By now most fans will agree that Hollywood is suffering a creative drought. Studios are locked in a soul-sucking cycle of remakes, franchise-stuffers, and half-hearted streamer fluff that are driving away audiences. We can blame this on disappointing theater performances due to the pandemic, controversial agendas, increasingly unaffordable streaming subscriptions, or execs simply losing touch with their fans. All of these can play a factor, though the 2022 failure of Pixar’s Lightyear and the success of Top Gun: Maverick tell me that post-COVID culture isn’t entirely to blame.
For those who hold to traditional and biblical values, agenda-driven storytelling might be the biggest turn-off. Disney in particular enjoys shouting their ideologies with the same fervor as street preachers in Pensacola,1 forcing us to think about sexual preference (like Strange Worlds in 2022), race (Disney/Pixar’s Elemental in 2023), and even children’s menstrual cycles (Turning Red in 2022). These controversies have contributed to a streak of film failures.
And while plenty of Christian and traditional families have grown cynical of The Mouse, let me offer a glimmer of hope. Disney might finally be waking up to its growing “woke” problem.
Disney needs a return to its roots
A recent conversation between The New York Times and Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer Pete Docter gives us insight on the future at Pixar. Docter thinks the studio has “drifted too far from its storytelling roots” and says he’s revisiting upcoming projects to ensure they focus on “what allows [Pixar] to speak to audiences to begin with.”2 The news was echoed through smaller publications like Screen Rant, which points to projects like Turning Red, Lightyear, and even Elemental as weak projects that prove Pixar needs a “return to form.”
Of course, Screen Rant focuses on problems other than politics, and it’s partially right. But the site fails to notice these lackluster films are the same ones Christians and conservatives call “woke.”
Interestingly, Disney CEO Bob Iger does seem to notice this objection.
Disney’s leader begins a shift in statements
After the sudden axing of Bob Chapek in 2022, Iger returned to Disney and has been walking back some of the drama his predecessor created. Chapek was known to make political statements and declare war with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over the Florida Parental Rights in Education Act. Iger, however, has repeatedly stated he wants to move the Disney company away from politics. When pressed to give his own statement on the Florida bill during an employee town hall, he dodged a direct reply, saying that there’s a “delicate balance” to telling stories and that Disney must “listen to [its] audience” and “have respect for the people [it’s] serving.”3
Despite the Walt Disney Company still tangling in the courts with Florida, Iger blatantly admitted to CNBC that he thinks the company’s (and, we can infer by proxy, Chapek’s) response to DeSantis’s bill was “not … handled very well.”4.
Wishing for a better Disney future
Unfortunately, my hope is frequently met with pushback from jaded friends. I’m reminded that Bob Iger would have green-lit projects like Lightyear and Strange Worlds before he retired. While that’s likely true, projects in Hollywood change drastically throughout their production. Iger very well could have green-lit a film about the original Buzz Lightyear. He may not have greenlit an animated lesbian romance. And even if he did, CEOs are not exempt from a change of mind and learning from their mistakes. The current CEO sets the tone of the company, and if Chapek was the kind of person to cave to pressure and pick political fights, that attitude would have emboldened other creative directors.
While it’s a far cry to assume Iger is a conservative Christian, he is a businessman. His job is to make successful products. So if a “woke agenda” is causing the company to lose money, his statements tell me he might not be so steeped in ideology that he can’t make logical business decisions.
Disney is a massive machine with many slow-moving parts, so we can’t immediately know if Iger is true to his word, or even if he and Pete Docter will be successful at returning to roots. We can simply look for signs of a triumphant redemption of Disney storytelling that reflects deeper and truer magic that many of us long to see.
- Trust me, they’re real. ↩
- As an aside, Pete Docter is a self-proclaimed Christian. See this 2009 Christianity Today interview. Another article, undated at MovieGuide, also points to a now-deleted interview at Radix Magazine in which the Pixar chief creative officer shares his faith. ↩
- “Disney CEO Bob Iger Tells Employees He Wants To ‘Quiet’ Down Culture Wars, ‘Respect’ the Audience,” Scott Whitlock, Yale Halon, FOX Business, Nov. 29, 2022. ↩
- Iger as a businessman is understandably upset that DeSantis is retracting the tax handouts that have benefited Disney since the 1960s. He also correctly says that it’s Disney’s constitutional right to speak against legislation it disagrees with. While both ideas are true, neither require Iger or today’s Disney to have an opinion on the parental rights bill himself, which is why he insists—despite pushback from his host—that he wants the company to remain separated from the culture wars. You can read CNBC’s transcript of the Iger here. ↩