Monday, August 10, 2009

Disney Alienation

So I've been entertaining myself by watching some classic Disney animated films on youtube, and I was struck by a theme that seems to unite many of them, certainly in the era after they discovered that heroines should actually be given personalities. Beyond even the twisted notions of love for which Disney is so justly famous, almost every protagonist was suffering from a severe case of alienation at the beginning of the film. They all felt different, out-of-place, mocked, and so forth.
I stole the list below from the official Disney site- let's have a look:

1937 –Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: not really, I suppose
1940 –Pinocchio definitely
1940 –Fantasia well, no, but N/A really
1941 –Dumbo yup
1942 –Bambi I suppose not
1943 –Saludos Amigos never heard of it
1945 –The Three Caballeros ditto
1946 –Make Mine Music ditto
1947 –Fun and Fancy Free ditto
1948 –Melody Time ditto
1949 –The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad never seen, not really a classic
1950 –Cinderella well...she is out-of-place and unloved, but she doesn't really harp on it because of the aforementioned personality thing
1951 –Alice in Wonderland haven't seen the Disney version, certainly high on the alienation in the original

okay, this is tiring, let's skip over several because it seems pretty clear at this point that all the films I was thinking about are from one, shorter era.
1989 –The Little Mermaid: whole songs about it
1990 –The Rescuers Down Under: haven't seen
1991 –Beauty and the Beast very much so
1992 –Aladdin: to some degree
1994 –The Lion King: I suppose not.
1995 –Pocahontas: a little, but not a major theme
1996 –The Hunchback of Notre Dame: well yeah, the poster child for it. Not even posting links here
1997 –Hercules: quite
1998 –Mulan: very much so
1999 –Tarzan: oh yes and understandably so

So in that 10 year period, 6 of the films had alienation as a major theme, including 4 in a row. (And all those four with a pretty uniform structure: Someone feels that they will never fit into their society because they are different and flawed. Others assure them that they are wonderful as they are. Then they dare to be themselves, save the day, and everybody recognizes how very wonderful they truly are.) Now I know that alienation is one of the themes of modern existence, but that seemed a little extreme.

And the situation is even more odd when you think about the target audience. Firstly, these are little kids- is it really true that all little children see themselves as ostracized outsiders? And we're not talking about fringe films for the kids who are a little different- this is mainstream entertainment that seems to assume that every child will relate to the problems of this protagonist.

It's possible that these messages are pitching to slightly older children- the little ones will come for the music and adventure and so forth, so the messages of alienation are trying to hook in the young adolescent crowd. And such feelings are stereotypical of adolescence.

It's also possible that Disney just enjoys the message and doesn't really care about the target audience, but that hardly sounds like their M.O.

But still, this sentiment of being a rejected outsider- I had always assumed that it was typical only of those who are atypical. It's strange to think that Disney, at least, assumes that all kids feel this way enough to make it a major theme of their existences.


Mike said...

I think a lot of it is just the conventions of storytelling, a story needs some conflict to thrive on and alienation is an easy way of creating it.

Erachet said...

What Mike said. And also, I bet a lot more kids feel alienated than you might think. Even the ones who seem to always fit in. You know?

Tobie said...

Mike: Interestingly, the main characters almost always have some external source of conflict that is much more engrossing than the internal- the conflict is usually good for one song at the beginning and some smiles at the end the whole strucgtrue stems from the villian rather than the alienation.

mike said...

I don't share your love for disney cartoons, but is there another way that they create a character besides the alienation, it really is a time efficient way of getting audience sympathy

inkstainedhands said...

One of the things I feel is that Disney makes its films appeal to different ages that way.

You have the children, enjoying the images on the screen and the music, and then you have those children growing up into teenagers who might remember that part of their childhood and watch that video again and be able to relate.

I used to watch a lot of Disney movies when I was younger. Then I 'grew out' of them. A couple of years ago (maybe less) I started watching some again on YouTube.

At different ages, you find different things in it. You uncover different layers. The same goes for anything, really. Books, music, etc.

Miri said...

Tobie, both Snow White and cinderella were both made to wear rags and scrub floors in their own homes by evil stepmothers (stepmothers who could obviously afford to hire the help, mind you) and snow whites stepmom had her taken out into the forest to be killed. that sounds more like actual alienation as a phyical everyday reality as opposed to an internal conflict but don't you think that counts?

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delilah@israel said...

i was born in sovet union and i really remeber first time i saw disney cartoons-they were so different from soviet ones. i did not get anything that happened but i enjoyed this non-stopping beautiful action. this cartoons are not to teach, they are for entertaiment.

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