An Op-ed in Newsweek recently made waves when it encouraged parents to steer their children clear of Disney. That certainly ruffled my feathers because, clearly, I’m a big Disney fan. I wouldn’t be writing this if I wasn’t. As I read, though, it did give me pause. Like it or not, I had to admit the author had a point.
He suggested that Disney has gotten too cerebral with its first, specifically with its villains. “Disney sacrificed the archetypical narrative of good versus evil to that dreaded altar of ‘nuance.'” He’s…not wrong. Much of what goes on in Disney animation these days goes over my soon-to-be 8-year-olds head. While I appreciate that the movies are meant for the whole family, a film falls short of that goal if only the adults understand it.
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Turning Red is a great example. Rather than a clear-cut hero and villain, the film is a pubescent foray into menstration and rejecting family traditions and values. Unsurprisingly, it bombed at the box office. Meanwhile, Illumination’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie is breaking revenue records. It isn’t hard to see the difference between the two and understand why one succeeded and the other failed. A fun, light-hearted story with classic characters my son already loves or…a movie about getting your period…I know which one my son would rather see. I know which one I’d rather see too.
The “twist villain” trend started with Frozen, and honestly, that is where it should have been left. It worked in that film. Big Hero 6? Not so much. The shock-value twist, “I was the villain all along, muwhahahah,” fell flat, especially with younger audiences. Younger audiences need that good vs. evil archetype. They need a clear-cut baddie to root against. Not only does it fit their black-and-white view of the world, but it’s also more fun.
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Disney seems to have forgotten that agenda-pushing isn’t its job. Their job is to entertain, not introduce children to life’s ambiguities or instill moral values. A moral lesson is one thing, that’s storytelling. A deluge of the same moral lesson is entirely another. That’s propaganda. As a parent, instilling moral values in my children is my job, not Disney’s. Our own Becky Burkett said it best, “Disney, a corporation that derives 100% of its yearly revenue from various entertainment streams, has no place in lobbying paying patrons at the box office.”
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Classic Disney villains like Dr. Facillier, Jafar, Scar, Ursula, even Gaston make a much bigger impact than villains like Hans (Frozen), Professor Callahan (Big Hero 6), Dawn Bellwether (Zootopia), or AUTO (Wall-E). The later seems to be more focused on conveying a moral message than wrecking havoc. Then you add movies like Turning Red, Frozen 2, and Encanto, where the villains are family members, which sends an oh-so-lovely message to kids: your family is the enemy.
When you’re young, classic Disney villains are easy to comprehend. You primarily see the world in black and white, good or bad. My almost 8-year-old’s absolute disdain for curse words is a prime example. In his mind, there is no nuance. He knows they are bad and, therefore, wrong. He cannot comprehend how even though they’re “bad words,” there are occasions where only a well-placed f-bomb will do.
This inability to grasp an abstract moral dilemma is why the nuanced deuteragonist anti-hero or double-crossed twist villain fails to land with him and other children. Developmentally they aren’t able to comprehend that concept. It comes in time, but it’s not something that needs to be rushed because there’s a certain innocence that is lost with the realization that sometimes bad is good and good is bad. As adults, the classic villains land better too. We love to hate them in all their campy, over-the-top glory (and let’s be honest, they usually have the best song).
Adults can appreciate a misunderstood villain arc in ways children cannot. That’s why my favorite live-action “remake” is Maleficent. It took a classic evil baddie and gave her an almost sympathetic story. Disney’s treatment of this retelling is precisely how they should’ve done it. The family version featured more straightforward concepts of good vs. evil. The live-action film that didn’t necessarily intend for kids to be the target audience featured subtext and nuance. This is a formula that I think Disney could really win with.
So after much consideration, I have to admit that the author of that op-ed had a valid point but perhaps fell short of the proper conclusion. Rather than steering kids away from Disney, we should, instead, hope Disney finds its way again. Until then, we probably will steer clear of Disney. Our theater dollars aren’t unlimited, and I would much rather spend them on movies like The Super Mario Bros. Movie that I know is going to be on my son’s level and provide entertainment rather than propaganda.