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.
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.
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.