I recently went to the movie theater and saw the poster for Walt Disney Animation's upcoming feature, Moana. I took a moment to admire the use of color and detail, especially in Maui's body art... and noticed something familiar.
Moana and Maui were very clearly smirking at me. Like I'd just said something stupid, and they were ready to call me out. In front of my people.
What I felt next, a twinge of annoyance mixed with a barely-perceptible sting of insecurity, was familiar. Too familiar. It only took me a second to remember why.
Et tu, Chicken Little? Is this where it all began?
In 2005, when Walt Disney Animation Studios switched to marketing solely computer animation, they also began to rely heavily upon a facial expression that I'll refer to as "The Disney Smirk" in their marketing materials. Starting with Chicken Little, this bizarre element would go on to appear in EVERY SINGLE piece of key art for every Disney Animated Feature over the next 11 years.
I get it... Disney character designers and animators are probably encouraged to add as much personality as they can to every character they draw... but why is a SMIRK the default expression?
Granted, I never watched 2008's Bolt, which was promoted as an Action/Adventure... but for those of you who did see it, is there a reason for the smirk? I mean, Bolt is a dog. A dog doesn't have to smirk. He just has to look like a dog. Dogs are inherently fun-loving and adventurous. Is the smirk meant to make Bolt look not only fun-loving and adventurous but also ready for action?
And speaking of ACTION AND ADVENTURE... with the Tangled key art, they've even drawn a smirk on the lizard. Not only does everyone here look overly confident, but they also look like they are ready to brawl.
Fun fact: While developing this movie, Disney was concerned that little boys wouldn't be interested in a traditional Rapunzel tale, so the creative team was told to change the name to "Tangled" and play up Flynn Rider some more. FINALLY, SOMEONE WAS THINKING OF LITTLE BOYS. BOYS ARE SO NEGLECTED IN OUR POPULAR CULTURE, AREN'T THEY???? e_e
So basically, goddamn ACTION AND ADVENTURE was clearly the mandate. Hence the smirks.
In 2012, Disney had the titular Wreck-It-Ralph flexing snidely (a clear indication that he believes in his ability to wreck "it" and possibly you), Sgt. Calhoun sporting a traditional Disney Smirk, and Vanellope openly sneering at you. Again, I ask you, WHY?
"You can't sit with us." - Elsa
What a relief... For Frozen, Elsa is the only character saddled with The Disney Smirk (it looks like she is silently judging you). Kristoff and Anna both have something strange going on with their faces (a weird head tilt on him, a vacant, close-mouthed smile on her), but neither are as alarming as whatever's going on with Olaf.
Here, on Nick's face, The Disney Smirk is softened... perhaps to echo Zootopia's theme of tolerance and understanding. He still looks smug, but exactly one half of the featured characters in this piece of key art is smirking. It's a step in the right direction.
Despite all this, Big Hero 6 appears to be the one true holdout. The 2014 feature appears to be the exception for which Disney didn't utilize The Disney Smirk in any of its advertising. But the choice is likely not the result of any self-consciousness or fear or even awareness that they might have overused the smirk.
It's because the main character, Baymax doesn't have a mouth.
Oh, wait. Forgot about the kid.
AND HOW DID THEY STILL MAKE BAYMAX LOOK ANGRY?
I give up.