Quo Vadis Disney? Notes on the End of the Disney Renaissance, circa 2001


The Disney animation renaissance is dead. That’s not news, though. What’s news is that the folks at Disney have finally noticed.

Their last two animated features showed clear signs of trying to break away from the formulas that have rigidly defined modern Disney films for over ten years. Both of these experiments proved to be box-office disappointments (although Atlantis just opened, projections suggest it will make less money than any Disney summer animated feature in recent memory). Then, earlier today (Wednesday, June 20) came word that Walt Disney Studios chairman Peter Schneider, a sixteen-year company veteran, was stepping down in the wake of the twin disappointments of Atlantis and Pearl Harbor.

The modern era of Disney animated greatness started with a splash in 1989 when the promisingly fresh The Little Mermaid hit theaters. Delighted audiences actually burst into applause at colorful show-stopping musical numbers like the sprightly "Under the Sea" and the enchanting "Kiss the Girl." Coming as it did after a string of uninspired releases (The Fox and the Hound, The Black Cauldron, Oliver & Company), The Little Mermaid set the stage for a creative comeback.

This success was more than outdone by the magnificent Beauty and the Beast, considered by some the greatest animated film of all time, and certainly one of the all-time great films, period. The emotional resonance of the fairy tale rang truer than any Disney adaptation since Bambi, and the reflexive characterizations of the Beast (who started out dreadful and monstrous before being slowly humanized by Belle) and Gaston (who began as a mere loutish buffoon but gradually morphed into a thoroughly malicious villain) were perhaps the most subtle and complex in Disney history. Added to this were endlessly entertaining choreography ("Belle’s Song [Little Town]", "Be Our Guest") and loving attention to detail that rewarded repeated viewings (as countless observant — and grateful — parents can attest).

After Beauty and the Beast, almost anything should have seemed anti-climactic; but Aladdin made a worthy follow-up, with Robin Williams’ mercurial performance as the Genie giving that film its own unique magic and adding extra pizzazz to rousing musical numbers ("Friend Like Me", "Prince Ali") that maintained the high standard set by the two earlier films.

The Lion King divided both critics and fans: Some hailed it as an instant classic, but others (myself included) felt that beyond the masterful opening sequence, the film had little to offer other than largely unmemorable ditties (e.g., "Hakuna Matata," a charmless reminder of Jungle Book favorite "The Bare Necessities") and a story on autopilot. Simba’s moral conflict (whether to return and face Scar and the death of his father) felt to me unconvincing and uninvolving compared with Aladdin’s (whether to reveal his real identity to Jasmine and risk losing her); and for a coming-of-age tale there was remarkably little sense of growth or progress (in contrast to the gradual development of the relationship between Belle and the Beast). Still, The Lion King remains both the highest-grossing animated film ever and one of the top ten films in U.S. box office history, and has received critical acclaim as well as mass appeal.

Either way, The Lion King marks a dividing point. Subsequent Disney features tended to be first overwrought and tendentiously politically correct (Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame), then lightweight and inconsequential (Hercules, Tarzan). Somewhere in the middle, though also flawed, was Mulan, with its out-of-place musical numbers and an energetic but less than successful attempt by Eddie Murphy to follow in Robin Williams’ footsteps. (Rival studio DreamWorks recently made much better use of Murphy’s talents in Shrek.)

Despite clear slippage throughout this post-Lion King period, Disney remained intractably wedded to the formulas and conventions of their recent successes: requisite show-stopping song-and-dance numbers; a young, passionate hero or heroine (usually bereft of one or both parents); an obligatory romantic love-interest; and, of course, the indispensable cute animal sidekicks for marketing tie-ins.

But now clearly Disney realizes it’s time to try new directions. Last year’s The Emperor’s New Groove was a stripped-down, wacky comedy closer in style to Chuck Jones’ Warner Brothers cartoons than to anything on either side of The Lion King. And this year we have Atlantis: The Lost Empire, an even more radical departure: Disney’s first PG-rated cartoon, it’s a fast-paced there-and-back-again adventure story with Indiana Jones aspirations.

Neither film is any classic, but certainly the Disney animators are likelier to find their own new groove with experiments like these than with endless attempts to recycle the exhausted formulas of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Of course, given the disappointing performance of these films and the resignation of Peter Schneider, Disney execs might not be up for further experimentation. They could easily mandate a return to the tired and true, leaving us with any number of future films cut from the same cloth as Pocahontas or Tarzan.

