Let me tell you a little story: Once upon a time, there was a young screenwriter. She was born and bred in California, and had tried a little bit of this and that: wrote children´s plays, done TV programming, worked as a substitute teacher and even cranked out a novel or two. Little did she know that, by accepting a gig for Disney, she would go on to help define many a childhood, and become part of a cinematic movement whose effects are still felt and revered today. She would bring us stories of beauties and beasts, of lions and kings, of homeward bound dogs and Pharaohs, of Ewoks and rescue rangers.
Linda Woolverton has had her fingers prints all over two, and soon three, generations of children. From TV shows like Chip and Dale, My Little Pony and The Real Ghostbusters, to the Disney Renaissance to stage plays of said Renaissance works, she helped bring whimsy, wonder and adventure to many young minds around the world. She brought Beauty and The Beast out of development hell, made Shakespeare and African culture more digestible for children with The Lion King and contributed in early stages to Aladdin and Mulan. If there ever was a modern equivalent to the likes Beatrix Potter or P.L. Travers, surely Woolverton was it.
But then, in the 2000s, something changed: her stage version of Anne Rice’s Lestat didn’t replicate the runaway success of Aida, Lion King or Beauty and The Beast, and then she wrote a sequel to Lewis Carroll´s Alice in Wonderland, positing what would happen if Alice revisited Wonderland as an adult. This became the Tim Burton 2010 3D extravaganza that grossed over a billion dollars and birthed a major revival of Disney’s live action output after the then end of Pirates of The Caribbean. And yet, despite the money and following it up with the very profitable Maleficent and an Alice sequel, Through The Looking Glass, something wasn’t right. Not only in diminishing box office, but audience response: complaints of unoriginality, predictability, sloppy characterisation, overly rigid structure, disrespect for the existing lore of those franchises and, ironically, a complete lack of heart.
What happened? How could sweet old aunt Linda have failed us, after creating so many of our beloved cinematic childhood moments? How could the same woman who helped give us Belle and Simba then create the likes of a break dancing Mad Hatter and Three Stooges-pixies? Did she stop trying? Had she run out of steam? Was she just bored of fantasy?
This article does not claim to speak or represent the actual thoughts of Woolverton herself: I am not so arrogant that I could make such a claim. Rather, I will look at her work and see why exactly it has begun to disconnect with her once loyal audience.
First, let’s look at how she approaches storytelling, and through it, formula
In Beauty and The Beast, Woolverton´s addition of commentary on social and gender roles, as well as giving Belle an intellectual quality that deepened her relationship with the Beast, greatly spiced up what is otherwise a straightforward fairy tale. In addition, she played with inversion, making the stereotypically good-looking beefcake Gaston the villain, enhancing the original themes of people being more than their appearance while satirising a Disney staple of the Prince Charming.
In the case of Lion King, Woolverton didn’t write the finished product but did sow some key elements in her early drafts: she combined the natural divisions and battles in the natural world between species into a story that owed debts to both the West’s long history of tragedies, as well as African myths dealing with leadership, duty and family legacy. She also came up with the idea of Simba’s reckless decisions having negative consequences for the entire kingdom (though here, it was due to callous and deliberate laziness, not immaturity and guilt like the end film), a novel concept given most children´s fare, then and now, has the character confront, rather than cause, adversity on such a large scale and then feel said consequences, and when mixed with influences from Hamlet, you have something that heavily pushes the harsher, darker side of choice and consequence on an audience not normally targeted for such stories, as well as having a pseudo-educational element with its basis in the natural world.
Compare that with Alice, where the world and characters are infinitely more ordinary, which in turn, render the plot and themes formulaic. The film’s Victorians are just pompous snobs with very set ideas about gender roles, meaning the plot will naturally be about Alice proving society wrong, and of course, she has to be that spirited upstart who flouts polite society. This also means she will, of course, be some kind of special chosen one who needs to save something to prove said statement about society, hence her journey to Wonderland, which has to have the madness dialed back so Alice’s journey is not overshadowed by the nonsense, and so that we have some way to relate to what are, ostensibly, not relatable and slightly mad individuals. See the issue?
Next, let´s think about the messages of these works
Woolverton brought on a more modern dimension to the character of Beauty, named Belle, making her an educated woman who dreams of the wider world and sees the value in not being submissive or a tool for the betterment of her male peers, such as Gaston. This, in turn, adds a fresh spin to the typical rural village and its bumpkin inhabitants, as well as the castle as it comments on gender roles, social structure and preconceived notions of self-worth. She’s not just a vapid airhead who conforms to some Aphroditian ideal, thus making her intellectually as well as physically attractive to the Beast, giving the relationship more layers than your standard child-friendly fairy tale, and creating a role model for young girls. She’s smart, funny, resourceful, kind and with a clear set of values while still have flaws (she’s scared, headstrong, not always careful about her words or choices and can be given to her emotions) that make feel human.
By contrast, what is Woolverton’s Alice? She’s a Mary Sue, someone who the plot has already anointed a saint and never makes any sort of major error. She’s either completely sure of herself or just blankly observing what’s going on around her. How smart is she? How resourceful is she? What are her values, beyond not wanting to be married? What are her fears? What motivates her? Because so much of what she does is dictated solely by plot necessity, we don’t get those wonderful little moments of character building like we did with the likes of Belle or Simba. Even her re-imagining of Maleficent was like this, reducing a powerful and domineering woman into the byproduct of soppy and tiresome romance cliches of broken love and defining her less by her active decisions and methods, and more by her victimhood (an out-of-place, as well as poor taste, allusion to rape with her wings doesn’t help any).
And third, the ultimate question of any creative: why does this need to exist?
Even if your work follows a pre-established template, the right touches can make it memorable and standalone. Brazil is a comic take on 1984. Indiana Jones is a new, more self-aware, approach to old 1930s adventure serials. Star Wars is Kurosawa samurai movies by way of Flash Gordon. Woolverton managed this, as stated above, with Beauty, and in her contributions towards Lion King, Aladdin and Mulan.
Where was this with the Alice films and Maleficent? They all played like routine summer fantasy blockbusters: Alice was a watered down Lord of the Rings, Maleficent was a song-free Wicked and Looking Glass played like some strange hybrid of Time Bandits, Back to the Future and Pirates of the Caribbean. Each stuck to a rigid and safe road with regards to formulas relating to hero’s journey and villain’s tragedies, setting up no surprises, subversions or chances to comment on elements of the source material the way Beauty had. They abandoned more interesting thematic and narrative ideas to go the tried and tested route: doing a Wonderland tale with an older Alice and how an adult would perceive such a world? Prophecy with some stand up for yourself for good measure. Understanding Maleficent’s origin and getting into the mind of living evil? Make her a scorned lover. Doing a story with time travel and its many consequences? Let’s save the token best friend with a sad backstory that we can make all better.
Where’s the daring or the clever subtext? Where’s the interesting contrast of characters and their worldviews? Where´s the commentary on the source material? Where are even a well-rounded and fleshed out cast who don’t bow down just to make way for the holier than thou protagonist?
And so, that’s where I bring this yarn to a close.
Naturally, I never like to be too downbeat in my conclusions, and for whatever I may have said, I do owe Woolverton some credit in my own creative development, like any child of the 90s. She was one of the many cogs that made the machine that was the Disney Renaissance possible and has certainly worked hard in bringing new ideas to female-led stories, always important for little girls out there with a growing imagination. However, every artist reaches a burnout point, and I worry if Woolverton has begun to put novelty before actual storytelling.
Never Miss An Article
Join our mailing list and recieve an email as soon as there is a new article.