As excited as most of us get whenever a new Disney movie is announced, we’ve reached the point of being able to predict certain tropes that are going to appear in the movie. That’s because, as different as each one of Disney’s movies are, the company has taken to falling back on a handful of repeated ideas that they have been proven to work. On one hand, you can say “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” On the other hand, it can feel like Disney is just continuing to play it safe, and is allowing their movies to become predictable.
Obviously these clichés aren’t hurting Disney’s profits, since they continue to turn out big hit after big hit with the majority of their movies. Sometimes the clichés of their movies are even part of the draw, because those elements have become part of the Disney brand that appeals to fans. Regardless of how you feel about seeing these story elements get redone, there’s no denying that if you’ve watched your share of Disney films, you’re going to start seeing some common trends. These are the 15 Biggest Movie Clichés Disney Won’t Stop Using.
15. LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT / LOVE FIXES EVERYTHING
This is probably the most common cliché we’ll be talking about, because so many of Disney’s films do tend to be love stories. And we never really see the more realistic depiction of relationships, where sometimes things don’t work out; not because someone was secretly a villain, but just because two people weren’t as compatible as they thought. So if there’s a love subplot in the movie, you can always depend on everything working out in the end.
You might immediately think of Frozen as a movie that bucks this trend, but even there Anna winds up being saved by love— though it’s familial love rather than romantic. And even with Frozen switching things up a little bit, there’s still a long history of romance overcoming the impossible, like in Snow White when a kiss from a prince counteracts death itself. It’s just a shame there aren’t more Disney villains who are in love, otherwise they might be successful more often.
14. DEAD PARENTS
If you want to go on an adventure, you need to be an orphan apparently. Despite Disney movies being made for kids, they’re not all sunshine and rainbows. There’s actually pretty good odds that if you’re watching a Disney film, death will be a part of the movie. The example most people probably think of is Mufasa in The Lion King, but he’s far from the only one. Every character needs motivation for their journey, and offing the parent character who probably won’t be showing up much anyway has become a pretty popular way to do it.
Some protagonists are fortunate enough to only lose one parent, but in recent years we’ve seen Disney up the ante by having multiple family members die. Anna and Elsa lose both of their parents at the same time during Frozen, and in Big Hero 6, Hiro not only loses both his parents before the start of the movie, but also has to deal with his brother Tadashi dying. Being a Disney character is rougher than it sounds.
13. THE “I WANT” SONG
Most animated Disney films are musicals, so that means song lyrics are used to tell the story just as much as dialogue between characters. But the songs aren’t always very subtle in what they’re trying to convey, giving way to the “I want” song, where one of the characters explicitly states what their goal is through a big musical number. You won’t find viewers complaining about it, though, because these songs are frequently some of the best parts of Disney movies.
Hercules has “Go the Distance”, where Herc wants to fulfill his legacy as Zeus’ son by going through his training to be a hero. Anyone who has watched Mulan probably eagerly anticipates the training montage where Mulan learns how to be a man in “I’ll Make A Man Out of You” in preparation for defeating the Huns. And if you’re watching The Little Mermaid, you quickly learn that all Ariel wants is to be “Part of Your World.” These are movies made for kids, so the writers aren’t looking to subtle about anyone’s motivation. The protagonists will happily belt out what they want loud and clear.
12. THE KID-FRIENDLY SIDEKICK VOICED BY A COMEDIAN
It seems like ever since Robin Williams voiced Genie in Aladdin, Disney has been trying to recreate the appeal of his character in the majority of their animated films. It worked pretty well for Genie because Williams had such a naturally wacky, charismatic personality. The writers even let him ad-lib a lot of lines because they knew he would be great at making his own material. So since then comedians have found pretty decent work with Disney.
Danny Devito filled the role as Phil in Hercules, Jason Alexander did it as one of the gargoyles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Eddie Murphy did it as Mushu in Mulan. It seems like Disney protagonists just can’t go anywhere anymore without meeting some over-energetic buddy to advise them and do impressions. Sometimes it’s a hit, sometimes it comes off as an obnoxious tactic to try to keep the attention span of children. Regardless, if you’re a comedian, you probably won’t ever have a lack of roles to audition for as long as Disney is making movies.
11. THE FLAMBOYANT VILLAIN
If you have a big personality and enjoy wearing lots of eye-catching clothes, watch out, because you might just be a Disney villain. Don’t ask us why that’s the case, but it’s become a common thread amongst the bad guys. Ursula in The Little Mermaid was famously modeled after a drag queen, and it’s not that hard to believe based on how much she seems to love the spotlight. Hades is another noticeable one, whose performance by James Woods steals the show in Hercules with how charismatic he is.