With Disney at this crossroads, it’s a good time to take stock of the cultural, moral, and spiritual legacy of the Disney renaissance. The annual summer Disney release has become an event of major proportions, generating anywhere from $100 million to $300 million at the U.S. box office alone, plus marketing and licensing tie-ins, home-video sales, a direct-to-video sequel or two, perhaps even a Broadway play or on-ice spectacle.

The works of the Disney renaissance are more than mere films. They are instant cultural icons, known to countless millions of children all over the world. In itself, that may be nothing new; pre-renaissance characters like Pinocchio and Peter Pan remain universally known (without the benefit of direct-to-video sequels, or even live-action remakes like 101 Dalmatians or The Jungle Book).

Still, Disney nouveau is different. A look at the major animated features of the post-Little Mermaid era reveals disturbing trends on two important fronts: (1) the treatment of parents as characters, and (2) the use of religious themes.

Disney and parents

Long before The Little Mermaid, of course, there were plenty of Disney characters with absentee or deceased parents (Snow White, The Jungle Book), overbearing or unreasonable fathers (Peter Pan, Mary Poppins), or cruel mother figures (Cinderella, Snow White). However, positive portrayals of active parents were far more common in older Disney films than in Disney nouveau. The nurturing mothers of Bambi and Dumbo, the loving parental couples like Jim Dear and Darling from Lady and the Tramp and Pongo and Perdita of One Hundred and One Dalmatians, find virtually no counterparts in renaissance-era Disney animated films.

In fact, by my unofficial tally, parents in Disney cartoons have become something like five or six times worse than they used to be. Before The Little Mermaid, there was at least one positive parent figure out of every two or three parents; after Mermaid, it’s more like one in fourteen. In fact, virtually all modern Disney parents fit into one of the following negative stereotypes:

  • Feeble, ridiculous fathers. Found exclusively in post-Mermaid features, Disney’s feeble fathers tend to be doddering, diminutive, childlike, comical, corpulent, and completely clueless. Certainly they are unable to provide the hero or heroine with meaningful support against the villain — in fact, often they trust the villain implicitly.
  • This stereotype is exemplified by Belle’s dotty inventor father (Beauty), Jasmine’s dopey royal sire (Aladdin), and Jane’s dippy naturalist-explorer father (Tarzan). It would also apply to another "father" in The Little Mermaid: the doting clergyman presiding at the would-be wedding of the disguised Ursula and the enchanted Prince Eric (see the section below on religion for details).

    A related stereotype — fathers who are feeble but not ridiculous — is embodied by the aged, limping father of Mulan — and, now that we have Atlantis, I might as well add Princess Kida’s elderly father too. (Apparently experimentation only goes so far.)

  • Domineering fathers. In stark contrast to the feeble fathers described above, Disney’s domineering dads are generally strong and capable — but also imperious, impatient, and impossible to please. Typically, failing to understand their offspring, they have "unreasonable" expectations (often concerning whom their children will or will not marry) that interfere with their children’s self-determination and self-actualization. These fathers are generally "redeemed" by the end of the film, meaning that they learn to accept their children for who they are and repent of their own overbearing ways.
  • As mentioned earlier, this sort of father was not entirely unknown in older Disney; but no Disney feature before The Little Mermaid laid such emphasis as that film did on the child’s feelings of frustration and resentment over not being understood. Mermaid’s King Triton is the exemplar of this stereotype, which also applies to Chief Powhatan (who imperiously expects his daughter to marry Kokoum) and Kerchak, Tarzan’s grumpy ape surrogate-father.

    The domineering dad stereotype is also partially relevant to Mulan’s father, Fa Zhou (who as mentioned above also partly fits the "feeble father" stereotype). Though far kinder and gentler than Triton or Kerchak, Fa Zhou has no more understanding of his child and unreasonably expects her to follow traditional Chinese patterns for a young lady, leading to the same feelings of frustration on her part.

    On the other end of the spectrum is an especially fearful surrogate father-figure: Frollo, evil guardian of Quasimodo in Hunchback, who unlike other domineering father figures is not redeemed in the end (and is actually more typical of the "patriarchal oppressor" stereotype described below).

