With the release of Moana, Walt Disney Animation Studios is creating a film with the main characters being of Polynesian descent. This caused me to start thinking about minority portrayals from the company in their lengthy canon. Disney has gotten a lot of heat over racism accusations, and while they have definitely not made it easy on themselves, I do not think they are racist in any sense. If anything, they are ignorant and kind of insensitive when it comes to the portrayal of these ethnic groups. I will go look at the films that consists of ethnic groups, and in this, I will not be looking at animals (another post will come from that), so Dumbo and The Jungle Book (at least when it comes to the monkeys) will not be included.
The first recollection where I recall there being a minority group being portrayed in a WDAS film is Peter Pan, and the infamous “What Makes the Red Man Red” song, with the crew being at the native tribe. What can I say about this……………….why are they so obnoxiously red? I get it that it kind of goes with the song, but it is still insensitive. I get it that it was the early 1950s, but the characterization of these characters should not just be these horrible stereotypes. It is all really unneeded as well, which makes it even more frustrating.
The Jungle Book is the next film to have a minority character in the Disney pantheon, but…… you can barely notice it. I have to say that there is not much to critique…. since Mowgli is such a bland character to begin with, he has never interacted with humans to know his Indian heritage, and is used as a prop more than anything else in the film. He is also voiced by a caucasian person, which is another point to add.
There is a gap within 3 decades, and over 10 films until we get to our next minority characters, which is………. Aladdin. A lot has been said about the portrayal of Arabs in this film, and I am not going to lie; they could have done better, and been a bit more sensitive. We know about the infamous lyrics in “Arabian Nights”, and the city structure of Agrabah has some Western touches in it. There has been the common complaint that the two main characters look a lot more Caucasian than the rest of the characters, who are either evil, or overly brash……. Personally, I have seen Arab people who look like Aladdin and Jasmine, and they do seem to have a similar skin tone as the other characters in the film, so they are not significantly lighter. There is also the fact that the entire cast is voiced by Caucasians instead of Middle Easterns. I hate how they completely Americanized every aspect in the film though.
The next film that represents minorities is Pocahontas, which many people see as problematic, but for the opposite reason compared to Aladdin. Native Americans are always a touchy subject to talk about, and to portray especially because what is known has been told through the colonizer’s view, and there is not many natives who currently reside in our Euro-centric society. From what I have seen, people have issues with the portrayal of natives in this film because it makes them seem obsessed with nature-like magic, and are perfect beings without any personality. The land geography of 1607 Virginia was heavily romanticized to make the landscape look “more interesting” compared to the realistic physical geography of the area. On the other hand of the spectrum, there have been complaints that the movie made the conflict seem like it was half their fault, when in reality, it wasn’t. I don’t think they were outright trying to be offensive, but the small details became huge issues.
Many people may not see this next group as a minority group, but I am including it. Esmeralda (and Quasimodo) represent the gypsies in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. There is some controversy about the film involving the accuracy compared to the book, and the portrayal of religion, but I have heard nothing about the portrayal of the Romani group in the film. I do not know if this is because a lot of people do not know much about them to make that critique, but it is never mentioned. Quasimodo is completely removed from his Romani heritage due to his mother being murdered, and being locked in Notre Dame, while Esmeralda embraces her culture with such strength and pride. From what we see of the gypsy culture, they are a very tight-knit group, who do have their own customs and beliefs, and while they are demonized, we do see some positive traits. Maybe there is not much discussion about this because the film portrays the group better than common knowledge.
I was debating about whether I should include Hercules
in this, but I decided to because it was emphasized how different the ancient Greek setting of the film was different from what the company is used to regarding setting. What we know about this film regarding Ancient Greek history is that like Pocahontas
, it was completely distorted and largely ignored to fit a more modern setting and perspective. It is interesting because much of the “Western” society is based off Ancient Greece, but a lot of the setting was upgraded so it could be more modern regarding the mythology and politics. I think most of this has to do with the need to add more humor, puns, and references into the film. I think it is fair to say that Megara does not act like a woman who would live in Ancient Greece. She is not domesticated in any sense, and while she is privatized, it is not because of her duty to become a wife or a mother, but to be a slave to Hades. Hercules was focused on being a superhero in the film, and being a superhero was seen as being a celebrity in the film. Usually, men were involved in politics or the military, so it would have been more interesting if he became a hero in that sense. His arc was a parody of Rocky, Superman, and Michael Jordan.
