The Power of Nostalgia and How it Has Been Misused

The Power of Nostalgia and How it Has Been Misused

Storytelling is a profound expression of the human soul. It has the ability to interpret our greatest joys as well as our deepest sorrows. It allows us to express ourselves in a unique manner that connects to the souls around us. As an art form, storytelling can encompass countless mediums and talents. I think it’s safe to say that every art form is capable of telling a story, and we can learn valuable lessons from all of them. But lately, I’ve been wanting to talk about some hard storytelling lessons that I’ve learned through my own personal mistakes and experiences in writing. And I’m going to use the art of filmmaking to illustrate these ideas since it’s the medium I’ve studied the most throughout my lifetime, and the medium that I can most easily apply to other forms of storytelling. Today I wanted to talk about a concept that has seemed to become a problem in the filmmaking industry, and also one that I believe has been incredibly misunderstood: The concept of nostalgia.

In a world of sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes, and spin-offs, the concept of nostalgia has garnered a bit of a negative reputation. These days, nostalgia is unfortunately seen as a cheap trick, a false feeling that’s built on the foundations of our rose-colored memories and recycled to sell movie tickets. But I personally believe that this is because nostalgia has become misused by Hollywood, and therefore vilified by the masses. I personally believe that it’s all about perspective on this one. In fact, I propose that nostalgia can be a powerful tool to craft amazing stories, and doesn’t have to be a trick used by studios to shirk their work or responsibility. Nostalgia, if applied properly, shouldn’t be an easy thing to use. In fact, nostalgia should take hard work to apply.

To understand what I mean by this, we must first understand what nostalgia truly is. And it all comes down to the perspective of what we experience, versus what we remember of those experiences. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman refers to this as the “Focusing Illusion”. He says that what this means is we have two “selves”: our experiencing self, which is our self that is in the here and now and is experiencing life as it goes by, and our remembering self which is how we remember these experiences after they have happened.

Kahneman explains “the remembering self is a storyteller. And that really starts with the basic response of our memory. It starts immediately. We don’t only tell stories when we set out to tell stories. Our memory tells us stories. What we get to keep from our experiences is a story.

This means that, whether we like it or not, our experiences inform the stories we remember and resonate with. This, in essence, is what nostalgia is. It is a powerful memory which is created by something good that we experienced in our past. It’s a story of what we remember that we log away in our minds until something triggers it. It is our remembering self, taking away the best parts of our experience and filing them in our subconscious to bring to the forefront when reminded…even when we least expect it. And this is why nostalgia is so powerful. Because the audience’s memory already contains an entirely fleshed-out story to conjure up with only the slightest reminder, before a new storyteller even says a word of their own devising. Now of course, this requires some responsibility on the part of the storyteller to not abuse the power of remembrance in his/her audience. More on that later.

It’s also important to note that nostalgia can be nearly subconscious, and has the power to trigger emotions connected to memories we never knew that we had. This is why even certain smells or tastes can make us cry without us even being able understand why. That’s how powerful the stories of nostalgia are. The psychology of storytelling’s impact on the subconcious mind is a truly fascinating concept and I would love to delve deeper into it sometime. However, for right now, I just wanted to focus on how nostalgia has become misused and how we can maybe fix these problems in going forward.

Kahneman continues “What defines a story are changes, significant moments, and endings. And endings are very, very important.”

Now I believe this statement explains the problem with nostalgia in today’s storytelling landscape. The problem with nostalgia as it is used today, is that it seems to be the only thing the storyteller uses. There’s a reason why sometimes a movie’s ending can ruin the whole film (or in the case of Avengers Endgame, elevate it). It’s because a bad or lazy ending is felt by the audience, and often remembered the most out of the whole experience. It’s the feeling the audience walks away with as they leave the theater, and if that’s not a good feeling, it could jeopardize the whole film.

But it’s not just endings that can cause a problem. Your audience knows when they’re being shortchanged. They may not know how, but believe me, they still know! An audience can sense when a plot is shallow, or when their memories are being manipulated to create a screen for lazy showmanship. The truth is that, in modern Hollywood, there is often no substance to back up the feeling of nostalgia, and the audience knows it. I usually try not to be harsh with my criticism when it comes to storytelling, but the truth is that nostalgia is often used simply as a misdirection to hide a weak story, rather than a tool to enrich one. In this form, the experience of nostalgia is hollow and is therefore often rejected as fake or manipulative. It is easily conjured up in the minds of an audience, but it is also quickly forgotten. It feels empty and cheap, because it does not create anything new for the memory.

But there’s good news! This also unlocks the secret to using nostalgia properly in storytelling going forward. They key is this: nostalgia, if used properly, should not just remind you of good memories from your past, but it should also create new ones!

