Take Two #31: The Good, the Bad and the Disney
By Kyra-lin Hom
This has been one heck of week so please forgive me if I seem less eloquent and more scattered than usual. One of the disadvantages of trying to cultivate a writing (screenwriting for film specifically) and otherwise artistically motivated career is that it's a piecemeal process. I don't necessarily have time for a regular 9 to 5. This leaves me picking up jobs whenever and wherever I can from eBay auctioneer to cleaning lady to seamstress. My bigger problem is learning how to say 'no' because busier means I make more money for the week. This has been one of those weeks.
One of my responsibilities – and privileges I might add – is spending the day with my niece. I've probably mentioned the precocious 2-year old before, as she is a bundle of blue-eyed adorable. Part of our routine used to be her early morning educational cartoons. Recently, however, those cartoons have been replaced with the classic Disney movies – so classic my sister and brother-in-law had to buy a VHS player just for them. You all know the movies that I'm talking about. So far, with her, I've watched Pocahontas, Robin Hood (the favorite from my childhood), The Lion King, Aladdin, Peter Pan, Beauty and the Beast and part of Cinderella. Let me just say that watching these Disney movies as a child and watching them as an adult are two completely different things.
I know all the critics talk about the s-e-x references and metaphors, the racism and the evolution (or lack thereof) of the Disney princess archetype. But what really caught my attention was the evolution of moral complexity and adult witticisms. Try explaining the Sheriff of Nottingham to a child: he's the town sheriff, which is like a policeman, but in this town the people don't like him because he cruelly enforces the unfair heavy taxes set on the people by the greedy, incompetent king... It's about here that you just give up and say he's the bad guy. Or try explaining how the unimaginative dad in Peter Pan is both an unfair, cranky man and an authority figure – a parent – who isn't being unreasonable and should still be respected. Good luck. Oh the questions you don't expect a 2-year old to ask...
Basically, with the older classic Disney films, if the plot isn't about a passive girl being rescued by a handsome prince from a crone jealous of the girl's beauty it is instead disturbingly honest about the gray lines between the good and the bad. A far cry from today's morally black and white Tangled or even 1999's Tarzan, and while that might have been ten years ago keep in mind that Snow White is from the 1930's. I can explain to a 2 year-old that the men wanting to chop down the forest is bad because that's Tarzan's home and Tarzan is a good person. Try explaining “why” the unseen men in Bambi incidentally burn down the forest or shoot pheasants from the sky for sport.
What changed? What suddenly made it unacceptable for our children to watch morally complex G-rated films? Part of the evolution can be explained by narrowing age demographics, sure. But the other parts? Put it this way, Disney obviously doesn't advertise to 2-year olds. It advertises to their parents. Specifically, Disney advertises to every adult with a child under the age of, oh let's say 7. And by shear proof of print, it's clear Disney doesn't think that the average parent will want their young children watching anything more complex than good triumphs over evil and they all lived happily ever after in married bliss. I know from personal aunt-ing experience that that is certainly easier to explain. But is it necessarily better?
My favorite, favorite, favorite movie when I was I think about 3 or 4 was Robin Hood. I had the biggest crush on the Robin Hood character and, for a while, refused to respond to any name other than 'Maid Marion.' My mom even made matching Maid Marion and Robin Hood Halloween costumes for my dad and me. And yes, my dad did wear the tights. I remember loving Robin Hood's mischievousness, and his unwillingness to take any crap from the pathetic King John. I didn't have to be spoon fed every aspect of the story, and I don't think our kids nowadays have to be either. I know everyone just wants to protect their children's naivete for as long as possible in a world that seems to be intent on devouring it, but does this extreme moral sanitizing actually benefit our children or just leave them more vulnerable to when the big bad strikes?