We’re finally beyond kissing sleeping people, unrealistic expectations, and Stockholm Syndrome – here’s the surprising depth of modern Disney films.
I think it’s pretty well documented how questionable many of the earlier lessons in fairytale type DIsney classics have been. In fact one of the earliest posts on this site was about 6 Mixed Messages In Disney Movies. The fairytale and the spectacle are timeless until you think a bit more of them in some more detail, and maybe people are more serious than they let on in their memes about how Disney ruined their expectations on relationships and love.
For example, Sleeping Beauty – do you really want to marry a man who you just met, and especially one who made out with you in your sleep? Well established creep factor right there. Beauty and the Beast – it’s a tale as old as time, but he forced her to do almost everything and held her against her will for an extended period before she warmed up, for seemingly not much reason than he fought some wolves. Aladdin – man, as much as you love this movie, the central message seems to be that if you build a relationship with someone based on lies but you say sorry and you’re hot, then you have a good relationship. Kinda like 27 Dresses that last one…
There have definitely been some good ones though. I really like The Lion King for its set pieces on a few different topics, one of them kind of controversially is about the types of friends you pick and listen to – Timon and Pumbaa, or Nala and Rafiki.
Even the more disputed or questionable movies nowadays from years gone by are tugging on some sort of central human experience that makes them timeless and memorable for so many billions of people across multiple generations and cultures. Mulan always stands at the top of my list, alongside one of the movies I’ll be mentioning today, but one of the many reasons Disney has done so well is their movies hit the big issues, for better or the worse.
There are rose tinted glasses among a significant percentage of the audience though though for any movie that has come out since the Disney Renaissance as being inferior or disappointing. That they don’t make films like they used to, that CEO Bob Iger has ruined Disney, and they’re just too consumed by their franchise love for Star Wars and Marvel.
I contest the point though personally. With young kids, there’s been a lot more revisits to Disney movies recently in our house and it’s been a reminder of just how good some of the modern movies really are. And in the older world where the messages or lessons may be questionable or contentious, most of these are knock out excellent and foundational lessons for kids and young people to take in as early as they can. Here is the surprising depth of modern Disney films… six of them anyway.
This will be Disney Studio films – I’ve already written a lot about other Disney owned properties and shows such as Star Wars or the message of reality being disappointing in WandaVision – more under the Movies category as well.
Honourable mentions – Beauty and the Beast Remake and Jungle Cruise
Not really in the lesson category, but just two great movies that came out recently.
I mentioned the Stockholm Syndrome of Beauty and the Beast, but I have to say this was completely gone in the 2017 live action remake, also featuring a much more believable and grounded love story… or as grounded as you can be with shape shifting and magic castles. I even wrote more about my very emotional experiences with this movie in Days In The Sun – 2017 In Review
And Jungle Cruise – no lessons whatsoever, just a ridiculously fun time.
#6: Turning Red
Here is the most surprising concept for a movie aimed at younger people ever made, but what a breath of fresh air this movie was. A cute, fun, eccentric, funny, well written movie all about puberty and femininity. This is covered very well in the behind the scenes as well how many of these topics the filmmakers tried to address in an accessible fashion.
As a girl dad I am stoked this movie exists for when they reach this difficult age, but also for all the boys as well that they can get a level of understanding of what every woman you’ve ever met goes through, and often how they’re either made to feel by other people for it, or their own experiences with it.
Plus as a huge fan of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, this is one of the other few movies that blends anime elements seamlessly into its presentation.
#5: Frozen 2
First off, great soundtrack.
Second of all, Disney+ put out a 6 part documentary on the making of this movie that you could argue is just as excellent as one of Disney’s most successful recent franchises in the movies themselves.
And there’s probably a lot you could take from the movie and the characters and the songs (Show yourseelllllllllllllf) and Idina’s consistently amazing voice.
But one that really stands out amongst all of them is the notion of doing the “next right thing” when you don’t know what else to do.
What a great lesson for people of all ages to not just do something, but to do the next right thing you know to do. This is hammered home even further watching Kristen Bell channeling her real life challenges with mental health and being a parent of her young kids and getting through it all by making the next right decision she knows to make.
We don’t talk about Bruno, but a lot of people also don’t talk about the sort of struggles the movie Encanto highlights.
The Madrigals are a magical family where everyone has a magical gift, except for Stephanie Beatriz’s Mirabel. Eventually the family and their magic house are split apart, figuratively and literally.
And although it seems to have happened suddenly, the silent pressures and expectations of the family matriarch have been destroying the younger family members for years. But she’s got her own reasons and struggles, and Encanto does a great job of levelling the playing field and making you think of everyone’s experiences in the unit.
But more than that, it turns a sharp curve when it’s revealed that although Mirabel’s gift isn’t as big or flashy as everyone else’s, her gift of bringing people unity was just as valuable as everyone else.
In an image driven, comparison driven society, what a great message to be able to celebrate others whilst also not diminishing your own light. Usually a lot of advice to people is that they ignore what everyone else is doing so they have no inspiration to change and improve, or to outhustle everyone else to the point of exhaustion. The balanced message is one the world needs to remember and indeed all of us.
