I grew up during the height of the Disney Renaissance during the 1990s and while I, for certain, had fond memories of Disney movies as a child, many of them sort of passed through me like water. I had many favorites but essentially, each one that came out was my favorite. I waffled back and forth between Pocahontas as a favorite to loving Tarzan to quickly shifting to whatever flavor of the year movie came out. Not to mention the immense soft spot back then (and now) I had for Don Bluth’s mostly terrifying movies which I think during my childhood were much more impactful: I had much stronger feelings about Anastasia and An American Tail than I ever did for The Lion King. That also excludes that my childhood was dominated by other forms of American animation. Bugs Bunny and the other Looney Toons were also a huge influence on top of all the other shows I likely should not have been watching because it was the 90s and parents assumed that animated meant safe.
I say this to illustrate a point: I had to learn to love Disney movies. I had to learn to appreciate Disney movies. And considering that I was for entirely too long one of those annoying people on the internet full of quippy hot-takes, I have a fair amount of Disney penance to account for.
And with that said, I’d like to talk about Disney movies: the ones I love, the ones I can’t stand, the issues I have with a few of them and of course, Old Uncle Walt.
Since I was born in the 90s, I saw many of the movies that make people think of Disney movies. I couldn’t tell you why (outside of being a fickle child) that those movies sort of just ran through me. I can’t say it was an intelligence thing, I had long since memorized television shows and memorable lines from the shows that mattered to me even as a child. Disney movies just didn’t do much for me as a kid so when I finally grew up some and came into my teens, it was like seeing many of these movies for the first time.
I started college and managed to bring with me many of the great Disney films and to be honest, none of them impressed me. I was full of angst and ennui and I didn’t have time for the sentiment and whimsy of a Disney movie. But I could appreciate some of the darker themes of some of the riskier movies like The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which may get a blog post all on its own). This, of course, excludes many of the Pixar movies because those can make me cry and I’ve cried enough for the sake of this blog. College brought many of those weak criticisms against Disney movies like them not being feminist enough or Beauty and the Beast being about Stockholm Syndrome (I will repent for that sin next post, I promise.). And many of those aren’t false, simply misplaced. Sure, Mulan is self-actualized and Jasmine is a sexy lamp and while we’re at it, no one gives Cinderella enough credit! But many of those shallow dives don’t give those films the credit they deserve.
It wasn’t until the later years of college and really post-grad that I found a deeper appreciation for Disney movies as cultural touchstones and as art. Who knows. Maybe I found some of that sentiment in me after the loss of a parent or I was just a little less jaded. I was able to see them for their skill, their magic and their music. I tend to use musicals to clean and sew so in the heavier workload years of college I found immense solace in something I could sing to and had a beat: it kept me motivated in between costumes and essays. At that time, my bread and butter of beloved movies remained the same: Hercules and Pocahontas as well as Hunchback but that’s because it never really left the rotation.
Unfortunately, the formal years of book-learning meant the flames of old cynicism began to flare again. It was difficult to deal with the representation and writing in many Disney movies and while, sure, they’re for children; it’s still less than ideal to have old tired tropes rehashed for new vulnerable audiences.
That’s right: feminism ruined Disney movies.
The book-learning also brought in with it a very complicated relationship with Mr. Disney. One of my college senpais was deep into Disney fandom so when I discussed my issues with how the company treated (does still treat) its employees or how the animation team continued (still does continue) to whitewash history and people for the sake of “safe” and profitable stories, my criticisms were often met with harsh silence or a laundry list of excuses. Let’s be clear, Disney was a complicated man who did his best but was a businessman first. I can’t knock the man’s hustle but I can be disappointed with how the company treats its staff and the land around their parks. I can also still have a strained relationship with its characters. While for many The Princess and the Frog was a huge step in the right direction for me it was a tired limp towards what was long since an understanding of demographics. While many praised Moana, I saw mostly a reboot of Pocahontas with much less casual racism and whataboutism.
It’s okay to have a complicated relationship with Disney as a person and as a company and as a brand but that doesn’t mean that I am too much of a contrarian to admit when something is good. The Lion King still can make me cry [An aside: so the fall after my mother passed away, Amber and I were babysitting a friend’s young son. We decided to put on a movie and Amber chose The Lion King because it’s a good movie with good songs and really the movie was for us and not for the child we were watching. Around the scene of Simba trying to wake his dead father, I started crying. Silent sobbing is the better term. Amber then looked to me and realized what had happened and she said “Oh, no! I’m a monster!” and immediately hugged me. I assured her I was fine but this happened well into my 20s; these movies are still powerful.] I can still admit that the water animation in Moana is impressive. I can still admit that I cried during Mother Knows Best because it so painfully echoed much of the gaslighting I’ve endured growing up. I can tell you that parts of Hunchback still give me chills. I can still dislike their desire to make a monopoly of entertainment. I can dislike their choices by continuing to think that diversity is a myth and hedging their bets on mostly “safe” white storytelling. I can be disappointed in all of those things.
But I can still say that I love Disney movies.