A great example of how nostalgia can be used properly is found in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Like any fandom, there is a significant amount of nostalgia for the characters and brands of this franchise amongst its audience. Entire generations grew up with memories of reading the comics, playing with the toys, or watching the tv shows and they carry that with them into the theater. This brand has nostalgia in spades. Of course, Marvel could easily ride on those memories and let their audiences childhood experiences carry the films and sell their tickets…but for the most part they don’t. It’s because they realized one very important thing: that nostalgia is ultimately unfulfilling without putting substance behind it…The reason why Marvel’s Cinematic Universe has become the highest-grossing franchise in history is because they focus on making good stories first. Then, only after they have created something of genuine substance as a foundation, do they insert nostalgia to heighten the experience. They create something new to give the audience first, and then they reinforce it with their audience’s memories. They use nostalgia, and their audience’s previously made “memory stories” as a tool to enrich an already well-crafted story.

There are many examples of this, but let’s use Black Panther to illustrate my point. There are comparatively few people who watch Black Panther and walk away saying “Wow, the image of Wakanda reminded me so much of Jack Kirby’s drawings from the comics!” Of course, you are more likely to hear people say “Wakanda felt like a real place with real people and authentic culture!”

And the truth is that the filmmakers absolutely do reference Jack Kirby’s famous drawings, and they absolutely do have them in mind when making the movie…but that’s not the point. Ryan Coogler crafted a beautiful story inspired by the comics that was deeply personal and close to his heart first. Only then, after he felt like had expressed his message properly, did he add the nostalgic factor as icing on the cake.

He used the nostalgia of the comics to make an already amazing story, even better. Not only do fans walk away with the joyful feeling of reliving their childhood and experiencing the joy of their wonderful memories, but they also create brand new ones to bring with them into future experiences. The nostalgia reinforces the experience. That is the true power of nostalgia.

For contrast, you can look at a film like The Rise of Skywalker. Among a multitude of storytelling issues, Rise of Skywalker struggles with its identity. It doesn’t really know what kind of story it wants to tell. It has a bit of a shaky foundation, and to cover this up, they rely on a great deal of nostalgia to carry the movie. Nostalgic music cues, familiar imagery, and self-referential scriptwriting are bombarded at the viewer in hopes that they will make up for a lack of clear vision. It’s an admirable attempt from J.J. Abrams to try and salvage the mess he was left to work with, but in the end, it just didn’t work. Even if you love this movie, there is no denying that the average audience member felt cheated. It feels empty to them, because they don’t walk away with anything new. They are simply reminded of a past good experience (the stories they grew up with) and are in the same place they were when they entered the theater. They have nothing new to remember, and nothing new to be nostalgic about going forward. All you have is the old memory and this feels like “sameness” which can leave you with a hollow sense of disappointment.

And just to clarify, nostalgia doesn’t have to be defined by memories of a specific franchise or a character that you grew up with. It can be abstract memories or simple life experiences that resonate with you. But as a storyteller, if you’re going to use this form of nostalgia, it has to be authentic and flow from a uniquely personal place. For instance, in the story of Peter Pan, author J.M. Barrie based a good deal of the plot on wonderfully innocent childhood memories from his own life and the lives of the people around him. He delved deep into childhood memories of fighting imaginary pirates, pretending to be heroes that could fly like fairies, or dreams of adventures in the woods. Because these were deeply authentic storytelling efforts on Barrie’s part, they deeply resonated with his audience on the story’s debut in 1904. People who watched the play, had their own similar happy childhood memories, and this caused an already memorable story to become even better. The story would skyrocket in popularity, becoming one of the most popular tales of all time. This wasn’t the only factor in its success of course, but it certainly added to its charm.

The truth of the matter is that a memory, of any kind, is an incredibly powerful thing. Nostalgia is simply one useful manifestation of memory, and as such it carries a great amount of influence on the audience…and requires a great deal of responsibility not to misuse.

At the end of the day, nostalgia is a powerful tool that can be used to both positive and negative effect. Like any tool, it all depends on who’s using it and how they choose to apply it.

Thank you for reading!

The Power of Nostalgia and How It’s Been Misused (Lessons in Storytelling)

The Maturity of Toy Story: A Disney/Pixar Masterpiece (Video Essay)

FeaturedThe Maturity of Toy Story: A Disney/Pixar Masterpiece (Video Essay)

I attempt to explore the main theme of this beloved franchise and why I think it’s an unparalleled masterpiece…

