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By Christopher Cayen-Cyr November 1, 2012

Disney: Are you still the child you once were?

A runaway princess eats an apple poisoned by her evil stepmother and waits for her Prince Charming to come and awake her with a True Love’s Kiss. A cursed beauty pricks her finger and has to go through a century of sleep to see the light of day again. A young girl longs to be reunited with the gallant man she met at the ball on that night where she left her glass slipper behind. The Snow Whites, Sleeping Beauties, and Cinderellas of this world might seem stereotyped because of their of their damsel in distress portrayals, but could there be more than simple fairy tale character behind those people?

Original fairy tales, such as those written by the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen are pretty violent. The original Cinderella has the stepsisters forced to dance in heated iron shoes until they die from their injuries. That’s something you would never see in the Disney adaptation of this timeless classic. Does it indicate that Disney movies lack depth and courage by avoiding more mature and grim parts of stories? My answer to that would be: not necessarily. It might look like the values transmitted through those movies are simplistic and conventional. But Disney can dare in some instances. Have you ever watched back your favourite childhood animated feature and felt like the message conveyed was much stronger than you remembered it to be? Many vintage Disney movies are designed to appeal to both adults and children, and it’s normal to see different things through them whether you’re 8 or 18.

Take Pocahontas: lyrics from this piece have never been more relevant than today. While not particularly historically accurate, the Disney character comes off as a strong woman who advocates for the preservation of nature in the 17th century. The movie was released in 1995, before environmental protection debates were in the heat of the action, and it also tackles issues related to tolerance and equity.

“The rainstorm and the river are my brothers
The heron and the otter are my friends
And we are all connected to each other
In a circle, in a hoop that never ends.”

It is a beautiful imagery that, combined with the splendid animation, brings a vivid perspective of the way humans behave with nature and with each other. It might not be the first thing that catches the attention of a child, but as you get older and more educated about such problems, the “children songs” suddenly appear to have a lot more meaning. Sleeping Beauty encouraged you to stay away from strangers as much as possible. But Pocahontas encourages you to walk in their footsteps. Children should probably know that not all strangers should be followed, especially not bears, but we still get what she means. The same could be said about a much darker Disney movie: “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.” There is an underlying theme of religious heresy and pitiless social rejection. While it stays far from the rawness of Victor Hugo’s novel, it still goes much further than your average cartoon normally goes. Few animated features include references to “sin” and “lust”, but this one did in the song “Hellfire”, touching tricky concepts and subjects that can be very difficult to grasp, even for an adult. It is not necessarily kids-friendly material, but the treatment allows the message to get through in different ways depending on what you focus on. Another song from this movie touches a sensible subject: “God Help the Outcasts”, which makes a very strong point about social injustice and selfishness.

“God help my people
We look to you still
God help the outcasts
Or nobody will.”

Seeing a gypsy in pain making a testimonial about her disappointment in face of the way things turned out for her community does reach out to a more emotional side. Faith, pain, exclusion, loneliness… Treating all of those themes while staying true to the “Disney spirit” is far from being an easy task. There is definitely a statement being made, and the antagonist’s fear of our classical version of Hell is contrasted with the hope Esmeralda has for her own personal vision of religious salvation. Of course, you don’t always have to get that far into it to enjoy the movie as a form of entertainment, but it’s always interesting to notice that someone actually dared to bring those things up in that kind of format.

The stereotype of the damsel in distress still remains present in many Disney productions, as tales of knights in shining armour and heroic rescues always make a good story, but many more recent princesses have been portrayed with a stronger will and a desire to be independent and informed. One of those examples could be Ariel from “The Little Mermaid”:

“Bright young women,
Sick of swimmin',
Ready to stand
And ready to know what the people know,
Ask 'em my questions and get some answers.”

