Intertextuality and Disney

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    Taylor Clogston

    I wrote a short Medium article which you can read at this link or below, though only the Medium version has links to the videos mentioned because otherwise the SE spam filter will eat me alive.

    On January 9, 2020, the YouTube channel Nerdstalgic released a video called The Problem With Disney’s Movies In One Word.

    “You might have noticed something different about Disney … over the past six or seven years. Something has changed. … (W)hat I think is wrong with Disney is a solvable creative issue. All modern Disney movies are not bad; they aren’t all terrible pieces of entertainment, but I do think that there’s an inherent flaw in the way they’re being made. See, I recently sat down at a surprisingly empty theater and watched The Rise of Skywalker, and something quickly occurred to me. It’s a movie almost entirely built upon a single word, and that word is intertextuality — and in this case, the façade of intertextuality.” -Nerdstalgic, transcription by me

    I encourage you to watch this video. The production value is very nice and I appreciate the conclusion. Sort of.

    Nerdstalgic essentially says Disney, through their “live action remakes” (whose scare quotes are necessary for instances like The Lion King, which contains very little live action) and the recent Star Wars movies, has shifted from a prior strategy of creating new experiences to one of exploiting nostalgia and old experiences.

    In a literary sense, intertextuality isn’t quite what that video describes it as.

    Intertextuality is a critical term to describe something present in literally every work of art that isn’t outsider art, to ask which other texts interact with the examined text, whether consciously and unconsciously.

    Since Nerdstalgic referenced a certain video by Nerdwriter1 on intertextuality, I suggest you watch that as well.

    Both videos fail to understand intertextuality by narrowing their critique to a nearly useless context. Their arguments are akin to a person arguing baked goods are unhealthy when they actually mean chocolate cake is unhealthy.

    This matters because literary criticism is a powerful toolbox creators and consumers of fiction, whether film or novel or other narrative work, can use to meaningfully engage with art. Other powerful tools such as deconstruction are frequently attacked by people who don’t understand them, and I believe it’s imperative readers and writers alike know what they mean when they use critical terms.

    Proper examples of intertextuality appear all throughout Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

    LotR — the books, I mean — don’t bank on nostalgia, nor, with a few exceptions, is the story harmed by the reader having not read other supporting texts such as The Silmarillion.

    However, LotR does draw heavily upon Catholic and Norse mythology, among other real-world sources, perhaps most notably in Gandalf, a figure Odinic in name and aspect while angelic in role and provenance.

    Understanding this intertextuality gives one a fuller appreciation of LotR, but isn’t required to understand the text.

    Simply put, when a writer takes inspiration from other sources, they employ intertextuality.

    A subset of intertextuality is allusion, something much closer to what both nerds talk about in the above videos.

    Allusion is a direct reference to another text the reader is intended to recognize and to carry meaning from that other text into the examined text.

    The question “What’s the problem with Disney movies?” which Nerdstalgic’s video aims to answer needs further qualification. The question implies a “badness” which isn’t defined, but which assumes an audience which agrees with that badness. It points to an empty theater for The Rise of Skywalker, implicit evidence that Disney is on the wrong path, that Nerdstalgic knows why, that he knows how to fix it.

    Yet, there’s a problem with this perspective, one that becomes clear as Nerdstalgic spends most of his video examining the remakes of The Lion King and Aladdin.

    Disney has served its primary audience well during the time Nerdstalgic references, and in the years since.

    Essayists can write all day about how Disney used to create much more meaningful art — a perspective with which I whole-heartedly agree — but at the end of the day, Disney tends to cater well to its audiences.

    Yes, plural. That’s my point.

    Look at the Rotten Tomato audience scores for most of the recent “live action remakes,” along with their domestic lifetime grosses:

    The ones people seemed to like*

    • Aladdin — 94% — $355,559,216
    • Beauty and the Beast — 80% — $504,481,165
    • Cinderella — 78% — $201,151,353
    • Cruella — 97% — $86,103,234
    • The Jungle Book — 86% — $364,001,123
    • The Lion King — 88% — $543,638,043
    • Maleficent: Mistress of Evil — 95% — $113,929,605\
    • Pete’s Dragon — 72% — $76,233,151

    The ones people didn’t seem to like so much*

    • Dumbo — 48% — $114,766,307
    • Lady and the Tramp — 50% — n/a
    • Mulan — 48% —n/a

    Generally speaking, Disney’s “live action remake” strategy has found an audience. In my experience, there is a huge audience which loves these remakes, an audience of blue-collar, ordinary people and their kids and grandkids, people who may not remember much or have any experience with the originals.

    Their Marvel movie audience is comprised of often different people, an audience Disney seems to continuously serve well. The audience they serve the most poorly is their Star Wars audience, and that, by all accounts, from a lack of unified vision throughout the main theatrical releases.

    Artistically, I strongly believe there is a problem with Disney movies. I would love the company which once created some of the most foundational films of my childhood to create more works filled with original artistic vision.

    Yet, from a drawn back perspective, Disney seems to have clearly identified several audiences and to serve them well.

    In one word, my problem with Disney is audience.

    We need our culture to want better movies before we can expect Disney to make better movies. Rejecting intertextuality — especially when we don’t know what the word actually means — is not the way to create that culture.

    *(all data retrieved from rottentomatoes.com and boxofficemojo.com on 11/6/21)

    "...the one with whom he so sought to talk has already interceded for him." -The Master and Margarita

    Chelsea R.H.


    A really interesting article! To be honest, I have no idea what to think/feel about Disney and their current “Live-action” spree. Disney has never been part of my life and I just don’t really care about them, so neither the nostalgia works on me, and I’m not outraged that they’ve ruined my childhood movies. But I do find the wider conversation around exploitation of nostalgia and intertextuality really interesting.

    I am surprised by the fact that Cinderella is only ranked third there! I think it’s by far the best live action adaption, which almost perfectly walked the line between loyalty to the original and breaking new ground. I actually thought it was really well done.

    Ceud mile failte

    Taylor Clogston

    @josiah I wrote a response here that seems to have been swallowed by the void. By any chance did the spam filter pick it up?

    "...the one with whom he so sought to talk has already interceded for him." -The Master and Margarita

    Josiah DeGraaf

    @taylorclogston I’m sorry! Normally I’m able to find these for you, but this doesn’t appear to have shown up on our servers or in our spam filter. :/ I don’t know if there may have been an internet connectivity issue present here? But I unfortunately can’t find it. Sorry about that!

    Lit fanatic. Eclectic reader. Theology nerd. Writing fantasy at https://josiahdegraaf.com

    Taylor Clogston

    @josiah Thanks for looking, sorry to waste your time =P Must have been a connection error on my end.

    Sorry for the delay. I think Cinderella’s weakness was the classy Shakespearian aspect of it. It just didn’t catch the general public’s interest in the same way that The Jungle Book did the next year with its cast of Hollywood crowd-pleasing stars.

    "...the one with whom he so sought to talk has already interceded for him." -The Master and Margarita

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