Imagine, for a moment, if the The Incredibles 2 had been made by the Disney of 40 years ago. Violet, Dash, and Jack-Jack Parr would be orphans left to discover the extent of their superpowers without their parents’ assistance. Violet would derive strength from her mother’s spectral presence, which would perch next to her sleeping bag in the Parr kids’ cave hideaway. Dash would be inspired by his father’s brawn each time he set off towards a villain. The older siblings would promise to keep their parents’ memory alive for baby Jack-Jack. Eventually, they would settle in Frozone’s house as his adopted children in a makeshift home.
Certainly, this warped version of The Incredibles 2 would fit in amidst the good ol’ terrifying Disney movies that defined my youth. Whether they were set in the bazaars of Agrabah or the forests of Bavaria, the majority of my favorite childhood Disney movies have something in common: The protagonists’ story began with the absence of a parent. Sometimes, the parent dies on screen, as with The Lion King and Bambi (though this also occurs in Disney Pixar movies, like Finding Nemo). More often, at least one parent was already absent, and their child began the movie alone in a teetering world. Over half of the Disney movies made since 1937 feature a protagonist with one dead, absent, or missing parent.
There’s a legendary, if not wholly accurate, explanation for parental absence in these early movies. In 1938, Flora Disney passed away of carbon monoxide poisoning in the house that her son, Walt, had purchased for her after the release of Snow White, his very first feature-length animated movie. Walt felt forever guilty for her death, and edited mothers out of movies.
It’s a fittingly cinematic story — but likely, the real reason for Disney’s lack of parental figures is steeped in source material, not trauma. Many of these early Disney movies were based on classic fairy tales. And if you’ve read classic fairy tales from Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Perrault, and the Brothers Grimm, which provide the inspiration for movies like Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, then you know this: The worst thing you can have is a parent. Parents and/or step parents will trick you and leave you out in the woods to die (“Hansel and Gretel”), or they will try to eat your heart (“Snow White”). “Tale by tale, they reflect some very difficult conditions under which children grew up,” Jack Zipes, a fairy tale scholar, told Refinery29. However, these tales — when first told in the oral tradition — were never specifically intended for an audience of children. “Before print culture, fairy tales had a multigenerational appeal. Adults needed good racy violent stories to make the time pass,” Maria Tatar, the chair of the Program in Folklore and Mythology at Harvard University, said.
Disney swept the so-to-speak grimness from the fairy tales, but preserved the crux of the story arc. In each movie, characters make the transition from a brutal home to a happily ever after, and they do it without support, guidance, or lessons from their parents. “The fairy tale works because the protagonists are on their own. They have to learn how to navigate the world of monsters, of terrible things that are going to happen. They have to use their wits and their courage to construct a new home,” said Tatar.
The stories themselves give us a lot of wisdom without putting it into one sentence.
This narrative arc is not limited to Disney movies. In fact, it’s ubiquitous throughout iconic children’s stories and books. Case in point: Harry Potter and the Baudelaire kids of A Series of Unfortunate Events are all the orphan wards of evil-caretakers. It’s only after the four Pevensie kids in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe are banished from London (and their parents) that they discover Narnia. Dorothy of The Wizard of Oz and the Lost Boys of Peter Pan only got to Oz and Neverland, respectively, because they were orphaned. There’s a practical explanation for the persistence of this narrative trope. Expelling a child from the comfort of the home is “an easy way to create peril and a plot line for the kid where they have to find themselves,” said Jill Murphy, the Vice President and editor-in-chief of Common Sense Media.
Childhood, in iconic stories, was tied to expulsion — until now. Disney Pixar is changing the way childhood is represented in film, and it’s doing so by making parents and the home a more crucial part of the narrative. In The Incredibles 2, the Parr kids definitely aren’t orphans. In fact, their identities are derived by their relationship to their parents. In the trailer for The Incredibles 2, Bob Parr (more commonly known as Mr. Incredible) fumbles while acclimating to stay-at-home fatherhood. Gone is the primary storyline of a kid lost in a big, scary world. Instead, the action is based in the home.
Whereas fairy tales were created to reflect the dangers lurking outside the house, Pixar movies are created to teach kids to navigate the modern world’s dilemmas with kindness and strength. Inside Out, in particular, was a revolutionary in its creative depiction of the ordinary. The plot is simple: An 11-year-old struggles to adjust to her new home after a big move. Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias) doesn’t need to be cast out of the family unit to feel scared, alone, and confused — just moving to San Francisco is difficult enough. Eventually, her happily ever after arrives within the four walls of her house, once her parents take her struggles seriously.
Inside Out rewrites the movie’s conception of childhood by eschewing the reliance on expulsion or parental absence. To Murphy, this trope is dated. “We’ve grown up with those archetypes, and we’re looking for something deeper. Those of us who are in the role of telling these stories, working for these companies, now want to grow more complex and sophisticated stories,” she explained. Notably, Pixar movies don’t draw from fairy tales the same way Disney movies did, and continue to do. Instead, they’re wholly original stories shaped to suit the needs of a modern audience – including the need for art that parents and children can enjoy equally. “Pixar movies were the first movies that parents and kids loved together and wanted to watch together,” said Murphy. In their broad appeal, Pixar movies are actually quite similar to how fairy tales functioned in the oral tradition.
Many Pixar movies do involve an element of expulsion or estrangement from the family unit. But as far as the kids in Coco and Finding Nemo travel, they also come home to their parents — and actually improve their home conditions with what they learned along the way. The same goes for the princesses of Brave and Moana, which are Disney (not Disney Pixar) movies, but are nonetheless representative of the animation studios’ general trend toward family harmony. The story arc doesn’t end in forging a new home, but a better one.
At the core of each Pixar movie is a gleaming, digestible message — often multiple. However, Tatar questions whether we should assume these messages render Pixar movies automatically more valuable to children than their darker, fairy tale-based counterparts. “I worry about the fact that we’re trying desperately to create empathetic children by reading them stories in which the end is a sappy one-liner that tells them how to behave. You feel like you’ve been programmed to think a certain way,” says Tatar.
Still, it doesn’t seem like these older stories are going anywhere. While Pixar is forging fascinating and modern portraits of modern childhood, Walt Disney Studios is converting old classics into live action form. Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and Sleeping Beauty (in Maleficent) have already had the cartoon scrubbed out of them; eventually, The Little Mermaid will be part of that cinematic world, too.
Tatar believes these older, fairy tale-based stories will hold wisdom, too — even if their messages are less overt or pre-planned. “The stories themselves give us a lot of wisdom without putting it into one sentence. The wisdom comes from talking about the story, discussing it with someone else,” Tatar said.
Pixar movies are full of teachable moments for the modern age, but the older movies can be, too. It just takes adult figures — who are notably absent from the movies — to navigate them.