I love Disney. This may come as no surprise from someone who considers "Mulan" one of the best movies ever and who is ridiculously excited about the upcoming release of "Moana," but it’s worth mentioning. Despite the struggles they've had with race and gender in the past, I firmly believe they’re among the most masterful of contemporary storytellers. You can imagine, then, how frustrated I get when people say Disney movies are all family fun, happy-go-lucky affairs that don’t have real artistic merit because they don’t confront deep issues in honest ways. It’s a complaint that has extended across all of Disney's holdings, from Star Wars to Marvel. It’s also, at the end of the day, complete bullshit.
Just for a start, let’s look at some moments from across the Disney empire for our darkness. Starting with my personal favorite, let’s remember that at one point in “Mulan,” we’re confronted with the remains of an entire army: thousands upon thousands, including Li Shang’s father, dead. Then, of course, who can forget the heartbreaking deaths in both “The Lion King” and “Bambi,” which often make grown adults cry? Star Wars gets in on the macabre fun too, with the inspired but incredibly twisted decision to kill off Han Solo by the hands of his own son at the end of “The Force Awakens.” Finally, even Marvel chips in some of their own dark moments with Tony Stark’s realization by the end of “Captain America: Civl War” that his parents were murdered by none other than Bucky Barnes, a man whom cap, one of his few friends, continues to defend. Disney movies are no cake-walk to watch, my friends.
The themes they delve into or hint at are also surprisingly deep, and cover an immensely broad range. Disney has unflinchingly confront parental abuse, as they do in both "Tangled" (Mother Gothel undermines her child’s confidence in textbook ways) and "Frozen" (when has locking your child in a room for her entire adolescence not been abusive?). Their earlier films weren’t afraid to tackle difficult topics either, whether through Mulan’s struggle with ancient Chinese sexism or Pinocchio’s need to prove his worth through his actions rather than his words. Marvel is also plenty interested in gritty, meaningful topics, particularly those involving mental health: cap’s PTSD is showcased in “The Avengers,” and Tony Stark’s mental issues are the most interesting aspect of “Iron Man 3." The new Star Wars movie also asks important questions, grappling with the difficulties of parental tragedy and divorce. Without a shadow of a doubt, Disney movies embrace difficult and challenging concepts.
In short, the criticisms leveled against Disney for the quality of their films are largely unfounded. I think there’s something deeper than just a critique of Disney in all of this, though, something that involves the way we look at entertaining children as a whole. Most people believe in a false dichotomy, of “meaningful” or “deep” and “for kids.” They seem to believe that if you’re creating a movie that really grapples with important issues it can’t accessible to kids, and that a movie for kids has to be watered-down and stripped of all real commentary. This, of course, is ridiculous. Children are dealing with important issues like social justice, physical and mental well-being, and discrimination instinctively from the moment they’re born. If presented to in the right way, they’re more than capable of grasping them in entertainment. Disney has grasped this for years, and it's one of the things that has propelled them to the forefront of entertainment. Let’s hope others will catch on.