Nona Saharan

Managing Editor

Edward Simon Cruz

News Editor

Taylor Alphonso

Staff Writer

Disney is often credited for creating the most noteworthy animated movies in the film industry. A company with hundreds of thousands of employees, Disney has released several dozens of movies since it was first founded in the early 1900s. But despite Disney’s captivating fairy tales and charming animated characters, the company has had its fair share of failures. While some movies carry heartwarming cultural significance, others have been deemed racially insensitive and offensive. The Race Matters column attempts to make the distinction between inclusive and disrespectful. Here are our takes on the hits and misses of Disney films. 

Coco (2017)

Picture Source: Amazon

Coco, the 2017 animated film featuring a young Mexican boy on his journey to the Land of the Dead in order to chase his love of music was a smashing hit, but not only because of the riveting tale and cute characters. Coco, produced by Pixar Animations and released by Walt Disney Pictures includes authentic aspects of Mexican culture and cities in order to tell a story that reflects Mexico in its entirety. The city that protagonist Miguel lived in was based on a real city in México; a city that Lee Unkrich, the Director of the movie along with his team, travelled to for a research in order to properly recreate the city in their fictional story. Further research about Dia de Los Muertos by Unkrich led him and his team to learn about “final death,” a concept in Mexican culture that explains what happens to those in the Land of the Dead after no one in the living world remembers them anymore. Unkrich, after learning about this cultural belief, decided to make it a centerpiece of the movie and the aspect of the movie that provided suspense as Miguel had to race against time in order to save his family. According to an article released by Disney, Coco went through revision after revision in order to demonstrate what it means to celebrate Día de Los Muertos in Mexico. Disney and Pixar truly took their time with Coco, and in doing so, created a riveting story about family and music while teaching about a culture that many may not be familiar with. Disney has had their ups and downs with movies, but they truly did well with this one.

Big Hero 6 (2014)

Picture Source: Walt Disney Studios

The critically acclaimed Big Hero 6 may not have intended to provide the racial and ethnic representation that other successful Disney movies with POC characters had. But there’s something refreshingly simplistic about a movie that’s not desperately and aimlessly trying to fulfill Disney’s diversity quota. Unlike most of the highest grossing Disney movies of all time, Big Hero 6 features a surprisingly assorted cast. Hiro and Tadashi Hamada, major characters of the film, are biracial: half Asian, half white. The rest of the Big Hero 6 team is held to the same standard. GoGo Tomago, a spunky industrial and mechanical design student, is of Asian descent; the brilliant chemical engineering student Honey Lemon, originally Japanese in the comics, had her ethnicity changed to Latina upon the film’s release; and Wasabi, the film’s main Black character, is a sensitive, applied physics student. Perhaps the best part about Big Hero 6’s on-screen cast is the fact that they are voiced almost entirely by people of color, a remarkable achievement for Disney, who consistently seems to get that part wrong.  The seamless multicultural nature of Big Hero 6, however, is what makes the film so incredibly special. We don’t need to look too hard to see that anyone from any background can attend San Fransokyo Institute of Technology. We don’t need to glaze over Eurocentrism and white-washed names and physical appearances.  Most of all, we don’t need the POC characters standing by the sidelines or existing for the sole purpose of comic relief. They can be superheroes too. 

The Princess and the Frog (2009)

Source: Walt Disney Studios

Disney’s 2009 The Princess and the Frog was an astounding breakthrough for Disney. From the racial representation to the portrayal of a strong, independent and hardworking woman as the protagonist, Disney truly created a hit.  What made this princess unique – apart from the fact that she was the first black Disney princess – was that she wasn’t saved by a man at any point during the movie. Instead, she did the saving and because of her incredible work ethic and responsibility; she was able to achieve everything that she wanted without the need for a prince.  The story takes place in New Orleans, Louisiana as a young black woman, Tiana, dreams of owning her own restaurant and carrying on the cooking legacy that her father left behind.  As the journey of getting her wish goes on, Tiana gets a little bit more than she expected. However, as Disney movies go, everything turns out well in the end and she lives happily ever after. However, the same can’t be said for the viewers who were not so keen with some of the themes in this movie.

