How Disney Profits Off of Your Nostalgia

Whether you’ve been streaming Netflix’s Stranger Things, watching Disney’s latest dead-eyed CGI remake in theaters, or partaking in the revival of scrunchies, mom jeans, and windbreakers, you’ve probably noticed one thing these items all have in common. 

That’s right: the ’80s and ’90s are back with a vengeance.  

One way of explaining this recollection can be found in the nostalgia cycle. The nostalgia cycle is a cultural predictor that estimates how long it will take until society longs for the trends and ideas of generations before them. Many versions of the nostalgia cycle exist, ranging from 10-40 years. For example, for a thirty-year long cycle, someone from the 2010s might long for the aesthetics and attitudes of the 1980s. A notable product of a nostalgia cycle includes the 1977’s Star Wars, in which George Lucas calls back to the adventurous serials of the 1940s and ’50s.

While the gimmick of the nostalgia cycle is charming, it is clearer to see that this move towards nostalgia is profit-driven, especially within the film industry. When searching for a suitable example of this phenomenon, pointing fingers and targeting the Disney company is too easy. 

Disney has been a corporation that has depended on nostalgia for most of its existence. Whether it pulls from its early archives with animated classics such as 1937’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” and 1951’s “Alice in Wonderland” for their VHS releases or the “preserving” of Disney’s legacy, remembrance of the past permeates Disney’s ethos. But lately, most people have noticed Disney’s emphasis on reviving its films created during its “renaissance” during 1989-1999. Such notable films created in the era include Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Mulan. All of these films have live-action remakes or are currently in production, with release dates scattered throughout the 2020s. 

Logically speaking, pushing for these movies makes sense. One key aspect is that the children who watched the 2D-animated films in the ’90s are now all grown up with their own disposable incomes. With their childhood behind them and responsibilities piling up, of course these adults will want to return to simpler times. Disney, along with other companies, has exploited this longing for nostalgia in order to sell more tickets and merchandise. 

In Disney’s case, however, it has become apparent that seeking profit while using nostalgia as a crutch has resulted in the gutting of some of its most beloved Renaissance films. Lion King (2019) is a prime example of this, as many felt betrayed when the studio decided to take away the original 1994 film’s exaggerated visuals and instead rendered the characters with hyperrealistic CGI effects. 

But sadly, profit-mongering is not new for Disney. Its continued reliance on safe projects makes sense with the lukewarm response recent original stories have received (The Good Dinosaur, Big Hero Six, Brave). Unless audiences show up to theaters, tickets in hand, for movies that don’t have the name value of a remake, fewer originals will be made. 

It would be fitting to end with a note of nostalgia. And who can say it better than the man behind the Disney Renaissance himself, Michael Eisner? The previous CEO of Disney says what current Disney seems too afraid to express: “We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective.”

Featured Image: Polygon

-Grace Lee (’21)

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