Defending Disney: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Happy Valentine’s Day! Let’s celebrate with a movie about lust-driven attempted homicide –for kids!


(And, for anyone wondering, the reason why I have not updated recently was because my old laptop was crashing every few minutes.)

After the critical and boxoffice disappointment of Pocahontas, Disney released another risky, very mature, artistically original film, this time an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, Notre-Dame de Paris. I can only imagine the trepidation at the Disney studio at the time of its release. When they realized that, no, actually, the public does not love their new direction, it was too late to do anything about Hunchback. And, in the end, the response to the lavish animated spectacle was lukewarm, with audiences confused by the dark and sexual nature of the plot. The movie cost around $100,000,000 to produce, and it did make a profit and Roger Ebert gave it four stars. But, I think it’s been the movies lasting power and success compared to extravaganzas like The Lion King which lead some people to see this as a failure. And, by some people, I also mean the studio. Whatever direction the company was trying to move in, it definitely back-peddled hard, and this film has been considered one of the downward post-Renaissance slump movies.

I think that part of the trouble people have with this movie is trying to figure out what the target audience is supposed to be. The movie is really, really dark, starting out right away with the murder of a mother who is trying to protect her infant.

Child-friendly mom-murder, from Disney.

Child-friendly mom-murder, from Disney.

And, that’s just the beginning. The father-son relationship between the hero, Quasimodo, and the antagonist, Claude Frollo, is really twisted, even more so than the relationship between Rapunzel and Mother Gothel. The movie also deals with discrimination, and with rather more sophistication than Pocahontas, although I blame that on the fact that there isn’t an institutionalized anti-gypsy discrimination in the USA. Most Americans don’t really have much of a connection to the culture at all, as they form a very small minority, which is why Disney doesn’t have to worry about offending anyone while representing their culture.It’s also why TV shows like Hemlock Grove make no sense.

In what high school would THIS guy be bullied? I don't care if he is a werewolf, it wouldn't happen.

In what high school would THIS guy be bullied? I don’t care if he is a werewolf, it wouldn’t happen.

However, it’s the movie’s depiction of sexuality and violence which really sets the film apart as a truly dark and, honestly, strange Disney production.

The movie features an attempted burning at the stake, a mob, institutionalized discrimination, violent oppression, and even an attempted genocide. The depiction of gypsy relations works as an eerie analogue for Nazism and other forms of ethnic cleansing. But, what really sticks with audiences is Claude Frollo and his obsession with Esmeralda. It’s not just desire and ego, like Gaston’s jealous anger over Belle. No, Claude Frollo sees Esmeralda and is overcome with very explicit lust, which serves as his motivation for every horrible thing that follows in the story. This isn’t usual Disney, and the company would never again touch on this sort of subject.

So, what do I think of this story? Well, unlike Pocahontas, I actually would really defend this film as flawed (very, very flawed, but we’ll get to that) but powerful. First, let’s look at the art. If Hunchback has one unquestionably solid attribute, that would be the animation. The art design is brilliant, the most mature and honestly least-Disney to date.


The characters are even more angular and realistic than those in Pocahontas, and the studio also used shadows to create more 3D appearances and expression, a technique you see in quite a bit of anime.  The movement is also spectacular, perhaps even more so than its predecessor, since the film has scenes of acrobatics and dancing that showcase the animator’s keen observation of human anatomy.

However, it is the scene design that everyone remembers, and rightly so. The representations of architecture, cityscapes, even the light of stained glass windows are so absolutely stunning in their design and accuracy that they have the power to dazzle audiences even to this day. God_Help_the_OutcastsThe scene of Esmeralda praying in the cathedral are some of the most hauntingly beautiful pieces of animation that the studio has ever produced. god-15Furthermore, the illusion of camera angles, including soaring “crane shots” of Notre-Dame itself, are spectacular in their effect, and the use of CG blends seamlessly with the 2D animation in a way that rarely works this well.

I really have nothing negative to say about the art in this film. It is spectacular through-and-through. Even if every, single aspect of the film was a failure, the art would make it work viewing. Rather like the transformation scene in Cinderellaits visual power justifies its existence.

So, does this mean that it is another beautiful-looking film that does not hold up in the storytelling department, rather like the final release of The Thief and the Cobbler?

A childhood acid trip from hell...

A childhood acid trip from hell…

Actually, no. The movie succeeds on multiple levels. The first and most obvious would be the villain. Claude Frollo may be the greatest villain Disney has ever produced, and I don’t say that lightly because the studio has created some truly dynamic villains. He’s just so complex, even more so than our heretofore most human villain, Gaston. Frollo is motivated by a conviction that he is doing good, which makes him actually all that much more frightening. Goodness, for Frollo, is a code of ethics that gets very much intertwined with his own biases and desires. However, he justifies his prejudices and even his most barbaric acts, by conflating his beliefs with morality. When his conviction in his own moral superiority is threatened by his lust for Esmeralda, he decides that she is in fact to blame for his desires.

Victim Blaming: Flirt with the wrong creepy guy and he'll use that as justification to burn you alive.

Victim Blaming: Flirt with the wrong creepy guy and he’ll use that as justification to burn you alive.

He persecutes her for witchcraft and for being sexually open, and even tries to have her murdered. The song “Hellfire”, one of the single most powerful moments of Disney animation, showcases Frollo’s conflict between his strict religious sensibilities, his confused sexuality, and his cold egomania. If he cannot have Esmeralda, he would destroy her, and within the song he justifies himself to a choir of faceless monks (representing his religious dogmatism) by blaming both Esmeralda and the temptations of satan.

In today’s political climate, I really can’t think of a Disney film that covers an issue that remains so timely and important. Conflicts generally are perpetrated by people believing that they are doing the right thing, or at least convincing themselves of this. Moreover, the creepy sexual politics of an authority figure trying to either own or destroy an object of desire are eerily familiar. There is a strong sense of a victim-blaming mentality in Frollo and how deeply uncomfortable he is with a beautiful woman who happens to be rather flamboyant with her looks. Furthermore, the movie shows that Esmeralda is a good, moral person, and the puritanical Frollo is the one obsessed with sexuality. That’s pretty heady stuff.

Shockingly, being sexy and being morally good are not mutually exclusive. I know, in these Medieval Ages of... 2014, this must be a difficult lesson.

Shockingly, being sexy and being morally good are not mutually exclusive. I know, in these Medieval Ages of… 2014, this must be a difficult lesson.

Another major plus, branching off from the Frollo discussion, is the music. The music is just really good. It moves from religious chant to Broadway-style numbers to pop ballads with wonderful continuity. Well, with one exception, “A Guy Like You”, but I’ll get to that in a minute. The choral moments are really lovely, dark, and powerful. “God Help the Outcasts”, Esmeralda’s song while she is in sanctuary in the cathedral, is a beautiful piece, and one which contrasts Esmeralda’s prayer for her oppressed people with the “health and wealth” morality of the more privileged worshippers. Some people have actually criticized this scene for being anti-religious, and I honestly have no idea how that could be. For one thing, it’s literally a prayer. That song is an actual prayer. Someone please tell me how praying is anti-religious. The scene, with lines like “Were you once an outcast, too?” directed at a statue of the Virgin Mary, intentionally creates a parallel between the oppressed people of the story and the Biblical story of Jesus and Mary. And, with Esmeralda praying before a religious statue, walking through lit candles, and singing “God help my people!”, I think we’d be hard pressed to find a more overtly religious depiction in any piece of children’s media.god-1 I think the criticism comes more from a sort of classism that sees the wealthy worshippers as somehow more religious than the poor gypsy girl, which… kind of makes me think this movie is right about more things than we’d like to admit. However, even that criticism is just wrong. While Esmeralda’s selflessness in her prayer(“I ask for nothing…” is a line) is definitely contrasted as the better prayer than the other requests in the church, the other characters are still quite sympathetic. They are seen as unhappy, and their prayers are more of a misguided attempt to find something meaningful than a condemnation for their selfishness. One woman tragically flings up her hands and asks for love. How is that not sympathetic?

Also, I’m pretty sure this scene is in the book and it is definitely in the 1939 version, where Esmeralda is even more explicitly contrasted with the other worshippers. In that version, she prays for God to take all she has as a sacrifice to save her people. So, if anything the Disney version is tame by comparison. 1939

But, of course, it is”Hellfire” that takes the cake as the best song in the movie. Disney villain songs often tend to be the best, but this one is especially good. It’s not a very fun song, like “Be Prepared” or “Poor, Unfortunate Souls”, which are enjoyable to sing along with. No, this is honestly getting up there with some classic Broadway pieces as a complex song that is combined with a chanting, Gregorian-style choir. It begins with Frollo saying a prayer about his virtue and righteousness, very poised and self-collected, and then it slowly crumbles into emotional madness as he obsesses over his lust for Esmeralda. It’s powerful stuff, and maybe the most emotionally complex scene in Disney history. His prayer turns to real sexual confusion, asking why he is having these feelings. And, because of his own code and his own prejudices, he turns these desires into real moral agony and eventual murderous rage. By the time he starts to sing “Like fire, hellfire…” The song breaks down into both the character’s own moral fear and a deeply disturbed internal conflict of violence and lust. And, again, from Disney!


I really love how while Frollo sings “It’s not my fault!” and blames Esmeralda for his desires, the entire faceless-monk choir sings “Mea Culpa!”, which is Latin for “My fault”. This has further subtext, since the “Mea Culpa” of a Catholic Mass is a prayer of admitting one’s sins are, in fact, one’s own fault. This kind of complex religious dynamic is really unusual for any children’s movie, especially the House of Mouse.d-hell-8

And, I have to say that the scene when Frollo stars rubbing Esmeralada’s scarf all over his face is pretty damn creepy, the director giving us a no-holds-barred depiction of a sexual predator. frollo2Although, whenever I see it, I do start getting little Dario Argento flashbacks to his “Your female smell!” scene from that really weird, Italian Phantom of the Opera with all the rats…

Lemme just snort up some of that female smell off your scarf, if that's cool...

Lemme just snort up some of that female smell off your scarf, if that’s cool…

So, with all this praise for the movie, you’d think that this would be my favorite Disney film. Well… no. Actually, it’s not.

The trouble is, when dealing with a story so dark, so unusual, so, well, not kid-friendly, Disney was having its own internal conflict. Disney is the happiest place in earth, right? And its image had become one of wholesome, family entertainment. It’s about finding your dreams and love and all that, not about creepy, old men obsessing over their own sexual repression and locking their disfigured adopted children in towers while plotting genocide. None of that screams Disney. So, Disney had two options for a consistent film: One, it could abandon the dark stuff and make a totally different movie or, Two, it could go all-out adult and make a really good, dark film.

They chose a third option: not to make a consistent movie.

So, this is where that Disney formula, the one about finding dreams, wanting more, true love, and cute/funny sidekicks comes in. Does it work? Oh, hell, no. No, it does not work at all.

We seem to be in a totally different cartoon...

We seem to be in a totally different cartoon…

Now, a little Disney optimism would be just fine. Even in the 1939 version a lot of the more depressing elements of the story were taken out. In the book, Esmeralda dies (oh, and she also gets raped, and not even by Frollo), and Quasimodo dies holding her dead body. The end.

It’s no surprise that Disney would make a happy ending, or make Quasimodo a sort of free-spirit, wanting-of-more Disney archetype, or cut out the whole rape thing. They also change Frollo’s occupation and really tone down the religious criticism from the book. In the novel, Frollo is a priest and the Catholic Church is heavily criticized. In the movie, Frollo’s occupation is secular and he just happens to be a religious nutjob, kind of like Glenn Beck (zinger!). Also, all the other religious characters are portrayed from benign to downright noble, and the ending shows everyone getting together and learning something about tolerance and acceptance.

Pro-justice, racially tolerant priests and scenes of overt prayer from the good guys, and people still think it's anti-religious?

Pro-justice, racially tolerant priests and scenes of overt prayer from the good guys, and people still think it’s anti-religious?

In the book the main characters just die horribly and the Church comes across like an outdated institution of prejudice. Despite this heavy editing of the source material, some religious critics still found the movie objectionable, and I really cannot understand why. How much more removed from the source material would it have to be?

Anyway, some changes just make sense. I don’t expect Disney to go all Lars von Trier all of a sudden and execute our heroine.

"It's the second to last song!"

“It’s the second to last song!”

But, Disney didn’t just make the movie happier and less religiously controversial. It went full-Disney, and it does not work at all. Basically the entire fault is with the sidekicks, who really, really kill the movie. These would be the gargoyles and Esmeralda’s goat, none of which should be prominent enough to ruin a movie about human drama, but there you have it. The gargoyle’s are based on the Three Stooges, itself a weird artistic choice, and they spend the entire movie cracking dumb jokes and singing horribly out-of-place songs like “A Guy Like You”. The humor doesn’t even make sense because “A Guy Like You” is about how Quasimodo is actually good-looking and can “get the girl”. What the hell, movie? And, it is big, over-the-top, ridiculous, like a rejected song from the Genie, and no one ever talks about it again.

Again, like a totally different cartoon.

Again, like a totally different cartoon.

And the gargoyles are in the whole movie! They aren’t even Quasimodo’s imaginary friends. They are very real and partake in the final fight scene, all the while making horrible jokes. Disney, we live in a Miyazaki world! Kids can and will watch movies with battle scenes that are just action sequences.