It’s probably just because being confident and proud of how you look can easily be twisted into negative qualities like vanity and narcissism, but it is funny how often the trend appears, especially in classic Disney movies. Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, Jafar in Aladdin, and Scar in The Lion King all have a flamboyant flair about them. So apparently if you’re going to be the hero, stay humble and don’t try to be flashy.
10. LOOKING TO THE STARS FOR COMFORT
Anyone can understand finding some tranquility in just staring at the stars at night, but Disney characters often take that fascination to another level. The most obvious example is in The Lion King when Simba hears words of comfort from his father Mufasa while staring at the sky. It’s a memorable scene in the movie, and taken on its own it just looks like a nice moment where Simba is reminded that his dad still cares about him. But Simba isn’t the only one known for doing some star-gazing.
If you’ve watched Tangled, you should remember that what drives Rapunzel for a large chunk of the movie is the desire to see the floating lanterns that fill that sky each year. It’s one of the movie’s biggest moments for when Rapunzel and Flynn finally get to be together in their boat, beneath starry lookalikes that are within arm’s reach. That’s not such an unfamiliar scene, though, since Aladdin and Jasmine have a very similar moment in Aladdin when he decides to take the princess on a magic carpet ride. If you see a Disney character looking up at the sky, odds are they’re about to have some major epiphany.
9. THE PROTAGONIST GETS BANISHED
Every good hero’s journey needs to have its struggles, and it’s a pretty difficult challenge for any character to be cast out from their society. It’s often the low point of the hero’s journey, where they appear to be on the cusp of giving up and allowing the villain to triumph. Of course the hero then just comes back stronger than ever and finally prevails against the antagonist, but still, the whole banishing thing seems to go well for the villains up until the climax.
Sometimes the banishment isn’t for long at all, like when Mulan gets cast out after the truth about her being a woman comes out to her fellow soldiers. But in some cases, it can last for years, like when the hyenas in The Lion King chased off Simba and allowed Scar to rule the pride until Simba became an adult. But no hero ever stays banished, so you can rest assured they’ll return no matter how long it takes.
8. LOTS OF POP CULTURE REFERENCES
Another thing we might be able to thank Robin Williams’ performance as Genie for is the introduction of pop culture into our animated movies. Sure, Bugs Bunny was already doing this for years over at Warner Bros., but Disney was more about telling classic fairy tales than making jokes based on current events. Then Genie’s celebrity impressions hit the big screen, and we’ve had an influx of celebrities and pop culture into Disney’s stories ever since.
Zootopia is a great example of this, like in the scene where Judy Hopps meets the street vendor selling knock-offs of Disney movies, like “Pig Hero 6.” And later on she encounters a shrew who acts suspiciously like The Godfather’s Don Corleone. Not to mention Shakira providing a musical interlude as Gazelle.
Wreck-It Ralph had fictional cameos like Bowser and Sonic the Hedgehog, and even real life cameos like Skrillex DJing a party scene. Big Hero 6 even had the patented Marvel cameo of Stan Lee in a mid-credits scene. For better or worse, our world now slips in quite frequently even during the escapism of Disney’s stories.
7. PROTAGONISTS WHOSE MAIN FLAW IS BEING AWKWARD
People remember the scene in Frozen when Anna first meets Hans, and they tumble to the ground together, leading Anna to remark, “This is awkward. Not you’re awkward, but just because we’re—I’m awkward. You’re gorgeous.” The moment is good for a laugh, but also plays out a familiar trope in Disney films where the main character usually doesn’t have any big flaw besides being awkward. And it’s not like tripping over things or stumbling over your words is exactly some huge problem to overcome in the first place.
Tarzan is awkward around Jane because he doesn’t know how to act like a civilized human. Aladdin is awkward around Jasmine because he thinks she would only ever be attracted to a prince. Rapunzel is awkward around everyone because she had no prior exposure to the outside world. Disney protagonists are basically stuck in their clumsy teenage years. But being imperfect is also endearing, so it’s easy to see why this trait shows up so frequently.
6. THE CHARMING ONE-DIMENSIONAL PRINCE
Everyone knows the archetype of Prince Charming, and popular use of it has endured despite all of the character’s entire personally usually being right in his description. He’s charming, and he’s a prince. Beyond that, there’s often a struggle to identify much about the guy, since his role is typically just to be the person who fights the villain, or rescues the princess. The story relies on his heroic actions to prove his worth as someone we should care about, rather than giving him a multi-faceted personality.
The princes in Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty all fit the bill pretty well, but modern Disney movies have made efforts to veer away from the trope a bit. Frozen is the obvious mention in that regard, where the one-dimensional characterization of Hans is used as a critique against coming to trust someone based on so little. This is one cliché that we don’t mind seeing less of nowadays, since even kids’ movies can do with more fleshed out characters.