While watching the Disney classic, you’ll notice there is something that sets it apart from the others — Tiana was not a human for the majority of the movie. As viewers sat down with their popcorn and soda to watch the movie, many were expecting to see a black woman on the screen throughout the movie. Instead, they saw… a frog. Disney, in the creation of their first black princess, decided to make her an animal for the majority of the movie instead of a human, leaving viewers disgruntled as they did not receive as much representation as they were hoping for. Oddly enough, Disney has a recurring theme of turning black main characters into animals for the majority of the movie, including the 2020 Disney film Soul. While Disney can claim they created a movie centered around a black woman, they, in fact, created a movie centered around an animal, effectively dehumanizing Tiana while the white characters in the movie happened to stay humans the entire time. This may seem like a minute point and definitely went unnoticed by Disney’s prime younger audience, but we must admit; it was odd. Disney truly had good intentions with this movie, but the delivery was rather… suspicious. 

Soul (2020)

Picture Source: Wallpaper Cave

Soul was Pixar’s twenty-third feature film, and given Pixar’s strong track record for producing films that were both entertaining and thought-provoking, I had high expectations. That Soul was somehow the first Pixar film with a Black protagonist made me optimistic that — given the major role that music plays in the film — the crew would excel in incorporating and celebrating music in a way that was both authentic and appealing to general audiences. The score to the final film ultimately won both a Golden Globe and an Oscar, and for good reason: you can feel the influence of jazz musicians, both past and present, in the somewhat whimsical score, and the film integrates this into the plotline in a way that helped me to appreciate the value of music in a new way. It’s an appreciation that is specific in acknowledging the interwoven histories of African Americans and jazz music, among other genres; however, it’s an appreciation that is also universal in that anyone can take inspiration from the connection between music and finding one’s “spark” that motivates them in life. As usual, Pixar was deft in handling these ideas in a way that created a viewing experience that was at once enjoyable, cerebral, and blissfully celebratory of the music of our world.

However, like The Princess and the Frog, the plot of Soul suffers from some problematic implications that come about when a Black man spends much of the film outside of his own body. The protagonist, a music teacher named Joe Gardner, swaps bodies with an anthropomorphic soul, and at one point, his own “identity” is even stuck inside a cat. I did not think much of this while initially watching the film, but I later realized while these Freaky Friday-esque setups lend themselves to amusing pratfalls and may have helped the plot as it was written, the film missed out on the opportunity to explore characters like Joe in more meaningful ways. For instance, scenes exploring Joe’s strained family relationships were strong in themselves and I felt that they were among the film’s most powerful moments, but they also felt rushed. Looking back, I feel that there were other ways for Pixar to explore the concept of the soul in a way that developed its Black protagonist even further while eschewing potentially problematic plotlines. Soul had many great ideas. Too bad it didn’t always know how to explore them.

Pocahontas (1995)

Picture Source: Amazon

A beautiful love story about a native American falling in love with a white colonizer and teaching him about her ways so in the end, everyone can sing Kumbayaa together. Pocahontas, a Disney movie that may sound like just that: a typical Disney movie with a Disney ending is, in reality, so problematic to the point where it has been boycotted by Disney fans all over the world. The story about the Native American Princess Pocahontas is based on a true story about a young girl named Pocohantas whose story wasn’t nearly as wonderful as Disney made it out to be. The real Pocahontas was only 9 or 10 years old when she met John Smith, and most of the Shakespearean “Romeo and Juliet” concepts in the Disney movie were false. Rather, Pocahontas and her tribe were terrorized by the colonizers. She was forced to marry at 14 years old and was then kidnapped and taken to Europe where she was sexually assaulted, became pregnant, and then murdered after being forced to give up her child. Although it’s true that Disney could not have made the truth about Pocahantas into a movie meant for children, the fact that they used a Native American woman and twisted her story into one that romanticized her life, experience in Europe, and love with a colonizer makes Pocahantas seem less like a victim and more like a young woman in love. While many may enjoy the movie – especially the score – the depiction of Pocahontas is so far off from her original story that Disney can barely say it’s based on a true story anymore – it’s a loose interpretation of a tragedy that resulted in praise for the colonizers, the true villains of the story, and profit off of the awful life of a young Native American woman.