  • Absent fathers. Post-renaissance Disney fathers are actually less likely to be absentee dads than their pre-Mermaid counterparts (though they’re such poor parents that that’s hardly a plus). Still, absent renaissance fathers are not hard to find: Aladdin, Quasimodo, and Tarzan have all lost their fathers; Hercules is separated from Zeus (and of course Hera) at infancy (and gets precious little support from either them until he proves himself worthy as an adult of his divine heritage); and Simba’s father Mufasa (Lion King) — otherwise the renaissance’s only really positive, active father-figure — dies onscreen while Simba is still a young cub.
  • Absent mothers. The single most overwhelming feature of parenthood in the Disney renaissance is the almost total absence of the mothers. Renaissance mothers are absent in far greater numbers than either renaissance fathers or mothers of the pre-Mermaid era. The maternal vacuum is breathtakingly absolute: With only a single exception (Mulan), every single relevant major character of the Disney renaissance — Ariel, Belle, Aladdin and Jasmine, Pocahontas, Quasimodo, Hercules, Tarzan and Jane, and now Milo and Kida from Atlantis — either loses his or her mother in infancy, or is permanently separated from her during or before childhood, or simply has no onscreen mother at all.
  • Significantly, it’s the heroines — Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Jane, and Kida — who are almost invariably being raised by single fathers with no sign or mention of a mother or mother-figure, ever. The heroine’s motherlessness serves to accentuate her own feminine virtues and independence, since her father is invariably either domineering, feeble, and/or ridiculous, and there is no "competing" feminine figure to suggest that the heroine needs any support or guidance. (The one non-absent mother is Mulan’s, who belongs to the next stereotype and poses no threat to her daughter’s autonomy.)

    With the male leads, by contrast, a balancing female presence is considered a plus. Thus Simba and Hercules, although separated from their mothers in childhood, are reunited with them in adulthood; and Tarzan gets a surrogate mother-figure in Kala the she-ape — ironically the only unambiguously involved and positive parent-figure of either sex in the entire Disney renaissance.

    Of course, since Tarzan is the only male lead who gets any guidance or support from a mother figure, other male leads must be shown the way by their female counterparts: The Beast is taught to love by Belle, Simba is instructed and exhorted by Nala, John Smith receives sensitivity training from Pocahontas, Quasimodo and Captain Phoebus are humanized by Esmerelda, Hercules is elevated by Meg, Li Shang is enlightened by Mulan, and Milo is inspired by Kida. Disney’s self-sufficient heroines act as surrogate mothers to the males while not needing any guidance or support from anyone themselves.

  • Benevolent but irrelevant mothers. A bloodless, uninspiring type with two exemplars: Sarabi and Fa Li. Who, you ask? My point exactly. The mothers of Simba and Mulan don’t exactly stand out in their respective films. Unlike their husbands, the mothers aren’t even a plot point.
  • In contrast to earlier mothers who took an active role in helping their children deal with adversity — Mrs. Jumbo; Bambi’s mother; Perdita in Dalmatians; Duchess in The Aristocats — Sarabi and Fa Li are entirely passive. For example, even with Mufasa dead, Simba gone, and Scar tyrannizing the kingdom, Sarabi can do nothing but wait around for her son to grow up and return to set things right. Sarabi and Fa Li may not be absent, but dramatically speaking, they might as well be. (Call it "functional absence.")

  • Addendum: Patriarchal oppressors. In addition to the three negative types of actual fathers (ridiculous, domineering, and absent), this fourth negative stereotype is directed against "patriarchy" generally.
  • The patriarchal oppressor, always male and almost always white (Jafar is the exception), is characterized by contempt or hatred for those different from or weaker than himself. Invariably a leader, authority-figure, or pillar of his community, he’s usually out to exploit or oppress indigenous or marginalized populations (Governor Ratcliffe vs. the Indians in Pocahontas, Frollo vs. the Gypsies in Hunchback, Clayton vs. the apes in Tarzan, and Commander Rourke vs. the Atlanteans in Atlantis).

    Patriarchal oppressors are also notable for desiring the heroine and forcibly pursuing her hand in marriage (Gaston and Belle, Jafar and Jasmine, Frollo and Esmerelda). Note how different is a patriarchal oppressor from a mere wholesome villainess like Ursula, who far from being a pillar of the community is an outcast and a pariah as any self-respecting villain should be, and who has no interest in marriage to Prince Eric (the staged wedding is just a diversion). (Hades in Hercules is also a mere villain, not a patriarchal oppressor.)