Honestly, I think that about halfway through Disney thought, “Wait, sexual predators and murder? What the fuck are we doing?” and started cramming stupid, kid-friendly moments in to make up for that. But, that really hurts the tone of the film, and ruins serious moments with stupid fantasy and an ongoing gag about how a gargoyle is in love with the goat… What the hell, movie? And this does the most harm to our romantic couple, Esmeralda and Phoebus, who in this version is her lover and not, you know, a rapist. To be fair, if I remember correctly, the ’39 version does the same thing. However, the lack of character development, especially when contrasted to the villain and main character, really makes these two seem kind of bland. Esmeralda looks amazing, with her great character design, and she does interesting things, like dance and stand up for others, but her personality is really not that interesting. couple She’s just kind of a Mary Sue, a beautiful, self-sacrificing woman who everyone is in love with. That’s not that interesting. And Phoebus is John Smith-dull, making Disney Prince-style quips and heroics that seem kind of out of place.

Quasimodo is also not really the most compelling character, although he’s better than our lovebirds. Yet again, we have a love triangle where the character who doesn’t “get the girl” (I know, it’s kind of a regressive concept in itself…) is the more interesting one. He’s upbeat and kind-hearted, and you do genuinely feel bad for him. I wouldn’t say he’s exactly an original character, though, since he seems pretty strongly influenced by The Elephant Man. But, that’s a great movie, so if you are going to borrow from someone, make it David Lynch.


Tonally, the movie is all over, from horrific to childish to blandly light-hearted to tragic, and the transitions basically don’t exist. I feel like the studio didn’t have enough confidence to believe in this project and really push their artistic boundaries. Instead, they held back, dumbed it down, and shied away from the real heart of the story. Which begs the question: why adapt this story at all?

Well… remember what I said about Disney’s relationship with the mega-musical and how influenced Beauty and the Beast is by Phantom? Well, what’s the other big, successful mega-musical everyone loves? Oh, yeah…

French misery, by Victor Hugo

French misery, by Victor Hugo

Huh, I wonder if that had anything to do with the decision? It’s only a Disney musical adaptation of a work by the same author, featuring mega-musical style songs and big-choral moments, just like that other music. But, I’m sure that in no way influenced the decision at all…

In the end, I think most people, and especially the studio, look at this movie as kind of a miss. This is too bad, really, because it has a lot of good. And, it’s also too bad because the studio learned exactly the wrong message and instead of deciding to make films more brave and more adult, they decided to abandon that idea and go with the funny, cutesy moments that actually were the real flaw with this movie. And, because of this, this is basically the end of the Disney Renaissance. Oh, they have one last hurrah, but it’s definitely a back-peddle from the direction they tried to go with Pocahontas and Hunchback. I don’t suppose we’ll ever get to see what Disney was going for with this brief foray into the mature and its break from its image. Which is too bad, because the idea was really interesting, even if the execution didn’t always pay off.

Oh, well, at least we have this, one big, beautiful, messy movie about sexual predators, murder, and genocide from the Happiest Place On Earth.


Defending(ish) Disney: Pocahontas

images For all the talk about the greatness of the Disney Renaissance, it peaked pretty early and receded after really only four major successes. I wish I could include The Rescuers Down Under, but apparently only about nine people saw that one. It really began its nosedive that would last until very recently with this movie, Pocahontas. I’m going to make a slight change to the format here. Usually, I’m defending the individual movies, but in this case… yeah, I agree with the criticism. Almost everyone, of all political stripes, dislikes this movie. And I have to agree, honestly. If you’re a part of the minority who likes this movie, good for you. I’m glad, because I think a lot of hard work went into making it. I wish I could like the movie for this reason, but, no, I really can’t. I think it’s actually …bad.



So, instead of defending a movie I don’t like, I’m going to try and understand where this movie came from and what the Disney company might be doing. Remember how I said that Aladdin really succeeds because it isn’t trying too hard? It did its own thing and it did it well. However, at this point, Disney had managed to achieve success after success, and with both a Best Picture nom and all the acclaim that The Lion King has, I think the company was under a lot of pressure. This was not just another movie, they were taking chances. They had taken a big chance with The Lion King, and it paid off. They had reached new levels of technical innovation in their animation. This was supposed to be the next step, their launch into a new level of greatness, their next Oscar nom, their next classic. So, what happened? I think one of the reasons why I hate how much I hate this movie is that the company really was trying new things. This isn’t just moving away from fantasy (kind of, sort of…), but it’s an issues movie. It’s tackling history and diversity and controversial subjects and… non-white characters! This may not seem like such a big deal, but Disney has always been pretty reticent to take a progressive racial stance. It’s not just some truly unfortunate past expressions, like a crow named Jim in Dumbo, or the “Indians” in Peter Pan.

And then there was this deleted scene from Fantasia, because this isn't horrible at all...

And then there was this deleted scene from Fantasia, because this isn’t horrible at all…

It’s that while Disney certainly has moments with really troubling racial depictions, as time went on the official stance became a very strong we-have-no-stance… stance, while at the same time teaching lessons about how it’s okay to be yourself, even if you’re different. It’s as if the company saw controversy and said, “Look, we make happy movies about singing, dancing mice. Don’t look at us. Nothing to see here.”

Consider this in contrast to what Don Bluth was doing before he Thumbelina-ed his way into sell-out obscurity. In American Tail, for example, he uses a kid-friendly format to discuss subjects as weighty as Anti-Semitism, immigration prejudice, political corruption, and exploitative labor.

It's never too early to start talking to your kids about the importance of just labor laws...

Because it’s never too early to start talking to your kids about the importance of just labor laws…

And, while Disney tiptoed up to actual issues in the past, what with Fox and the Hound being about two characters driven apart by societal expectations, their lesson was actually pretty subtle. Yeah, it’s really sad when Todd and Copper can’t be friends anymore, but the movie doesn’t really answer the question of whether or not this is wrong in the real, non-cartoon, non-talking-animal world. On the one hand, kudos for subtle messages and making kids think (as they fight back their tears…), but one cannot help but notice that the Disney company really did shy away from race as an issue at all. Considering that it took until Atlantis for the company to animate a major character who is also a black man, you get an idea of what Disney is comfortable with.

And, in some sense, Disney may have also understood its own company’s cultural limitations, because when they depict non-white cultures it’s usually kind of… awkward. Not always. Lilo and Nani are fantastic characters in what I will call a very underrated movie, and the cast of The Emperor’s New Groove is sort of progressive in that race is never an issue at all. How many all-Native American movies are there where the focus isn’t on race? Because, really, people, it’s not like everyone who isn’t white goes around thinking about how not-white they are all the time. “I woke in my not-white way, and then not-whited in a not-white fashion through my not-white thoughts and not-white life, which is totally defined by my not-whiteness…”

However, whenever the company tries to make bring their race relations to the forefront, it does come across as pretty messy and awkward, as well as trying way, way too hard to be inoffensive and bland.

Another risk that  the company took, and one which I think is actually far riskier than what turned into some very flaccid race relations, would be the artistic direction. Like I said before, The Lion King had really conquered any previous animation limitations from past productions. It’s big, beautiful, detailed, fast-moving, and the design is really interesting as it is actually based on a lot of life drawings. It’s Disney art building primarily on Disney art, as its own art form. In Pocahontas, however, they really decided to push the envelope. The characters look radically different from anything Disney had done before. The big-eyes and soft curves, these are replaced by far more realistic faces and a more adult look to the entire production. The landscapes are big and detailed, and the animation pushes the cinematography illusions and use of CGI further than any previous film. MSDPOCA EC004 And, honestly, I think that may contribute to a part of the problem. Disney’s last animated humans didn’t look like this. Audiences were given not only the promise of this historical epic dealing with some hefty race issues, but also this brand new, mature look. It’s a little jarring to go from something like Aladdin to this. tumblr_lzs4j7Y7e31r0bp3ao1_1280 I feel like all this rush to be greater and greater as a studio may have left some viewers behind. If it was just the new animation style with a fairytale story, I think the movie wouldn’t feel so disappointing. But when you tell a story that fails as hard as this one does, and tell it with animation as technologically brilliant and artistically interesting as this, then it just feels extra disappointing. After all, this was by no means the only white-guy-learns-about-land-from-native-other-archetype-story of the ’90s. But where something like Fern Gully gets off easier is that it’s a silly fairy story that looks like this:



Pocahontas was a real person, and these are much stronger issues, and the story tells itself with really terrible plot devices (magic trees, magic Babel Fish leaves, cute animal sidekicks, a super flamboyant villain, cheesy romance), and yet it still looks like it’s supposed to be a good movie: images (2) So, why does this story fail so hard? Well, part of it is that despite trying really hard to be so big and epic, the studio just would not relinquish that ’90s Disney formula. This basically forms the bulk of everyone’s problems with the movie, right or left. It’s super historically inaccurate. Meaning, it has basically nothing to do with history. At all. John Smith is turned into this long-haired Ken Doll, and the pre-pubescent Pocahontas becomes this Disney Princess who wants something “more” (this time it really is super vague) and doesn’t want to marry unless it’s for love, and there are cute animal sidekicks and big musical numbers and a big, fay villain. tumblr_ld734lZRCO1qdq3ajo1_500 If Disney had really believed, fully, in pushing this project all the way, instead of just trying too hard with their old formula, we could have had a really good movie. Instead, it just feels really jarring, like two genres that really shouldn’t be together. And, I feel like Pocahontas’s position as a princess is probably the reason why they chose this story at all and shoehorned in their ’90s formula. While historical accuracy is not necessary for a great movie, in this case the storytelling choices do not work. I don’t think anyone wanted to see an analogue for Native-Colonial race relations played out by a pug and a raccoon, or have the entirety of First Nations culture reduced to safe, non-threatening hippie ways. pocahontas-21 This “white man’s Indian” problem is really one of the major issues with this and many other depictions of First Nations peoples. When the culture began to move away from treating Native peoples like Saturday morning cartoon villains and caricatures, the result was unfortunately not to look at the actual peoples and understand them, or let them tell their own stories. To this day, it’s pretty unusual to find movies made by Native directors, or even casting Native actors. And, while I know Johnny Depp does have some mixed heritage, I’d like to point out that he was still a really safe, white choice for The Lone Ranger.



The thing is, representation is almost always seen through a white lens, and when stereotypes moved from negative to positive it was still in a very white perspective. In order to side with Native peoples, the people had to be utterly angelic, and usually analogues for bourgeois hippie values. This is troublesome because it makes the First Nations Peoples unhuman, as if to say that the only way genocide and systematic oppression is wrong is if the oppressed are angels. Because if they had flaws like everyone else in the world, it’d be okay? That creates a very troubling undercurrent in this new, sugar-coated race relations paradigm, and one which we see today in many situations of violence, where, for examples, victims of crimes begin to be judged for their moral character rather than their legal rights.

"Okay, so we'll admit that it was wrong, just so long as we never find out any of you were anything less than perfect, little flower children, kay?"

“Okay, so we’ll admit that it was wrong, just so long as we never find out any of you were anything less than perfect, little flower children, kay?”

The story is also just not very challenging, focusing on a really vague notion of not cutting down sycamores and remembering that even rocks have spirits and names, or whatever. It’s not that interested in discussing race, and really sugar coats that issue.

I have heard some right-wing critics say that this is a lefitst, anti-white movie. I really could not disagree more. The movie reduces the entire conflict and all of the race relations therein to one, single, probably-gay bad guy (with pigtails) who just wants gold. The rest? Oh, well, there was a misunderstanding, but in the end everyone can just get along, because that’s totally what actually happened. It utterly exonerates colonialism by placing the blame on one rogue, gay stereotype of a leader and his love of gold and disrespect for trees.


Hell, John Smith literally takes a bullet for Powhatan in the end –you know, after he learns his valuable lesson about rolling around in nature and not wondering what it’s worth.

The real flaw of colonialism is just that they didn't do this enough... whatever "this" is... Forget oppression, they just needed more of... this in order to solve all conflicts for all time.

The real flaw of colonialism is just that they didn’t do this enough… whatever “this” is… Forget oppression, they just needed more of… this in order to solve all conflicts for all time.

The real lesson here: Trees be good, greed be bad. So, basically, proto-Avatar. It doesn’t challenge viewers at all, and keeps everything in this safe, artificially happy world that never existed.

Now, some people argue that Disney doesn’t need to make a more realistic movie because it’s for kids. Kids don’t need to know all the gritty, depressing details. I think that if this is the case then Disney really should have adapted something else. However, if you really look at that argument, consider what it means. “It’s for kids, therefore the first time they are likely to learn about this really important, historical issue! Let’s make sure it’s totally false, so as to forever color their interpretation of the events with lies!”

No. I don’t mean that we should necessarily show every drop of historical blood to our three-year-olds, but kids can handle the truth. And the truth did not involve magic tree spirits.

So, I’ve been pretty negative about this movie, and this is supposed to be an series about defending Disney. So, what is positive about the movie? Well, again, the animation is just really good. And, for those who do like this movie, I think that’s a part of the reason why. I think a lot of outdoorsy people enjoy it because it’s Disney really romanticizing nature. And, as far as art goes, American arts have a long history of this.

