Mickey Mouse still loves you

Here’s a story that you all know: A prince’s father is killed. The twist: The prince’s uncle did it. The prince is scared and confused, with good reason. His mother becomes his uncle’s partner, for all intents and purposes. The prince wants to avenge his father’s death. And then...

Wait. Which story am I telling? Hamlet or The Lion King? They both have different endings, but they both have the same beginning.

Welcome to Disney. Instead of appealing only to children, Disney and other production studios are now focusing on creating movies that will entertain both adults and children. The question is whether this movement is something new at all.

According to Jesse Schell, former creative director of Disney Virtual Reality Studio and currently a professor at CMU, Disney has always been for all ages. He said, “The point of an animated feature is to attract parents and children. If parents are interested in the movie, they’ll tell other parents about it, who’ll then take their families to see the movie. This also brings families together.” Schell said that Walt Disney intended for his company to be like this. “Look at old Disney movies. Unlike movies like [Nickelodeon’s] The Rugrat Movie, they appeal to both adults and children. In fact, they were created for adults in the first place.”

And how true. Originally, cartoons, including The Bugs Bunny Show, were intended for adults. Most of the feature-length movies made at the time also explored mature themes because Disney hoped both adults and children could enjoy them. For instance, the drama in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was caused when an evil queen wanted her stepdaughter’s heart. Fantasia doesn’t even seem to be made for children; in fact, most children fall asleep while watching it.

Despite their mature themes, these movies never seemed all that scary to most children, Schell claims. Perhaps it was the singing and dancing that was also found within the same 90-minute movie that made the movies less intimidating. However, some people at the time had the same worry that people do now — namely that these themes were too much for children to handle. According to a 1947 article in the Journal of Educational Sociology written by Esther Speyer, parents were also worried that the children’s movies were too scary for children. As she states, “They [the parents] say that situations in films are bringing life’s realities to young children too soon, are opening up doubts about family relationships and friendships, are emphasizing brutality, cheating, lying, [and] violent death.”

“Children’s movies were mature back then,” said Schell. “After Walt Disney’s death, Disney [the company] was afraid to tackle serious themes. Now Disney is trying to get back to tackling more serious themes.” Movies such as Robin Hood, The Aristocats, and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh came out in the years following Disney’s death; these movies were certainly not known for their ability to scare people with their dramatic themes. Although these were good children’s movies, they weren’t what adults wanted to see. As a result of this, Disney lost a critical market with these movies... anyone over the age of 10.

Disney eventually realized that it had to create movies that appealed to a wider audience. Movies like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast came out, all of which appealed to both adults and children. Finally, with The Lion King, Disney hit the jackpot. It had created a movie that seamlessly integrated something adults would watch with something children would understand. Yes, parts might seem scary to children; yes, it has some jokes children won’t understand — but isn’t that part of why adults and children love it? As Schell said, “Children enjoy jokes that are over their head because they [the jokes] are a little beyond them.” The fact that children can watch this movie with their elder siblings makes them feel grown up. Not only that, but it also brought together families — instead of parents leaving their children in front of televisions while they did household tasks, they watched the movies with their kids.

These days, Disney seems to be all for creating films that integrate adult ideas into movies intended for children. This is especially evident in Disney’s appointment of John Lasseter, Pixar’s executive vice-president, as the chief creative officer of Disney Animation and the principal creative advisor at Disney Imagineering. Lasseter was the man behind Pixar’s Toy Story, The Incredibles, and Finding Nemo. Despite the fact that the Disney/Pixar combination is certain to make amazing movies, Schell still has worries. “The technology used to make these movies allows these movies to look more real. However, the line found in animation is lost. In a way, these movies lose the sense of intimacy found in traditional animated movies.”

Despite this loss of intimacy, young and old viewers seem bound to continue attending these movies, as evidenced by the decent turnout for the recent Chicken Little. After all, it’s all about remembering what it was like to be a child. The people who create these movies know that that’s the important part of making kids’ movies. As Schell said, “A lot of people forget what it was like to be a child. At Disney, we tried to actively pursue that. We cherished the magical feelings of childhood, and can’t help but focus on creating them for others. Thinking you can create those memories for other children is probably [the] biggest motivator of them all.”

And for us? Why do we watch them? Maybe we watch them because we like to think that one day a fairy godmother will show up and make everything right. Maybe we watch them because it’s nice to imagine that if life gets confusing, animals will burst into song and solve our problems. Or maybe we watch them because, as another famous movie says, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you might miss it.” Sure, I might be an adult now, but sometimes I just want to take time to “remember the magic.”