This excerpt from “Part of Your World” denotes a character that is motivated and empowered in some, and while the prince still rescues her in the end, there is a more feminist approach to the princess in question. Her ambitions and her desire to learn and become informed are refreshing and provide a stunning model for young girls, if you want your young daughter to disobey rules and look for dangerous adventures by dealing with greedy sea witches. Snow White wouldn’t have said that. Cinderella neither. In this case, happiness is not only related to love, but also to independence and self-fulfillment. Eric could have been turned into a merman to allow him to be with Ariel at sea, but the ultimate purpose was to allow the princess to live her dreams and to experience what land was like. She finally finds a satisfaction to her longing.

Mulan also proved that she could be just as strong as a man in the song “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”. She had a goal, and she reached it, defying expectations in a context where gender equality was as far as it could be from today’s reality. With time, princesses seem to have become more and more empowered, having personal objectives that transcend the basic idea of finding your prince and getting married. There is a purpose to “their” life, and not just to their life as a wife.

These may be just extrapolations. However, having recently done a Disney film marathon, I can assure you that such an exercise brings up much more than nostalgia. It teaches you information about the person you are now as opposed to the person you were before, and CEGEP is a perfect time to do that. As someone transitions from a kids’ world to an adults’ world, there is nothing better than a good Disney song to realize how far you’ve come and how different your take on things is. You might not even have known what the words “sin” and “lust” meant back then, but you can trace your evolution through the way you see your childhood. Though you are the same person you always were, your mind has changed and reached a different level of understanding. Now, go on a Disney marathon. Trust me, you’ll love it.


About the author

Christopher Cayen-Cyr is a third semester Pure and Applied Science student.


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    Erika Metivier

    November 5, 2012

    As a huge Disney movie enthusiast, I really enjoyed reading this article. I love watching the Disney movies I watched as a kid because, like you said, they tend to mean so much more. I totally agree with the movies you chose to focus on here, especially Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Those two are definitely very interesting to watch as an adult, and I agree that the lyrics to songs such as “Colours of the Wind” and “Hellfire” are quite intense. But one Pocahontas song that is equally meaningful is “Savages”, dealing with racism and prejudices, something that is still so relevant. And the opening song of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is also great, with it’s line: “who is the monster and who is the man?”, which kids tend to bypass, but it really does give the viewer something to think about throughout the entire movie, and goes along with the point you made about social injustice. When I was reading this, it made me think about The Lion King, too, because that is one movie that tackles some pretty serious issues of identity and responsibility, and really has an amazing story.  Fun article to read! Thanks for posting!

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    November 10, 2012

    Disney is a great and a major part of every children’s life. They hit home, they make memories, they often come with this sentence” WHAT?! You never watched Mulan (for example)!!!..your childhood was totally wasted”. After reading this, I felt this sense of belonging, because Disney movies were, as expected, a part of my childhood and it’s true, when I watch hem back over and over again with friends or little cousins or during holidays , because it is a big thing to watch Disney movies during holidays, each year a new sense of comprehension comes popping out. This observation of yours is right on, princesses have more often this desire to make something of themselves which demonstrate today’s society very well.

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    Maya Gold

    November 11, 2012

    I have always loved watching Disney movies when I was a child, Disney movies were the only movies that I would watch over ten times. I’d watch Cinderella, Snow White, Aladdin and other Disney movies and I never ever seem to find these hidden message behind all these Disney movies. After reading your article and I slowly started to realize the hidden messages I’ve found through out the years of watching Disney movies. In Mulan we get to see the image of women doing a work of a men. We see Mulan taking her ill dads place in the army and fulfills everything just like the men would do. In your article it shows that every Disney story has something related to the society and moral.

