By Dan Stout
No childhood memories are as magical as classic Disney films. At the Saturday matinee with my friends, the barn scene in 101 Dalmatians offered pleasant escape and brief security during troubled times at home. Similarly, the spaghetti scene in Lady and the Tramp was a first hint at the excitation of romance on the horizon. As for Mary Poppins, I recall preteens crying as they filed out of the theater; they didn’t want it to end. Despite Disney’s international reputation for quality child entertainment, it has drawn sharp criticism. The Smithsonian’s recent documentary, “The Real Beauty and the Beast” uncovers the dark side of Disney in its meticulously researched origins of the child classic. Unfortunately, the animated movie and subsequent Broadway musical cheats us, muting the moral impacts of the fable. With nearly automatic praise of Disney products by Mormons, it may be time to revisit the Disney legacy that is being called into question by literary and film critics.
The ending of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast has always baffled me. If inner beauty trumps outer appearance, why is the beast turned back into a handsome prince at the end? Earlier versions contain no such transformation; we love the complete person, and grasp the virtue of character over charisma. In a time when bullying is prevalent in schools, the story remains relevant. The tale chides the superficialities of fashion, glamour, and possessions, challenging us to stress character over cosmetics. However, Beauty falls victim to the sanitation tendency of many fairy tale versions. Sanitized Disney films are abundant.
Cinderella supports this argument as well. In the Grimm fairy tale, she is neither delicate nor beautiful, but in Disney films, most heroines are glamorous, implying that beauty defines success. In the Grimm tale, the stepsisters are punished for their behavior: not in the Disney versions, however. In search of large audiences, nuance is stripped from the narrative, either diluting or eliminating some moral messages all together. Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid is another victim of Disney’s sanitation, primarily unwillingness to depict consequences of abandoning moral principle. In both Disney and ancient versions of Mermaid, she makes a deal with the witch by forfeiting her female voice. But, Disney returns her voice while the latter keeps the punishment in tact, leaving us to ponder the price of yielding one’s right to free expression.
The moral-message flattening of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is hard to top, however. The Smithsonian documentary fills in rich details, resulting in a thought-provoking work that, while speaking to all ages, provides a fuller narrative that parents can pass on to children during story time.
The beauty-and-the-beast fable exists in some form on all continents. Smithsonian historians trace the popularized Disney version to a painting of a wolfman-like hairy man, Petra Gonzalez, found in a castle in the Austrian alps in 1547. Born with hypertrychosis, a disease of excessive hair growth throughout the body, Petra is shunned initially, and thrown into French dungeons. To the surprise of medical experts, he’s intelligent, a good learner–and kind. Subsequently, a place in the King’s court is eventually earned, and Petra’s marriage lasts 40 years. Little information about his death exists nor has his grave been located.
In an era when the physically-challenged endured inhumane treatment if not extermination, Petra is afforded dignity despite his deformity. The painting itself, an artifact reserved for royalty and officials of prestige, supports this claim. And, unlike Disney’s version, there’s no transformation into a handsome prince, an eradication of the moral; Petra is loved for character, inspiring us at a level that the diluted Disney narrative never fully attains.
The Smithsonian film doesn’t stop there; it relates the beauty-and-the-beast story of Larry Gomez, an actor living in Los Angeles with comparable adversities. One of 50 victims of hyoertrychosis in the world, he abandons a life in freak shows and circuses. Determined, he cultivates a life theme of celebrating uniqueness maintaining a positive outlook, despite derision, divorce, and an unwanted estrangement from his son. Again, no “handsome prince” conversion; only the weathered joy of a life fought optimistically, and a circle of friends drawn to his heart of gold.
Unfortunately, Disney’s glossed-over history, and historical inaccuracy extends to other movies. The Middle Ages depicted in Aladdin is an adventure-oriented distortion. Islam is presented unclearly if at all; specific beliefs are not evident, leaving an uncivilized picture of Middle Easterners. Britain’s evolution is more civilized and advanced in Disney works, despite precious gifts of art, science, and medicine by historical Egypt and other Middle Eastern regions.
In all fairness to Walt Disney, good feelings and enchantment elicited by artful animation and good writing are unequaled contributions. Children, he believed, deserve magic moments; they shouldn’t be frightened out of their wits, nor should cartoons be expected to substitute for history classes. The art of animation was his gift. To his credit, moral messages are conveyed, if not didactically.
Dumbo and Bambi are two examples. Regrettably, the protectionist approach yields sanitized fables bereft of key elements of the world’s cherished tales. Unlike the Grimm’s version of Little Red Riding Hood, for example, where the red-cloaked girl learns of the dangers of entering the forest, (perhaps the point of the story), she and her grandmother are rescued with no problems, narrowing the range of interpretation much like a Rockwell painting where life is good and happiness easily restored to any situation.
No doubt Disney will continue to find safe haven in the Mormon milieu of child entertainment, and deservedly so. From a media literacy perspective, how do we teach children critical skills to view such movies? Such skills are helpful in comparisons of Disney, Dr. Seuss, and Veggie Tales, among others.
Disney also makes movies for adults. How prepared are we to elucidate their moral messages? It depends on our knowledge structure regarding fairy tales and fables. Perhaps in the Disney Age, we’ve forgotten the power of these stories to help us think through moral dilemmas.