Much of the Second-Generation Disney focused more on societal views and parental infiltration rather than how their characters are misled by their society. Remaining true to Disney’s precedents, they view society as an evil to impress upon their viewers. For this section, only Robin Hood has been omitted as it is a retelling of a retelling of a legend.
As before, Disney has created an atmosphere in which a third party is shone in negative light. Aristocats, Fox and the Hound, The Black Cauldron, Great Mouse Detective, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan, A Bugs’ Life, Tarzan, Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis, Incredibles, Ratatouille, and The Princess and the Frog are all examples of how society views those that do not fit into a standard.
Edgar is a perfect depiction of society’s greed, which makes him the perfect adversary in The Aristocats. Upon overhearing where his wealthy employer is willing her money, Butler Edgar is more than happy to dispose of the cats. Consumed with rage upon their return, Edgar tries to ship them off only for a karmatic ending, for he is the one to be disposed of.
The beloved story where friendship takes place, Tod and Copper are the unlikeliest of friends as he’s a fox and Copper’s a hunt dog. Copper’s owner, Amos Slade, and Chief, his companion and an elder hunting dog, are the adversaries, for they inflict their own ideologies onto Copper – specifically where he must attack his best friend. Regardless of the standards set onto him by these two, Copper protects Tod and Slade must give up his vengeful quest.
In the Great Mouse Detective, it is Basils’ land lady and Dawson who are society’s critics rather than the villain. Based off the Sherlock Holmes series by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Basil is as eccentric as Mr. Holmes, whereas Dawson and the land lady are the "normal" standards. Each of Basil’s strange tests gives Dawson reason to lift an eyebrow. Both follow in Basils’ mysteries without truly conforming to him and do not try changing him, which creates a subliminal message for society to stop.
Another timeless classic, Beauty and the Beast returns to the villain being in control of society. But, they forget that the Beast was once as shallow as Gaston. Gaston only considers himself in love with Belle because she is beautiful and appropriately named so. The Beast once turned an old woman away because she was truly hideous. However, the Beast was given a second chance, whereas Gaston’s cruelty towards the outcasts such as Belle’s father, the Beast, and Belle herself, leaves the feeling that Gaston will never be able to redeem himself as the Beast had done.
Jafar from Aladdin conveys the idea that society uses the good-hearted for its purposes. Aladdin and Jasmine are both oppressed within their societies. Jasmine is naïve and is always protected within the palace walls – a prisoner of her home. Aladdin knows the streets and is willing to take a whipping for kids who ran in front of a prince’s horse. However, Jafar uses Aladdin to get into the Cave of Wonders with the intent to kill him once the job is finished. Likewise, he concocts a plan to marry Princess Jasmine for his ambition. It is due to his ambition that leads to his inevitable defeat.
Pocahontas is Disney’s way of collaborating history of America without guilt-tripping children. The English came with the idea of gold lodged in their brains. As they both realized they cannot live with each other, one of the captains, John Smith, and one of the tribe members, Pocahontas, became friends with the implication of something more. To the English, this was Smith’s betrayal as her tribe viewed the English as greed-driven men. John Smith was to be executed by the tribe, giving the English reason to go to war. It was Pocahontas who stood between the two and stopped the “drums of war.” This sacrifice was her way to control society’s decisions.
Disney’s retelling of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame is of society’s warped idea of which is beast and which is man. As this is a child’s movie, the thesis is stated in the first song and again at the ending in simplistic terms. Frollo, a clergy man who has repented the love of flesh, falls into obsession with Esmerelda, a gypsy. He is more than willing to burn her at the stake if she does not marry him. This can only reflect man’s greed and pride. Despite Frollo’s kindness to him, Quasimodo chooses to follow what is right to him rather than what Frollo wants – despite that these are the people who laughed at his deformity.
Hercules was born on Mount Olympus. He, too, is deformed by his strength in human society. Despite being regarded as a freak, he trained with Philotetes, more commonly known as Phil, to become one of the greatest warriors of Greece. Again, this is an example to surpass societal expectations.
During a time of war, it is not the Mongolians who oppress the female hero of China, but rather her society. Mulan is forced into the regular female standards, only she does not make a suitable wife. She becomes a cross-dresser under the pretense of saving her father. It isn’t until later in the movie that we discover it’s so she can feel worthwhile. The laws of her society at that time are that women are upheld by Chi-foo, the King’s advisor. He constantly reminds Mulan that women are worth nothing but at home and that they should learn to hold their tongue. He is also the one who tries to convince Shang Li to carry out the punishment involving death. Even when she destroys the Emperor’s palace, he acknowledges that she has saved China. To have Chi-foo desist in his arguments, the Emperor informs Mulan she can have his job, thus creating an adversarial dislike towards Mulan.
A Bug's Life, the third of Pixar’s early collaborations with Disney, is the story of a young, miscreant ant named Flint who loved to invent things. His fellow ants viewed this as an unorthodox and unproductive hobby. As it had knocked over the food to be given to the grasshoppers, his hobby is considered life endangering to the other ants. Again, it is his own society, not the grasshoppers, who cast him out. As he redeems himself, their once raised eyebrow towards his inventions are then set aside for the good of the people.
