Looking over my recent posts, I noticed that most of them are pretty negative. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Cultural analysis does involve critiquing culture now and again, but today I decided I’d like to write about (what I believe is) a positive thing in our culture: Disney.
I’d like to think I’m a child of the Disney generation, growing up in the years of such greats as The Lion King, Toy Story, Aladdin, and Mulan. I was raised on a steady diet of colorful characters and sing-along songs, perhaps to the point of excess. When I was just barely two years old, I’d already picked a favorite movie: Mary Poppins. My first trip to the child’s paradise of Disney World was one of the best I’ve ever had, considering I was three and I still remember most of it. I knew every word of “Under the Sea,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “I Wanna Be Like You,” and “Trashin’ the Camp,” if you can call “Shoo-bop-shee-doo” a word. Yup, I was Disney-fied to the extreme as a kid, but as I got older I realized that I wasn’t the only one. A good portion of kids my age and older knew Disney well, even better than I sometimes. Now, this in and of itself is not so strange. What kid doesn’t like to dance along in the middle of the living room with a big, blue, cloud-like Genie? The thing that surprises me is the number of those kids that are now 16, 17, 18 years old and still love Disney.
Here’s an example: two years ago, Toy Story 3 premiered in theaters. My little sister was excited, but not excessively worked up. I, however, was ecstatic, and apparently, I was not the only teen who felt that way. When my family arrived at the theater and got in line for tickets, I saw more teens more excited, and I’m not joking about this, about requesting tickets for Toy Story 3 than for The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. No joke. Teens came in packs, in pairs, pulling little siblings along with enthusiasm, they even came *gasp* with their whole family to see this movie. The generation that first fell in love with Buzz and Woody was the most pleased to see them on the silver screen again. It was heartwarming in a weird, unexpected way. As I thought about it, I realized I didn’t even really understand why I was so excited for the film. Why was I? Why am I and so many other teens and adults still in love with the classic, Disney fairytale formula? They’re supposed to be kids’ movies, right?
Well, right and wrong, actually. Fairytales, by definition, are watered-down stories designed to be told to children to entertain them. Courtesy of Dictionary.com, “fairy tale” is defined as: “a story, usually for children, about elves, hobgoblins, dragons, fairies, or other magical creatures…a story about fairies or other mythical or magical beings, especially one of traditional origin told to children.”
Walt Disney took this formula and transferred it to the realm of animation. Classic fairytales like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella were some of the first to be brought to life. Disney knew that animation in and of itself was a modern curiosity that would bring fans to theaters, but too much newness might keep some at bay. Instead of creating new, animated movies, with new, never-before-seen plots, Disney chose to re-invent stories American culture already knew by heart. These tales were already treasured and loved, and what fan wouldn’t want to see a new rendition of their favorite story? At its core, then, Disney is most famous and most popular for recreating old stories, mostly fairytales. So, it has to be something about the original fairytales themselves that draws people to them, and then to Disney.
Over the summer, I attended a writing conference hosted by the Institute for Excellence in Writing that covered this very phenomenon. I’d heard complex, pompous-sounding renditions of, “Why We Love Fairytales And Why They Are So Important,” before, but the speaker, Andrew Pudewa, presented the presumably impossible psychology of imagination so simply, and it made so much sense. Stories, he described, can be categorized into four groups: Whole, Healing, Broken, and Twisted. Each group is best served to a certain audience, teaches certain lessons, and reflects certain aspects of the world depending on the themes in them:
Whole Stories: where good is good, bad is bad, and good wins. These are most young children’s stories, and most young children should have only these on their bookshelves. Whole stories present the world as it will ultimately be: it has good in it, it has bad in it, but no matter what the bad does, good always wins in the end because it is good. Most fairytales fit into this category perfectly. Think of Cinderella, Aladdin, Tangled, Mulan, and Sleeping Beauty for only a few Disney examples.
