5 Things 90s Disney Movies Can Teach Filmmakers About Storytelling

The nineties were a great time to be a kid. I still remember rocking out to my Walkman with a Ring Pop on my finger waiting for my Tamagotchi to wake up so I could feed it. But by far, the best thing about growing up in that decade was the string of animated features being pumped out by Disney.

Referred to as the Disney Renaissance by cinema aficionados, the era birthed some of the most critically acclaimed and universally loved animated films, starting with 1989’s The Little Mermaid and ending in 1999 with Tarzan.

Part of Disney’s success during this time can be attributed to good old-fashioned storytelling. Young or old, all filmmakers can learn a few things from Disney about how to tell a great story.

1. Make your hero three-dimensional.

batb3-04It’s one thing to have a great plot, but every successful story needs to have a main character who viewers will want to follow to the very end. They may have been cartoons, but Disney heroes and heroines in the nineties were anything but two-dimensional. From Ariel in The Little Mermaid to Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, they all had unique personalities -- likes, dislikes, dreams, fears, hobbies, goals and a few quirky traits.

In Beauty and the Beast, Belle was the most beautiful girl in town. But she didn’t just giggle and smile and bat her eyelashes as pretty girls in fairy tales are wont to do. Instead, Belle was fiery, stubborn, ambitious and had a thirst for adventure in the great wide somewhere.  She was also kind of introverted and a huge book nerd. All of these very different qualities came together to make her an interesting, multi-faceted and realistic character.

2. As the old adage goes, everything happens for a reason.

This is especially important when it comes to storytelling.  For one thing, your story needs to make logical sense or else you’ll confuse your viewers. But adhering to a cause-and-effect structure -- A happens, therefore B happens -- also ensures your narrative is moving forward and keeps your audience engaged as they eagerly anticipate what’s going to happen next.

MulanIn Mulan, the story gets started when, as the only male member of the family, her elderly father is conscripted to fight in the war. Wanting to protect him, Mulan pretends to be a man and joins the army in his place. Concerned for her safety, her family prays to their ancestors, who send a sassy magical dragon to protect her. The dragon, wanting to give Mulan a chance to prove herself as a soldier, creates a fake military order to send the troops into the mountains, where they are ambushed -- as so on.

The story follows a clear chain of events, drawing the viewer in and keeping them engrossed until the credits roll. Relying on coincidences to make things happen is lazy storytelling and will ultimately leave your audience feeling cheated.

3. Set the stakes -- and keep on raising them.

The decisions that your character makes during the course of your story only matter to the viewer if there are real consequences. If the biggest dilemma you hero faces is what to have for lunch -- and the two possible outcomes are pizza or tacos, both of which your hero loves -- it’s going to make for an incredibly boring story. You need to identify the stakes involved -- what does your hero stand to gain or lose? -- and they need to be high enough to make the audience care.

JafarIn Aladdin, what’s at stake is love. For his first wish, Aladdin asks the genie to make him a prince in hopes of wooing Princess Jasmine. If he fails, he loses the girl. If he succeeds, he gets his happily ever after. As the audience, we keep watching because we’re rooting for this lovable street rat and we want to see if he can actually pull it off.

But the filmmakers don’t stop there. Since conflict is key to keeping any story interesting, the writers make sure to escalate the tension as the movie progresses. They raise the stakes. Later, when Aladdin is sent to a frozen wasteland, he has to find his way back to Agrabah and defeat the evil Jafar, or else he loses the girl he loves and she is doomed to be some kind of kinky slave for the rest of her life.

4. Make sure your story has a point.

Stories have always been a way for people add meaning to their lives. The good ones highlight what’s important to us and sometimes even say something about what it means to be human. Having some kind of message, or theme, will help your story resonate with viewers on a deeper level than what appears on the screen.

Simba mufasaEach Disney movie from the nineties had an underlying message or point. On the surface, Herculeswas about an earth-bound demi-god trying to regain his godly status. But it was also about someone transforming himself mentally and physically and figuring out what it really means to be a “hero.” The Lion King wasn’t just about an exiled feline trying to save his pride from a tyrannical uncle; it was also about growing up and learning how to take responsibility.

As you develop your outline, try to identify an underlying theme and weave that thread through your story to give it substance and to tie all the elements together.

5. Give your audience their happily-ever-after.

Okay, so not all stories necessarily need to have a happy ending, but it should at least be satisfying for the viewers to some degree. One could argue thatPocahontas didn’t really have a happy ending since she doesn’t end up with her beloved John Smith. But Pocahontas’ actual dilemma was never about finding true love -- it was about figuring out her destiny. By meeting John Smith, and also igniting and eventually diffusing a war between her tribe and the British settlers, she came to the conclusion that her place was with her own people.  And in that way, the story delivers.

Your ending is important. It’s your last chance to resolve the conflicts, tie up any loose ends, and get your audience to the place where you wanted to take them. Don't make them follow you on a journey only to leave them stranded in the middle of nowhere wondering whether it was all worth it.

Althea Manasan

About Althea Manasan

Althea Manasan is an online journalist and news junkie with a passion for documentary filmmaking. She is one of the co-founders of Beyond the Rabbit Hole Productions, a Toronto-based film production company.

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