By Andrew Tsou
Disney movies have traditionally been considered an excellent vehicle for educating one’s progeny regarding complex issues such as death (virtually every Disney movie features a prominent character who meets an untimely demise), friendship (every Disney hero has a loyal sidekick), and the value of moral perseverance (no Disney villain escapes the movie without receiving his/her comeuppance).
However, the movies are unfortunate, and not because of any factors relating to greed or any of that nonsense. No, the problem relates not to the films’ lack of sincerity, but rather to the lessons they purport to teach.
The most prominent can be found in “Beauty and the Beast.” Although the story is an old one, Disney’s primary innovations relating to the animation of the tea cups and other supposedly “inanimate” objects and composing some cutesy tunes, Disney’s failure to rectify the problems inherent in the story speaks to the company’s disregard for the morals of youth.
Essentially, the story should have been titled “Ugly and the Beast.” If the purpose of the story is to teach the Beast (and viewers) that true beauty is an interior property (a fascinatingly original and profound observation, that), then to make the Beast’s redeemer a young woman of great physical beauty is to eradicate the entire thrust of the intended message.
Further complicating the story is the fact that the plates, teapots, and candlesticks all have ulterior motives for seeing Belle and the Beast “get together,” as does the Beast himself; even if Belle had been ugly, wouldn’t it have been worth giving her the requisite attention and care regardless, if only to break the spell?
In fact, Disney movies are replete with characters miscast as villains and/or heroes. Take Cruella DeVil, a woman with an unfortunately moniker that automatically biases viewers against whatever agenda she may have. In fact, her motives are no more or less reprehensible or laudable than those of any businessperson attempting to profit from the creation of clothing made from animals. If Cruella is a true villain, then all people who create or wear products made of leather, wool, and other similar materials are equally culpable. The plethora of products offered by at least one website illustrates the absurdity of this.
Or consider Toy Story, in which a boy who plays with dolls far past the “normal” age is cast as the Good Guy, whereas Sid, who acts as most boys his age would, what with the explosives and creative dismantling and reassembling, is unfairly shown as the Bad Guy.
Ultimately, the easy, often stereotypical world seen in Disney creations is perpetually shallow and a horrible means of teaching young children about the world: take for example Mickey Mouse’s dog, Pluto, who exhibits absolutely no personality save following his master around and conveniently growling and leaping about at the right moments. This may be entertaining, but it is hardly useful as an educational tool.
Although not primarily a Disney creation, even if Disney has had some involvement with it, the cartoon strip “Peanuts” contains several problems, the most prominent being a subtle form of racism, perhaps the most abject form of all. If racism is portrayed openly, with epithets and open threats, it is much easier to condemn. However, consider the manner in which it is presented in the context of Peanuts, which introduced a token black character in the late 1960’s, presumably as an attempt at being “open-minded.”
Franklin (did you even know his name?) has absolutely no personality and is presented as a “filler” character, perpetually on the sidelines, and on those rare occasions when he is granted a chance to speak, it is never a punchline or a memorable phrase. Contrast this with the other minor Peanuts characters, who all have distinctive elements (besides the color of their skin, that is): Marcy is the nerdy, always-right foil to Peppermint Patty, who herself is a bizarre creature who seems incapable of realizing that Snoopy is not a human; Pigpen, as his name suggests, is a slob of a child; even Frieda has “naturally curly hair” that is actually the subject of dialogue within the strip.
Poor Franklin isn’t even given one of these token fragments, leaving him with an oddly passive temperament that makes one wonder why he even bothers to hang out with Charlie Brown and co. in the first place. In my experience, kids like Franklin tend to stay at home, composing diaries filled with self-loathing and jealousy for their more lively peers…actually, Charlie Brown fits that mold as well, but at least his self-pity is out in the open, giving the others a motive for keeping him around (in case you haven’t noticed, it’s always fun to be around the kid who never does anything right, because he’s a good source of comic relief and makes you feel better about yourself).
No, Franklin is the most forgettable character in the strip, even more dispensable than the adults who, in the feature films, speak with approximately the same level of clarity and intelligibility as the bumper cars operators at Kennywood.
Essentially, Disney and their peers misrepresent reality for the purpose of manufacturing feel-good films that reduce the complexities of humanity’s moral struggle to depressingly one-dimensional, often misguided allegories, not to mention racism masquerading as tolerance. This would perhaps not be quite as malevolent were the products marketed towards adults, who, one would hope, possess the requisite facilities to see past this façade, but because Disney’s primary audience is an indiscriminate, unthinking assemblage of people who have not yet learned to think, this failing goes unnoticed. The presence of cute characters and catchy songs further inoculates the films from criticism, as well as placating parents who are happy to see their children so happy.
I’m surprised more companies haven’t adopted this strategy. Oh, wait…