WEBSITE UPDATE: As you may have noticed, I’ve been spending a lot more time making video essays on YouTube than writing new blog posts these days. There’s a reason for that. Although my first and foremost passion is writing about the things that I love, there is no denying that more and more interest is being generated in audio/visual content. While I’ve been stuck at home during this unprecedented situation, I’ve been trying to take advantage of the extra time on my hands to grow my YouTube channel and hopefully offer more of this type of content. However, my goal is to always create what I love, and not what I think others want to see, so I have put great care into my writing of the video’s scripts to accomplish this. I have poured my heart and soul into these videos and I hope my passion for writing still comes through in it. The long and short of this update is to say that I am absolutely 100% planning on making more written content in the future. I have not abandoned that. Videos just take a long time to make, and as I currently do everything by myself, it naturally has taken up most of my time. In addition, my current situation during this pandemic has made it difficult to create an accurate schedule or reliable method of creating content, at least for these last few months, and it will take some time to figure out how to move forward in the changing landscape of the future. My goal is to eventually balance the two  forms of media and find a schedule that works for releasing fresh and original content in both video and written form! I can’t wait! Thank you for reading this and I hope you have a magical week! 🙂

How to create lightning in animation! (Disney special effects breakdown: old-school technique)

How to create lightning in animation! (Disney special effects breakdown: old-school technique)

A quick 2 min. video where I break down how Disney tricks you into seeing something that isn’t there using special optical effects!

I’m trying to do some new things on my YouTube channel to fill in the gaps between my flagship Video Essays…

I figured why not share something I have a passion for: the magic that goes into making our movie dreams a reality! It’s a little more educational then my usual content, but still really fun, so be prepared for that! I don’t know how people will react to shorter educational content like this, but there’s no harm in giving it a try!

It’s DIY technique for creating a lightning effect in your own movie, based on the way the old masters accomplished it! I love the fascinating work that goes on behind-the-scenes of all these famous movies, so I thought that exploring the unique special effects of hand-drawn animation in a bite-size format that makes it easy to understand might be fun! Maybe you’ll even learn how to do it yourself! 🙂

Why Beauty and the Beast is a Disney Masterpiece (Video Essay)

FeaturedWhy Beauty and the Beast is a Disney Masterpiece (Video Essay)

I spent the last three months painstakingly editing this video…It’s the last episode of Season 1 of my Masterpiece Series. I will soon be releasing the original scripts I wrote for these videos, as well as exclusive content (including fascinating behind-the-scenes anecdotes), exclusively on this website! 🙂 Don’t worry, as always, whether it’s on YouTube or here, my content will continue to be free for all to view!

Disney’s Top 10 Villainous Voices!

Disney’s Top 10 Villainous Voices!

A Special Behind-the-Scenes Look at Disney’s Top Villain Vocalists: Part 2

Were just getting started with Disney Magic Fanatic’s fall festivities! “Spooky Season” is in full swing with our strange dive into the world of voice acting villainy. Last time we took a fascinating look into the iconic performers that brought some of your favorite fiendish felons to life. And this time around we’ve got so much more to cover! With more stars, more memories, and more behind-the-scenes mysteries to uncover, the treasure trove of Disney’s vocal performances runs deep. So, come take a dive with me into the animated aristocracy as we discover the greatest villainous voices in Disney History! PART 2!

(You can visit part 1 here if you haven’t read it already!)

9. Dr. Facilier

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Three-time Pimetime Emmy-Winner Keith David provides the voice for this nefarious flim-flam voodoo man. In fitting with The Princess and the Frog’s re-imagining of the classic fairy tale in the setting of a 1920’s New Orleans, Dr. Facilier’s voice is smooth as jazz.

It’s Keith David’s history on Broadway, and as a narrator for film and television, that breathes life into the character. There’s charisma and wit in the performance of this twisted magician’s heart, and it comes through in every piece of his devious deeds. And nothing drives this home more than the highly underrated film’s villainous musical number “Friends on the Other Side”. It’s a true showstopper and a showcase for the silver-tongued character’s talent.

8. King Candy

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King candy is a very special villain for Disney fans because he’s a living Easter Egg!

Just like PIXAR has a “good luck charm” in the many cameo voices of John Ratzenberger, Disney animation has their own! Alan Tudyk, known for his work in the cult-classic television show Firefly, has had multiple cameos in the “New Golden Age” of Disney Animation, and King Candy was the first where he was cast in a major role! There’s also a rumor going around that Alan based King Candy’s voice on the legendary comedian Ed Wynn, the actor who portrayed the Mad Hatter in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland 60 years earlier.

Tudyk is a phenomenal, classically trained actor known for the control he has over his voice. You might recognize him as The Duke of Weselton from Frozen, or even HeiHei the rooster from Moana! All-in-all Alan Tudyk is a Disney icon.

7. Maleficent

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Eleanor Audley was an icon of a bygone era. Unfortunately, most radio royalty has been forgotten by modern audiences. However, their contributions to the realm of voice, particularly Disney voices, cannot be understated.

