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Lightyears From Reality

Lightyears From Reality

Disney’s biggest nemesis is not Ron DeSantis, but its own artistic compromise.

So much has happened since the House of Mouse weighed in on Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill that the news two weeks ago concerning Pixar’s restoration of a same-sex kiss in its upcoming Toy Story prequel, Lightyear seems to have largely faded from public consciousness. However, given Disney’s marketing prowess, the amnesiatic effect seems intentional. Under fire from a handful of vocal LGBTQ+ employees and allies for not taking a stand, Disney reinserted the scene (likely excised in the first place to fix pacing issues) as its opening salvo in a fight against renegade governor and likely presidential contender Ron DeSantis. As the saga unspooled, Disney shielded itself by leaking its decision three months before the film’s scheduled release, putting distance between the controversy to avoid any audience fallout during the competitive summer movie season.

As it navigates a polarized post-pandemic world, Disney’s gamble is that it can shore up progressive support without alienating apolitical fans of the most valuable and evergreen franchise properties of the last half century. In the eyes of many lefty activists, DeSantis is a figure worthy of demonization for opposing gender and sexuality instruction in the K-3 curriculum. In contrast, Disney apparently perceives itself as a gender-fluid Prince Charming whisking the oppressed off to safer spaces. Yet, those most passionate about the latest erroneously spun hill to die on seem wildly uninterested in Disney’s commodification and exploitation of the LGBTQ+ community and other identity groups it achieves through the same ruthless efficiency it customarily reserved for fast-food tie-ins and ancillary merchandising.

Disney knows full well that its success hinges on four-quadrant franchises that do not tip the scales in favor of a certain subset of moviegoers. Consequently, Disney’s LBTQ+ representation strategy has operated under a slow burn of artlessly contrived queer moments featuring supporting players that have long met with derision in the community the company claims to support. Most, like the background lesbian parents in Toy Story 4 or the one-eyed cop in Onward are blink-and-miss Easter eggs. Others like LeFou’s male dance partner in the horrendous live-action remake of Beauty & the Beast or the three-second same-sex kisses in The Rise of Skywalker and Marvel’s Eternals are clear pandering, long enough to dutifully check a box yet short enough to avoid sustained attention. Plus, relegating representation to superfluous moments allows Disney to edit it out of international releases with relative ease in countries like Singapore, China, and the United Arab Emirates where outright persecution of LGBTQ+ citizens doesn’t seem to raise the ire of performative activists or make the money any less fit to pad the company’s bottom line. After all, this is the studio that shot its recent Mulan in China near concentration camps for Uighur Muslims and offers a shout out to the provincial government in the film’s credits.

Like these aforementioned LGBTQ+-affirming moments, the same-sex kiss in Lightyear featuring a minor character will likely have no narrative or thematic weight because Disney doesn’t care enough to develop queer content any more than is necessary to grab a headline much less provide a multilayered subtext customary of complicated art that viewers can read as they please. If it were genuinely concerned, the company would greenlight an animated project with the same budget as Frozen featuring a proudly out LGBTQ+ protagonist and eat the losses as a matter of principle. It’s so much easier and cheaper to wage war against DeSantis, especially when such mudslinging conveniently conceals the company’s slew of problematic recent distribution decisions.

Curiously, during COVID only films featuring underrepresented protagonists like Soul, Luca, Turning Red, and Mulan went straight to Disney+ though intended for theatrical wide release. Likewise, films featuring minority characters like Encanto and Shang-Chi saw their theatrical potential diluted by an accelerated streaming premiere due to Disney’s lack of faith in moviegoers’ interest. The company’s dismissive attitude toward the theatrical earnings potential of diverse stories even led Shang-Chi star Simu Liu to publicly call out Disney CEO, Bob Chapek, for flippantly characterizing the film featuring Marvel’s first Asian Avenger as an “interesting experiment” in distribution six months after executives launched a tepid campaign to #StopAsianHate.

At present, a traditionalist conservative fantasy is brewing in which value voters’ boycotts will topple Disney and send the company the way of Opryland. Even if the Daily Wire raises $100 million to produce children’s programming as a Disney alternative (note that sum is roughly the cost of half a Marvel movie), a successful campaign against the entertainment behemoth is unlikely. For some reason that necessitates more intricate analysis, outspoken conservatives, Christians, and especially conservative Christians who aren’t Mel Gibson seem incapable of making art or entertainment that is artful or entertaining. Disney doesn’t see them as a threat. They shouldn’t because the members of this counterculture are not serious about their craft, comfortable serving merely as the bizarro-world equivalents of Hollywood’s most noxious polemicists.

The better solution is simply to give Disney’s product the attention it deserves. Any discerning viewer knows by now that the company’s recent output has opted to sacrifice narrative inventiveness and audience connection for opportunistic representation (there’s a reason no one cares about these titles like they did Black Panther or Frozen II and it’s not the pandemic). As a result, most of its latest releases fall short in every possible way–meriting a cursory watch, but unworthy of repeat viewing, merchandise collecting, or extravagant cosplaying and the revenue they generate. If the box-office for the vapid and indulgent Crayolafest Eternals is any sign of things to come, “Get Woke, Go Broke” may finally evolve beyond meme status.

Rather than pay a monthly fee to Disney+ for such scintillating content as a second remake of Cheaper by the Dozen with topical dialogue about race starring that guy who directed Garden State and the Black cheer captain from Bring It On, concerned consumers could buy physical copies of Disney favorites or the company’s precious few recent films with any actual artistic merit (looking at you, Encanto and Cruella). Though still formidable, Disney is a shell of itself as Sony and Paramount’s consistent pandemic success at the box-office has proven. All the Focus on the Family righteous indignation in the world is just white noise amid the company’s entirely avoidable but now seemingly inevitable decline that lukewarm consumer practices could help accelerate. But that Ron DeSantis quip about Disney’s long-standing relationship with former Miramax mogul Harvey Weinstein was still glorious.