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    Emily Jacques

    November 13, 2012

    It’s no surprise that Disney, being a big part of most children’s lives, adds in some great life valuing messages that oddly enough we only understand when we’re older. I, myself, grew up on Disney movies and I re-watching Toy Story, Peter Pan, Tarzan and Beauty and the Beast hundred of times while I was growing up. Back then I probably didn’t think much of them besides the obvious story line and the songs that I had memorized, but the thing about Disney is it doesn’t get old. I remember re-watching these films not to long ago and the stories touched me way more than I remembered. At my age now, Peter Pan for instance, really did hit me hard. The boy who didn’t want to grow up when we know its inevitable. The idea of not wanting to grow up is so much more significant at my age now. Growing up and realizing that our childhood and that innocence and ignorance that comes with childhood is fading away is one of the hardest things to in. Its uncontrollable and scary. It’s easy to see why Peter felt this way and wanted to try to save other children from not growing up as well. Disney, plugged this in a children movie so easily and without me even noticing until lately. Your article very much shows how Disney does this and its such an interesting topic especially for those in Cegep because not only are we at the age of transition, but because we are the generation who grew up on these stories and we can compare out outlook on these stories to when we were a child. I will definitely look more into this idea and have a Disney marathon myself.

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    November 13, 2012

    Disney definitely played a huge part in my childhood, unfortunately my favorite movie - The Lion King wasn’t mentioned in your article. I remember staying inside whether it was nice out, before day care, or before church and trying to get as much Disney time in as I possibly could. I didn’t watch too many princess movies however; I was the last child to be born following my brother and although he was older than me I always wanted to do things he did - I wasn’t your typical girly girl. I did watch Ariel and Pocahontas many times as well, but mostly because there are tons of animals in those movies. I do agree that our opinions and views on the meaning behind the songs played in each individual movie has changed, along with our outlook on the story line of the movie itself - but when you wrote that “though you are the same person you always were, your mind has changed and reached a different level of understanding.” - I do not think this is absolutely true. We might be the same person regarding our physical appearance, but not all of us grow up and stay true to who we were when we were young and innocent. Many people I know today, including myself have grown up, and matured but have also changed - some of us have gotten into things we probably shouldn’t have, been in situations we could have avoided and lost our connection to who we were as children. We might still have some of the same likes as we did then but we have definitely changed, not only who we are as people but our knowledge and awareness has also grown over time alongside our experiences whether good or bad. Even today Disney can still teach me something new, for instance now when I watch the Lion King I see that it is a very dark movie; father gets killed, boy witnesses it, boy runs away, grows up in the jungle only to have the girl who believed in him the most find him after all those years, they fall in love, she convinces him to return to his family because someone else has been taking control by abusing the circumstances, then he gets revenge and everything goes back to normal - even the sun comes out again. I guess what it shows me now, is that there will be people in your life whether related to you or not, who will try to do whatever it takes to have control over certain situations even if that means hurting you and everything you live for, but there will also be people who believe in you, love you and want the best for you, and if you listen to them good things will come. That’s just one message conveyed - very true but complex for a young child to understand.
    I think I’m due to watch it again, enjoyed your thoughts - thank you.

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    Jamal Chandler

    December 15, 2012

    The Disney songs on my iPod are a testament to the power of these films; these songs have stayed with me throughout the years, growing with me, showing bit by bit their deeper meanings. There is nothing like laying on one’s bed relaxing and then suddenly sitting up, as you realize that such and such song has an element you did not realize till that moment. I enjoyed immensely that you chose to reference “God help the outcasts”and “Hellfire” as these are, not only two of my favorite songs, but also they are two of the greatest examples, for me, of meaning discovered over time. Great job!

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    February 21, 2013

    Disney word when heard it makes me go crazy and brings all the childhood memories in front of my eyes and make me smile. I am still crazy for it to watch.


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    February 27, 2014

    This article is so true and I agree that Disney movie are amazing. When I was a kid, I needed a Disney story to go to bed. I could be a book or a movie, I really didn’t care, I just needed one. This article made me go back to that time and it made me smile. I really agree with the fact that Disney story teach children things of life, every kid should watch Disney movie. I agree with the song aspect of the article, the songs it these movie are really interesting and really makes us think about what life is and what we have become.  Actually I agree with the entire article. It made me understand thing about Disney movie that I never thought about before, so good job smile

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