John Kensett, Mount Washington (part of the Hudson River School of painting)

John Kensett, Mount Washington (part of the Hudson River School of painting)

In fact, American Romanticism is really about nature. While Europe was looking at its cultural past, America, being young and without things like ruins and castles, looked instead to the land as both prize and heritage, a symbol for cultural values.

I think this is part of the reason why you have really pretty right-wing Americans who are still very passionate about the landscape and devoted to things like the National Parks system –which, by the way, is a really underrated green achievement.

While I think romanticism has a lot of flaws, not the least of which being its annoying habit of whitewashing everything and not noticing reality…

White Europe's romantic depiction of Native Americans. (The Entombment of Atala by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson)

White Europe’s romantic depiction of Native Americans. (The Entombment of Atala by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson)

…I do think that some of this romantic view of nature is good. The US really does do some great work in maintain wildlands. Living in the UK, a place where wildness is really quite limited, I really do appreciate the fact that the US has this tie to the land. It’s so ubiquitous that I think it often gets missed, especially by coastal, urban environmentalists who sometimes see the lack of eco-speak in rural areas as a sign of right-wing anti-earth ideology. And, this really isn’t always the case, even if some of these same people are not informed about, say, climate change or energy. Often times, the supposed “redneck” is actually living a very green life, especially when it comes to living off the land and having a cultural identity tied to it. After all, the guy hunting and fishing his own food, and living simply in the countryside, is more green than someone who drinks exotic coffees and eats imported “world foods” and goes on lots of expensive vacations.

I think this almost unspoken tie to nature, even among people who are verbally very anti-environmentalist, is part of what the movie gets right. It doesn’t get nature itself right, because Virginia looks nothing like this movie (the movie looks more like Alaksa, really). But, it gets the viewer’s emotions about wildlife right, the same ideas that fill Westerns with grand vistas and inspire states like Colorado to make propaganda videos like this.

So, despite its Captain Planet goofiness, it does understand something about how Americans view nature, even if it’s totally scientifically inaccurate.



And, I think that scenes of Pocahontas canoeing and running around the woods really appeal to outdoorsy people. That’s actually pretty accurate, what with its jubilant celebration of ultra-romanticised American landscapes. I think outdoorsy people really do feel this way and have this romantic love of beautiful places and outdoor adventures.


Otherwise, I do think that this was an important step for Disney to take, even if it stumbled all over itself and ended up sending the company in a pretty sharp downward spiral. There really are more than just attractive white people in this world. And, pretending like race doesn’t exist is really taking a pretty bad stand in the entire situation. It’s not keeping out of politics to offer zero visibility to a group. Doing nothing is really very political, and actually expressing that, yes, these people exist, was kind of a big deal. It shouldn’t be, but it is.

Visibility is a major issue for media and society, in general. It’s why people want to see heroes and main characters who look like them. People who say that they want more female superheroes, or more multiracial movies, et cetera, are not saying that they cannot enjoy a movie with white leads or male leads. It’s saying that they want to be recognized as existing, too. Not seeing yourself, or only seeing yourself as the sidekick, comic relief, damsel, or even villain, is actually really damaging for how certain groups will perceive themselves. I would suggest reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye for more on that, especially the scene about white baby dolls.

It is important in a society to not marginalize a group by silencing them or rendering them invisible, or regulating them to strict roles. So, while Pocahontas is the safest, least-challenging depiction of a fairly fetishized character (let’s be real here)…

The "exotic babe who loves and saves the white man" isn't exactly the greatest depiction of a real, historical woman...

The “exotic babe who loves and saves the white man” isn’t exactly the greatest depiction of a real, historical woman…

…she at least exists. It’s also why I tend to forgive Aladdin’s race relations, because at least they are offering visibility to Middle Eastern peoples. (They also do it better because it’s make-believe, race is incidental to character types, and the characters are just better.) It might be pure fantasy, but in a world where Middle Eastern prejudice is pretty rampant, it’s a good way to give kids characters who are at least very universal and relatable.

This movie isn’t as successful as Aladdin because it falls in the category of trying both way too hard and not hard enough. It’s trying too hard with the Disney formula, but not hard enough with the actual story. However, at least the company is acknowledging that, yes, different races exist, and giving some recognition to this fact. It’s not much, it is whitewashed pretty badly, and it’s not a great film. But, at least there’s that. Also, trees.

Oh my gosh, trees, people!!!

Eywa, the early years...

Eywa, the early years…

Defending Disney: Aladdin


I think that when critiquing the ’90s Disney films a lot of people forget just how different they all are from one another. The Little Mermaid is very much a step to make Disney up to date with a new teen culture, but Beauty and the Beast is a mega-musical style romance, and now we have Aladdin. In some ways, we could say that Aladdin is the natural child of the two previous princess films. It’s a sassy, anachronistic, teen-culture film, and it is a mega-musical-style romance. It even has Lea Salonga doing Jasmine’s singing voice, coming from Broadway’s Miss Saigon. (She would later go to do the singing  voice for Mulan, and played Eponine in the 10th Anniversary edition of Les Miserables.) But, while the movie does have this natural inheritance, it is again its own thing, and really quite different from its predecessors.

The most obvious change is that this isn’t from a female perspective. It is noteworthy for being the first Disney prince story. Yes, Princess Jasmine is a major character, but it’s not her story. It’s Aladdin’s story, and that’s where the emphasis falls: on a male hero, who is also kind of a wise-cracking scamp, a little street, and who has more action-based adventures. For some reason when Disney made Tangled there was a lot of buzz about how the studio was stepping away from female-focused princess movies and doing something totally new. I guess everyone had amnesia, because before Flynn there was Aladdin. This isn’t new. The Disney Company, for being a studio known for such a recognizable image, has been noteworthy for not wanting to do the same film over and over again. That was a real concern all the way back to Sleeping Beauty, and it was only when the company was in a slump that its films looked more generically like one another. As for having male characters, from the start, Disney made a male-focused, scamp-type character who has more action-based adventures, and that was Pinocchio, the second Disney feature. However, the company had not decided to combine the girl-focused princess movies (of which there is only actually a small handful in a long list of features, by the way) with a more boy-driven story. It aimed to bring boys to princess movies without compromising girl interests. So, again, like Tangled (why do people think that movie is so unusual?).

However, the movie is radically different from the previous two ’90s Disney pics in other ways, as well. While The Little Mermaid has expanded character development and more playful songs and anachronistic references to being a teen, it’s still played very straight. It’s a late ’80s early ’90s youth culture, but, like the ’50s style in Cinderella, this doesn’t dominate the film. The era’s concerns are “cast” in the film’s fairytale world. And, Beauty and the Beast takes itself very seriously and is a very mature story, one of the reasons why it was a Best Picture nomination. So, what were they going to do with Aladdin?

I think that a lot of people who make something that was as much of a hit as Beauty and the Beast feel the need to do the same thing again, to recreate that success story. And, usually that doesn’t pan out very well. Disney made a great choice. Like their decision in the past not to make Sleeping Beauty a re-treat of their (successful) previous films, they chose to take Aladdin in a radically different direction. If Little Mermaid was Disney’s first blatantly teenaged movie, and Beauty and the Beast was its first straight-up romantic movie, Aladdin was a fairytale  buddy-comedy.


Now, I don’t mean that the movie is just a dumb parody. But, the studio’s decision to make a comedic, self-referential movie, complete with Robin Williams as the Genie (a casting decision so successful that the studio will shoot itself in the foot time and again to recreate  that success), was a major departure from the rather self-serious princess movies. In fact, Disney had been known for trying to make its audience of little girls get teary-eyed, what with Snow White’s apparent death, Cinderella’s torn dress scene, the three good fairies’s reaction to the loss of Aurora, Ariel almost not marrying Eric, and straight-up stabbing The Beast in the back. This isn’t even counting Bambi’s mom or the entire Fox and the Hound movie, and what they’ll do to children’s psyches everywhere in The Lion King. And, of course, the films are also known for having very self-serious love stories, fights of good vs. evil, and so on. This is all still in Aladdin, but instead of comic relief being in a serious movie, it has serious parts in a comedic movie.

The writing and animation is very fast, especially with Robin Williams as Genie, who basically just does Robin Williams routines throughout the entire movie. The animation has to speed to keep up with his jokes, with all kinds of sight gags, physical comedy, and random references to other Disney films and pop-culture jokes.


It’s a hipper Disney, like the Shrek before Shrek, but without deconstructing the fairytale elements. And, this new formula worked. In fact, adult audiences today, women and men, often list this as one of their favorite childhood films. I think that, looking back, the style and tone made me feel grown up, like I got the jokes and I was with-it enough to laugh at the jokes. I liked how cool and together the characters were, with Genie always getting the last joke, Jasmine’s independence, and Aladdin’s just… Aladdin-ness. He’s the fast-talking, street-smart sort of person that seems really cool to young kids, like he was Disney’s first non-villain badass.


The animation is interesting in that it is just so fast. The movement problems of the past were over. The sight gags go by quickly, even by adult standards, and the movement is fluid, moving from realistic to over-the-top cartoony without ever being jarring. There is a stronger illusion of camera work, as well, and while some of the old CG work feels a little dated it was thrilling at the time, and best used in all the flying scenes with the magic carpet. The color scheme is interesting, as well, full of jewel tones and white palaces, making for some great contrasts. Unfortunately, like Little Mermaid, the trade-off for movement is detail, and if you’re looking for more of the lush designs of Beauty and the Beast you will be disappointed. But, this isn’t meant to be Beauty and the Beast. It’s less arty, but it isn’t meant to be. Its focus is on being comedic, fast-paced, and upping the ante for action scenes. There are chase scenes, escapes, treasure hunting, and, again, flying. It’s interest is expanding the Disney boundaries, and it accomplishes this.

The music is also pretty good, although I would argue less impressive than Beauty and the Beast. I can’t say I’m fond of lyrics like “But when I’m way up here, it’s crystal clear
That now I’m in a whole new world with you…” and I think Tim Rice may be an overrated lyricist –though far be it from me to criticize the man who penned “Go, go, go Joseph!” as an actual lyric. However, like the movie itself, the music is more lighthearted than arty and I’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who really disliked the songs or didn’t think they were fun and catchy.

But, like everything else, this film also has controversy, so let’s get to it!

On the left: The film is racist.

On the right: Jasmine is immodest, the movie is too sexy. Also, the Sultan is an offensive depiction of fathers.

Everyone else: Why can’t I have a pet tiger? No, I’m kidding. There is no controversy.

First of all, the big elephant in the room: Disney does not have a great history with depicting non-white characters. Few very existed in early Disney, and among these are fleeting images of “the blackfish”, a crow name Jim (why? Just… why?), shadowy circus workers who admit that they cannot read, a super happy depiction of slavery… It’s not stellar. And, even when Disney depicts other cultures favorably, they usually end up in very stereotypical roles. So, the big elephant in the room with this movie is that it straight up calls Arabia “barbaric”. Also, people say that Aladdin and Jasmine look white while Jafar looks more “ethnic”.


To the first criticism, I think it might be fair to consider that the story isn’t supposed to be “today’s” Middle East, but rather the setting of the Arabian Nights, with stories about 40 thieves and the like. But, that would still be a lot more acceptable if the depiction didn’t come from white America. Yeah, it is a pretty awkward depiction of a culture, and if you think that kids might not be able to process this I do understand waiting to show it. However, speaking for myself, I never considered that the Middle East was barbaric from this film. I thought that the rule of a specific fantasy kingdom, like the kingdoms in previous Disney films, had a very harsh code of law. But, this seems to come from inequality and the police, not from being of Arabian decent. So, I don’t think that kids are likely to come away as mini-Glenn Becks after a viewing, but I do understand the concern.

However, I don’t think that Jafar looks “ethnic”. I think he looks like a cartoon villain, even complete with a scary mustache. And while Aladdin’s voice is definitely American-teen, I think that the character is actually positive, showing cross-cultural sympathies with being put-upon and underprivileged, something all societies have. I think that making Aladdin more “street”, if in a cute and Disney way, does bring to life the fictional character in a way that resonates with kids, and that this was the goal rather that whitewashing his character too much.

Jasmine is sort of a social conundrum. On the one hand, yeah, the belly-baring, sexy depiction of a Middle Eastern woman does fit with some pretty classic race-fetish issues. In a world where white pop-singers dress up in sexed-up versions of traditional foreign garb, and people stereotype women of certain races as being especially s-s-s-sexy, I do see why people have a problem with this design.


However, I would argue that the character kind of subverts this cliches. She looks at first like the stereotype, but her character is different, an independent princess, one who wants to even give up her royalty to have some freedom, who doesn’t want the men who see her as this sexy object. And, that kind of challenges viewers. Is the problem her design or our expectations concerning her design? (Basically, is she “just drawn that way”?) And, I think a Disney princess who doesn’t dream of a prince, who wants freedom, who stands up for herself, and who challenges those who try to objectify her or win her as some kind of prize (actual line addressed) is a good role model for kids.

And… also, I don’t actually think she looks European. I think the question is whether or not she’s a stereotype of the “sexed-up Arabian woman”, not whether or not she is whitewashed. I don’t think she’s particularly differently complected from actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, other than the fact that she’s, you know, a cartoon drawing.