Healing Stories: where good is good, bad is bad, good does not win but there is redemption for the bad guys. This is a whole story grown up a little, since it presents the world as children growing up see it: there is good in the world, and there is bad in the world, and although sometimes bad stuff happens, there’s still always something good in the end. Disney is not very good at this type of story, but there are a few of their plots that can fit the mold. The Lion King is one, I think. Yes, good conquers evil, the guy gets the girl, et cetera et cetera, but Simba had to lose his dad before any of that could happen. And despite the victory, Mufasa does not come back. He’s gone for good, and that leaves a sad mark on the story. It’s a story that kids appreciate more as they get older because it portrays death in real life: when someone you love dies, they don’t come back, but there can still be happiness in the end.
Broken Stories: where good is good, bad is bad, and bad wins. Period. This is the story all grown up, an adult story, since it portrays the world as it very often is: one full of evil. I cannot think of a single Disney film where the bad guy actually gets away with it. Broken stories are not very popular in the fairy tale genre, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t still exist. Most classic adult fiction is broken: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, and many of Shakespeare’s works. Grown-ups like broken stories because they portray the world as adults see it, but kids should be careful with such stories, to be explained a little later on.
Twisted Stories: where good is bad and bad is good and the victory is anybody’s call. Typical twisted stories are so subtle, it’s tough to even tell the difference. In these stories, gray is the predominant color. The reader cannot tell who to cheer for, if they should be cheering at all. The first best example that comes to mind is Twilight, with its conflicting, equally dangerous love interests. The second best example is the final installment of The Hunger Games series, Mockingjay, by the end of which I wasn’t really sure whose side I was on. Children, if they read twisted stories, will very likely only be confused, since it takes the jaded mind of an adult to catch on to the themes twisted stories contain. As it is, only those adults who have a firm grasp on what they believe good and bad to be should broach twisted stories, and even then, tread carefully, because these stories are designed to deceive.
And that’s it. It is rather mind-numbing-ly simple, but it does make a lot of sense. Andrew Pudewa, IEW’s speaker for this conference, after outlining the categories, described what kind of readers should read each type of story:
Twisted stories should only be read by adults who can battle against moral deception, since twisted stories try to present the world as it is not. Such stories can be depressing to read as it’s easy to start believing the world is as gray as the stories portray. I mentioned The Hunger Games above, and I’ll say now that it is my current literary/cinematic obsession. I love those books, mostly because they make me think, a rare thing in teen literature today. But, they are not happy stories: according to the categories above, the first two are broken and the last solidly twisted. Despite these setbacks, I read the books and other twisted stories for two reasons: first, they remind me that the world is black and white, and second, through twisted stories, I learn to recognize other, more subtle forms of moral twisting in the world. These are the reasons adults should read twisted stories, but if you do decide to pick one up, always, always, always read with care. Read to learn, not to get lost.
Broken and healing stories are a little less relegated between adult and youth literature, since they can be read and appreciated on both ends of the spectrum. I want to focus on whole stories in contrast to twisted ones, since this comparison will make clear my possibly annoying Disney references above. Whole stories, according to the categories, are stories that present the world in the truest possible light: bad can fight, but good always wins. As a Christian, I know this to be true. Although the world is full of sin, Christ will return someday and conquer all of it. Children need these stories to establish the real, good, and beautiful truth of the world before they encounter the evil in it. That way, they won’t be led astray. Whole stories are always happy, always hopeful, always promising, and always stay with the truth. No wonder kids love them so much. And, to finally reach the meat of the matter, no wonder grown-ups love them too.
Adults go back to whole stories to escape from the twisted stories that surround them in the world. Whole stories are comfort food for the troubled mind. They remind us what’s really going on. The have the “bare necessities” of moral truth that we need in the world. We can read/watch/listen to a whole story and let all our guards down, because there’s no subtle lies coming at us to trip us up. We re-build our moral armor through whole stories so we’re ready to face all the deceptive bombardment of daily culture. For a lot of people, it’s a sub-conscious act to hole up when the lies start falling, and it’s an equally sub-conscious urge to find and enjoy a true story to balance the fight. Disney, with its never-ending plethora of whole stories and fairytales, is an ideal haven for the resting imaginations of adults. It’s just a perk that we can take the kids too.
So, the next time you have the opportunity to pull out an old Disney VHS or a classic re-born on DVD, take it. Don’t dismiss Baloo and Genie and Tinker Bell as children’s fantasy, but welcome the chance to take a break and enjoy their company. And don’t ever, ever forget to sing along. Hakuna Matata!