(This is a writing exercise with a one-word prompt: Begin. I’m great at beginnings. Not so sure where it’s going though. Let’s see what happens. Check in with the note at the end.)
I used to think I had a psychic link with someone behind the scenes at Disney. How else would you explain the fact that the Mouse House was regularly releasing films that shared, at the very least, multiple plot points and characters with stories I had written in my super secret diary and showed to no one? Here are just a few of the times Disney seemed to be reading my mind (or at least spying on my notebook):
- 1995 Pocahontas
- 1996 The Hunchback of Notre Dame
- 1997 Hercules
- 2007 Enchanted
- 2009 Princess and the Frog
- 2010 Tangled
- 2012 Brave
- 2013 Frozen
I know what you’re thinking, but hear me out.
Every time one of these movies came out, I had a distinct feeling of deja vu. There was something more than familiar about them.
I didn’t really put it together until Tangled. There was something about the style of the character, the color choices… the animal friends. I knew exactly why I felt like I’d seen them before. I had.
It took a while to dig it out, but eventually I found a sketchbook from high school. I’d done a project imagining who Disney’s next princess might be. I’d given it a lot of thought. Maybe too much.
I’d enjoyed watching Megara in Hercules, although I was pretty frustrated by the way the story diverged from the traditional myths. Esmeralda wasn’t a princess (and Hunchback annoyed my French teacher so much that I’d agreed to pretend it never happened.) I’d been impressed by the songs in Pocahontas, but her story was so deeply historically wrong that I just felt bad for the writers, bless their hearts. I’d been so excited by the animation in Aladdin that I’d done an actual, graded-for-class presentation in which I discussed the technical progression from The Little Mermaid (an excellent fairy-tale princess story) through Beauty and the Beast (my favorite) that was needed to achieve the combination of cell animation and CGI used in that film. But I didn’t care for Jasmine that much. (My opinion may have been colored by a three-year-old’s frequent impersonations of the scene where she says, “How could you?!” and runs off crying).
No, I’d decided Disney’s best course of action was to return to its roots in fairy tales. I felt that the old-school European stories, best known in their Grimm collections, presented an optimal opportunity. No one would be upset when the stories were Disney-fied because there were already so many variations (and the Grimm ones were so… dark). The plot lines were simple enough to bear some added goofy subplots, had tons of magic (which is great for expanding animation techniques) and often already included some form of animal friends. As a bonus, fairy tales allow us to stay away from history and long-studied works of literature, avoiding frustrating teachers of all subjects. (Teachers were pretty heroic to me at the time, and I was sad to see how defeated they got every time someone in class tried to question something because it was different in the movie. I probably should have guessed then that I was more likely to become a teacher than an animator.)
So I looked through my collections and decided that Rapunzel was the best fit for a new animated princess. I had been practicing Disney-style sketching for a year or so, and had read several books about animation in general and the making of Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin in particular. I’m pretty sure at some point I thought I was going to present my ideas to animators at Disney World and be congratulated on my brilliant assessment of the market.
In my at-least-ten-years-old-when-the-movie-came-out sketch, Rapunzel doesn’t wear a ball gown like Cinderella. She has poofy pink shoulders on tight sleeves, a laced up bodice, a purplish ankle-length skirt, and flowers in her long, long, braided hair. (Drawing braids was kind of a specialty of mine at the time. I’m sure this did not factor into my choice of princess at all.) There are piles of it on the floor around her. She has two small animal friends (neither of them is a gecko).
It should be noted that the previous year, I had drawn sketches of the Frog Princess. (I did not draw her as a frog.). Disney went with that one before Rapunzel, but by the time The Princess and the Frog came out, I’d just about forgotten my animation sketches, having moved on to the study of Literature and the Theater, and become far too pretentious and grown up to care what kinds of cartoons were playing at the cinema.
The movie Disney actually made the year I was drawing Rapunzel and her long, long braids was Mulan. This may have been a different kind of mind-reading by the Disney brains because my class had just finished reading Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, which contains a retelling of the Fa Mu Lan story. My teacher was psyched. Maybe they were reading her mind, too.
All of this was ancient history until Encanto. I’ve been working on my own story about a girl who grows up as the only one without powers in a magical family. I started this draft in 2020, but my first version of this concept was actually written around 2001.
Clearly Disney and I are on a wavelength again.
Before I begin my next story… maybe somebody should give me a call? I’m sure they have the number.
(Note: Obviously I am aware that none of these stories was exactly a unique intellectual property at the time that Disney was adapting them. Of course any overlap in what I was doing with what was coming out is a total coincidence, probably aided by the fact that I was actively studying Disney’s work. And as much as my sketches resemble Disney’s animation style, my stories differ dramatically in content once you get past the similarity in log lines.
Also, as an adult, I am beyond excited that Disney does seem to have finally stepped away from a limiting dependance on European fairy tales, in favor of an ever-expanding universe of folk tales from around the world. I maintain my stance that sticking to folk and fairy tales as a genre is probably a better choice than adapting written work or historical events, although no one enjoys a spirited “the book was better” debate more than I do.)
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