Aladdin (1992)

Picture Source: Amazon

At a glance, Aladdin is everything you’d ever want from a Disney movie. A story about love, magic, and a light-hearted genie, all amidst sparkling song and dance numbers of course, provides for an endearing tale familiar to Disney fans across the world. I, too, looked up to Jasmine as a kid. For her confidence, for her free-spirit, but mostly because she looked a lot like me. As I got older, that attachment would fade away. Aladdin is just a poor rendition of what a room of middle-aged white men think the Middle East looks like. Agrabah, the film’s fictional city, is painted as the center for heavily accented, money-grabbing street merchants. More than that, “It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home!” the leading track of the movie says. 

Regardless of its stereotypes, Aladdin still deals with a slew of other problems. Jasmine, the main female character (and the only female character with more than three lines of dialogue for that matter) is overtly sexualized over the course of the entire movie. While the women commoners in Agrabah are clad in hijabs and modest clothing, fitting for this supposed region of the Middle East, Jasmine severely lacks any indications of culture in her physical appearance. Disney being Disney, Jasmine and Aladdin are very obviously light-skinned, which doesn’t sit well when you place the light-skinned protagonists next to the darker-skinned villain of the movie, Jafar. Simply put, Aladdin exists as a lame excuse for xenophobia, racial microaggressions, and sexualization. You’d think that after the host of issues this movie carries, its cast would make up for it. Alas, you’ll be disappointed to hear that Aladdin, a movie Disney paraded for its representation and take on a non-white narrative, had a cast devoid a single Arab or South Asian actor.

Mulan (2020)

Picture Source: IMDb

I really wanted Mulan to be good. The PG-13 rating and relatively action-heavy trailers gave me hope that it could explore the source material with some grit and depth, becoming not just a good remake but a good movie in its own right. Yet in attempting to be more inoffensive than its animated counterpart, Mulan became yet another sterile, unremarkable product of the Disney assembly line that, like the animated film, still managed to be disliked by the Chinese audiences that the company was attempting to court. As is inevitable when an American company attempts to tell foreign tales with inconsistent diversity and representation within its own ranks, the film suffered from being an inauthentic adaptation that, even with the efforts of its writers and crew, struggled to stay true to the original tale. And the film trivialized certain elements of Chinese culture in the process: the concept of qi, a key part of Chinese philosophy, was only vaguely explained and was used as a crutch to essentially strip Mulan of weaknesses or adversities, hindering her character development and make some of her victories feel vapid and unearned.

However, a film that was unremarkable in its quality ended up becoming remarkable (in the wrong way) for the behind-the-scenes controversies that will likely define its legacy. Yiu Lifei, who played the title character, sparked some outrage after publicly announcing her support for the Hong Kong police in 2019 amid ongoing protests in that area. Then, when the actual film came out, eagle-eyed viewers spotted acknowledgements in the credits that thanked various government entities that worked in and around the Chinese region of Xinjiang, whose Uyghur people have been kept in internment camps as part of what other nations have declared to be a genocide. Both of these have inspired boycotts against the film, yet regardless of one’s stances on either the Hong Kong protests or the internment of Uyghur people, the controversies associated with Mulan highlight the sometimes unpleasant intersections between art as a form of escapism, art as a form of preserving traditions and cultures, and the difficult realities of our world. For all of Disney’s attempts to appeal to diverse audiences and spotlight various cultures, its record in dealing with this intersection is still very hit-or-miss, and it’s on audiences to understand the ideas and work that are involved in the entertainment that they consume.

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