Family Life in Disney Films

An esteemed reader with the glorious Slavic name of Stanislav offers the following challenge to Disney, the Devil-Mouse:

Certainly, the Devil Mouse only took off the mask completely after Roy Disney had passed, but anything produced under Eisner differed from the current Disney production only in that at the time they still have remembered to put poison into candy, instead of presenting it to audience as it is.

Agree in part and disagree in part. Modern Disney is entirely woke, and we have all seen the cloven hoof. But this was a corruption, not an ongoing evil present since the beginning.

If you think that I’m exaggerating, consider, just for starters, this: how many examples of unbroken, happy families can you name in the entire corpus of Disney works from that period? How many after we discard The Lion King where the plot just could not possibly work without someone having children at some point?

I am not sure you are being fair: How many examples of unbroken, happy families can you name in early Disney, long before the rot set it, or for that matter, in any fairy tale or adventure story?

Let us count.

Snow White, Disney’s first film, the heroine was an orphan being raised by a wicked stepmother who meant to murder her.

Pinocchio was a puppet created and adopted by a toymaker, without a mother or anything like.

Dumbo is without a father, and his mother is in chains.

Bambi’s mother is shot in the third act, albeit he does have a rather impressive father who lives apart from her.

There is no hint of family life one way or the other in Mr. Toad’s Wild ride. Ichabod Crane is a bachelor.

Cinderella again concerns an orphan oppressed by a wicked stepmother.

Alice of Wonderland has a happy and intact family before she goes to sleep, but it is offstage. Perhaps this counts, perhaps not.

On the other hand, Wendy and her brothers from Peter Pan does indeed have a happy, intact family, albeit the main action concerns Peter himself and the Lost Boys, of which the main plot point is that they have no mother.

Lady and the Tramp portrays a happy and intact family, even if the Tramp himself has no relatives.

Sleeping Beauty has an intact family, even if she never meets her parents until she turns sixteen.

One Hundred and One Dalmatians portrays a happy, intact family, both of humans and of dogs, even if the dogs adopt eighty-eight orphaned puppies at the end.

With Sword in the Stone, Arthur is, of course, a bastard born of an outrage against another man’s wife, so this is the very epitome of lacking a loving, intact family: but this is in the original lore, not an invention of Disney.

Mowgli of Jungle Book is also an orphan, raised by a loving, intact family of wolves, but these are not human, so I am not sure what to make of that. This was the last animated film Disney himself had a hand in.

By this count, seven of the early Disney films star orphans; three portray happy family life; the others make no strong point one way or the other. Orphans outnumber heroes with happy homelife.

Of live action films from Disney back when Disney himself was at the helm, the plot of Song of the South revolves around Little Jonny’s family being estranged, sending him to go live on his grandmother’s plantation, and only finding reconciliation once the boy is gored by a bull.

Jim Hawkins of Treasure Island is an orphan.

The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men opens with young Robin’s father being killed by henchmen of Prince John.

Films like Rob Roy, 20000 Leagues Under the Sea and Davy Crockett do not dwell on the family life of the characters, and may not even mention them.

Old Yeller takes place over a summer where the father of the family is absent, but the family itself is intact and happy.

Darby O’Gill and the Little People does revolve around family life in an Irish village, but, unlike the book from which it is taken,  Darby is a widower, raising his daughter alone. The antagonist, Pony Sugrue, has a witchy old mother, but no father is mentioned. The fairies are fallen angels, and have no parents.

Kidnapped opens with the death of the hero’s father, and concerns the evil uncle attempting to rook him out of his legacy, so this is as broken and unhappy a family as it gets.

Swiss Family Robinson has an intact and happy family, if shipwrecked.

The Parent Trap has a family not intact, which the twin daughters attempt to conspire back together.

Mary Poppins also has a family which is intact and together, but not happily, and the magic of the nanny conspires them back together. A film more dead set on glamorizing family life is hard to imagine, and, even if it were imagined, it would not be as good as this film.

Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin was the last live action film Disney himself worked on. The plot here concerns Jack, a boy from Boston, who runs away from his family, seeking to restore his family fortunes in the California Gold Rush. He is pursued by the very proper family butler, Griffin, who accidently gets a reputation as a boxer and a tough guy. Hilarity ensues, villains are foiled, and the butler ends up marrying the pretty older sister. Family is not onstage, but the attempt to keep it intact is what drives the film.

I have not mentioned several live action films in this count, and I am not sure how to count films where the family is partly or wholly broken at the outset, but healed and whole by the end. About half the films star orphans.

With this, let us skip over a decade or so, ignoring the slump, and looking at the works of the Disney Renaissance under Eisner.

In the animated films of Renaissance Disney, there is always at least one parent missing:

Oliver and Company stars an orphan;

The Little Mermaid’s mother is long dead;

Cody of Rescuers Down Under does not have a family come onstage one way or the other;

The mother of Belle in Beauty and the Beast is absent, as is any hint of the mother or father of the Beast;

Aladdin is an orphan, and Jasmine’s mother is absent here, as she was in the 1940 Thief of Bagdad, which the Disney film followed pretty closely.

