Did you know they’re making another Mary Poppins movie? How about a Men in Black spinoff? Or Toy Story 4? Though Hollywood’s seeming addiction to sequels, prequels, and reboots is quickly turning into a joke on the late night circuit and blogosphere, it’s also turning into big money at the box office. Making a followup to an already successful property is pretty much writing a blank check these days, as audiences keep turning out in droves to see the further adventures of insert beloved movie character here. Where did the compulsion come from, though? Going back even to the late 90s, franchises were much rarer beasts. We had James Bond, Godzilla, and a few other standbys, but, beyond one or two sequels, unless you were wearing a hockey mask and killing teenagers, one movie was enough to tell a story. Beginning, middle, end, boom. Heroes either rode off into the sunset or died nihilistically, but when the credits rolled, their story was over. Somewhere post-millennium, though, we all got addicted to asking “what happens next?” Did the dawn of the internet—and the subsequent transformation of a generation into information junkies—leave us all hooked on needing to know more? Perhaps; but, I’ve got a theory of my own—one that goes back to the early 90s, and something called The Disney Afternoon.
For the first wave of millennials, The Disney Afternoon was the afternoon. It was a cultural touchstone rivaled perhaps only by the Nick Toons and the Kids’ WB. If you weren’t participating in some after school activity or outdoors with your friends, then coming home at the end of a weekday between 1990 and 1997 meant throwing down your backpack and settling in front of the TV for two solid hours of original cartoon programming before dinner. It was Must See TV for the grade school set. The Little Mermaid had sparked the Disney Renaissance the year before, and that sudden sharp uptick in quality output translated to the small screen, giving us Rescue Rangers, Darkwing Duck, Tale Spin, Gargoyles, and a smattering of other shows that demonstrated you could create a kids’ show that wasn’t brain dead drivel. Joined by The Gummi Bears (which had been quietly testing the formula on NBC for the last half of the 80s), The Disney Afternoon was a generational phenomenon right up there with disco or John Hughes movies. If you were a kid in the 90s, it was part of your cultural identity.
Now, quick, tell me: How did Tale Spin end? It’s OK if you don’t remember. Tell me about the series finale of Darkwing Duck. Bonkers? Rescue Rangers? Anything? Anyone?
If you’re having difficulty remembering how each of these venerable series closed the book on their respective stories and characters, you’re not alone, and there’s a very good reason: With rare exception, the shows on the Disney Afternoon didn’t have finales. They simply stopped. No wrap up. No denouement. Maybe Disney wanted us to go on thinking that Baloo and Darkwing and Gadget were all still out there, fighting evil and solving crimes. Maybe they just got bored. I haven’t delved deeply enough into the machinations of Disney to find out what exact decision led to the cancellation of each of the Afternoon shows, or why so few were given proper sendoffs. Even the shows that did give us endings presented them to us under strange circumstances: Gargoyles got what should have been a series finale, but then the show was instead rebranded as a Saturday-morning series called The Goliath Chronicles that changed nothing except for the title and the primary antagonist, leaving us all confused. Meanwhile, Aladdin and Goof Troop had their stories wrapped up in movies that ignored large parts of their respective series’ canon (why wasn’t Max BFFs with PJ? Where were Abis Mal and Mozenrath?) In giving us imaginative characters, entertaining tales, and fantastic concepts, Disney also denied an entire generation something that’s endemic to the human experience: Closure.
Ariel and Prince Eric get married. Gaston dies and the Beast learns to be a better person. Simba reclaims the Pride Lands. On the silver screen, we were seeing our heroes get proper endings. The same held true for our other generational touchstones: Jurassic Park, Terminator 2, Home Alone, even Clueless all had beginnings, middles, and most importantly endings to satisfy the basic human need for a complete narrative.
But not the Disney Afternoon.
While other properties may have had an implied “what happens next?” when all was said and done, the Disney Afternoon shows pretty much screamed it. Did Baloo ever defeat the Air Pirates? What happened to Taurus Bulba? Did Gadget end up with Chip or Dale? For dozens of episodes spanning multiple years, plotlines developed, characters evolved, and we never got any wrap-up on any of them. An entire generation was denied gratification in a very important part of their lives; and that, I think, translated into something much bigger. A subconscious impact on the way that Millennials consume media, and what we demand from our narratives. We’re a generation perhaps not entirely capable of accepting that something is over because for so long we weren’t given the proper opportunity to say goodbye to the things we loved. A series finale is meant to be a sort of funeral for a TV show—a chance to remember the good times, accept that something is over, and move on. It’s a grieving process in miniature. As any psychologist will tell you, though, not learning to grieve properly can righteously mess a person up and give them all sorts of issues down the road; that, I believe, is in some small way at the heart of the current demand for sequels, spinoffs, and prequels. We want the story to keep going because, as a generation, we never learned how to accept that a story is over.
I don’t think that there’s a one-to-one correlation here. The Disney Afternoon was not directly responsible for spawning a business model. There have of course been sequels for decades, and as I mentioned above, while franchises were once rare, they also weren’t unheard of. Any pop phenomenon is the product of a multitude of complex socio-cultural factors all coalescing. Was The Disney Afternoon one of the factors, though, that contributed to the current zeitgeist? On that count, I’d certainly say so. What I’m curious to see now, though, is what—if anything—will be enough to provide our generation with that narrative closure we so desperately need. Was the death of Han Solo the first volley in an attempt to reconcile the media of our past—a final letting go of the old, and acknowledging that things can—and will—end? That upcoming Han Solo prequel kinda says “no,” but I’m curious if, as old characters are given definite endings, and audiences embrace new franchises and stories, we’ll finally see an end to sequel-mania and an era in which standalone films are the norm once again. If, as a generation, we’ll finally learn to say goodbye.