Cultural Representation in Disney Films

I love when Disney movies travel around the world. Mulan and Aladdin are my favorite classic Disney films. Last year, Disney showed they could celebrate ancient Polynesian culture with Moana, and this year, Pixar explores Mexican culture with Coco. It inspired me to take a look at the history of cultural representation in Disney movies. I will go over the movies that either take place in foreign countries or focus on minorities of the United-States (but I will skip Songs of the South!).

Representation or appropriation?

When it comes to culture, Disney has to walk the line between representation and appropriation. On the positive side, Disney can give visibility to different countries and cultures, confront their audience to new kinds of people and to new ideas, and provide a platform for the underrepresented. That’s exactly what motivated Disney to make Saludos Amigos, a movie meant to warm the relations between the United-States and South America during World War 2.

On the negative side, Disney can be accused of cultural appropriation as they profit from other people’s stories and culture. They make money from something they didn’t invent. And if they aren’t telling their own stories, there’s a risk that they won’t portray it accurately and will fall into hurtful stereotypes. A solution to mitigate this is to hire talent from the concerned groups. A step further is to partner with local studios and to mentor the development of local projects.

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It’s the gayest of all Disney features!

It all started with Europe

Disney made its name adapting famous European stories. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is based on a German fairy tale and Pinocchio is based on an Italian novel. The trend continued well into the latter half of the 20th century with classics like Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Sword in the StoneRobin Hood, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Hercules.

Some of these movies have a vague setting while others are more specific. Some of the English characters are voiced by English actors. It’s the case for Alice and Robin Hood. The tone in these film also varies. Hercules favors anachronistic liberties to deliver a more comedic product. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame uses a more serious approach as it touches upon the topic of societal outcasts in 1482 Paris. In this version, Esmeralda is a born and raised Romani woman.

hunchback05 of notre-dame

You speak of justice yet you are cruel to those most in need of your help!

First adventures outside Europe

Saludos Amigos (1942) & The Three Caballeros (1944)

These movies are made of segments presenting famous sights and cultural aspects of Latin America through a mix of animation and live-action footage. It features Lake Titicaca, Mount Aconcagua, gauchos, charros, piñatas and various dances and songs. It is partially a documentary and the rest is humorous. It has an American narrator and Latin American actors. The cartoon characters include a Brazilian parrot, a penguin from Patagonia and a Mexican rooster.

The Jungle Book (1967)

The Jungle Book is adapted from a story set in an Indian jungle and written by a British-Indian author. The cast doesn’t include any Indian or Indian-American voice actors. The characters act like generic Hollywood characters and most are animals, so it’s hard to tell what’s the cultural context. However, towards the end of the movie, there’s an Indian girl seen wearing a bindi. She sings a strange song that seems to imply that things don’t really change in India.

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I must go to fetch the water / Till the day that I am grown / Then I will have a handsome husband / And a daughter of my own / And I’ll send her to fetch the water / I’ll be cooking in the home

The 90s around the world

Aladdin (1992)

Aladdin is based on an Arabic tale set in Arabic China. If a European fairy tale involves fairies, kings, sorcerers with long beards and flying broomsticks, it’s only fair that an Arabic fairy tale gets a genie, sultan, mustache-twisting vizier and flying carpet. The clothes, jewelry and architecture look like they belong to ancient Middle-East. The voice actors, however, were still white.

The Lion King (1994)

The song “The Circle of Life” begins with a Zulu chorus, the expression “Hakuna Matata” is in Swahili, and one of the music producer on The Lion King was South African. Rafiki is probably meant to be some sort of African shaman, but the rest of the movie is more or less based on Hamlet, only with animals from the Serengeti ecosystem and national park in Northern Tanzania. Sadly, it gave hyenas a bad reputation. The cast was American and partly African-American.

Pocahontas (1995)

Pocahontas rewrites history and falls into the “noble savage” trope, ie. an indigenous character is “good” because they are not yet “corrupted by civilization”. The real Pocahontas was about 12 when she befriended John Smith. She was later held captive by the colonists and converted to Christianity. After that, she married an Englishman named John Rolfe. She visited England and died at the age of 21. This time, the Disney character was voiced by a Native American actress.

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Can you paint with all the colors of the wind?

Mulan (1998)

Mulan takes a famous Chinese legend and turns it into the most awesome Disney movie ever. Is it accurate? No. Did Disney make money off another country’s culture? They tried. Is it a stereotypical portrayal of China? Probably. But Mulan is such an inspiring story it’s hard to argue it depicts Chinese people in anything but a positive light (unlike Mongolians…). Mulan was played by a Chinese-American actress. It’s just too bad they got Eddie Murphy to voice Mushu instead of say Jackie Chan. Jacky Chan was at the height of his comedic career in the late 90s, and he voiced a part of in the Chinese dub of Mulan, so Disney literally had him at their disposition!