But, does the depiction actually make the viewers question their preconceived notions, that any attractive woman of Middle Eastern descent is a fetish character? No one thinks Ariel is a fetish character, and she wears less than Jasmine. And, Jasmine doesn’t act like a fetishized character. In fact, she’d probably be classified as the independent princess, or the freedom princess.


As for the right’s concerns, I’ll just say, again, that if you’re really getting turned on my Disney princesses, you’re weird. You probably have problems. No normal person has this issue. And, I think it’s great that Disney shows that a woman can wear what she wants and still be within her rights to demand respect. So, I don’t buy the immodesty argument. She’s a 2D drawing.

Then, there’s that all-pervasive concern about the depiction of fathers. And, for once in the entire princess series, or perhaps the only time other than the King in Cinderella, the father character isn’t portrayed in a stellar light. He is a buffoon. That’s accurate. He basically is the King in Cinderella, but in some vaguely Arabian setting. He wants to marry his daughter off, and is otherwise kind of a nut. However, like I said before, I don’t think that the predominantly male creators of these shows are attacking men. In fact, this show has two very positive male figures, Aladdin and Genie. I don’t think you can point to a rather minor figure and say, “Ah, see, they hate men!” while the two main characters and heroes are in fact men. That makes no sense. But, they are not fathers and fatherhood has become a real brand on the right. I hate to be cynical, but I neither think these groups are helpful nor attacking real social issues. I understand the concerns of the people who buy their merchandise, but I don’t always buy the sincerity of the producers or the value of their product (Courageous, anyone? I mean, give me a break…).

Again, I don’t think dads become deadbeat dads from watching Disney princess shows. And, a lot of people have countered this by pointing out that at least Sultan is alive. Where is Jasmine’s mother? In the end, though, I think that, once again, this is about telling a story where young people make decisions and have to face frightening situations, and the anxiety it plays off of is having to do this without parents. That I think is the real purpose. However, I do see why a parent might be concerned with this portrayal –not because it portrays men badly, but because it might encourage a particularly sassy child to be particularly sassy. That’s a personal decision, however.

And, for what it’s worth, I never saw either the King in Cinderella or the Sultan as dads. I saw them as royals, which seems to be the real satire. I also heard, though cannot really confirm, that the Sultan was based on the Wizard from The Wizard of Oz, which, again, makes sense with the satire of royalty thing and the fact that these are American shows.

Again, like the depiction of race, it really comes down to how these issues are addressed within the household. If you introduce kids to very positive, multiracial role models, I don’t think that Aladdin will be the way kids understand the Middle East. I think they will see it as a fantasy kingdom. And, if you have good parent-child values in your home, I don’t think that kids will see the Sultan and decide to disrespect dad. I certainly never got that message.

In the end, I think this movie is innocuously awkward, trying a lot of things, succeeding at some and failing at others. It’s a fun movie, but also one that does require some further discussion with kids. Perhaps you could introduce your kids to Middle Eastern movies like Children of Heaven?


I actually think that it’s good when movies bring up questions about how we talk about people, how we think of people, just so long as we discuss it. And, it really does a disservice to film as a medium when you forget to discuss the films and instead just mindlessly absorb the information. Parents have the duty to do this with their children, and children can handle it. They absolutely can have discussions about the movies they watch, and actually they really want to. Have you ever noticed how kids love talking about their favorite movies? Engage them. You might come up with something worth while!


Defending Disney: Beauty and the Beast


I think that if you ask most people which Disney film they like best it is usually one of the following: Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King. And, it’s not hard to see the reasoning behind these choices. These are both big, impressive films, with stories far more complex and emotional than their predecessors. They really resonated with audiences due to their strong character development, memorable songs, and state-of-the-art animation. So, first to look at Beauty and the Beast.

This is one of those rare Disney films where even non-fans kind of like it. It’s hard to find anyone who dislikes the movie, and almost everyone who does has more of an ideological reason than a film-quality reason, which is unfortunate as the film is a film, not a political tract.

After the success of The Little Mermaid and the resurgence of popular interest in not only Disney princesses but Disney animation, the studio had a new direction and a new wave of fairytale structures. The ’90s Disney pics, the Renaissance Disney films, were typified by impressive animation, ’80s mega-musical-style songs, and a new sense of youth culture. The characters are generally misfits, for some reason or another, who want something “more”. In a way, this isn’t too different than Disney’s previous interest in living one’s dreams. But, while Classic Disney tells audiences that it’s good to be optimistic, to hope, and to see the world as full of possibilities, these ’90s Disney films are interested in how their protagonists can do this and how they feel. The stories, liberated by stronger innovations in motion and anatomy, as well as new computer technology, are able to move from the archetypal structures of the past to look at characters with stronger and more realistic desires. I say more realistic, because the archetypal style doesn’t really go away. But, in ’90s Disney the good princess might want to live her dreams because she has been reading books and has desires for adventure, and because she doesn’t fit in, rather that because she is a young princess who dreams.

So, enter Belle. Belle is almost everyone’s favorite princess. At least, almost everyone I know.


Again, it’s not hard to understand. Belle, like Ariel, doesn’t quite fit in. But, unlike Ariel, who makes herself an outsider simply because she’s a brooding teenager who sits in her room with her posters and collectibles and sings angsty songs to herself, Belle is different because she just thinks differently than the people around her. She’s the daughter of an eccentric inventor and enjoys reading and studying, and cheering on her father in his plans to promote new inventions to the world. Unfortunately, they live in hicksville, where the cares of the villagers are, well, provincial.


The people don’t understand dreamers who want more than finding a line of work or getting married, and, interestingly, this doesn’t just extend to Belle. I think people forget that her father is kind of a pioneering brain, and the town thinks he’s crazy for wanting to do things like… make work easier. He invents household technology and work-saving devices.

What is interesting about Belle is that, while Ariel’s good looks and voice were what made her fit in despite her awkwardness and angst, Belle’s good looks make her more of an outcast. The women her age don’t understand why she’s into books instead of boys. The town doesn’t understand why someone pretty is so different, and so they see her as even more odd, because she attracts more attention. And, the most attention she gets is from Gaston.


Gaston is one of Disney’s more interesting villains. For one thing, he’s the first male villain in a princess movie. Considering that the films went from unable-to-animate-men to a character like Gaston, that is impressive. For another thing, Gaston is a major break from previous Disney villains. Ursula really isn’t that unusual for Disney –yet another witch with vague motivations, even if she is pretty awesome with her badass villain song. Gaston isn’t a witch or even an authority figure. He’s just the town jock, a good-looking guy whose interests happen to make him the town hero. He’s the kind of character one might initially think would be the hero, since he is vaguely good looking and has a Disney-style insta-love interest in Belle. However, he’s actually a selfish douchebag, who wants Belle because she would look good on his arm. He doesn’t share her interests, doesn’t respect her family, but thinks that she just should like him because everyone else does. He’s the town football hero who can’t understand why he doesn’t get everything his own way, the big-fish in the small pond. He’s the high school football star who always passed his classes so that he could play sports, even though he couldn’t really read.

And, frankly, I think that Belle and Gaston really typify why so many people relate to this movie. Belle is different, has ambitions that people don’t understand. How many people can relate to hearing, “Why don’t you just do what everyone else’s is doing?” or “What, do you think you’re special, wanting [fill in the blank]? Selfish!” In fact, that basically typifies all of society’s attitude toward “millennials”. “Why do you think you’re special or worthy of having a dream, ambitions, adventures? What, do you think you’re too good to work for $7 an hour flipping burgers at Pig’n’Grease, just because you have an MA in history and BAs in anthropology and classical languages? Pff, weirdo. Don’t take that unusual job. Don’t write that book. Don’t paint that. Don’t fall in love. Don’t try to fight for anything. Don’t try to get people interested in them derned books you’re always reading. You’re just a hipster!”

And, for all the (narcissistic) social analysis which deludes itself into thinking this is unique to our age, I’m pretty sure this theme is older and more resonating than current trending buzzwords might let on. I think when Disney unveiled a princess who has more ambition and brains than the people around her, that was a little refreshing: that it’s not elitist and doesn’t make you a horrible person to stand against mediocrity and want something more from life than “Marie, the baguettes!” and worshiping small-town heroes.

A literate young person? What an elitist hipster! Truly this is a terrible example for children!

A literate young person? What an elitist hipster! Truly this is a terrible example for children!

And, I think as much as a lot of people related to Belle, a lot of people related to a villain like Gaston. You see, where Belle just innocently desires something more from life, without judging or being unkind to the people around her, and therefore rises above provincial thinking without being an elitist, Gaston is an actual elitist. Yes, you can be a numb-skull and an elitist. He’s not above mediocrity, but he’s the best at being mediocre. He’s the douchebag frat boy who threw you into lockers. And, it’s not really his fault. Society is so mediocre that it doesn’t expect anything more. It made him.

This “more” that Disney is exploring is beyond the idea of dreams coming true and also carries with it a sense of rising above, seeking quality, being brave, being smart, striving for more than the average. Belle’s dad isn’t content with the way the world is, and so he invents ways to improve it, and Belle is the same. Interestingly, as much as this “more” and “being more” theme typifies ’90s Disney, its morals are very Pixar, not unlike The Incredibles. 

And, then, there’s the Beast, or, as Disney retroactively decided to name him, “Adam”. Yeah… they never mention this in the entire film. They probably only did so that people like me wouldn’t nickname him Marvin.


The Beast is a great character, however. He’s a handsome prince with an ugly soul, who becomes an ugly beast and has to become beautiful on the inside. As corny as that sounds, this is interesting for Disney, as most of their heroes up to this point have been straight up good-looking, and their villains are ugly. How do you know Cinderella’s step-sisters are evil? Because they look plain and have enormous feet! But, beyond this, The Beast is a great character, with a story arc, internal conflict, changes, and even a sense of humor. He starts out very intimidating –this frightening, Gothic monster,–and then becomes a character whose transformation is almost disappointing when he actually turns human.

This is probably not unintentional. Beauty and the Beast owes much of its look and artistic style to classic arthouse, surrealist fairytale Le Belle et la Bete, a 1946 French film by Jean Cocteau, the director of Orphee.


Cocteau reportedly thought the ending of the fairy tale was boring, unfitting for a dynamic heroine, and so he wanted audiences to be as disappointed as he was. He did this by making the ending extremely sentimental, but Disney does this by making The Beast a great character that you actually care about. In fact, Paige O’Hara supposedly cried while voicing the scene when The Beast seems to die.


From a technical level, aside from borrowing heavily from Cocteau, it’s safe to say that Disney had solidified its image to the extent that it was building on its own artistic tradition more than picking art from history. However, this is not to say that the melds of art in the film do not have roots. For example, the heavy use of chiaroscuro and the interior designs of the castle itself are borrowing from the Baroque tradition.

Giovanni Lanfranco, Annunciation

Giovanni Lanfranco, Annunciation

However, the film is also very Gothic, in terms of architecture, as well as its interest in dark, monstrous images.


It is also Romantic, but, again, Gothic Romantic, with Belle working just as easily in that tradition’s archetype as a fairy tale archetype. It has brooding, dark passages, an interest in decayed buildings, and an anti-hero, as well as a Byronic sense of heroes being somewhat outside of society. And, this I partially blame on its other major influence, the 1980s mega-musical, and Phantom of the Opera.

In fact, the entire structure is very mega-musical. While earlier Disney used the singing and dancing and talking animals of vaudevillian productions, The Little Mermaid was entering a musical scene that had changed dramatically. Broadway was creating massive, expensive mega-hits, with big pop-musical numbers, huge sets, and epic stories. EvitaLes MiserablesPhantom, these were all enormous productions with huge influence on the new Disney structure. In the past, for example, choir music works more like a Greek chorus, with only a few exceptions, often not even sung by anyone, and there more to explain a scene or create a montage to move the plot forward. In Beauty and the Beast, the first song is a Broadway chorus, where individualized characters sing the exposition in a massive show-tune style, not unlike scenes from Les Miserables. However, the way the characters sing dialog, and the big show-stoppers, like “Gaston”, “Be Our Guest”, and the titular “Beauty and the Beast” are also in this tradition. Songs like “On My Own” from Les Miserables or the love duet, “All I Ask of You” from Phantom of the Opera would not be out of place in this style of production. I think the film might owe more than it lets on to Phantom, in general, from its use of symbolic roses and mirrors, to a brooding and disfigured-but-romantic anti-hero, to The Beast having a Gothic lair… But, a lot of people tend to really disagree with this and argue that, if anything, they are simply inspired by the same fairy tale. What’s interesting is that Beauty and the Beast then went on to become a mega-musical on the stage, itself, bringing the influences full circle.

(Original Broadway Cast) Yes, I can see no obvious influence from Phantom here...

(Original Broadway Cast)
Yes, I can see no obvious influence from Phantom here…

Perhaps because of this structure, and audiences showing a strongly favorable interest in Phantom as a romantic story — because nothing says romance like brooding  angst–

Entire pop-culture, despotic empires have formed over this concept...

