As much as Disney is seen as strictly kids stuff and is for the most part accessible to children, most every movie includes something that you do not understand until you grow up. Usually when people refer to children's entertainment including something for grown ups they are referring to pop culture references, sexual innuendo or frightening moments. That is not what I am focusing on. Often overlooked are mature themes that really help these features grow with the viewers. There are many other examples, but these are just ten that mean a lot to me.
10. Tramp Gets Lady Pregnant
This surprised me the last time I saw this movie. Lady and Tramp fall asleep on a hill and the next morning Lady asks, "what about the baby?" As a kid I always assumed that she was referring to her need to take care of the Darling's baby, but as an adult I understand the relationship between these characters. Disney really handles this subject matter well in this situation, it doesn't force any discussion about sex in fact there is nothing that would make a child wonder about it. But this relationship really does progress naturally (especially since they are dogs I suppose). On the surface you think you know this story of a good girl taking up with bad boy, but they both develop together and change as characters. A lot of complexities that are impossible to catch until you are old enough to feel similar emotions.
9. Jim Hawkins' Father Leaves and His Mentor Lies to Him
Had a conversation last week about how underrated this movie is. While it is never explicitly stated, watching this as an adult it is very clear that Jim's father abandons him and his mother and never returns. It is a beautifully tragic scene seeing the young boy chase after his father, of whom we never see his face. The effect of this action is clear in the characterization of Jim and his mother through the rest of the movie.
Things get more complicated as Long John Silver, who is clearly a bad guy, becomes a father figure to the troubled teen. Silver gets him to shape up and inspires him ("You have the making of greatness in you.") and then he abuses that hard earned trust. I was fascinated with Long John Silver as a child, but I never knew why until now.
8. Why Aladdin, Jasmine and The Genie Feel Trapped
The movie and the lyrics in Aladdin are full of words like, "trapped," and "free." Because that is how the three lead characters feel. Jasmine cannot grow as a person, Genie is cursed to be a slave for eternity and the world keeps pushing Aladdin down while he is only trying to survive. All of their actions, some of which are morally questionable, stem from this. To understand the hope that they all have and the earnestness of "Riff raff, Street rat," you need to experience what it is like to be isolated without options.
7. Lilo, Stitch and Nani All Desperately Need a Family but Have No Idea What They are Doing
I often bring up this great, underrated movie as one that I grow with. When it was first released I found Stitch's cartoonish antics to be amusing. A year later when I was struggling in middle school I sympathized with Lilo when she said, "People treat me different." Then I got Stitch's fascination with the Ugly Duckling story. Now I find Nani to be fascinating and tragic. All three of these characters are perfectly developed and Disney doesn't pull any punches in their emotional struggles. It is very evident that Nani is not ready to be the mother that Lilo needs, that the government may step in and tear apart this family even further and that Stitch is capable of more harm than good. The situations are far from ideal in this story, but it is the way that the characters realistically pull through and discover how to be a family that makes it all worthwhile.
6. How Simba Deals with His Past
"Ah yes, the past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it, or...learn from it." I remember my fourth grade teacher referring to this scene, but only now do I really understand why. Simba had something horrific happen to him and he picked up an understandable point of view that "when the world turns their back on you, you turn your back on the world." However upon meeting Rafiki and having an encounter with his father he understands how to balance his past and his future. Not dwelling and being defined by the things we've done, but using those events to shape who will be.
5. The Character Development of Belle, Beast and Gaston
As a kid you enjoy this movie for its comic relief characters and its big musical numbers. But this is a movie that adults can understand on a whole different level. The three main characters all develop differently along the same theme. Belle shows compassion early on in taking the place of her father, Beast is slowly changed by this while Gaston becomes more and more inhuman. These are all realities that everyone faces: vanity, compassion, the desire for love, the need for another person. Another great examples of characters that seem archetypal being much more complex.
4. Fess Parker's Speech in Old Yeller
This movie only seems to be mentioned in reference to Arlyss shooting his dog. While that is a powerful, shocking moment that is unique to see in a family film the movie does not stop there. The movie actually struggles with the audience about harsh realities like that. Fess Parker as the father has a great speech about how to live with the bad parts of life. I will include the entire quote, because it has somehow not become a large part of our culture: "Well, now and then, for no good reason a man can figure out, life will just haul off, and knock him flat. Slam him ain' the ground so hard it seems like all his insides is busted. But it's not all like that. a lot of it's mighty fine. And you can't afford to waste the good part frettin' about the bad. That makes it all bad."
3. Mr. Banks learns how to be a father
There is a reason the upcoming movie about this film's production is called Saving Mr. Banks. What seems to be a fun musical fantasy is really a relatable story about a man who is distant from his children. Mr. Banks wants the best for Jane and Michael, but he is not meeting the needs they have as children. It takes their relationship with an unconventional nanny to make a static, grown man change his very nature. The movie balances his character arc with Bert explaining what a good person Mr. Banks really is. David Tomlinson gives a great iconic performance that is too often overlooked.
2. Christopher Robin, Wendy and Bambi all Grow Up
A lot of Disney's films understandably deal with childhood. Fox and the Hound, The Little Mermaid and many others are about growing up. But these three examples do it most interestingly in my opinion.
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh ends with Christopher Robin telling his teddy bear that he won't be able to spend as much time with him. Watching that as a kid it did not leave a huge impact on me, but viewing it now it is very powerful to see a young boy deal with his passing childhood in that manner.
The Animated Movie Guide spends a good portion of its review of Peter Pan discussing the development of Wendy. She does attempts to not grow up, yet she tries kissing Peter, becomes a mother to the Lost Boys and is the only one to risk walking the plank. While Peter ends up staying forever young she goes home and decides to leave the nursery. This action is much more meaningful for those who have left their childhood behind.
Finally there is Bambi. Like Old Yeller it is often remembered solely for the death of the mother. However this perfect movie deals with so much more, it perfectly dramatizes a boy coming of age. It is a beautiful, short, effective sequence where a teenage Bambi falls in love with Faline and earns the right to be her mate against another suitor. This character grows realistically second by second. This movie covers more in seventy-nine minutes than can in two hours. Give this another watch, bet you will relate to it an a very different level than you did as a child.
1. Pinocchio is a lot like real life
Of course the story of a puppet that comes to life is very much a fantasy. However in many ways it is Disney's most realistic film. This is an episodic morality tale, it is the story of how your actions affect others. Pinocchio's journey gets more and more dire the more he avoids his conscience. He follows the poor advice of two swindlers who sell him to a man who abuses him, he goes to a place where he knows he shouldn't and turns into a donkey. He ends up in the belly of a whale with his father who had been looking for his lost son. This story is all cause and effect. Pinocchio does not get to be worth anything until he proves that he is honest, brave and true.
Also worth noting is that none of the villains get their comeuppance. Fowlfellow, Gideon, Strombolli, The Coachman and Monstro all represent different struggles in life (dishonesty, greed, revenge, forces of nature, etc.). But although Pinocchio eventually overcomes each of them they are never defeated and will still be their to trick other foolish people.