Before I had children I osmosed from the left-leaning universe that Disney movies were evil. There was something inherently evil about princesses and the stereotype of the prince rescuing fair maids. There was something exploitative about a large, world dominating corporation that sucked money out of families via emotional manipulation. There was something wrong with Walt and his cryogen head and his evil movie empire.
Then I watched them as an adult and I realised that mostly they were just nice. I had read fairy tales as a child - the Red Shoes, Hansel and Gretel, the Little Mermaid, the Little Match Girl and the horrific Bluebeard. All with unhappy endings, important moral lessons on vanity, sacrifice without reward, poverty and marrying serial killers. These stories didn’t seem terrible at the time, as I read them with a child’s mind. It is only looking back on them as an adult that they seem so monstrous.
The stories did give a clue to the randomness of the world, the meanness of some people and the idea that revenge could and should be exacted. It wasn’t a cotton wool world of if I just try hard enough I will be rewarded. Although I like both the fantastical nature of these stories and their raw humanness, a movie version for children clearly needs to be tempered. Parents were unlikely to take their children to watch a movie that ended with Snow White making her step-mother dance to her death in heated iron shoes, or the mermaid having to endure the pain of razors in her legs while mutely watching her Prince marry someone else.
A slightly twee sincerity isn’t necessarily be evil. Even though the Disney movies are neatly tied up with true love and happy endings they don’t necessarily lack depth. As in most stories, something has gone wrong to create the story and initiate conflict. Many of the Disney tales start with the mother having died, which in previous times would have been a common enough scenario. This creates a moral universe, yes a simplistic one, but one nonetheless.
Some thinkers are fond of telling us how necessary books are, literature and the novel in particular, are to the creation of a moral universe, but I have found with my daughter that movies and music have been more important in helping her develop a complex emotional understanding. Children’s books these days are so very sanitised and lack emotional complexity let alone the grittiness of ordinary lives.
But it is the fantastical nature of the Disney and other movies (I think of movies as diverse as Nanny McPhee, Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, the Sound of Music, Pocahontas) that brings out the wonder in my daughter. They don’t sanitise but take the ordinary and make it extraordinary, vanity becomes grotesque, and badness malevolence. And it is this fantastical quality that elicits the questions from my daughter that her story books never do.
I struggle with my answers, to provide an honest but age appropriate response, “the mother died because she was very sick…They are trying to hurt them because they want their land and the gold underneath…Some people believe a person’s spirit goes into the trees and animals when they die…Alice thinks it is a dream but she is remembering she has been here before…The Red Queen was either born bad or turned bad later on…”
I know also, that although there are movies that are very much about right time right age, that my daughter looks and listens with a child’s mind. She doesn’t fully understand the motivations and emotional world of adults and so she doesn’t see what we see in these tales. Some movies are too scary and harmful, and we don’t watch those. But a whole range of other stories are too bland and not fantastical enough to generate any response at all.