Entire pop-culture, despotic empires have formed over this concept…

Beauty and the Beast is one of the most unabashedly romantic Disney films. I don’t mean this in, “Oh! I am so swept up in this love story!” but rather that the film is intentionally put together to be more romantic and have more of an emphasis on the romance than the previous films. While love has always been a huge theme in the princess movies, the films aren’t really romantic, per se. Snow White only meets her prince twice, and he barely does anything. She’s simply waiting for him to find her, somehow. Cinderella’s dream, initially, is to go to the ball, and only then does she meet the prince. They share one song together, and that’s it. Love… I guess. Neither of these films had the technical prowess to create male characters that could be on screen long enough to be romantic. The films just tell us, in Cinderella‘s case quite literally, that this is love (huh-mmm-huh-mm). Sleeping Beauty has its princess and prince fall in love in a really gorgeously animated sequence, but the story is really about the fairies. The romance is just sort of assumed because this is fairytale logic. And, while Little Mermaid does have Ariel spend more time with Eric than any of the previous couples, the story really is about Ariel’s interests and Eric isn’t that much of a character. While as a kid I used to dress up as Eric (for some inexplicable reason), he’s actually a pretty bland leading man.

Beauty and the Beast, however, opens with The Beast’s story, and asks us, “Who could ever love a beast?” Then, when the characters meet, we see them go through changes, learn about one another, and develop together until they even get a romantic ballroom scene.


And, of course, it’s a forbidden love, which Disney plays up in the scene when Belle shows Gaston the magic mirror and everyone decides to become an angry mob –totally unlike that other show it totally doesn’t owe any artistic credit to. And, the interactions between the characters are more traditionally romantic, not in that I am going to argue their swoony potential, but that they literally borrow from the tropes of romance films. The characters argue a lot, and that just means they’re meant for each other (a common romance movie trope).

"Hey, girl, you piss me the hell off." (The Notebook)

“Hey, girl, you piss me the hell off.”
(The Notebook)

The characters also are more physically affectionate. They dance closer, hold hands, kiss passionately. These aren’t actors. Animators and animation directors had to choose to specifically make the chemistry stronger than, say, how Prince Eric apparently needs an entire animal choir to encourage him to kiss the girl who leans in to kiss him –and then doesn’t even do it. There are animation choices being made. People chose to draw this, in purpose. And, I think the fact that this is a romance movie, not just a love story, is part of why people really connected with the film. Audiences loved it. Critics loved it. And, it was the first animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.


Now, of course, because this is a princess movie it has controversies. Something about making media that has a primary target of girls just makes people complain a lot, I guess.

On the left: Belle has Stockholm Syndrome and the movie encourages abusive relationships.

On the right: Oh, gosh, where to begin… Belle humiliates Gaston, Gaston is an offensive portrayal of men, Belle’s father isn’t tough and strong, there’s a fleeting image of a religious figure laughing in the scene when Gaston tries to marry Belle, Belle and The Beast are too sexy, beast characters encourage children to like monsters and those are apparently real and also the devil…

Everyone else: “There’s a controversy? What?””

First, people, you have got to stop diagnosing everyone with mental illnesses. I think this Stockholm Syndrome argument is the direct outcome of people medicating kids who fidget slightly because they have “ADHD” or are “manic”. Yeah, let’s stop pretending like we have doctorates in psychiatry when we don’t. Unless you actually do, in which case why are you analyzing Belle instead of real patients? Belle doesn’t have a disorder where she has convinced herself that she cares about an abductor. That is because this is a fantasy. This isn’t about an abduction. It’s about a world where enchanted castles hold enchanted Beasts. He, feeling threatened by an outsider, imprisons Belle’s father. Belle takes his place in the castle, which The Beast is just surprised by. She doesn’t really act like a prisoner, and even leaves, only coming back when The Beast is injured by the wolves. From that point on, she stays and does things like play in the snow. Furthermore, this is, again, a fairy tale, and the story really does have this plot point. It isn’t about reality but about abstract messages, like isolation, loneliness, being an outsider. And, it’s a part of our heritage. People complain about Disney dumbing down fairy tales, and then they complain when Disney follows the fairy tales. Nobody’s every happy. It’s always something.

In the end, Belle is a smart, ambitious, sacrificial, caring, brave, and strong character, and there’s nothing anti-feminist about that. You can hardly argue that The Beast doesn’t respect her by like ten minutes into their screen-time together, also. And, what little girl after seeing this would decide that what she wants is to be captured by a real kidnapper or in an abusive relationship? That doesn’t even exist in the same reality as this story, and clearly Belle has no problem ditching loser guys.

As for the right, I am constantly boggled by the arguments concerning Gaston. The guy’s a creep. He’s the guy who constantly tries to force himself onto someone and then beats up her boyfriend. This kind of person actually does exist. And, I don’t think that the male filmmakers are attacking men. I think that, just maybe, the kind of people who grew up to make Disney cartoons might possibly have clashed with Gaston-like characters in the past. It seems likely to me that arty people who went into the cartoon business might have had their problems with Gastons as kids. Besides, how is The Beast not a good male character, the opposite Gaston? In fact, by the end, The Beast even appears gentler and Gaston looks like a raving maniac, and Belle puts a fine point on it by calling him the monster.


The point is that not everyone who looks good and is maybe a small-town hero is a good person, which is a valuable lesson for kids. And, again, The Beast is a good male character, both kind but also strong and fierce when he needs to be. I get the feeling that some of the idea that he’s less “traditionally masculine”, a phrase which apparently forgot this was ever a thing…


…comes from The Beast’s design when he is a prince. Because he’s… French-looking and doesn’t seem like, I don’t know, a Duck Dynasty member. Because only guys with a cleft chin, who hang antlers everywhere and shoot geese in city limits, are truly manly? Because manliness depends on fashion and looks? That sounds like a horrible lesson!

As for Belle’s father, yeah, he’s not strong. Because he’s an old man. He is, however, smart and obviously passed on his ways of thinking to his daughter. He also sacrifices and cares about her, despite being an old man and an intellectual, not a warrior. Physical strength isn’t everything, and that’s kind of the point of the movie. Plus, when Belle takes his place, the movie makes it clear that he’s not just given up. He doesn’t want her to take his place, and he almost dies looking for her. Yeah… what a horrible depiction of a kind, loving father. I wish he was more like Gaston, said no one ever.

And, yes, there is a reverend type in the crowd at Gaston’s farcical wedding. Because no reverend has never been bad… Besides, the entire town is there. The idea is that the town has spoiled Gaston so much that he literally cannot understand or stand being rejected. His entire motivation is that he’s embarrassed by this. But, I remember as a kid that a lot of people thought Belle should have been nicer to him. Let me ask you this: if a random guy burst in on your daughter with a bunch of people and was like, “We’re getting married! You’re so lucky!” would you say to her, “Be nice, girl. Be sweet about it!”? Probably not.

The last two complaints I’ll address really quickly, because they are dumb. One, do you really find a kid’s cartoon too steamy for you? What, are chair legs to steamy for you? The problem with this complaint is 100% about the complainer. Two, monsters aren’t real. You don’t have to worry about your kids falling for a real monster and thinking it’s good because… monsters are imaginary. So is Santa. But, kids will encounter very real people who look different or who are in some way outsiders, and we should care about them. Real people are hurt every day because they are different, look different, are not in the norm. But, monsters don’t exist. Real monsters are, like the movie says, like Gaston, and that’s a more realistic message to teach your kids.

I’ve encountered a lot of writing which really praises the idea of very abstract evil, dragons, and monsters. One writer complained that his political opposition should just admit that they are orks so that he could fight them. Need I remind anyone that orks are killed without mercy in fantasy stories? While showing kids the defeat of an abstract monster can teach kids the valuable lesson that evil can be conquered, real evil doesn’t look like imaginary monsters. We learned the lesson about slaying dragons in Sleeping Beauty, but there are more lessons that kids can learn, and Beauty and the Beast provides some of them.


Defending Disney: The Little Mermaid


I’m skipping ahead a little. After Sleeping Beauty, the Disney franchise didn’t make films that were as big and, frankly, expensive. There are real classics from this era, of course, and it’s interesting to note that the idea of making more male-focused cartoons is not recent. In fact the second major Disney film after Snow White was Pinocchio, and in this era we have our Jungle Book and our Robin Hood  and Peter Pan. Some of these, like the previously mentioned three, are classics. Some are underrated and unfairly forgotten, like The Great Mouse Detective, and some are just not that interesting, like the original Rescuers and Oliver and Company. And, eventually Disney went through a bit of a slump, in an era dominated by classic Don Bluth cartoons, and culminating in a really terrible adaptation of Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three and bits of The Black Cauldron, but going by the latter book’s title because the studio didn’t care about that project.

So, so stupid...

So, so stupid…

Despite the handful of classics, I am skipping ahead simply for two reasons. The first is that the technological innovation sort of plateaued, despite some greater sense of “camera motion” in the animation. But, in general, in Disney’s age the focus seemed to be on creating solid and recognizably Disney pictures, and after his passing many of the features began to take a bit of a downturn in quality. And, furthermore, there wasn’t another big, controversial film until the princess movies came back. And, yes, I know that technically I am skipping probably the most controversial Disney film, Song of the South. This is because I haven’t seen it. It’s also not really a cartoon, but more of a Who Framed Roger Rabbit  type meld. I have heard reviews saying it isn’t as controversial as people think, and I’ve heard counter reviews saying that making the treatment of black people in the South so happy is actually horribly offensive. But, I haven’t seen it. I don’t know how the movie plays out. I’m inclined to agree with the arguments against the film, as they tend to be historically and socially stronger, but, again, I can’t speak for the movie’s quality myself.

So, instead, I want to jump ahead to 1989.

The so-called Disney Renaissance films may or may not have been started by technological innovations in Roger Rabbit but the look, style, and storytelling comes firmly from The Little Mermaid. Here’s where we get our ’90s Disney formula, of “wanting more”, and heroes who feel insecure and out of place, and big Broadway-styled musical numbers matching the mega-musical style of the ’80s, like Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. And this trend would continue to dominate Disney from this point onward.

The Little Mermaid is based on the Hans Christian Anderson story of the same name, but shares basically nothing with that plot outside of the title and the mermaids. Otherwise, this is a very loose adaptation. This is the American Disney fairytale, with happy endings, cute animal friends, and big songs. Interestingly the original story is very quiet and dark, and, spoilers, she dies in the end. So, the man who brought us The Little Match Girl killed The Little Mermaid as well. I think that whatever unfair criticisms of Snow White‘s lack of darkness are, they are better served here, because this is truly the first time that Disney has completely chosen its wholesome, happy image over the source material in a princess movie. (It did this in The Jungle Book, previously, however, and I think that adaptation paved the way for audiences to be okay with these changes.)


So, let’s jump right into the controversies:

On the left: Ariel sells her soul for a man.

On the right: Ariel is disobedient and doesn’t learn much from her disobedience. Also, the modesty movement finds her shell-bikini offensive.

Everyone: Ariel is a brat who never learns anything.

First of all, Ariel is absolutely a brat. That’s completely accurate. And, I think that her character is why this, after Cinderella, is the most controversial Disney princess. She gets on a lot of parents’ nerves. She makes poor choices. I think a lot of people find her not only a bad example for kids, but kind of an annoying character. You see, Disney has always been involved with the budding youth culture of America since its inception, but by 1989 the youth culture brand of teenager was fully recognized. This is the first teenaged princess, not youthful but straight up teenaged. And, boy do they play this up!

I want to address this first because a.) I loved this movie as a kid and b.) I think that the storytelling is really pretty interesting here. You see, I think Disney’s wholesome image has led a lot of people to see the studio not simply as happy and family-friendly (you can trust that Ariel does not die in this version), but instead that it serves as some moral compass, the fables of America. And, I think that’s really bad. While definitely a parent who worries that her child will imitate Ariel’s moodiness might wait on showing this film, Disney really should not be America’s beacon of morality. On the one hand, these are pretty abstract and simplistic stories, with very basic good-vs-evil morals that need to be supplemented by parents and teachers with meatier ethical instruction. On the other hand, it hampers the studio’s artistic freedom to be constantly worried about people who seem to want their entire moral instruction to come from The House of Mouse.

I am going to posit that Ariel isn’t meant to be a fully didactic, good character, an example of princessly goodness. The earlier Disney princess films, both artistically and structurally, have a sort of diorama feel to them. This is because they basically are dioramas of images placed upon one another in layers of transparent cells and shot into. On the one hand, it makes for some of the most lush and detailed animation in the studio’s history. On the other hand, there’s not a strong illusion of “camera” movement. The characters are mostly shot straight on, which allow for the scenery to be far more detailed than future productions simply because it didn’t have to move. It’s like they are shot on beautiful sets. But, with more movement and less lush detail getting adapted into Disney, and some new computer innovation (first used to create movement in Oliver and Company, I believe, which was released the year before), the stories moved away from the beautiful stage play look. They created worlds you could more freely move around in, which from a movement perspective is really wonderful, but which also loses something by ending those static but gorgeous background pieces.

However, with more movement came more room for the characters to express themselves physically, to “act”. While early Disney works in a sort of comedia dell’arte style of archetypal characters (the sweet princess, handsome prince, funny sidekicks, cute animals, scary villains) the increase of movement let the animators and writers create characters with more personality and, well, flaws. And here is where Ariel comes in. Ariel is a very flawed character. She’s naive, disobedient, moody, full of teen angst, and, interestingly, she also isn’t as graceful and poised as her predecessors. Can you imagine Cinderella tripping around the way Ariel does when she first gets legs? Or Snow White brushing her hair with a fork? Or Aurora running around barefoot in her nightgown, her hair a mess?

