I have distant and fragmented memories of the films I saw as a child. The exception being Walt Disney’s classic animated feature films that, from an early age, captured my heart and became a fundamental of my childhood
Aside from providing quality family entertainment, Disney films teach children certain values within a magical context. From The Jungle Book to Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, these classics, deeply rooted in literature and fairytales, have socialised children by acting as a moral compass that bridges generational and cultural divides.
Mowgli from The Jungle Book taught me to have fun and develop as an individual, while Pinocchio showed me the terrifying consequences of being dishonest. From Cinderella I learnt to work hard and have faith – you never know, perhaps one day Prince Charming will present me with a glass slipper! If the comeuppance of baddies is anything to go by, watching Captain Hook get gobbled up by a crocodile in Peter Pan reinforced the penalties of bad behaviour, even if displayed in slapstick humour.
The battle between good and evil is often central in Disney films. Just take a look at the physical, mental and emotional battles between Simba and Scar, Cinderella and her wicked stepmother or Pinocchio and Stromboli. But while good always prevails, baddies should not be ignored as they are an important part of the story. Disney villains are the perfect example for parents to use in demonstrating to their children that there is a right way and a wrong way to behave as well as the possible consequences of their actions.
Over the previous decades and into this millennium Disney has strived to make its new stories, characters and films relevant to the world we live in. On lots of levels it delivers entertainment to both the children they are aimed at but also for the parents watching. A joke about a toy’s worth on eBay may go over a kid’s head but it’ll tickle the ribs of older viewers.
The phenomenon that is the Toy Story trilogy spans a 10-year period in a child’s life and makes heroes of a group of toys who discover friendship, kindness and loyalty are to be treasured above all else. They learn to move with the times and not be afraid of change. This is something that many of us find difficult while growing up. It’s often the familiar that gives us a sense of security. It’s no surprise that many parents sobbed their way through the final Toy Story 3 ending as Andy embarks on his new adult life and leaves home to start college. Touching a raw nerve perhaps for the future parent/child separation many of us will dread.
The Art of Storytelling report states that in a survey of more than 1,000 UK storytellers, 89 per cent of parents and grandparents agreed that ‘you can trust Disney to create the best experiences for children and families’. Not only does Disney help to share lasting memories and build relationships, it also develops emotion, wonder and engagement that derive from such stories.
Dr Lynn Whitaker of the University of Glasgow, who co-authored the report says, ‘The characters in a story demonstrate socially acceptable types of behaviour, as well as what happens in situations when we engage in antiisocial behaviour.’
The love and respect that Belle has for her father in Beauty And The Beast is enchanting to watch, but even more so is her affection towards the Beast. In contrast to love, hate and deception are strong themes in The Lion King, a film very much centred on family, friends, community, pride and responsibility. Seeing Simba’s development from a guilt-ridden young cub to a brave leader helps a child to be self-aware and have empathy for others. This is especially apparent in the poignant build-up to and aftermath of King Mufasa’s death. Even stronger is the message throughout about how nature has a clever way of balancing things out and that when the ‘circle of life’ is messed with it can have catastrophic consequences. It teaches children the importance of being aware and caring for the world around us.
Disney is not shy of tackling difficult themes such as death and isolation. These shouldn’t be ignored as they provide our youngsters with a realistic view of life. And they offer opportunities for parents to discuss complex issues with their children. But be prepared for the awkward questions like ‘is heaven real and if so where is it?’
I guess Disney could be described as an educator – its films explore moral values, good behaviour, consideration for others, society and our environment. These are universally important to every child. And all of this while taking us on a magnificent, roller-coaster adventure. What’s not to love?