#3: Inside Out
Inside Out is a very creative portrayal of how the inner workings of all our brains work. In a bit of an accessible simplification of how the mind operates but nonetheless very well based in modern science, Riley is a teenage girl whose five emotions are struggling to adapt when her parents move house to a place she really doesn’t want to live. She has bad experiences but sees her parents struggling and takes it on herself to keep it quiet and everyone else happy.
And yet without allowing herself to actually feel sadness and have multiple emotions in effect in her core memories, she sinks into her own despair.
A great story about remembering that things can be brilliant and terrible, easy and challenging, wonderful and stressful, or as the movie suggests, joyful and sad. Not or, but both.
In fact, it’s so awesome that it’s equal first for my favourite Disney movie ever made, tied with Mulan. Fortunately that means when my toddler asks to rewatch it very frequently, it’s a good time for everyone.
There are some really great lessons in Moana – respecting your family or wise counsel whilst also moving forward in the direction you need to go, being strong even if you’re scared, using your strength and courage to help others move beyond the limits of their own.
But ultimately, Moana is about the restoration of the heart.
In talking about the depth of modern Disney films, well, it doesn’t get much deeper than that (although with one more to go after this one, maybe it does)
The island goddess Te Fiti carried within herself the power of creation. But when her heart is taken away from her, she devolves into a destructive monster who brings affliction not just to herself in her own pain, but to everyone around her.
And Moana is bold enough to recognise at the end of the movie that the monster Te Ka is what happened to this wonderful person when her heart was taken away from her.
“They have stolen the heart from inside you, but this does not define you. This is not who you are, you know who you are.“
And a single moment of recognition allows Te Ka to find herself again, move beyond her pain and destruction, and be restored to her true self.
There are monsters in us and all around us, and it’s so important that we focus on the restoration of the heart. Not everyone will always do what Te Ka did, but we have control and agency of our own lives to always keep in front of us who we are and what we were called to do.
All these years later, Moana is still awesome. The animated spectacular embodying the proverb to “guard your heart, for from it flow all the issues of life”.
#1: Ralph Breaks The Internet
As much as Mulan and Moana are my First Place Blue Medallion Grade A+ excellent favourite Disney movies, the winner for the most poignant themes goes to Wreck It Ralph 2, AKA Ralph Breaks The Internet.
This movie is a great time for a nerd like me cause of all the gaming references, Internet jokes and analogies about technology that are probably missed on people who are less technology inclined. My eldest absolutely loves Vanellope and seeing Sonic and Bowser any time they’re on screen, and it’s all a very meta commentary on technology, how people comment on each other’s social media, and how the Internet really did change everything.
Plus all the scenes where Vanellope meets the other Disney princesses are pricelessly self aware from Disney, maybe challenging their own treatment for some of these iconic characters.
But it has a razor focused mission in its plot – to encourage everyone to stop being so possessive of their friends, and allow people to have their season change and move on to become who they’re supposed to be.
At the end of the first movie, Ralph and Vanellope become solid friends, and very regularly are in each other’s lives having a lot of fun. Ralph thinks that things are amazing and wants things to never change, but Vanellope finds herself yearning for a different life, a call to more for herself.
Ralph is unable to let her go because of what it will mean for him – change. In his emptiness he had wrapped his whole life around Vanellope and friendship with her, and so when his one real friend needs to leave for her own benefit, he just can’t accept it, which inevitably also destroys their friendship.
People come and go. As I’ve written about before, there is a Seasons of Friends. Not everyone who comes into your life is going to stay in your life, and even if they do, it’s not going to stay the same. Friends move away, people grow up, jobs and dreams and callings need to be fulfilled.
And we can’t be people who are so possessive over others, usually because of a deficit in our own lives, that we refuse to allow things to be different.
As Ralph and the audience realise when an insecurity becomes manifest – you need to be able to let them go.
It’s a challenging issue that’s handled so well by this movie, and fortunately it also shows the healthy relationship you can still have with a person even if the time, place, frequency, and intent changes.
The most unhealthy thing would be to refuse to allow that person you say is important to move forward with their own life because you refuse to ensure you are meeting new people, not putting all your expectations on one or a few people, and that you yourself are being the person you’re called to be.
I love Moana a bit more than this movie, but I’ve gotta say the lesson here is a more powerful punch and focus of the entire film at a time where people don’t usually get confronted on having a possessive spirit about others.
You don’t own them. They don’t own you. We all need to be allow others to move on when the time comes.
I’m sure there is more depth of modern Disney films that you may think of, but these are some that stick out to me in recent memory.
One of the great powers of movies, games, books and other forms of entertainment is that they can allow you to explore complicated topics in very accessible and relatable forms. I think when entertainment is just viewed as filling your calendar it can miss its true power in helping you process life and move into better things for yourself and those around you.
How about you? Do you see any depth of modern Disney films? Or do you think their best days are still behind them?