They may have started the market on animated movies, bringing classic fairy tales to children around the world. But when Walt Disney called on old stories for new audiences, the filmmakers made sure to lighten up most of the material, making sure that evil stepmothers or ugly witches were as dark as they got. But in the last two decades, people’s tastes turned to computer-generated animation – over Disney’s hand-drawn style.
That all changed when the studio made the leap, returning to their roots for a story that was undeniably dark – but cute and fun enough to win over fans. The movie was Tangled, the blockbuster adventure starring a young girl who’d been held prisoner her entire life, only freed when the first man she met – and would soon marry – cut off all her hair – and her kidnapper fell to her death. You see what we’re getting at.
There may have been a time when Disney had to clean up their storytelling, but in the years since the studio returned to the top of the movie world, things have changed. The films send a good message, sure – but take a closer look at what’s actually going on, and parents may not realize just how much their kids are seeing in between the laughs.
We’ve already mentioned how disturbing a story Disney’s take on Rapunzel really is, even if the film jumps over the years the young girl spent locked away in a tower. Her positive attitude helps audiences of all ages forget that it’s one of the darkest beginnings to a story Disney has ever told, but unlike the ones that followed, it actually does have a happy ending. With Rapunzel returned to her parents, and Flynn Rider sticking by her side, it’s as much a fairy tale ending as you can hope for. Again, teaching kids that an upbeat attitude and love can heal even decades-long kidnappings may not be the most healthy lesson, but the moral of the story is still a good one. Don’t be afraid to take risks, and you’ll do just fine. Which is more than we can say about Disney’s next hit.
The world of this video game movie is one that any kid can understand: people are told where they can and can’t go, and breaking the rules gets them nothing but trouble – basically, the life of a child. But even though Ralph is supposed to be the bad guy, it is him who gets bullied and left out by the rest of his game’s inhabitants. Since he knows it’s not fair, and he’s destined to be more than just a ‘bad guy,’ he sets out – just like Rapunzel – to find something better.
The adventure that follows sees him make new friends, right old wrongs, and learn what it really means to be a hero. When all is said and done, he accepts that his place is where he was to start, and heads home. Which… is actually a pretty messed up message when you stop and think about it. The issue with Ralph’s game-jumping is simple: if he doesn’t play the role assigned to him, then the game won’t work, and everyone depending on him will be killed. That’s about as dystopic a story as you can get, with entire movies, TV shows and novels like 1984 based on the same idea: play your role, or order turns to chaos. No matter how much Disney prettied up the ending, Ralph doesn’t get a happy life because he becomes his own hero, or unites all the citizens of the video game arcade into one society where they can be what they choose. His fellow characters tell him he’s a hero, and that’s all.
Even Ralph’s mantra, that “I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad” is about the opposite thing kids should be told, since parents usually look to inspire their children to have ambition, and be able to define themselves on their own. Since Ralph is accepting that he’ll never be a hero, just embracing his role as the bad guy, order is restored. Considering that Disney movies are usually thought of as urging kids to dream big, it’s sad to realize the moral of Wreck-It Ralph is surprisingly dark, telling kids to be what the world assigns them, and if they want to be happy, learn to be okay with it. But considering that even Rapunzel only found happiness when she returned to her family – the castle where she belonged – we suppose it’s not a totally different message. Just one that’s easier to spot.
It may have become a blockbuster hit for its message of true love being between sisters, and embracing what makes you special, but the journey getting to that point wasn’t as squeaky clean. For starters, the movie begins with Anna and Elsa as best friends, with the older sister’s talent for ice magic making their world a fun one. But when Anna gets hurt playing, the King and Queen take drastic measures. They tell Elsa to hide her gifts, to “conceal, don’t feel” who she really is inside. Again, we would like to think that parents are better off taking the opposite approach and mental health professionals might argue this is the start of an unhappy story – especially as Elsa struggles with her identity in adulthood.
If it weren’t bad enough that her parents force her to see gifts as a curse, the movie also implies that Anna and Elsa’s relationship ends as a result, with the two seeing eachother rarely, if ever. It’s only when their parents are killed that the sisters come together as a family. Whoops, we mean they grow even farther apart, abandoning eachother for another two years.
That story seems particularly dark. Kids don’t need to worry about witches, evil stepmothers or ancient curses – but getting along with your siblings, and trusting that your parents actually want what’s best for you, are the real concerns. But in doing what her parents said was right, lying to everyone around her, Elsa is exiled, sentenced to death, almost kills her sister, and is seconds away from being murdered. True love might win the day here, but everything before it seems like a dark story of terrible parents and pain, not exactly a Disney classic. Maybe we should just take Elsa’s advice here and… let it go?
With Disney’s dream of a world where animals are as evolved as people, living in harmony in one massive city, the messages get even more ambitious, tackling more relevant conflicts and social issues than any Disney film in years. As much as some people try to claim it’s one specific issue or ideological divide being referenced, Zootopia’s main story is one that anyone, in any country, can see clearly: while predator species and prey live together happily, they’re all ready to start seeing the worst in eachother.
The most obvious adult message of the movie marks the latest installment in Disney’s reliance on drug sequences, hallucinations caused by chemicals, or alcohol – take your pick. In Zootopia, it’s a plant called ‘Night Howler’ that sends any animal who eats it – predator or prey – into a wild rage, turning them into mindless… well, animals. The police investigating good people who have gone missing, after messing with this strange substance, is already a pretty dark real world issue for kids to learn about, no matter how the story is resolved. Happy ending or not, parents may have a hard time explaining to their kids why plants – picked, processed, and distributed by the bad guys – can make good people leave their families behind. And it’s not the kind of question they usually expect a Disney movie to raise.
But when the drug is turned against predators – the minority of the population in Zootopia – the prey react in ways that reflect the very worst, most prejudiced parts of everyday people. Judging entire groups of people based on their ancestors or diet is as wrong in the movie as it is in today’s world, but even though Zootopia makes that point by the end, it can’t undo the amount of ugliness and hate displayed by the movie’s villain. A villain who claims that “fear” is the most important weapon someone can use when turning cultures or people against eachother.
The message is an important one, but is such a clear analogy to the very real, but very worst parts of today’s world, post-viewing conversations become requirement. Instead of evil witches or monsters, it’s angry, suspicious citizens sticking with their own kind. It’s a different kind of message, and a different kind of dark for Disney. It says more about today’s world, and today’s monsters than any fairy tale or nursery rhyme ever could – but it also shows a reality that would, perhaps hopefully for some, go over children’s heads completely.