Known for her sophisticated, commanding, and often chilling tones, Eleanor provided a vocal presence that few could imitate. Eleanor is also known for portraying Madame Leota in The Haunted Mansion, and Lady Tremaine, the evil stepmother in Cinderella. The latter performance is also phenomenal, but only one villain could make this list. Cold and calculating, while still graceful and educated, Maleficent is one of the most memorable villains in Disney History, and Eleanor’s brilliant performance is a major player in that fact!

6. Captain Hook

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Another Radio icon from a bygone era, Hans Conried had a voice like none other. A major player on live stage, and a member of Orson Well’s Mercury Theatre Company, Hans distinguished himself from his peers by his unmatched energy and bold manner. Hans brought a wild exuberance to Peter Pan’s Captain Hook, while simultaneously playing the loud-mouthed George Darling (a strange tradition from the stage play where the same actor would play both characters). His vocal control was simply astounding, switching from high-pitched pirate squeaks, to a rolling British baritone during the same sentence!

5. Judge Frollo

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Distinguished stage/voice actor Tony Jay provided the thunderous gravity for Judge Claude Frollo in the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Recognized by his memorable baritone, Jay had the perfect voice for this wicked authority figure. Known by Disney fans the world over for his cameos in Beauty and the Beast and Treasure Planet, as well as being the successor to George Sanders as the voice for Shere Khan, Tony Jay has quite the impressive repertoire. But it’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame that brings out Tony Jay’s true commanding presence as an actor. Judge Frollo is despicable, but his distinctive vocal tone is unforgettable. In fact, many fans considered this casting choice to be so perfect, that it became known as the defining performance of Jay’s lengthy career.

4. Jafar

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This vile vizier is a fan-favorite due to a skin-crawling performance by Jonathan Freeman. Freeman, known for his performances on stage (which landed him a nomination for a Tony Award), lends and air of wily wickedness to Jafar, making it a voice that all 90’s kids consider quintessential. However, Freeman’s vocal performance is particularly special for Disney fans because it led to his casting in several Disney Broadway productions. In fact, among the roles of Cogsworth from Beauty and the Beast, Grimsby from the Little Mermaid, and Admiral Boom/The Bank Chairman from Mary Poppins, Jonathan is the only cast member from a Disney animated film to reprise his role on Broadway! Now Freeman has both the film and stage versions of Jafar under his belt!

3. Hades

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While not exactly the most family-friendly actor, James Woods performance as Hades is a peculiar exception. Often called the most “relatable” Disney villain by fans, Hades is known for his wisecracking sarcasm and wit. It’s the character’s quirky sense of humor, average joe mentality, and short temper that make him memorable to fans around the globe. It’s hard to imagine Hades being voiced by anyone else, which is just fine with Woods because he doesn’t want anyone else to do it! He enjoyed playing the character so much that he apparently told Disney that, if they asked him, he’d play the character again no matter the salary!

Making good on his promise, Woods has pretty much portrayed the character in every single appearance you can possibly imagine. theme parks, videogames, television, sequels…you name it, he’s probably done it! That is some dedication right there!

2. Ursula

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When it comes to a career, Pat Carroll makes most stars look cheap. Since as far back as the 40’s, Carroll has been wowing audiences on the stage, in television, and at the movies. She’s known particularly for her roles on Broadway, and for a successful tenure during the Golden Age of TV. As of this writing, Pat is still working as an actress…and that means she has over 70 years of experience!

After her turn as Ursula in The Little Mermaid, Pat’s career was never quite the same again. She famously reprises the role over and over, which seems to be a trend for a lot of Disney voice actors during the Renaissance of animation. Many people remember her fondly for her signature deep voice and famous song “Poor Unfortunate Souls”. In fact, Ursula is often quoted as one of the best Disney Villains for these very reasons! There are few Disney vocal performances as iconic as Ursula!

1. Scar

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Maybe I’m a little bit biased, but there is no other Disney Villain that has quite the same vocal gravitas as Scar. The Lion King was the quintessential movie for many Disney fans, and although it isn’t my personal favorite, I cannot deny the effect that it had on kids in the 90’s. If we’re being completely honest, he’s going to be at the top of almost every list no matter what aspect of the character we’re ranking. Animation, vocal performance, and even the way the character is written make Scar legendary.

What else is there to say other than that Jeremy Irons is an icon? And in terms of the voices, Jeremy Irons is just as iconic for Scar as James Earl Jones is for Mufasa. Nobody else can play Scar quite the same way, and many have tried. There is no greater example of this than the live-action remake of The Lion King. James Earl Jones reprised his role as Mufasa but, much to the chagrin of Disney fans everywhere, Jeremy did not return as Scar. Disney was surprised to find that their cast was highly criticized, and that the lack of Irons’ vocal presence was one of the reasons for it (along with the presence of certain pop-star). If that isn’t an example of how iconic scar’s voice is to fans, I don’t know what is!

Don’t see your favorite here? Let us know in the comments down below!