Patterns and exceptions

A few points worthy of note:

  • One Disney nouveau feature film, Tarzan, actually manages to include all three negative father stereotypes: Jane has a feeble, comical father, while Tarzan has an absent (human) father and a domineering (ape) father! This outrageous triple-play diss to fatherhood becomes (to mix baseball metaphors) an anti-patriarchal grand slam by the inclusion of a fourth figure (Clayton) who embodies the evil patriarchal oppressor-imperialist stereotype.
  • On the other hand, Tarzan also provides the renaissance with its only active mother-figure — not to mention its only unambiguously involved and positive parent of either sex — Tarzan’s surrogate ape-mother Kala. Kala intervenes on her adopted son’s behalf again and again, even standing up for him to grouchy Kerchak. This praiseworthy portrait of a strong and loving mother goes some way, though not nearly far enough, toward redeeming Tarzan from its outrageous four-fold attack on fatherhood and patriarchy.
  • In the whole Disney renaissance, only Simba has a fathers who is truly admirable and worthy of respect (Mulan’s father is less objectionable than most, and Kida’s father, if you count Atlantis, is also venerable). And of course Mufasa is killed in the first act (Kida’s elderly father dies in the last act; Mulan’s father does not die, but is simply old and feeble). Compare that with pre-renaissance Disney, where even aged Gepetto and Bambi’s aloof, semi-absent father received better treatment — to say nothing of Pongo, Jim Dear, and feline father-figures Bagheera (Jungle Book) and Thomas O’Malley (The Aristocats).
  • Disney fans sometimes point out that Disney comes by its themes of absent parents and cruel stepmothers honestly, from the fairy tales and other sources it draws upon. That defense overlooks the precipitous decline of positive parent images in Disney nouveau as compared with older Disney, where parents were up to five or six times more likely to be capable, active, present, and involved.
  • Disney is quite capable of creative positive depictions of parents who are competent, active, loving, and even cool; who have their kids’ best interests at heart, and who know better than the kids do. Their recent family-friendly live-action flick Spy Kids and direct-to-video sequel Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp’s Adventure both offer excellent examples of such positive parent images. Why don’t they do more of this? Will they begin to? Time will tell.

Disney and religion

Religious themes as a feature of Disney films aren’t nearly as prominent as parent-child relationships; yet they are important enough to bear some mention. It’s worth noting, to begin with, that at no time could Disney ever have been described as friendly toward religion. Religious themes in earlier Disney features were mostly limited to obligatory church weddings (e.g., Cinderella, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Robin Hood), plus a few special cases, like the climactic Ave Maria sequence in Fantasia, and the character of Friar Tuck in Robin Hood, who is allowed to allude to the gospels ("Your last farthing? Aw, little sister, no one can give more than that!") and say things like "Thank God! My prayers have been answered!" as if he really meant them.

Robin Hood even contains an indication of the respect the clergy were accorded in past times: When Prince John plots to hang Friar Tuck in order to lure Robin Hood out of hiding, Sir Hiss gasps, "Hang Friar Tuck? A man of the Church?" (Is this the only mention of the Church in a Disney animated feature that doesn’t contain anti-church propaganda à la Hunchback?)

Christianity in the Disney renaissance

At first glance The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast seem to continue the basic pattern of nominal Christian references, with clergymen in both films poised to preside at Christian weddings. Yet in fact this is not a positive use of religion akin to the church weddings in earlier features.

For one thing, in both of the newer films clerics are brought in only for botched weddings with the villain trying to marry one of the principals (Ursula tries to marry Eric in Mermaid, and Gaston tries to marry Belle in Beauty). At the end of the film, with hero and heroine happily reunited, there is no sign of a clergyman or a church wedding.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, both clerics are manifestly contemptible. As mentioned above, the bishop presiding at the wedding of Ursula and Eric is a classic case in point of the Feeble, Ridiculous Father, with his Coke-bottle glasses, droning, creaking voice, and diminutive build. (It’s been argued, moreover, that he is drawn in such a way as to appear to be visibly sexually aroused beneath his vestments. The shot is brief and debatable, but the charge is far from implausible.)

Even worse is the village priest who turns out for Gaston’s would-be wedding, a dupe who shows up to celebrate a wedding when the "bride" hasn’t even been propositioned, let alone given her consent, and who laughs when Gaston makes a joke of this fact. (A priest’s very presence at such a mockery of a wedding would be an ecclesiastical crime of such enormity as to bring the bishop and possibly even Rome down on his head.)

In general, though, Disney seems to prefer avoiding entirely references to traditional religion. The original Hans Christian Anderson Little Mermaid story has significant Christian references that have obviously been completely excised from the Disney version. In Aladdin, not wanting to offend either Muslims or Christians, Disney carefully avoided any positive or negative reflections on Islam. (On a non-religious note, Arabs were understandably offended by a line in the original version of the opening song, that explained that the story occurs in a time and place where "they cut off your nose if they don’t like your face / It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home." In the video release, the nose-cutting was written out; the "barbaric" reference stayed.)