The awkward princess. Also, the first princess with toes.

The awkward princess. Also, the first princess with toes.

I think when people critique Ariel they forget just how innovative she is as a character. She isn’t an archetype. She’s not a didactic image of goodness. She’s a character, and she has flaws and quirks. But, what I will suggest is that these are actually good. Ariel is selfish, awkward, naive, and moody, just wanting to do her thing and hang out in her room with her collection of stuff, and sing her songs, and dream of romance, and awkwardly want to grow up. Sound familiar? Disney has always had this great knack for picking up on young concerns, and that’s usually where the controversies come from: that Disney is addressing the concerns and anxieties of young people rather than the rules and concerns of grownups. But, honestly, I think that the adults will survive. Truly. I think there is a place for Disney creations that aren’t just teaching “be good” but understand that sometimes kids don’t do the right thing, and can be moody, angsty, and selfish, and have a collection of junk, and sing songs alone about how misunderstood they are. I think Disney actually really captured this aspect of teen years, and, frankly, weren’t we all a little like this? Should we all be punished for being teens? I kind of like that Ariel is simply understood, as flawed as she is, because teenagers are flawed. And this doesn’t make them bad. In fact, in some ways, we can learn from these flawed teens, learn from their aspirations, their stubbornness, their joy at some pretty silly stuff, their passion.

I said before that Ariel would be the feisty princess, and she is, but she’s also the angsty princess. And, that’s good. That’s a part of growing up. If Snow White shows you can get through scary situations with a positive attitude and some friends, Ariel shows kids that you can get through your own major screw-ups, and that being an angsty, teenaged screw-up isn’t the end of the world. That people will still love you, your parents will still love you, and that this kind of parental love may not make sense at first but eventually you’ll understand and appreciate it. Which, I think, should counter the right’s concern that Ariel is too disobedient. Because sometimes kids disobey, but that doesn’t mean that we want them to be killed by Sea Witches. And, reassuring kids that sometimes the parent who seems harsh really does love you is probably a better deterrent for disobedience than just having her be obedient.

The left’s concern is that Ariel encourages girls to give away everything to get a man. Honestly, I don’t think that’s accurate to the story at all. For one thing, did you know that originally critics liked how Ariel was active in her romance, that this was considered progressive? We don’t think that Prince Philip is giving away everything when he literally risks his life to fight a dragon and save a woman he only just met. I think that the idea that a woman might be the pursuer is somehow anti-feminist only reflects the critic’s own preconceived notion that women cannot have it all. It’s love or a career, kids! No, no, I don’t buy that. Also, I think that, again, Ariel isn’t a didactic character. She’s a character, and sometimes characters aren’t perfect for any one political movement. Besides, I’d like to point out that the entire beginning of the movie is devoted to showing how obsessed with humans Ariel is, so it’s reasonable to say that her crush on the prince isn’t her only motivation. In fact, it seems like her real motivation is that her dad broke her collection of human stuff and she rebelled out of emotion. So, I think that criticism might be made by people who didn’t watch the show very carefully.

Ariel is the fangirl princess who collects human images like teenagers collect pop-idol posters.

Ariel is the fangirl princess who collects human images like teenagers collect pop-idol posters.

As for the modestly argument, can I just say that first of all, this is a cartoon. It’s not a real body. It’s a collection of circles, inking, and coloring effects. So, there’s that. Furthermore, traditionally, mermaid characters would be topless, so there’s that, too. And, lastly, she’s sixteen and wearing a bikini top. If you think that’s murderously immoral, then we probably aren’t going to be able to discuss it. But, for me, personally, the drawing of a sixteen-year-old fish-woman in a bikini isn’t immodest, and usually this argument comes from the same fringe group that thinks Sleeping Beauty is bad.

Now, from an art history perspective, the show doesn’t reference or draw from art as much as the previous princess films, other than a quick reference to a sculpture of The Little Mermaid.

download (1)

I’ve heard people make claims that she is inspired by Waterhouse, but I don’t see it and haven’t heard anything about that in cinema history studies.


No, the artistic direction here is based more on the animation itself, the movement. It has illusions of cinematography, and this is really probably the most interesting thing about the film. I am not kidding. Cinematography has been a huge discussion recently, what with the use of CGI. What does it mean anymore? What does it mean, say, for a film like Gravity?

Gravity by Alfonso Cuaron

Gravity by Alfonso Cuaron

What do we mean when our “camera” is a computer? How does this change our perception of what cinematography is, as an art form and from a technical level? This year, especially, the subject has been on all the film nerd sites. But, I say we can take the discussion and look back, retroactively, and apply it to animation, as well. Animation has to create an illusion of a world that isn’t there. While the earlier princess movies did have illusions of crane shots, they were mostly shot straight on, like an audience watching a play. In this film, however, we get an idea that a “camera” is moving in and out, capturing all sorts of angles and movement, following the characters around.


illusion of a low-angle shot

illusion of a low-angle shot

This is a fascinating illusion and technologically masterful, because there obviously is not a moving camera in the water with Ariel or following her through the scenes. It’s all illusion, done by animation angles and perspective shots. That’s fascinating. Also, this would be a great time to introduce kids to perspective art…

The School of Athens by Raphael

The School of Athens by Raphael

The film’s other strength is, of course, its music. While earlier Disney does have some classic songs, they don’t tend to be as catchy or as pop-memorable as the pseudo-mega-musical numbers of ’90s Disney. A lot of this, I think, comes from character developments in the Disney films we kind of skipped, like the desire to make The Jungle Book more fun and reference a lot of popular music styles, and how that film and The Great Mouse Detective  introduced us to villain songs. Little Mermaid is the first princess movie with a villain song, and man is it a classic. (Also, fun fact, Ursula’s character was based on Divine, the drag queen from Pink Flamingos.) But, it’s not just Ursula who has great songs. In fact, the music was what really captured audiences and, I think, may have been why people wanted a resurgence of Disney princess stories instead of, say, more Oliver and Company. Ariel’s songs are catchy, pop-ballads, still wonderfully sing-able, and other characters, like Sebastian, the crab, have great tunes, as well.

There is some controversy over Sebastian, like the fact that he is Jamaican and everyone else is so white. And there is a throw-away scene of “the blackfish” which… yeah, if you catch it, it is pretty bad. But, I don’t think that kids catch this. I never did. So, I think that if you are introducing kids to racially diverse media, this is unlikely to create subconscious racism. I don’t think they’re going to notice, although I also wish it wasn’t in the film. But, for me, it’s like the naked woman in RescuersShe’s there, but did anyone notice her as kids? I certainly didn’t.

Also, I think Sebastian is Jamaican because of the music the studio wanted to do, and probably that’s where the entire rationale went. For better or for worse, I don’t think he’s meant to be offensive. And, for better, I think his songs are great. “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” are catchy, fun songs, at least as memorable as a lot of stuff Andrew Lloyd Webber was producing at the time.

So, in the end, I wouldn’t say this is the greatest film ever made, but I do think it is important. It ushered in a new era of Disney, and it created a new kind of female character. I know she’s flawed, but I like that she’s flawed, because as a teenager I was also very flawed. I still am flawed. And, somehow having a princess be this flawed is really reassuring.


Defending Disney: Sleeping Beauty


For the most part, Sleeping Beauty rectifies the artistic wrongs of Cinderella. The animation is better. The story is better. The script is better. The characters are better. The music, well, it’s Tchaikovsky, so, yeah, it’s better. While not perfect, Sleeping Beauty marks a big step in maturity and grandness for the Disney company. The film is huge, on an artistic scale, with a vastness to its art history roots and lush ballet music accompanied by operatic vocals, and even huge on a film level, considering the wide frame it was shot in. Where Cinderella feels a little sparse and simplistic, Sleeping Beauty is lush, dynamic, and something wholly unusual, pushing the envelope. Snow White was cutting-edge for its time, a groundbreaking piece, and the films that followed directly after simply worked on polishing up the kinks from the original, but didn’t do very much in terms of artistic progression. Not so here. This is cutting-edge animation art, technologically brilliant, time-consuming, labor intensive, a work of both love and enormous financial risk on the part of the studio. And it pays off! This film is not only one of the very best works from the Disney company, in terms of technique and cinema art, but it is also one of the most visually impressive animated films of all time, ranking neatly alongside works like Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Ghost In the Shell as a stunning and rich visual masterpiece.


Like Snow White, this is a film I would suggest showing to children simply for the art aspect. Now, some people might disagree and think that kids would be bored by talking about movie tech details and where the art design came from. I don’t buy that. I don’t buy that because not only did I adore this film as a child, but we had the collectors’ edition VHS with the “making of” documentary at the end. I watched that documentary more times than I watched the actual film, and I watched the film more times than I can even remember. The work that went into the movie isn’t boring. It’s exciting! I would highly recommend watching the making of the film with a child because it really is pure, old-fashioned Disney magic to see the animators paint a rock or a tree with so many layers of detail that you almost think it’s real. And this is just the background scenery. The film is crammed with brilliant artistry and technological genius, fluid moving characters, and brilliant designs.


The animation style moved away from the Rococo of Cinderella, though Disney would return to that art influence later on, and chose instead to pull from two distinctly different sources. On the one hand, the most obvious source is Medieval artistry, but not a vague sense of Medieval. The work pulls directly in terms of color, perspective, style, and form from illumination, tapestry, works like The Book of Hours by the Limbourg Brothers, and Jan van Eyck.

May from The Book of Hours

May from The Book of Hours

Jan van Eyck

Jan van Eyck

However, the Medieval work was not the only style. The film, like every Disney, is a pop-art work, drawing from the style of the time. But, while in Cinderella the 1950s style is confusing and probably the lead cause in the film’s controversy, Sleeping Beauty does not simply draw on fashion and female beauty standards of the time. No, the film is interested in art, and draws upon modern art, such as art deco, as well as its pop-art fashion influence in the princess’s character design. This makes for a far more lush and nuanced visual experience than its immediate predecessor’s Rococo gone ’50s look.

Art deco design style by fashion artist Helen Dryden.

Art deco design style by fashion artist Helen Dryden.

Musically, the film chose to step away from the Disney formula and present instead the music from the ballet. This was a bold move, and the only Disney film to date to actually do this, minus some Merry Melodies and Fantasia work. The other princess films, as well as non-princess Disney musicals, like Fox and the Hound and Mulan use original scores, often pegging that Best Original Song Oscar. However, here, just as the filmmakers used unusual animation styles, very unlike anything they did before or since, all or almost all of the music is from the ballet, and given a pop-art twist by adding easy-to-sing lyrics. I once had a children’s cassette version of The Magic Flute which did this same thing as a way to introduce kids to classical music and opera. I think it’s a wonderful way to get young people interested in beautiful music. And, according to NPR, listening to music more helps one understand and process more complex notes and appreciate genres one might not have been able to understand prior to exposure. So, contrary to some musical elites, I fully appreciate make-for-kids introductions to great musical compositions! It’d make a wonderful lead-in to watching the ballet, as well. And, let’s not forget Mary Costa’s beautiful singing voice as the Princess Aurora, so unlike the usual Disney Princess sound!

As for the story, while it remains a Disney story and fully age-appropriate for young children, most of the unsophisticated writing problems in Cinderella are gone. Due to greater technological innovation, there is a fuller cast of both female and male characters. The characters aren’t exactly deep psychological portraits, but they are more compelling and active than the previous princess films. Furthermore, the story has a much more obvious setting and goal, and there is a stronger sense of action. The film doesn’t have all the pointless padding of Cinderella and is less archetypal than Snow White. One major development was an active and present prince, Prince Philip. While by today’s standards Prince Philip isn’t that interesting, he is a huge improvement on the last two princes. He has personality. He’s playful. He has a cute animal sidekick. He’s a hero figure. He’s basically the character that Disney wanted to write for Snow White but couldn’t due to animation difficulties. And, when you remember this and see how fluidly and realistically Prince Philip moves, this is a huge technological advancement! Furthermore, I don’t really get the dislike of Prince Philip as a boring character. True, he’s not the main character (more on the structure later), but he is an active character. He’s kind of funny. He has a sense of humor. He seems like kind of a fun guy, really, what with his funny relationship with his semi-talking horse. The writers give him a lot of one-liners, like “This is the 14th Century!” That’s actually pretty funny.


Both Aurora and Philip are categorized by their youthful aspirations. They are the coming-of-age princess and prince. They aren’t as solidly optimistic as Snow White or as dreamy as Cinderella, although they are both of these things to an extent. But, their defining traits are that they are young and there’s a big world of possibilities out there for them. Aurora’s main cause of tension with her three fairy godmothers is that she’s sixteen and she’s still a child in their eyes, but a young woman in her own. She wants love and romance and a bigger world than the cottage. But, her only friends are woodland animals, because this is Disney and woodland animals are always friends. Philip and his father have a similar contention, with his father being traditional and wanting to decide who Philip marries and Philip being a funnily modern person who realizes the 14th Century has new ways. (I do think this was a funny take for the story.)

