We Interrupt This Message…

Christians of my ilk like to bash Disney as the world’s guiltiest hawker of the Gospel of Self. Uncle Walt sold us the toxic message, “Believe in yourself,” which has caused generations of children to despise tradition and their parents.

Disney was certainly an optimist who believed in the inherent innocence of people—the childhood within—that can be counted on to keep us walking straight. Disneyland, the “World of Tomorrow,” and 90% of Disney products dish out this message liberally, so I understand my friends’ disdain. But, please, don’t throw Disney movies out with the bathwater.

The full-length, animated, theatrically released Disney movies are peerless examples of American cinema. In some ways, they’re more classic than classic films because most of them are based on folk tales and fables. And, far from promulgating a “Believe in Yourself” message, these films have a variety of messages, which I’ve summarized below. (Some of these I haven’t seen in years, so I either skipped them or had to rely on memory.)

  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Classic fairy tale. Other than silly animals and bumbling dwarfs, nothing untoward about this. Even C. S. Lewis liked it.
  • Pinocchio: A puppet wants to become a human, but must first prove himself worthy. He is granted humanity only after he acts like a human. Patently not existentialist.
  • Dumbo: A little bit of “Believe in yourself” here. You don’t need a magic feather to fly. The power was within you all along.
  • Bambi: The whole point is Bambi growing up into his responsibility as Prince of the Forest.
  • Cinderella: Another example of a lowly person of good character exalted to her rightful, royal position. And what an ending! “I have the other slipper.” A eucatastrophe to make Tolkien proud.
  • Alice in Wonderland: Too weird to even have a message other than “Don’t fall asleep while your sister is reading to you.”
  • Peter Pan: Tempted by a boy who never wants to grow up, the children eventually turn their backs on him and decide that, actually, they need to grow up.
  • Lady and the Tramp: Tramp yanked from his lazy, irresponsible life and made into a loving husband and father.
  • Sleeping Beauty: Classic fairy tale. Prince kills dragon. More silly animals and fairies. Beautiful sets, though.
  • One Hundred and One Dalmatians: An evil heiress defeated by her own vanity and a horde of dogs. Parental courage and responsibility highlighted.
  • The Sword in the Stone: Wart doesn’t want to become King Arthur, but has to. A silly wizard, but other than that, classic.
  • The Jungle Book: Mowgli is told he must live in the man village. He spends most of the movie running away, until he sees a pretty human girl and suddenly the idea of being a man doesn’t seem so bad after all.
  • The Aristocats: Similar to Lady and the Tramp. A happy-go-lucky wanderer accepts parental and marital responsibility.
  • Robin Hood: A pox on that phony king of England! Oo-de-lally!
  • The Rescuers: Secret agent mice! The only people who think they can be whoever they want to be are the villains.
  • The Fox and the Hound: Nothing can change who you are, but you can choose to be the best version of who you are.
  • The Black Cauldron (1985): Never seen this one. Bizarre.
  • The Great Mouse Detective: An intelligent stuck-up detective is humbled by caring for a little girl.
  • Oliver & Company: Ok, we’re kind of getting into “Be whoever you want” territory here. But from what I can remember, Oliver stays a cat.
  • The Little Mermaid: Follow your dreams. Be who you want to be. But, as my wife pointed out, Ariel’s actions almost cause her father to be trapped forever by a sea witch, so following your dreams comes with a risk.
  • The Rescuers Down Under: You’re small. The mission is big. Better get started.
  • Beauty and the Beast: A prince is transformed into a beast so that his appearance matches his cruel and shallow soul. Like Pinocchio, he has to learn to act human before he is allowed to be one again.
  • Aladdin: Aladdin tries to be whoever he wants and it utterly fails! But, on the other hand, he does get to be the Sultan’s son-in-law in the end…
  • The Lion King: You can’t run away from your responsibilities without causing a massive famine.
  • Pocahontas: Been so long since I’ve seen this one that I don’t know. But I’m sure it’s quite pantheistic.
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame: Same. No memory.
  • Hercules: Pride goes before a fall.
  • Mulan: I get why Christians don’t like this one. A woman wearing the costumes of war, etc. But, in the end, Mulan reverts to the natural state of things and becomes a woman again.
  • Tarzan: This is a weird one. Tarzan does not become a man (which he absolutely should do), but neither does he get to be whoever he wants to be. He prefers the status quo (plus Jane in a jungle bikini).
  • The Emperor’s New Groove: Another selfish prince transformed. He can only become human again after he’s changed.
  • Atlantis: The Lost Empire: A weird one. Man’s reach exceeds his grasp, or something like that.
  • Lilo & Stitch: I don’t know what to say about this one. It’s a cartoon. Family is whomever you love.
  • Treasure Planet: I really don’t know what to say about this one.
  • Brother Bear: Selfish person transformed into animal to learn a valuable lesson. I can’t even remember what happens at the end.
  • Home on the Range: Never seen it. Never will.
  • Meet the Robinsons: Keep moving forward.
  • Bolt: Get in touch with the real world.
  • The Princess and the Frog: Humans-turned-animals learn a lesson.
  • Tangled: Selfish thief comes to care about something other than himself. Also, like Samson’s strength, Rapunzel’s power was never really tied to her hair.
  • Frozen: Elsa is cursed with ice powers and condemned for her thoughtlessness, but of course, all anyone remembers is “Let It Go.”
  • Moana: Kids should accept their ancestry and pursue their assigned tasks, whether their dumb parents like it or not. Still going back and forth on this one.

This is a haphazard analysis, to be sure, but I hope it demonstrates that Disney movies aren’t always as villainous as they’re made out to be.

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