Disney occupies two conflicting places in my imaginary. On the one hand, Disney is the source of some of my favourite songs (“Under the Sea,” “Why Should I Worry,” “I Just Can’t Wait to be King,” “Two Worlds one Family,” “We Are One” etc) as well as the animation studio behind some of my favourite cartoon characters (Sebastian, Lumiere, Napoleon & Lafayette, etc). Part of me thus sees Disney as part of modern children’s folklore.
On the flip side, there’s the part of me that sees Disney as a massive brand that iron-fistedly enforces its IP rights, perpetuates unnecessary gendered-market-segmentation through its heavily girl-coded “Disney Princess” concept, and is predictable and sappy in its story telling. The first two issues are of limited relevance to film review, but the third issue is one I can talk about. If part of me has strong affection for Disney, why do I so deeply associate their brand with cheesiness?
Part of the answer came to me when I watched video-essayist Lindsay Ellis’ analysis of Beauty and the Beast in which she notes that Disney renaissance films (the animated musicals of the 90s) are characterized by their giving their main characters a belted song about not fitting in/needing to search for purpose. These songs are “Part of Your World,” (The Little Mermaid) “Belle (There must be more than this provincial life…)” (Beauty and the Beast), “Just Around the River Bend,” (Pocahontas) “I Can Go the Distance,” (Hercules), “Reflection” (Mulan), and (years later) “How Far I’ll Go” (Moana). While I don’t think these songs in themselves are innately cheesy (it took Ellis’ video for me to notice they’re a pattern), they create an oversimplified binary between their singers and the world around them. The singer has a dream, and the authorities in their life thus come to occupy the opposite position of dream-oppressor.
Of course, the notion of having a dream that differentiates you from those around you is broad and thus rightfully belongs in a lot of stories. However, some films make clear that dreamer-and-dream-oppressor binaries are a trope and not mere reflections of everyday reality: Tarzan, for instance. The film tells the story of a boy who is adopted by a gorilla mother. As he grows up his first dream is to be accepted as a gorilla. His mother’s husband, Kerchak, meanwhile fills the role of dream oppressor. Kerchak initially advises his partner against adopting a human because…well, he’s not a gorilla. Tarzan grows up under the constant, blatantly-hostile gaze of Kerchak. Therefore, Tarzan’s anxiety about his identity is not simply the result of teasing from immature kids or an unnecessary childhood-neuroticism; rather it’s particularly the product of his adoptive father refusing to identify as his father, and explicitly stating that Tarzan doesn’t belong. While Tarzan is perhaps best remembered as a romance between a gorilla-man and a woman from typical human society, the film’s real arc is built around Tarzan’s search for approval from Kerchak.
While I can’t say for sure at what age predictable/unsubtle dialogue becomes apparent (I was six the last time I saw Tarzan and all I remember is being bothered by the sight of Tarzan sliding around on tree bark since that would surely hurt his hand), speaking as an adult who likes good children’s media, this is my biggest problem with Tarzan. His tension with Kerchak loses some of its effectiveness by virtue of how contrived it seems. We don’t see Kerchak and Tarzan as characters at odds, but stand-ins for the ideas of dreaming-misfit and dream-oppressor.
One reality that Tarzan fails to capture is that real-life dream oppressors are not necessarily real people. Rather they are caricatures of real people that exist in the heads of dreamers. These “oppressors” may be ambivalent about or even supportive of the “dreamers,” but the dreamer’s biases and neuroses lead them to pessimistically ignore this complexity. This concept is illustrated in Tiny Furniture in which the protagonist rails at her mother for being unsympathetic towards her struggles, even as her mother is, in fact, largely a laid-back, non-judgmental artist (then again, I note in my review that Tiny Furniture goes too far in this direction).
So should Disney strive not to portray characters like Kerchak? Not necessarily. Again, Disney can be understood as a source of modern folklore, and as such its approach to storytelling can be understood as part of a tradition: a tradition that includes belted-search-for-purpose-songs and dream oppressor characters. So how can the maintenance of this tradition be balanced with the need to create richer stories? One film that effectively navigates this dichotomy is Moana.
Moana’s opening is the opposite of subtle. When she is surely way too young to process the concept, her father leads a song to her explicitly laying out that her duty is to stay on their island and not wander off. Unlike Tarzan, however, Moana takes advantage of the fact that it overstates is message early on, to become more subtle as the film develops. Moana’s father is about as explicit as Kerchak about being her dream-oppressor, but his influence over her is quickly diminished as she escapes to sea. While Moana’s psychology is no doubt shaped by her having been raised by a dream-oppressor, her conflicts with other antagonists (cute-pirate-creatures, Tamatoa the crab, the vastness of the ocean and of course Te Kā the lava monster) are really what define the script. In essence, having a dream oppressor is part of Moana’s mythology, bringing her into the Disney folkloric-imaginery, but it is not the be all and end all of her story.
Patterns in film are not necessarily a bad thing. There’s something satisfying about seeing, for instance, enough Wes Anderson films and saying “ah, ha, there’s that familiar artistic element!” Children’s films, however, must be careful when they use patterns. Since they are created to be consumed as direct stories, and not necessarily pieces of art, their being predictable can particularly undermine their quality. Clichés are unavoidable, as nothing is original. The question is, how aware is Disney of its dream-oppressor cliché, and how creative can Disney be in transforming it for the better?