But, while Aurora and Philip are both more dynamic and interesting than Cinderella and Prince Charming, the story, surprisingly, isn’t about either of these characters. The real action and plot concerns the three good fairies, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, and the evil fairy, Maleficent. This is another point that makes the story unique, since every other Disney Princess story is actually about the princess. But, nope. This really isn’t. Aurora spends a lot of her story asleep, which, well, makes sense, all things considered. And Prince Philip doesn’t really save her without being saved first by the fairies and assisted the entire way. The heart of the story is that the fairies have raised Aurora, and the real pathos and drive is that these characters love her. We care because they care, and we love the fairies. The fairies are both the action and humor. They save the day, come up with plans, and move the plot forward. But, they also are pretty funny characters, like three sisters who always bicker, in a good-natured way, over things like who is in charge and whose favorite color is best.


Maleficent is also a great character. Her design, for one thing, is one of the single best character designs in Disney, and also she’s just a scary, badass villain. That’s Eleanor Audley doing her voice, and she also did the evil stepmother in Cinderella. And, she is fantastic! She has this great, deep voice that’s both elegant and a little sexy, and also regal and frightening. She’s the only Disney villain to call on not just some but freaking ALL the powers of Hell. There’s no doubt this lady means business. And, like the fairies, her motivations are kind of based on what seems like years of bickering. There’s a line about how she ruins the good fairies’s flowers for no apparent reason other than she doesn’t like them. Her whole motivation against Aurora is just that she wasn’t invited to a baby shower. I kind of see the fairies as a part of some family that had a rift and have been using magic to mess with each other ever since. Aurora is just the innocent victim of some on-going battle that, frankly, we never really get to know about. Why do they hate each other? Why is Maleficent evil? Why does she live in a scary tower filled with monsters? We never know. Although, apparently, Disney wants to tell us in the new live-action movie coming out soon, but as far as the animated world is concerned, we don’t know. I like to think that Flora, the bossy fairy, pissed Maleficent off over something, and Maleficent, being a vindictive sociopath, started screwing with her for years.


Now, as far as controversies go, this one really isn’t that controversial. I think most people like this movie, and why not? It’s heart-felt, funny, cute, beautiful, arty, and has enough good action scenes and romantic moments to keep older audiences involved. Furthermore, it’s really, really not offensive. At all. But, because some people have nothing better to do with their lives than complain, there are some controversies.

(Warning: Some harsh words of intolerance for fake controversy coming right up…)

On the left: Again, Princess Aurora isn’t active enough and has to be rescued. Also, some people online have been (bizarrely) saying the kiss that saves her wasn’t consensual.

On the right: Father figures are not good enough.

Everyone else: No controversy. Most people like this movie because it’s a good movie and the controversies are very, very silly.

First, to address the left. This problem with Aurora is, to be blunt, stupid. This is not only a film dominated by fairly complex and dynamic female characters, but female characters are the entire drive, saviors, and heart of the film! They just aren’t Aurora. The main characters aren’t the princess and prince. The main characters are Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather. And, for a group that constantly whines about how Disney doesn’t portray older women well, there you go. Three older women who are not only good but the heroes! For those who think Enchanted was the first time a Disney woman saved the man, think again. The fairies not only save Prince Philip, but they basically do ALL his work for him in the rescue of Aurora. Because the prince isn’t there to fight. He’s a lover, not a fighter, and his motivation is love. The fairies are actual fights, mother-bear types, really, who kind of do want to fight. Sure, the power of love is the way they outsmart Maleficent, but they also straight-up kill her, with Prince Philip holding the sword but… they kind of do the work. This is the first on-screen death of a Disney villain, as well.


Also, as a child, I never wanted to pretend to be Aurora. I thought she was pretty, but she wasn’t the character I liked best. I liked Merryweather, because kids can relate to characters who are not kids themselves.

Furthermore, Mary Costa said in an interview that she wanted Aurora to be a character who encourages young people to follow their dreams, to be inspired. That fits with the coming-of-age, youthful aspirations of the story, characters who inspire hope and happiness in the young. That’s a good message.

And, the kiss controversy is stupid, as well. The way to wake her was with love’s first kiss. Pay attention. That’s the key word here. Also, it’s established that this not only saves her life, but that she is in love with the prince. I cannot believe this is a controversy, but apparently it is.

On the right, the sudden obsession with policing the world for any slightly less than godlike father figure has got to end. I know, I know, there are real-world problems with bad fathers, et cetera, et cetera. But, I am going to go out on a limb and suggest most of these dads didn’t get their ideas from too much Disney Princess. Also, I would like to point out that a lot of people are making a nice sum of money off the commercialization of this idea. The entire movie Courageous was just a long advertisement for a fatherhood merchandise line of “pledges” and booklets, all at your local Walmart! This isn’t to say that people don’t have their hearts in the right place when they worry about bad fathering. However, I don’t think that the kings, who really do seem to have their hearts in the right place and are not major characters, are going to encourage an outbreak of deadbeat dads. Furthermore, I don’t think that the predominantly male Disney directors and writers were writing covert anti-man messages into their films. I would think that conservatives would like this movie due to the Biblical references about the sword and shield of virtue and truth smiting the dragon from Hell… But, politics aside, I think they wanted to tell a story, first and foremost, which brings me to…

…the fact that Disney Princess may possibly be directed at little girls.


I know, that’s shocking news. But, bear with me. Disney Princess, while certainly enjoyable for all, may have a target audience of girls. Just maybe. And, this is something that is actually unusual in the world. Most media for kids is very boy-driven. There’s not a lot out there that’s just straight up directed at girls, and girl concerns. For better or worse, the Disney princess stories do look at girl interests, and because of this very often the dynamics are female-led. This doesn’t means boys don’t enjoy the movies, just as girls enjoy boy-targeted Transformers cartoons. This doesn’t mean that strictly male or female targeted media is a good thing. This doesn’t mean that negative portrayals of a gender are right, although I don’t think the kings are really negative, not in the same sense as, say, the women in the Michael Bay Transformers movies are negative. But, I do think it explains why maybe the film isn’t about adult concerns about fatherhood and parenting. Because the target audience of little girls aren’t fathers. That would be my guess.

In the end, I think the complainers are kind of fringe extremists, like the kind of people who ban rock music from their kids or refuse to even let their children have birthday cake, who freaked out over Y2K. People like that. Most ordinary people don’t have a problem with this film, and really it doesn’t need defending. I think most people know it’s a good movie, one that really transcends audiences and genre with its gorgeous art and music. If anything, it just needs to be remembered for the great film it is and to remind people that Disney is more than bad sequels and commercialization. When it wants to, the studio can do great things and reach for real heights of beauty. This is one of those times. And, if it seems a little naive now, remember to look again at its art, beauty, and message of love and the value of inspiration. It has the naivete of youth, and that is probably more valuable than sophisticated cynicism, in the end. So, I’ll happily accept that love conquers all, and good will endure, because whether or not that is true I believe it’s best for us as people to live as though it is. Happy New Year!


Defending Disney: Cinderella


Cinderella is by far the Disney film that has earned the most controversy –and this fact blows my mind. I honestly, truly do not understand this, and not because I think the film is good. No, this is absolutely my least favorite Disney Princess movie. No, my confusion is simply because this movie is so incredibly bland that I don’t really see how it can be offensive.

My problems with Cinderella are not ideological at all. I have the least political reasons imaginable, and probably the nerdiest, for disliking this movie. My first problem is that the animation changed. If I recall my film history correctly, it’s because of one or more deaths in the company, but I don’t have a citation on that so someone may need to check for me. Regardless, the Grimm’s illustration-style, dark, broody, lush, Germanic look of Snow White and Pinocchio  (which I am not going to review other than to say it is actually a really scary movie) was replaced with a French-inspired, light, frothy, pastel look. It’s been compared to illustrations by C.E. Brock, which I’m not sure is intentional, but makes sense.


However, I simply don’t like it. My artistic tastes are for more detailed, lush animation styles and I find Cinderella a little too clean and polished and frothy for my liking.

Cinderella and the prince

My other problem with Cinderella is that the music is actually really bad. Sure, the film won an Oscar for best song, but other than that song, really think about the soundtrack. Do you ever find your self humming it? Do you think, “You know, Cinderella has some really classic tunes!” My guess is not. The music is extremely bland. The love song is literally dominated by humming, which is never a good sign. The second most sing-able tune is “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes”, which is in itself a lyrically vague statement and paired with a forgettable la-de-da type tune, which is only memorable because it is so simplistic. “Sing Sweet Nightingale” serves no storytelling purpose, is lyrically not even related to the plot, and is extremely boring. Sure, it’s technically interesting, from a sound-mixing perspective. Ilene Woods harmonizes with herself in the scene, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that she does have a very nice voice. But, since this is 1950, and I do like my music of the era, I have to say that song is not really something you want to tune into now. And, then there’s the mice. I hate the mice. I hate their voices so, so much. I’ve heard people say that their song is actually good, but no. It can’t be. Because it’s sung by the mice! I’ve never been into that chipmunk sound, and this is no exception. If I wanted to hear that, I’d just suck helium from a balloon.

So, my two major complaints are out of the way, what can we say about the story and what are the controversies?

On the left: Cinderella is the worst role-model for women ever, because she is passive, never does anything for herself, and waits around to be saved from her situation.

On the right: Like Snow White, this film doesn’t offend most conservatives, but some have been pointing out that the prince is just incidental.

Everyone:  The prince falls in love with Cinderella because of her clothes.

First of all, I’d like to make a wild and daring statement and say that Cinderella suffers from unsophisticated storytelling. Oh, I know. Radical. I bet everyone thought this was the animated Rashomon.

A dream is a wish your heart makes... five different and conflicting ways, and even beyond the dead!

A dream is a wish your heart makes… five different and conflicting ways, and even beyond the dead!

I know, it’s a children’s film, it’s Disney. We shouldn’t expect extremely complicated storytelling. However, I think that story expectations are where the problems come in. For example, the story is set in a fantasy world, and it has castles and royalty. But, the art design borrows heavily from 1950s fashion. Without making a clear setting in the story, the viewer starts to get an idea that this is the 1950s, but with fantasy elements. And, because of this, Cinderella seems like kind of a putz. In the original story, she cannot leave. Where would she go? But, if this is the 1950s, there’s a real sense that Cinderella is suffering from codependency and could probably leave if she wanted to. That’s why so many feminists find her infuriating. However, I’d like to point out that Cinderella isn’t a 1950s woman. She just looks like one. Think of it this way: Cinderella, the drawing, is a 1950s woman illustration who was “cast” as Cinderella the character, a fantasy character in a semi-medieval world where she is not going to be able to leave, go to New York, get a flat and work as a typist. For all intents and purposes, Cinderella is stuck and has nowhere to go.


Honestly, I find this controversy fairly silly because it’s actually a great parable for how not to be as a woman. In a world where women are often pitted against one another, through competition and a consumer culture which encourages this kind of comparison to one another, Cinderella shows just how ugly jealousy and pettiness really is. The dynamic of the evil stepmother and Cinderella, as well as the step-sisters (who are more stupid and bratty than straight-up evil) is actually very interesting and carries some valuable lessons. Lady Tremaine is manipulative, cunning, and her one sense of control and power is to ruin her step-daughter’s life. We all have met people who are like this in some sense, whether they are classmates, peers, co-workers, relatives, employers, and so on, there are people who find their power trips just through trying to destroy another person. They tend to narrow in on sweet-tempered people, as well, like Cinderella. This could be useful to point out to children, how manipulative and power-hungry people can behave. And, it’s interesting that the mother twists her daughters into doing her bullying for her, daughters who the film portrays as otherwise just kind of lazy. They’d probably be happy with just eating breakfast in bed and lounging around, but their laziness, pettiness, and delusional belief that they will become celebrities (marry the prince) makes them downright abusive. If that’s not a timely lesson to this day, I don’t know what is!


Even though I never really liked this movie as a kid, it was hard not to feel sad right at this scene.

Even though I never really liked this movie as a kid, it was hard not to feel sad right at this scene.

Now, in all fairness, there is a point to Cinderella’s character problems, but it’s not anti-feminism. In fact, supposedly this was the fairytale Walt Disney related to the most, because he had received such luck in his own career and art. (There’s a good review for the movie on, if anyone is interested.) If he related to Cinderella, it seems unlikely he’d create her to be a character with bad morals. No, Cinderella’s problem once again goes back to some unsophisticated storytelling. She’s just really boring. She’s passive. If Snow White is an optimist with a go-get-’em attitude, who is always doing something to improve her situation and make friends, Cinderella is the opposite. She’s actually not very optimistic and gives up easily. When she’s interrupted in making her dress, she doesn’t decide to sneakily make it at night. She just leaves it, wistfully, and the mice and birds make it for her. Her character doesn’t do very much. And, I think the writers realized this because we have endless padding with the mice and birds doing all the action we’d probably rather see the main character do. This, I assume, is actually a fault of the same technical difficulties in Snow White: humans are hard to animate, and mice aren’t. Unfortunately for me, I hate the mice, so all of these scenes are tedious and annoying to me.