Lion King we can grant as an exception, since the plot revolves around dynastic succession.

There is no hint of an mother in A Goofy Movie.

The mother of Pocahontas died in childbirth before the film begins, even if John Smith presumably has a family back in England.

Quasimodo of Hunchback is an orphan, as his gypsy mother is killed in the opening flashback.

Hercules, on the other hand, has not one intact and loving family, but two, a human and a divine. Unlike the original myth, Hera in the Disney version is the mother, and loves the child.

Mulan not only has a loving and intact family, but a wisecracking grandmother as well, not to mention a shrine full of ancestors.  Obligations to the family name form the core of the plot.

Tarzan, is, of course, an orphan, but is raised by an intact family of apes, even if he does not get along, at first, with his overbearing Ape Dad.

Emperor’s New Groove, on the other hand, not only has a father with two children and a pregnant wife as the main hero, saving his family home from the selfishness of a bratty Emperor is the main plot.

And I will list this as the last of the Disney Renaissance films: they drop to very low quality indeed hereafter. Brother Bear was bad. Let us never speak of Home on the Range.

Here we have eight or so orphans out of thirteen films or so, at least three or four of which portray family life as paramount, and depict a happy family life.

This list, at best, seems ambiguous to me. Most adventurers, from Frodo Baggins to the Pevensey children to James Bond to John Carter, Warlord of Mars, either are orphans or, by some contrivance, are separated from parents during the adventure.

Superheroes have the worst of it: Bruce Wayne is an orphan, Kal-El is the last of his dead world, Wonder Woman is a bastard (unless she is a golem, take your pick), Peter-Parker lost both parents and his Uncle Ben, and none of the X-men get along with their parents.

Those whose parents are alive are not necessarily any happier: Shang-Chi’s father is Fu Manchu, and Scarlet Witch’s father is Magneto. And so on.

In the movies, at least, Hawkeye has a loving and intact family, which comes as quite a shock and a relief, and one the Woke will never forgive.

And, of course, in Star Wars, Luke Skywalker suffers both evil fates at once: not only do his aunt and uncle get gunned down in Act Two, in the sequel we discover his father is Dark Vader, the archvillain of all villains.

Princess Leia suffers the combined fates of Kal-El and Bruce Wayne: not only is her family killed, and her race and her world, but it happens right before her eyes. Kal-El, at least, was a baby, and slept through it, and only remembers his loving family life among the Kents of Kansas.

For underage adventurers, the reason for having no family onstage is clear enough: if your father were here, he would fight the pirates, not you. If your mother were here, she would tell you to mind your manners and not fall down the rabbit hole.

For a very similar reason, adventurers like Harry Potter have to be put in a place where they cannot simply phone the police.

For adult adventurers, often enough, marriage is an institution, (along with all wholesome things in life) the hero sacrifices his own happiness or even his life to preserve: Frodo does not wed, but destroying the One Ring allows Sam Gamgee to marry Rose Cotton, not to mention Aragorn weds Arwen.

Or creating the marriage, by killing everyone on Mars who stands between you and your bride, as John Carter does, is the point of the adventure: rescue the girl to win her hand to live happily ever after.

That said, by the time Disney was making Pocahontas, the film was more rightly called PC-hontas, because it was all message film and no film. The moral of the story is that White Man are bad, because both Red and White are savages at heart.

This is not just a terrible message, it is an evil one, for by equating civilization and savagery, it sides with savagery. I blame Rosseau for this, (as I blame him for every evil in modern life not otherwise blamed on Marx or Nietzsche).

More to the point, John Smith and Pocahontas are not wed at the end, which would have been the expected ending of a property constructed story. (And if any feels the need to excuse this by saying that the real Pocahontas married John Rolfe, we will merely ask you to bring your excuses to Old Mother Willow Tree.)

The shock of Mulan following Pocahontas cannot be overstated: it is an absurdly conservative film, because the point there is not that a girl can serve in the military as well as a boy, but that she cannot. Mulan does manage to overcome the foe, but not by strength and boldness, but by trickery, craft, and explosives. Everything in the plot revolves around family and family honor.

I suppose Disney escaped the thought police in that day and age by setting all these events in ancient China, so that the rubric of multiculturalism could mask the otherwise absurdly conservative depiction of family values as the prime good in life. And, as befits any good fairy tale, Mulan ends in a wedding.

Emperor’s New Groove, likewise, has family life is presented as the only thing in life worth having.

From this brief survey, it seems clear enough to me the Eisner had just as many honest and decent films as subversive and indecent, a Mulan for every Pocahontas.

So the evil that corrupted Disney, I would propose, while present as seedlings in these older films, had not born fruit until Pocahontas, and even then, there were standout exceptions.