5. ONE OF THE CHARACTERS IS OBSESSED WITH CHANGING THEIR APPEARANCE
This cliché is one that affects both heroes and villains. The most famous incident of someone obsessing over their appearance is no doubt the Queen in Snow White, who is so concerned with being the fairest of them all that she poisons Snow White just for being young and good looking. It’s hard to really top something that drastic. But any character can be vain, regardless of whether they have bad intentions or not.
There are protagonists who have to learn a lesson about not fixating on their appearance, like Aladdin and Mulan. You might think the lesson from Disney will always be that vanity is a shallow emotion that we should learn to try to avoid indulging in. However, there are characters like Ariel, whose obsession with changing how she looks for a man is not only not treated as anything negative, but is even the happy climax to her story.
4. YOU CAN TELL HOW PEOPLE WILL ACT BASED ON HOW THEY LOOK
This one mostly applies to princesses, but body types are a pretty good indicator for personalities in general in Disney movies. It’s no secret that if we’re talking about princesses, they don’t have much variety in how they look. They’re usually very thin, with long hair, large eyes, and young, pretty facial features. There’s a bit of deviation here and there, like with Brave’s Merida and Moana, who have a bit more weight to them, and whose hair is a bit more wild, but you’re not exactly going to find any animated princesses who are middle-aged and have buck teeth.
Likewise the villains are often so obviously evil just based on how they dress. Something about being evil just seems to put dark circles around character’s eyes, and compel them to wear all black. Even friendly characters fall into the clichés of being predictable based on how they look, like big guys either being jolly and silly, or tough and serious. Again, we’ve seen this changing in recent years, like with the true antagonist in Zootopia, and we can’t say we’re sad this aspect is becoming less predictable.
3. ANIMALS FRIENDS WHO ACT LIKE PEOPLE
We’re not talking about Zootopia or Disney’s Robin Hood, where every character is a friendly animal. We’re referring to how almost every Disney movie featuring human characters will also have animals who happen to act just like people, with no explanation why. You can find this going all the way back to Snow White, where all the animals of the forest are quite happy to accompany Snow White and help her clean up a stranger’s house. You never see the animals who are scared of the protagonist, or who barge into a stranger’s house just to eat all the food and urinate in the corners.
Even more confusing are the animals who can inexplicably talk just like humans. Mowgli doesn’t meet a single animal he can’t speak to in The Jungle Book, and even Disney’s live-action movies follow the trend, like in the Narnia movies. Disney characters are pretty lucky, because even if they don’t have a single human friend, they still have plenty of potential buddies in the animal kingdom.
2. PRINCESSES WHO FEEL TRAPPED
You’d think being royalty would lead to a pretty glamorous lifestyle, but Disney sure portrays being born with aristocratic parents as a pretty tough burden. The princesses especially always seem to get thrust into situations where they have to push back against a life that gives them a very narrow outlook on how they should live. Whether it’s being physically trapped in a near prison-like environment, or just feeling trapped emotionally, princesses sure have to fight for their freedom a lot.
Princesses like Belle and Rapunzel arguably have the worst of it, since they are literally confined to one location, but feeling trapped emotionally can also be rough, because those princesses feel discontent no matter where they go. Merida and Elsa were never going to feel free by just moving to a new town. They needed to overcome an emotional state that left them feeling like they didn’t have any options. Given how often Disney princesses we see running away from this situation, it’s honestly a bit odd how many children like to pretend to be royalty.
1. THE PROTAGONIST LEARNING THEY JUST NEEDED TO BE THEMSELF ALL ALONG
Even in more modern Disney movies that have tried to buck the clichés, this particular one has still turned up. Frozen was basically all about Elsa coming to terms with who she really was and learning not to hide herself away anymore. Sure, it’s a good message for children that is nice for every generation to be reminded of. But at the same time, it’s a theme that gets reiterated quite frequently in Disney movies.
Learning to be true to yourself is something Disney protagonists have been learning going all the way back to Cinderella. And it’s a message we’ve seen come up again and again over the years. Aladdin had to learn he didn’t need to be a prince to impress Jasmine. Mulan only fully gained everyone’s respect after she stopped concealing that she was a woman. Tarzan gave up on wanting to be a civilized human because he already had a caring family in the jungle. That said, it’s hard to blame the message for showing up so often when even adults can forget that it’s more important to be happy with yourself than for people to like you for pretending to be someone else.
What other clichés do you always notice in Disney movies? Tell us in the comments, and share any we talked about that you didn’t realize occurred!
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