, most importantly, deemed that one would be a sure-fire “home run,” while the other was just a “base hit.” And this wasn’t a hollow statement, as Glen Keane (Disney’s premiere artist) was assigned to the ‘superior’ project.

If they’re the a-team, does that make us the b-team?

You remember back in school, being picked for teams during sports events or classes? Remember how quickly it became apparent which team was the favoured one? That. But for your job and creative identity as an artist. Understandably, a quiet bitter rivalry formed.

And what were these two projects? Pocahontas and The Lion King. One told a forbidden love story between a European settler and a native American, while the other was Hamlet with animals. And if you’ve already come to the conclusion about which title was the prestige project, you’re probably wrong: it was Pocahontas.

Sowing the seeds of division

Very early on, things weren’t looking great. All the veterans ended up on Pocahontas, while the eager juniors worked on The Lion King. Pocahontas was shot live action first – as was Disney’s traditional process at the time – but considering the characters and subject matter, The Lion King required not only a different way of working, but at times different technology. And when Elton John and Tim Rice composed their songs, they lacked that Broadway bombast and were derided as too poppy.

But upon release, the fun, energetic and surprisingly sincere Lion King stormed the box office. The characters were expressive and full of life, the CGI animation was revolutionary, and the music elevated the overall gravitas thanks to one Hans Zimmer. The Lion King not only exceeded the studio’s expectations but became one of the most beloved classics in its history and one of the highest grossing films of all time. Not animated films. Films. Whereas Pocahontas, as strong and beautiful as it was, felt a little lacklustre, pretentious and problematic by comparison.

Oh, that sounds familiar

And this sort of rivalry wasn’t unique to Disney. Coming back to Katzenberg, he eventually left Disney and formed his own company with Steven Spielberg: Dreamworks. And once again, rivalries between multiple projects would crop up. This time, a little more engineered, but with the same outcome.

See, Katzenberg and Spielberg wanted to work on a story that Disney would never sign off on. The criminally underrated The Prince of Egypt. But in the background there was an all-CGI project, which became a banishing ground. In other words, if you misbehaved or weren’t up to the task, you’d be taken off the “home run” biblical epic and put on the silly fairy-tale project, that probably wasn’t going to have any lasting impact. An irreverent jab at the classic Disney storytelling structure named, Shrek.

Our role as creatives

So what can we take away from all this? In truth, a lot. Almost a list of do’s and don’ts for creatives and those managing them. As an artist, you may take on a specific project that feels initially unappealing but then it becomes your mission to identify the possibility, and inject life and passion into it. Whether that’s painting with all the colours of the wind, or taking multiple novel approaches all-the-while saying Hakuna Matata.

And sometimes we get a golden opportunity.

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