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Disney’s Darker Side

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In a few week’s time I’ll be in Disneyland California. I watched a few Disney films as a kid in the 1970s, but it wasn’t their best period (compare the quality of artwork for Aristocats, Robin Hood and Pete’s Dragon with what came before and after) so I didn’t become a big fan. That all changed when I had kids of my own. Watching films like Beauty and the Beast, Tangled and Toy Story 2 with my daughters converted me forever.

I’ve also come to appreciate Disney’s dark side. Having spent years dismissing Disney as overly commercial or too schmaltzy, I’m glad to have realised the error of my ways. Amid the comedy and romance, most films have a dark centre, a turning point where the characters stare their worst nightmares in the face. Here are a few of my favourites (not in any order):

Bambi – who can forget the death of Bambi’s mother, killed by a hunter? That subtle but powerful scene probably did more for animal rights than anything before or after. It also spoke to kids about one of their worst nightmares – the loss of a parent.

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Inside Out – a great film about the difficulties of going through the change from child to teenager, and all the baggage that goes with it. Riley sees her childhood bastions crumble as Sadness begins to affect her life, but learns sadness is just another part of life.

Finding Nemo – like so many classic kid’s stories, whether books or films, this tale revisits the fear of separation from parents. Starting with the death of Nemo’s mom, it follows with his getting lost from his dad and how the two manage to find each other again. It’s as much a film for over-protective parents, too.

Toy Story 2 – rejection is one of the most psychologically damaging things that can happen to a person, whether it be girlfriends, boyfriends, parents, best mates, loss of a job, divorce, or any number of other things. Perhaps the best scene in this exceptional film is Jessie’s song about when the owner she loved so much stopped loving her back. As trilogies go, the second film is usually a duffer, but Toy Story 2 is right up there with The Empire Strikes Back in my book.

Up – I watched this again yesterday with my girls and was reminded of how powerful the starting scene is, where in a few short minutes we see Carl go from a little kid, to falling in love, getting married and planning a family. Then the mood changes as we see him and his wife in a doctor’s clinic, being told they can’t have children. They remain happily married, but life consumes their dreams (as it so often does) and then his wife dies, leaving Carl alone and unfulfilled. And that’s not even the darkest point. Touches on a familiar Disney theme – hang on to your dreams, kids!

WALL-E – set on an earth where humanity’s greed has destroyed the environment and forced mankind to relocate in space. WALL-E, a small robot left behind to clean up the mess, lives a lonely life until EVE, another robot, turns up to shake his routine world up. A warning for us all about looking after our planet, but there’s a melancholy tone to this film that seems very un-Disneylike.

Frozen – it might not be fashionable to say it, but I love Frozen! The songs were enough to win me over, and Elsa’s declaration that she’s throwing off the shackles of her old life and doing things her way (Let it Go!) is stunning. But there’s also a wicked twist three quarters of the way through that nobody sees coming. Kids, be careful who you fall in love with!

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The Lion King – more great songs and plenty of wonderful animation and characterisation, but the beating heart of this film is that age-old theme of growing up into your dad’s (or mum’s) shoes. Scar, the king’s brother, is one of Disney’s all-time best villains, and the scene where he pushes his brother off a ledge to his death – emulated later in the film with his nephew – is very dark. Family politics and murder! Who said children can’t enjoy Shakespeare?

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Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – apparently, this was one of Hitler’s favourite films. No wonder, there’s so much darkness in it: the vain and murderous stepmother, Snow White getting lost in the deep dark forest, the magic mirror, the transformation of the stepmother into an old hag, Snow White poisoned, the pursuit in the storm when her stepmother falls to her death, and the grief of the dwarves as they stand around her glass coffin. OK, it all ends well, but that film has given kids nightmares since the 1930s. That’s why it’s such a great movie.

I could name a dozen others with ease (The Fox and the Hound, The Little Mermaid, Dumbo, Pinnochio,  A Christmas Carol etc.) but time doesn’t permit me. From my perspective, kids need to know there’s darkness in the world, and that life is sometimes going to kick you in the teeth. Too often since the 1970s, films leave us lying in the gutter, questioning whether it was all worth it. But what makes Disney films so great is the way they pull the characters – and the audience – through the darkness, into a world that is different but better, if only because the characters themselves have grown up and learned to overcome. Kids’ films they may be at heart, but they usually leave their young audiences with powerful but positive messages about how to cope with what life is sending their way.

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