by Opeyemi Ifafore
Have you ever noticed that many of Disney’s animated films feature protagonists with a troubled family background?
It’s as if Disney creators sat around with all of these stories and asked, “How can we make the viewer feel pity for the character right away?” It’s a gimmick that works because it forces you to root for the underdog.
Many Disney princess movies follow this same formula. In their very first animation, “Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs,” Snow White is an orphan who lives with her evil stepmother. In “Cinderella,” Cinderella, also an orphan, lives with an evil step mother and two stepsisters, who force her to be their servant. In “The Princess and the Frog,” Tiana’s father dies, and her mother works as a maid for the wealthy.
But it’s not just the princess movies that follow this route.
“Tarzan” and “The Lion King” follow a similar pattern in which either one or both of the parents are dead and the children are forced to live a life of hardship. Although they never over elaborate on these hardships, the audience see how those events drastically change the protagonist’s character.
These struggles teach the main characters about independence, and in doing so, Disney has made me want to be as strong as those characters.
Let’s go back to the princesses.
Rather than seeing Snow White as just a princess who was awakened by true love’s kiss, we have to remember her bravery and perseverance. Snow White is bullied by the biggest bully of them all: the queen. Her father was murdered, and she was kicked out of her own home all because of her beauty. People are bullied for many reasons, but Snow White’s story teaches us to be strong and to be a survivor like her. I don’t want to sound like a Destiny’s Child record, but Snow White became independent because of her circumstances. Part of that independence is also realizing when you need help. She shows us the power of love and support through her relationship with the seven dwarfs. Sometimes life knocks you down and you have to pick yourself back up. The support of loved ones can help you do that.
Cinderella shows us the destructive power of envy. Those that envy others try to bring them down. Cinderella lives in a household that is not conducive to self-growth. Earlier in the film, Cinderella sneakily sings with the animals and curbs her happiness. However, in order to be strong and independent, one has to push back against the enviers, and that’s exactly what Cinderella does. By attending the ball and illuminating the kindness in her heart, she rids herself of the household she has been forced to live in. It’s easy to say the prince saved her from a life of turmoil, but it’s the independent decision she made that helped her turn her life around. Part of being strong and independent is staying true to yourself no matter how others may treat you. Cinderella could have developed a cold heart and choose to seek revenge for the maltreatment; instead, she always has joy in her heart and respect for others.
In “The Princess and the Frog,” Tiana taught us to work hard toward our dreams and to not get distracted by instant gratification. After her father died, Tiana wants nothing more than to make their dreams come true. She wants a restaurant of her own. While she works at someone else’s restaurant, her friends pester her about not wanting to hang out with them. They don’t understand that accomplishing your goals sometimes means making sacrifices. Her boss is also very discouraging. He always says that she couldn’t be anything more than the waitress she currently is. It would have been easy for Tiana to forego her dreams when no one seemed to believe in her, but she illustrates that the most important person that can believe in you is you.
Independence isn’t just displayed in the female characters, but the male protagonists as well. Life isn’t easy for Tarzan and Simba either. They are both forced into new and uncomfortable environments, but come out of it stronger and more confident.
Tarzan is forced to live with gorillas after his parents are killed by a cheetah named Sabor. He could have given up the hope to survive, but he doesn’t. Perseverance gets him through the gruesome training of his gorilla family; learning to slide and swing through trees is not an easy feat. Because of his training, he defeats the evil Sabor and keeps the jungle safe. Tarzan is required to change his ways in order to adapt to his environment, and he does it without complaints, without giving up. Part of being independent is accepting change and knowing how to positively react to that change.
Simba is another character who was forced into a life he didn’t want. At the beginning of the movie, Simba doesn’t realize the sacrifice, the strength, and the confidence it takes to rule over others. It seems like his life is handed to him on a golden platter, but the destructive power of envy takes hold and changes Simba’s life for the better. After the murder of his father by his uncle Scar, Simba is exiled from the kingdom he was supposed to rule. This event is not only humbling, but it forces Simba to look within himself and avoid being gullible. Independence is about trusting your instinct and listening to advice from others who may have gone through similar situations. Initially, Simba doesn’t listen to the advice of his father, but his father’s words save him when it matters most. He needs to remember where he comes from and to use that as a guide to be better than what he was. He needs to believe in himself.
Disney animated films, although fictional, tackle issues that real people deal with, and they show the protagonist development by making him or her go through obstacles. No matter how bad the situation may be, the characters find themselves and become better people because of it. It’s Disney’s way of saying, “Don’t be a victim of your own circumstances.”
These movies portray that we will all go through hardship, and because of those challenges, we will become stronger and gain confidence in our own abilities.