Another example of social endangerment is Tarzan. The lead ape, Kurchak, after his child’s death, closes his heart to all other children in his group. After being raised by these apes, Tarzan tries to continuously prove himself to Kurchak. He does so by killing Sybor, the spotted leopard. In doing so, he gains Kurchak’s trust. Upon meeting Jane, her father, and Clayton, that trust is dissolved. None of the apes’ trust Jane and her father; therefore, they are unsure of their relationship to Tarzan. It is resolved when Jane and her father are proved to be trustworthy and Clayton is not. This portrays society’s thin veil of trust to those who are not the similar in the group and their need to stereotype.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire, much like Pocahontas, is the study of a linguist explorer meeting a supposedly abandoned civilization. Milo, the main character, wishes for the survival of the newly returned Atlantis. His companions, especially Commander Rourke, are easily motivated by money. It is via society’s greed and influence that Commander Rourke almost succeeded in the genocide of Atlantians.
In another collaboration of Pixar and Disney, The Incredibles shares the same moral as Hercules in which they are found useless in modern day society. Through villainy of Mr. Parks ex-biggest fan, they are brought into the idea that they are needed as heroes and are worthwhile. It focuses on Mr. Park’s midlife crisis and his deformity.
In yet another collaboration of Pixar and Disney, Ratatouille is through the defiance of a rat and incompetence of a young man. Through their friendship, they defy society’s standard of disgust rather than become consumed by it.
In keeping with tradition, the Disney Corporation has allowed for a few films to be via parental expectations rather than social. The examples are as follows: The Little Mermaid and The Lion King.
Ariel’s father, King Tritan, has a shallow perspective of humanity. Though not explained until the third movie, it is only guessed that something happened to Tritan that gave him the tainted view of humanity. Symbolic of social expectations where people stay where they are instead of venturing off, King Tritan rules with cruelty. Through Ursula, she gains her wish to explore the surface and, eventually, Tritan wavers to allow his daughter to marry the human boy she loved.
Adapted from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Lion King, too, has the biased ideologies of parental expectations. After Simba had lost his father, he became desperate for a father figure. His uncle used this to his advantage to have Simba out of his way of the throne. For a time, Simba followed his uncle’s advice. It is Scar’s ambition and pride that destroys him.
Kyle Munkittrick at Discover has an amazing essay on what Disney’s Pixar movies have taught us what it really means to be human — without being an actual human person. And not just that, but also what this means for how humans will react with other entities in the future, such as technology. The way Disney and Pixar have accomplished this is by creating entire worlds without humans as the main focus, or even present. As a result, we might be learning that it’s a bad idea to underestimate the intelligence of animals, robots, and even other humans.
Besides Disney being so successful at telling good stories that appeal to adults and children alike, their writers have also been stealthily inserting messages about humanity, all while telling stories that are not even about humans. But therein lies the question: What makes someone or something really human?
Munkittrick cites the origins of Pixar stories in The Lion King:
The Lion King stands out in that the universe is animal only. There is no trash on the Serengeti, no airplanes flying over, no animals in hats or walking unnaturally on hind legs. You can’t even date when the story takes place, because there are no human references from which to calculate an approximation. Save for the fact that Zazu knows “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts,” there is no evidence that the characters within The Lion King even know humans exist.
But all those animals display the same emotions we do: love, anger, grief, a sense of family and pride. I know, because they are anthropomorphized creatures in a Disney movie, but hear me out for a moment.
Now that we’ve been introduced to a world without humans, now humans can be introduced. All of Pixar’s films take place in the regular, human world. Earth. However, both the non-human creatures and the humans that are featured as main characters are misfits, non-conformists. Like Linguini in Ratatouille, but also Ratatouille himself, who is shunned by his rat family for wanting to be a chef. The important thing to remember about Pixar movies is that the non-humans are just as intelligent and sentient as the humans are. (And not because of magic.) Everyone is evenly matched, everyone is feeling the same range of emotions. (If they’re not, they are probably the antagonist.) And while the odd couples might not get along at first, it’s their mission to learn to respect what each has to offer and realize that they’re not so different after all. Their needs are the same, and they just want to work together.
Victory in the battle for the rights and respect from both groups will come from an act of exemplary personhood and humaneness by those who dare to break ranks with their kind. Thus, the Human as Partner story arc ends with the capitulation of those who refused to recognize the personhood of the non-human and a huge reward coming to those who accepted the non-humans as fellow persons. In Monsters Inc. Mike and Sully discover that laughter yields far more energy than screams. In Ratatouille Anton Ego has an epiphany and gives one of my favorite speeches of all time in response to a Proustian flashback he experiences after eating Remy’s cooking. In WALL•E none less than the human race is saved from the brink of self-induced-extinction. In short, the benefits for humanity are tremendous in every case where non-human persons are treated with respect.
And this all leads to the battle for “the rights of personhood.”
The message hidden inside Pixar’s magnificent films is this: humanity does not have a monopoly on personhood. In whatever form non- or super-human intelligence takes, it will need brave souls on both sides to defend what is right. If we can live up to this burden, humanity and the world we live in will be better for it.
The entire essay is definitely worth a read, and you may never watch a Pixar film the same way again. Certainly, we got sentimental after watching Toy Story, which was a wonderful nostalgia trip back to childhood. But now, we can consider looking forward, to a future of WALL-Es and Dugs, and maybe even the Incredibles. And then underestimate them at our own risk!