The Chinese are the main focus in Disney’s next film, which is Mulan
. Looking at the poem Hua Mulan, research states that the era the legend takes place in is the Northern and Southern dynasty (420-589 A.D.). What I found was that this dynasty is seen as one that flourished Buddhism to what it is today, a lot of scripture writing took place, and the dress code seems accurate enough. The big inaccuracy is that the Imperial City did not come into existence until the 1400s, which was around a millennium after the era of Hua Mulan. Many people did not like how they did not delve deeper into the culture of China at the time, but they tried a lot more than their past efforts. There was a strong emphasis on honor and respecting your elders, and they did add the touch of ancestors, so it could have been a lot worse.
We skip 2 years to see our next minority representation in the form of Peruvians in The Emperors New Groove
. I have yet to hear ANY complaints about the portrayals of Peruvians, and something tells me because the film is humorous, so it means they are allowed to get away with a lot more because it is funny. Outside of the main character being named Kuzco (based off the city Cusco in Peru), the strong presence of llamas, and the architecture, there is no mention whatsoever of the culture and minority group throughout the entire film. At the same time, there is a lack of american or Eurocentric references in regards to culture, hierarchical structure, character appearance, etc. None of the characters who are voiced in the film are not of Peruvian or Hispanic descent.
Lilo & Stitch
covered the native Hawaiians in the island of Hawaii. There is not a lot to discuss with this because it seemed like the company learned their lesson from Pocahontas, and consulted with the Hawaiians that voiced the characters about the culture and traditions. It was a lot easier because the film was set in modern day Hawaii, so there was still a lot of modern day storytelling, references, and culture of America that was also infiltrated, so I think the film captured the culture as well as the modern day sanctions of North America well.
I almost forgot to include Brother Bear
in this. One of the reasons are that our main characters barely spend any time in the film on their tribe. What we learn about the Inuit lifestyle is that they have rituals that are a rite of passage for them to grow up, the clothes they wear and the tools used are pretty accurate. We learn a lot more about the tribe and the cultural from a historical perspective than just magic, and they explain the spirits in this film. From what we see, this film takes place before the Europeans arrive, since there is no mention or sight of them anywhere in the film. We get the Eskimo kiss, and other signs that shows that they learned from Pocahontas
, and did research on the culture.
The next film is The Princess and the Frog
, which depicts African Americans in 1920s New Orleans. For obvious reasons they could not go in depth about the racial issues going on at the time, but they did not outright ignore it either. There is a few comments made towards Tiana that her background has some influence in the fate that has befallen on her. The main criticism I hear about the film regarding race is that the film does not focus enough on the racist implications of the time period. This one is dicey, but I think that as soon as they set the setting in the 1920s, it was only a matter of time for controversy to surface.
With Big Hero 6
, there is not much to say at all, but the main family of the film has Japanese heritage. It is rare to have an inter-racial family (the Hamadas are half Japanese, and half Caucasian), so it would have been more interesting to dive into that aspect, but….. most of the family is dead, and the Aunt gets no focus. Like Lil0 & Stitch, since the film takes place in modern day, we learn little to nothing about the culture of the setting, or the culture of the ethnicity of the characters in the film. This is also the most diverse cast of the entire canon, which is neat.
In conclusion, I will say this. When portraying minority groups, or should I say the cultures of said minority groups, there are essential details that are missing compared to how things actually were for that time frame. Were some of these differences made so it will be easier to relate to Americans? Maybe. Is there anything blatantly racist or prejudice against these groups of people? Outside of the Peter Pan reference, I honestly do not see it.