A reflection on Disney

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The 1960 Disney Film "Swiss Family Robinson" continues to entertain audiences with the Robinson family's adventures on an uninhabited Island. Photo by Emily Grant.

If you’re like me, the advent of Disney+ has made it possible to gleefully revisit the age-old classic movies such as “Swiss Family Robinson” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” 

I grew up with these movies, and they remain crammed into dusty boxes of VHS tapes in my parent’s garage which are virtually unusable since no one still owns a VHS player. I often forget they exist. 

For me, part of growing up was graduating from watching the Disney classics to watching PG-13 movies – SO adult – like the James Bond series, “The Proposal,” and “The Hunger Games.” I rejoiced in that transition and felt like I had rightly outgrown my dear childhood friend, Walt Disney.

I fear that I have ironically come full circle. 

I have rediscovered the joy of a movie that celebrates the inherent goodness of life while simultaneously touching on crucial themes like family, identity, compassion and adversity.

Classic Disney movies get better with age. My prevailing childhood memory from “Swiss Family Robinson” was that they rode ostriches and that Fritz, the eldest son, was super cute. Rewatching it recently, I was struck by the scene between Father and Mother after Father finishes their treehouse. The intimacy and trust displayed in their marriage throughout the movie spoke to me on a level that I completely — and rightly — missed as a child. Fritz is still pretty dreamy though. 

In “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” I was caught off guard by the themes of cultural identity, inherent bias, and the struggle between obedience and freedom. In fact, watching this movie as an adult, I wonder if it might be too intense for kids even though it is an animated musical. 

I love the multi-dimensionality of Disney movies. They grow up with you. You can watch “The Lion King” at age 6 and love the songs. You can watch it at 10 and want to find an elephant graveyard with your best friend. 

You can watch it at 18 and deeply relate to Simba’s struggle with duty and identity. You can watch it at 22 and realize that you’re actually the babysitter, Zazu, shepherding freshmen back to their dorms after a night out. I imagine at 30 you might look at your kids like Mufasa looked at Simba. Maybe at 50 you’ll snap and become Rafiki or Scar; the options are endless. 

Most movies don’t age like this. I don’t mean to dismiss all other movies, as there are countless movies that are beautiful, moving and full of value.

However, this does not diminish Disney’s unique ability to celebrate growing up and moving through life in a celebratory and serious way. Plus, who doesn’t love a little song and dance every once in a while? 

My advice to you this week is this: Go watch a classic Disney movie and see how your interpretation has changed. Whether you grew up with them or not, they can still speak to you.

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