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A Whole New World—Evolution of the Disney Movie

Real life seldom has picture-perfect happily-ever-afters. But when one watches a Disney movie, for a little while, one is convinced that maybe happy endings exist after all. This is the eternal magic of Disney. Walt Disney was a controversial man, but he sowed the seeds for the kind of entertainment that would bring happiness to generations of children and adults alike.

Since its origin 94 years ago, in 1923, The Walt Disney Company has come a long way. Its deal with 21st Century Fox in late 2017 could go on to be one of the biggest media deals in history.
The original animated Disney movies have, however, exhibited very little diversity until recently. Jasmine was Disney’s first non-European princess in 1992, followed by Pocahontas. Both these movies attracted criticism for portraying Middle Eastern and Native American cultures incorrectly. But the tide has now begun to turn. Tiana was Disney’s first African-American princess in its adaptation of The Princess and the Frog. Tangled, Brave, and Frozen all featured atypical female characters. Brave, especially was a breath of fresh air with Merida, a flaming redhead Scottish princess showing very little regard for societal standards of behaviour. (Though Merida is officially a Disney princess, she was a Pixar creation)

However, with their waif-like appearance, Disney princesses have a track-record of displaying unrealistic standards of beauty. Disney had originally redesigned Merida’s appearance to give her the trademark ‘Disney princess’ look- a slimmer waist, large eyes, and a more revealing dress. Only after a petition garnered attention, did they revert her to her original form.

Princess Merida’s final look, versus the waif-like appearance initially suggested by Disney.

Disney’s redemption came with its marriage to Pixar. Disney was wooed by Pixar’s technical prowess, but the merger also diversified the stories that Disney movies had been telling. While Disney’s most popular movies were retellings of old fairytales, Pixar movies offered more believable and realistic characters. Toy Story (1995), despite being about toys in a child’s bedroom, contained well-rounded characters that one could identify with. Pixar has kept up with its mantra of conveying complex emotions like grief, loss, and loneliness with offerings such as Up, Wall-E, Inside Out and its most recent, Coco. Coco was also Pixar’s first movie to feature a minority as the main character. As such, it faced a lot of expectations, and it delivered. It succeeded in immersing the viewer in the Mexican culture and did not merely offer an outsider’s perspective.

Representation of different gender identities and sexualities, on the other hand, is something that commercial animated features have yet to explore. Aside from a few subtle depictions of queer characters, there have been no openly gay or lesbian characters in Disney movies. Considering the reach and impact that these movies have on children, Disney featuring openly gay characters would be a momentous step for the LGBTQA+ community. It could be affirming for children to have a beloved gay character that they could look up to. Despite initial resistance from some sections of society, this would be a risk with a good pay-off.

Finding Dory featured a couple that may have been lesbian.

The sight of a grand castle rising in the foreground never ceases to inspire a sense of wonder at the beginning of each Disney movie. In a world where things don’t always go one’s way, these movies offer satisfaction- you know that in the end, everything will be put to right. This, perhaps, is why children and adults alike are drawn in by the magic of Disney. The colourful montages, dramatic songs and dance numbers, and adventurous journeys into the unknown – they appeal to the child in each one of us. At every Disney movie screening, along with the children, there will, without fail, be lone adults seeking to experience the simple pleasure of feeling like a child again.

This is what’s special about animated movies. They blur the lines between what is real and what could be. And that is why we need them – they’re a small serving of something that feels like magic.