However, I don’t think Cinderella is a bad character. I think she’s a poorly-written character. But, she does have good traits. If Snow White is optimistic, Cinderella is hopeful. She doesn’t see the good in all her situations like Snow White does (which, again, is because she’s in a literally abusive household, so that makes sense) but she is hopeful. She has an idea that someday things will get better. That’s the message of the story: life gets better. And, sometimes children are in bad situations that they can’t really change. We do need messages that life sometimes just does get better. Kids change and bullies grow up and you eventually graduate and life can get better. It’s a good idea to remember when this film was made: 1950. This is a postwar movie. And, the world needed a little of that sort of hope, that despite situations the civilians could not change, life does indeed get better. That’s a good message.


Now, as for the prince, he, too, suffers from being poorly written. He’s not really an important character, again hampered by animation technicalities but also just not being important. If you think that boys won’t get into the movie because of this, then I don’t blame you. But, here’s the thing, I never related to either Cinderella or the prince as a kid. I used to pretend to be many Disney characters, and I don’t remember ever pretending to be either of these two. I found them extremely boring. I think that the filmmakers kind of realized this and so we do have active characters, male and female, in the mice and birds. Tragically, for me, these characters are just nails-on-a-chalkboard annoying, but I know some kids really loved them. And, I admit, I did like Gus as a child. Though, now, I just like the cat. The cat the the fairy godmother. But, if you think kids are going to get ideas that women should just wait around and men are prizes for being good, I think you might be too invested in Disney as your moral compass in adult life. Kids probably won’t get that idea and most likely will see a very simplistic good-vs-bad story that also includes magic and talking animals. I wouldn’t worry too much.

However, for all the conservative worry about how fathers are portrayed in media, I’m shocked no one seems to hate the king. The king is horrible. He is like this tyrant who has an all-consuming drive to have grandkids, not because he wants heirs but because he’s lonely. And he’s willing to sell out his son to all the fame-obsessed women of the community just so they will breed. He even tries to kill the duke when this doesn’t work out. The duke is literally terrified of being executed when he accidentally breaks the glass slipper. The king is an ass. A lonely ass, but an ass. However, as a kid, I never got how creepy that was, so my guess is it’s not too damaging. It is, however, really weird. The prince doesn’t even go searching for Cinderella. The king sets that up because he’s maniacal in his desire to be a grandfather. This is a super weird twist, and I don’t know why people don’t mention it very often.

The madness of King Disney-guy...

The madness of King Disney-guy…

As for the prince only picking Cinderella for her clothes or whatever else people have problems with: the prince is barely a character. His voice actor is not even credited. Male characters are just technically hard to animate, and the story isn’t written well. It’s not a scheme or a plot to teach bad lessons. But, it isn’t written very well, and these problems will later be addressed in the far-superior Sleeping Beauty.

I feel like I’ve been unfairly harsh on the movie, however, and I’d like to point out some decent scenes. While I don’t like the overall look of the film, I do appreciate Mary Blair’s original concept, which is very much based on Romantic and Rococo art.

download (1)

I don’t like Rococo. It makes me anxious, and I think it looks cluttered and garish. But, this is a matter of taste, and I have to admit that at least there is a lot of thought and effort that went into emulating the artistic styles for the movie.

Portrait of Mademoiselle Guimard as Terpsichore by Jacques-Louis David Jacques-Louis David

Portrait of Mademoiselle Guimard as Terpsichore by Jacques-Louis David Jacques-Louis David

Also, the movement looks wonderful. Cinderella moves in a far more fluid manner than Snow White and the characters look more realistic. There’s a lot of grace to Cinderella’s movements. She’s very elegant, and there must have been incredible patience in getting all those frames to create her beautifully fluid motion. Also, there are some animation scenes that I do like and think really work. I love the scene when the fairy godmother creates her coach and horses, et cetera. And, then there’s the scene when Cinderella finally gets her dress and glass slippers. This is a technically brilliant moment of animation, and Disney himself considered it the most beautiful scene in any of his films. And, yeah, it’s that good. Even though I don’t think that the movie is as artistic as Snow White, and I do find a lot of the film very boring, every time I think I wouldn’t recommend it to a child I remember that the child wouldn’t get to see this scene. And, this is an important scene in animation, cinema history, and art. It really does capture the magic and wonder of a faiytale, and it works beautiful. It’s a damn good piece of animation, and I think it actually justifies the rest of the film’s existence. It’s that powerful.



So, I don’t think this is a great film, but I also don’t think it’s an offensive film. I don’t think the movie encourages bad behaviors in children or portrays women or men in a bad light. I think it suffers from bad storytelling, but in the end I’d call this an innocuous bore with a few moments of brilliance. And, the message of hope remains timely and true. So, for all my dislike of the movie, I am actually happy it exists. Sometimes, we need a movie that says life gets better, and which gives us that sense of awe at seeing a beautiful moment in animation. Maybe that’s enough.

Cinderella - getting the slipper

Defending Disney: Snow White


I’m going to talk about Disney.

The Mouse.

Okay, so, what might be so very literati about a mega-corporation like Disney and its instantly recognizable brand? These days, there’s such a surplus of Disney merchandise, most all of which seems pretty tacky, that the literati sect tend to simply bemoan its existence as some mind-killing injection from hell. (Literati sects are melodramatic like that.)

The thing is, pop-culture analysis is a big part of cultural studies, which encapsulate the literati, and, for a less pretentious reason to write about Disney, I grew up a Disney kid. I had the Aladdin and Little Mermaid toys and bed sheets, and Belle’s yellow ball dress, and Lion King footie pajamas, and, if pressed, I’m sure I remember most Disney songs from my favorite movies. And, seeing as this year critics have hailed the return of the Mouse with the acclaimed and astonishing success of Frozen, I think it’s a good time to address something that I feel the world needs to remember. Disney (wait for it… wait for it…) isn’t bad.

Yeah, I know, shocking. Those kiddie cartoons we all grew up with? They didn’t hail the impending apocalypse. They didn’t start The Hunger Games or summon the deadites, and they didn’t side with Lord Voldemort.

I’m being melodramatic. But, to be serious, have you noticed that Disney has become the biggest punching bag for all the (first world) ails? The right thinks it has secret, hidden messages, encourages disobedience in children,and depicts men poorly.

The left thinks it has secret, hidden messages, encourages conformity, and depicts women poorly.

The problem is, Disney is just too big. It’s enormous, owns so much, and affects so much of our media and our cultural formation that people just want to pick it a part. It’s an easy target. It’s like hitting the broad side of a barn. The problems people have with Disney are the problems people have with their parents or the neighborhoods they grew up in, things they are critique harshly because they are familiar.

Now, of course, we should be good media critics, and obviously Disney should not be an exception. They have their fair share of legitimately “problematic” material. And, of course, we should be careful about what material we decide to view or show to children. If you think you’d rather show your kids Spirited Away rather than Little Mermaid, that’s completely understandable. However, showing a child Little Mermaid does not stop that child from appreciating Spirited Away, or any other film for that matter. Susan Sontag argued that while she would choose classical music over The Doors if she had to, it was silly to make her choose. If you decide that you just want to watch something else, good on you, but don’t set up a false dichotomy between the literati and “ye olde rubes who love Disney”.

Because, when you look past the corporatism, the greed, the cash-ins and sequels and crap, Disney has legitimate artistry behind its films and a strong influence on popular culture. And, apparently this influence terrifies a lot of people, so this is my subject: defending Disney, a company that is so successful it really doesn’t need my defense. The defense is really more of myself, for liking Disney. And, for my purposes, I’m sticking with Disney’s Princess movies plus The Lion King and Pocahontas, since those garner the majority of the controversy.

Starting off, Snow White.

Controversy on the left: Snow White is a submissive housekeeper who shows girls that all they can do is clean for men and wait for a man. Also, dead mother, evil older woman, no other female characters.

Controversy on the right: Snow White is generally not too controversial on the right, other than questions about magic and whether or not the story is too scary. However, there is no father, which has become the biggest target subject lately.

Controversy for everyone: It dumbs down the original.

First of all, I’d like to say that this is one of my favorite Disney films, not for the story or Snow White’s amazingly weird voice, but for the animation. The technical loops the company went through to develop this look, which had never been tried before, is astounding. It’s inspired by artists like Arthur Rackham, who illustrated the Fairy Books.


The look is dark, Germanic, brooding, Gothic even, with haunting shadows and lush detail.


The anatomy of the human characters, which had never been tried before in this way, is technologically brilliant, even if they had difficulties with male characters. For example, ever wonder why the prince is hardly in the movie? Well, he was supposed to be. They literally didn’t know how to draw him so that he would move realistically. Also, the story structure is interesting. Did you ever wonder where the staple of musicals plus cute animal sidekicks came from? They came from vaudevillian musical productions of the time. The Disney standard is the direct heir of old-timey musicals, which is why they tend to translate back to the stage pretty well.

As an animation geek, it’s impossible for me not to like this movie and also consider it a work of art which children probably should experience as a great introduction to the form and way to get kids excited about film as art as well as illustrations. You could use it as a lead-in to looking at art and reading fairytales. This and Fantasia are the two Disney films I most consider to be art and worthy of artistic discussion, even just from a technical level, an art history perspective, so just for educational purposes I’d suggest it.

Furthermore, Snow White is just charming. So much work and love went into it that it shocks me when people don’t appreciate the technical wonderment of the product or who cannot get enchanted by the setting and world. For shame, cynics! For shame!


The artistic merit alone should be enough for people to overlook what really amount to be moderate controversies in order to experience a landmark film history production. However, since controversy exists, I’ll address it. First of all, I do not think that Snow White says that all women are good for is cleaning. Snow White is a princess, supposed to inherit queenship, but her evil stepmother makes her a servant in the house. So, these are her skills, and when she finds the seven dwarves, she puts them to work. She’s resourceful. She’s not a swooning damsel. When she escapes the queen’s plot to have her murdered and… mutilated (more on that later) she initially breaks down but quickly puts herself together. She’s an optimist, resourceful and active. She uses kindness to win friends (the forest animals) and is even clever enough to decide that she’s more likely to get a place to stay if she makes herself useful. She puts her skills to use. Okay, I’m reading a bit more plot into the story than there is, but it is true. The story doesn’t explore much character development, being limited by technical difficulties and using an archetypal storytelling method, but Snow White really is this sort of character. If we were to give character types to the Disney princesses (Belle = smart, Ariel = Feisty, et cetera) Snow White would be the optimist. She’s like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, making the most of difficult situations, winning friends by being friendly and diplomatic, and keeping her chin up throughout the story.


As for the villainous queen, yes, Disney doesn’t have a lot of older female figures who aren’t evil. That is true. But, this isn’t Disney. The original fairytale has an evil queen. That’s just the story. I don’t think little kids are going to discriminate against older women because of it, either.

And, yes, the mother is dead and the father is dead. This is a subject that really surprises me with how controversial it is. First of all, again, many fairytales have orphans as the main characters. This isn’t an invention of Disney. And, why not? The stories feature unlikely heroes, the vulnerable. The stories deal with anxieties that children have, of having to face danger and hardship without parents. But, instead of showing the heroes fall apart, the characters show that goodness and bravery may triumph despite this hardship. And, yes, sometimes I think that the acknowledgement of the anxieties sometimes affirms them, which can be seen in the ineffectual parent types in the Disney films of the ‘90s. However, if you remember your original fairytales, in some stories Snow White’s own mother is the evil queen, and in Cinderella her father is alive and ineffectual for the entire story. And let’s not forget stories like Hansel and Gretel. The fear of ineffectual parents isn’t new or discovered by Disney. Maybe they shouldn’t affirm this concern. That’s a discussion we can have. But, they hardly decided to create ineffectual parent figures out of thin air. The fairytales already have them, or just straight up evil parents.

Lastly, the scare factor. For some reason, people constantly point out how Snow White is dumbed down, despite some concerns that it is too scary. First of all, unless you desperately wanted to have the real-mother-evil-queen version or more emphasis on the whole cannibalism plot (that’s what the queen wants the heart for), then the story isn’t too dumbed down. It’s still very scary.


The queen wanting the huntsman to cut the heart from Snow White is pretty disturbing, and that just leads to a very scary scene of the princess running through the archetypal “dark woods”.



Then there’s the whole spell-casting scene with the evil queen, which is still trippy and twisted, and the finale is also very dark and rather violent. You know those vultures are going to eat the queen. I mean, that’s what happened. Happy Disney. Happy.

Even the kiss from the prince is sort of strange, with the castle appearing as a golden, glowing, mystic light palace in the sky. As a child, I firmly believed she had actually died and went to heaven. That’s not completely out-there. The prince’s character was cut so much due to technical errors that he seems more like a heavenly messenger than a romantic interest.

download (1)

Also, if you have any doubts that Snow White is scary –you know, beyond childhood suppressed nightmare memories—it inspired a classic horror film from master of gore Dario Argento: Suspiria. So, dumbed down and too cute? I don’t think so.


However, for those who find it too scary, Don Bluth, director of The Land Before Time, had a theory that kids can really handle a lot of scary and sad as long as the ending is happy. It really does depend on the kid, and parents should use their own judgment. But, kids will experience sad and scary in their lives, and seeing heroes get through the sadness and the fear is a good thing. It helps kids know that they, too, can be positive and pick themselves up, even after horrible situations. And, that kind of optimism is why I love Snow White.

download (2)