And what exactly is Disney trying to sell?
June 29th saw the premiere of Baymax! on Disney+. The spin-off from Big Hero Six, the animated Disney film from 2014 would likely have gone mostly unnoticed were it not for what I can only call the stupidest marketing push in recent memory. Conservative commentator Christopher Rufo, best known for stoking the Critical Race Theory controversy, posted this on Twitter:
EXCLUSIVE: I've obtained leaked video from Disney's upcoming show "Baymax," which promotes the transgender flag and the idea that men can have periods to children as young as two years old.
It's all part of Disney's plan to re-engineer the discourse around kids and sexuality. pic.twitter.com/y1ATnKCEce
— Christopher F. Rufo ⚔️ (@realchrisrufo) June 28, 2022
If you’re not sure what, specifically, Christopher Rufo was mad about in that tweet, at the seventeen second point we see a transman recommending a specific brand of tampon to Baymax. The bizarre premise of the scene, Baymax buying tampons, rather overshadows that apparent Easter egg. Why is Baymax buying tampons? How is it helpful for everyone to give Baymax completely different tampon recommendations? Who does this in a grocery store, swarming a robot to make sure it buys the best brand of tampons?
If you forgot why conservatives are even mad at Disney in the first place, it’s because they stopped giving Republican politicians money earlier this year when their liberal employees noticed and started complaining. As a large corporation that makes most of its profits by hoarding the intellectual property copyrights of long dead creators, the very existence of Disney is incompatible with leftist ideology. So rather than make a meaningful change to its corporate structure, Disney is attempting to maintain its family-friendly image by…adding Easter eggs to suggest the company has good politics.
All of this has completely overshadowed what Baymax! even is- a television show based on a brand most of us had completely forgotten about. Big Hero Six takes place in San Fransokyo, and is based on the superhero comic of the same name. That superhero comic was somewhat notorious for being outrageously racist, and the Disney film version so completely retooled the concept it’s barely even recognizable. Baymax himself, a friendly medical assistant robot, shares almost no similarity to his comic book counterpart aside from the name. He’s also, not coincidentally, by far the best part of the movie, serving as the anchor to a character arc about the lead dealing with grief from the loss of his older brother.
Baymax! itself on a conceptual level doesn’t really see this. While the right wingers who rail against Disney today attribute this chiefly to the company’s liberal politics, in reality there’s really more of a broad storytelling issue that’s creating this disconnect. Disney animated films in the 90s, for example, were extremely woke in that they frequently portrayed foreign settings and featured female characters with strong agency. You can also see these elements improve over time as later films take criticisms of the earlier ones into account.
But the Disney strategy in the present day is to instead attempt to preemptively discredit any criticism of a new project by amplifying the stupidest most politically charged critiques. We saw this when Lightyear tried to get around criticism of the movie’s absurd premise of being a metatext for the Toy Story by focusing on a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it lesbian kiss. Lightyear underperformed in part because these were both very stupid topics of discussion compared to, say, the movie’s adorable robot cat character.
Then there was Turning Red, which most recently had the controversy of a film critic inadvertently giving really racist sounding reasons for not liking the movie. Before that, Turning Red was controversial, if you can really even call it that, for its textual discussion of menstruation in pubescent girls, existing alongside the fairly unsubtle double meaning in the film’s title. Like Lightyear, these rather petty controversies did not do much to draw viewers to theaters, and there have been enough big box office performers this year that COVID-19 is no longer a compelling excuse.
The television front for Disney+ isn’t much better in this regard. If you watch the interviews, Kenobi star Moses Ingram and Ms. Marvel star Iman Vellani mostly just discuss the usual actor interview stuff like how and why they were cast and what it’s like actually making these shows. But in terms of discussions be it on social media or on entertainment news sites, the predominant theme of these programs is that racist people don’t like them, even if such discussion has died down from its height when these shows were still new and more relevant.
Supposedly Kenobi and Ms. Marvel are at least popular. Certainly they’re the most popular shows on Disney+. But as is to be expected, this is far less impressive than it sounds when you tie actual numbers to this qualifier. The premiere of Kenobi had 2.14 million viewers. For the sake of comparison, this year’s season premiere of The Masked Singer, a network musical competition so obscure the only thing anyone remembers about it from the past season was the inexplicable appearance of Rudy Guilliani, had 4.14 million viewers.
This is the surprisingly awkward place Disney currently finds itself as a brand, with a wealth of intellectual property to make just about any kind of show imaginable. Then the ideas that they actually produce end up sounding like Saturday Night Live sketches.
It’s almost impossible to describe the actual premises of Disney shows without making them sound ridiculous. Doctor Strange 2 had its big plot twist be that a long-running heroic character from the Marvel movies becomes the villain because she wants to recover the children she had with a robot in a Leave It To Beaver inspired nightmarescape by finding versions of them from other parts of the multiverse where this apparently impossible thing actually happened. I’m not making this up. I’m not sure how anyone can.
I gave Warner Brothers a hard time in my recent HBO Max piece for their increasing reliance on branding despite their most famous properties generally working as self-contained stories rather than overly self-referential ones. Yet like I mentioned in the closing to that piece, the people who are making these stories are at least sincere about what they do. Yes, “Velma from Scooby Doo as a South Asian woman” might sound like ridiculous wokebait, but we’re talking about Mindy Kaling. I don’t think anyone can rule out the fact that she actually really thinks this is a good idea for a show.
Can anyone really honestly say that the Disney Easter egg strategy of highlighting LGBT issues is at all sincere? The company actually had a chance to give a big audience to a legitimately queer story, an adaptation of the fantasy adventure graphic novel Nimona, and deliberately sabotaged it hardly a couple of years ago by the same corporate structure that’s approving the Easter egg idea. The funny part being that Nimona isn’t strictly speaking about gay characters at all. Two of three leads have a strong homosocial relationship, and the third is a shapeshifter, but they present this as an exploration of what it means to be different or to defy society.
Why would Disney want to give a platform to a story like that when they could just stick a rainbow flag on screen for five seconds and call it a day? Baymax! is already underperforming on Disney+, having fallen behind The Simpsons on the leaderboard. If Disney keeps this up, their audience will continue to erode–not because the pandering is gay, but because it’s pandering.