In at least one case, Disney’s secular bias seems to have had a marginally positive effect in mitigating an anti-clerical flourish in its source material. The nefarious character Dom Frollo from Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame was originally a cleric (an archdeacon), but Disney changed him into a self-righteous "judge."

Still, he is explicitly Catholic, and a twisted, perverse Catholic, tortured by perverse notions of sin, holiness, and damnation. The only real spirituality in Hunchback comes from the non-Christian Gypsy girl Esmerelda, who offers a selfless prayer for the outcasts of the world while in the background a lot of shallow, venal Catholics petition God for wealth, fame, and glory.

At the same time, it’s fair to note that Hunchback does contain one positive, pious priest, a cleric who intervenes to save Quasimodo’s life, and later suggests that Esmerelda look to a higher power. Still, the overall impression of the film is clearly that Catholics are selfish and corrupt, and their beliefs are twisted and oppressive.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame represents Disney’s last word on Christianity to date. They’ve come a long way from Robin Hood.

Pagan and New Age motifs

With The Lion King, Pocahontas, Mulan, and now Atlantis, a new pattern has emerged: an increasing development of pagan and New Age themes and imagery. In The Lion King, first of all, we have a baboon medicine-man or witch-doctor named Rafiki who divines by his craft that the missing Simba is alive somewhere, and upon finding Simba tells him that his dead father Mufasa is not dead but alive, even magically facilitating a mystical encounter with a manifestation of Mufasa’s spirit in the clouds. Rafiki also utters Zen-like paradoxes and contradictions ("You [Simba] are a baboon, and I am not") and sits lotus-style like a Hindu yogi or a statue of the Buddha.

Far more serious are the pagan influences in Pocahontas. Pocahontas, who in fact was the first American Indian to be baptized in Virginia, has here been de-converted by Disney and made into a sort of pagan priestess who communes with a tree-spirit that she calls Grandmother Willow.

The de-Christianing and re-paganizing of Pocahontas represents a far greater affront than the cartoon revisionism of Hunchback: It’s a betrayal to the legacy of a historical human being. In the jargon of political correctness, Disney has "silenced the voice" of the historical Pocahontas with its callous disregard for her courage and freedom in accepting the gospel (a decision that was not without risk: witness the persecutions of another Indian girl, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha).

After "P.C.hontas" came Mulan, with actual Chinese deities as comic characters akin to the animated gargoyles of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But it wasn’t until Disney’s latest animated feature, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, that they really got serious about pagan/New Age imagery. Crystal spirituality, stone circles, totemism, ancestor worship, pantheist mysticism, UFO-lore imagery, and other New Age motifs pervade the whole fabric of this film. These are points that I will develop more fully in my coming review of Atlantis.

Why are recent Disney films so New Age? Are the people at Disney really a bunch of Shirley Maclaine fans out to convert our children to worshipping crystals? Not really. The driving force here is more political than religious; it’s just one more way of hyping "diversity" and "tolerance" while putting down rigid, dogmatic, patriarchal, Western, authoritarian establishment. Just as some people today call themselves "pagans," not because they actually believe in the existence of various deities, but as a way of registering their dissent from institutional or dogmatic religion, so Disney’s New Age claptrap is essentially a symbolic reflection of their overall ultra-PC values.

Of course, for those whose religious affections are more than a political statement, none of this really matters. Christian parents should be aware that their identity both as Christians and as parents is under fire in much recent Disney work.

Does this mean we are obligated to boycott Disney? No. Some parents may feel that such a boycott is prudent or helpful, but it is not morally obligatory, and moreover such parents may miss out on the kind of genuinely worthwhile family fare like Spy Kids that we would all like to see more of (which of course will only happen if such films are successful).

Should parents avoid the films of the Disney renaissance? I would advise against allowing their children to make a regular diet of them, even the better ones. My own feeling is that the early ones, especially Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, are sufficiently worthwhile that it’s worth putting up with the feeble fathers, absent mothers, and so forth (provided that children have plenty of more positive examples from other sources). Mermaid, Lion King, and Mulan are perhaps ambiguous. The other post-Lion King films — Pocahontas, Hunchback, Hercules, and Tarzan — I would recommend avoiding completely. They just don’t have enough to offer, even as entertainment, to countenance the anti-family and anti-Christian motifs.

Where will Disney go from here? Will their summer animated features begin to pick up on promising pro-family developments from other Disney films like Spy Kids and Scamp’s Adventure? Or are we in for more monotonous parent-bashing and anti-patriarchal New Age drivel? Once again, time will tell.

Disney Animation, Disney: Eye on the Mouse