Tarzan (1999)

Tarzan takes place in Africa, though it features no black character. It’s an adaptation of a 1912 American novel set in 1888 Africa. In the novel, there is a tribe of black people, but they are Tarzan’s enemies. Disney chose to cut them out entirely to avoid dealing with the racist themes of the original story. The new story is entertainment without racial connotations. As in The Jungle Book, the animals reflect the local fauna, but not the local culture. The voice actors are white.

The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)

The Emperor’s New Groove does for pre-Colombian Peru what Hercules did for Ancient Greece. It’s too anachronistic to be taken as a serious attempt at cultural representation. There’s a llama and some Andean-inspired visuals, but the characters have European food, amusement parks and every other modern American tradition. The voice cast isn’t Peruvian, nor Latino, nor indigenous.

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Here come the heroes of China!

Back to the US

Lilo & Stitch (2002)

Lilo & Stitch is set in contemporary Hawaii, specifically on the island of Kauaʻi. Lilo takes hula lessons, Nani surfs and the dialogue contains Hawaiian slang. The concept of ʻohana (family in Hawaiian) is central to the movie. There are two songs performed and written by a Hawaiian musician. The rest of the songs are Elvis Presley songs. The actress playing Nani was born in Hawaii and the actor playing David grew up there. The actress playing Lilo is from Oregon.

Brother Bear (2003)

Brother Bear has Inuit protagonists. It likely takes place in Alaska as it features grizzlies, moose and auroras, but the animators said they visited national parks in Alaska and in the contiguous United-States for inspiration. There’s a song performed by a Bulgarian choir using Yup’ik lyrics written by an Alaskan professor. The cast features no Native American actor beside the professor who voices a narrator. The pair of moose is voiced by a pair of Canadian actors.

The Princess and the Frog (2009)

The Princess and the Frog is inspired by a European fairy tale called The Frog Prince. Disney transposed the story to Jazz Age New Orleans and added voodoo magic and bayous. It’s a cool concept, and they cast African-American actors to voice the African-American characters, but I thought it was a bit weird to make Tiana the pseudo-servant of a rich white girl. She’s not actually her servant, but it comes off that way because Tiana’s mom sews her clothes and Tiana does the catering for her party. I don’t see why Tiana needed a rich white friend.

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I got voodoo!

Now in 3D

Tangled (2010)

Tangled marked a return to classic European fairy tales. Rapunzel is a German fairy tale based on a French story loosely based on an Italian story. Disney added the idea of the sky lanterns released on the princess’ birthday, which led to some of the most beautiful visuals in the film. Sky lanterns are typically associated with China and Thailand, but they also exist in Portugal (still probably imported from China). The drunken inn is a possible Bavarian stereotype.

Frozen (2013)

Frozen features tons of Norwegian traditions ranging from rosemaling on walls and dresses to trolls, Fjord horses and saunas. The movie got a tiny bit of criticism for its representation of Kristoff. While there are plenty of Sami people who are blond, the Sami people characteristically have darker hair and skin. The Sami officials themselves were pleased with Kristoff though. The voice cast is entirely American and white, but Disney hired a Sami musician to write the opening song. Sami people traditionally raise reindeer though they don’t ride them.

Love is an open dooooor!

Big Hero 6 (2014)

Big Hero 6 is based on an American comic book set in Tokyo, but the movie is set in a fictional city called San Fransokyo. San Fransokyo is basically San Fransisco rebuilt by Japanese immigrants. The Japanese influences are reflected in the architecture mostly, but also in the design of the robot and tech. The main protagonist is half Japanese and is played by an actor who is also half Japanese. This blending of two cultures is a timely concept and a nice love letter to immigrants.

Moana (2016)

Moana takes inspiration from Samoa, Fiji, Tonga and Tahiti. It is set approximately 2000 years ago. It features sailboats, coconuts, palm trees, pigs, chickens and tattoos. The story is an original, but Maui is a famous character in Polynesian mythology. I also read that the story was inspired by a supposed gap in the navigation history of the Polynesian peoples. The cast is mostly from Hawaii and New-Zealand. Dwayne Johnson is half-Samoan through his mother.

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The island gives us what we need!

What’s next for Disney?

Disney doesn’t have anything new on its horizon. Since they cancelled Gigantic, everything they have planned is a sequel. I hope in the future they do more fairy tales set in real places. I would love to see Disney make a movie set in India (with human characters). I don’t think India will do a Disney-quality animated movie any time soon, so a collaboration seems like it could be a great idea. India has a ton of filmmakers already and a huge demographic.

Another thing I’d like to see is a movie set in Africa (also with human characters). I loved the live-action Disney film Queen of Katwe, which was set in Uganda. It was beautiful and moving. Now imagine if they did an animated movie like Moana, but with a black African Disney princess. Slowly but surely, there could be all kinds of Disney princesses: a Kazakh princess, a Korean princess, a Thai princess, an Amazonian princess, etc. Diversity makes it better.

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An African Disney princess.

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