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.
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 such as Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians, The Sword in the Stone, Robin Hood, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Hercules.
Some of these movies have a vague setting, others are more specific. All the voice actors are American except for the British characters who are voiced by British voice actors. Hercules openly butchers Greek mythology, but The Hunchback of Notre-Dame takes a more serious approach regarding the ostracization of the Romani people in 1482 Paris. I think Disney mostly stayed clear of European stereotypes, unless you count the drunken bunch in Tangled.
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 is a bit 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 less-than-feminist song that implies things never change with new generations.
The 90s around the world
Aladdin is based on an Arabic tale set in Arabic China. If a European fairy tale involves fairies, kings and sorcerers with long beards, 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 Circle of Life” begins with a Zulu chorus, “Hakuna Matata” is two Swahili words, 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 Serengeti animals. Sadly, the movie gave hyenas a bad reputation. The cast was American, with some African-American voice actors.
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.
Mulan takes a famous Chinese legend and turns it into the most awesome Disney movie. Is it accurate? No. Did they make money off of another country’s culture? Yes. 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. How could they miss the opportunity to cast Jackie Chan as Mushu? He voiced a part of in the Chinese dubs of Mulan, so Disney literally had him at their disposition!
Tarzan takes place in Africa, but features no black character. It’s an adaptation of an American novel set in 1888 Africa. In the novel, there are some black people, but they are the enemies of Tarzan and Jane. Disney cut them out entirely, probably because it’s a racist part of the book. As was the case with The Jungle Book, the animals reflect the local fauna, but not the 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.
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, but the rest of the songs are Elvis Presley songs. The actress playing Nani is Hawaiian, but not the one playing Lilo.
Brother Bear (2003)
Brother Bear has Inuit characters. It likely takes place in Alaska. It features grizzlies, moose and auroras. There’s a song performed by a Bulgarian choir with Inuit lyrics. The animators visited various national parks in Alaska and in the contiguous United-States for inspiration. The Native American protagonists are not voiced by Native American actors, but the moose characters are voiced by Canadian actors saying “eh” a lot.
The Princess and the Frog (2009)
The Princess and the Frog is inspired by a European fairy tale called The Frog Prince. Disney adapted the story with Jazz Age New Orleans, African-Americans and voodoo magic. It’s a cool concept, and they cast African-American actors to do the voices, 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. It doesn’t add much to the movie.
Now in 3D
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 features Norwegian traditions ranging from patterns on walls and dresses to trolls 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. The voice cast is entirely American and white, including the actor voicing Kristoff. Disney hired a Sami musician to write a song, so at least there’s him. As an aside, Sami people use reindeer to pull sleighs, but they don’t ride them.
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 Polynesian people. The cast is mostly from Hawaii and New-Zealand. Dwayne Johnson is half-Samoan through his mother.
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 people!). 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 fascinating cultural elements and stories to tell.
Another thing I’d like to see is a movie set in Africa (with people!). I loved Queen of Katwe, which was a live-action Disney movie. It was beautiful and moving. Now I wish Disney would tell more African stories. Maybe they could do an ancient fairy tale with African kings. That would be a perfect vehicle for a new black princess. Slowly but surely, there could be all kinds of princesses: a Kazakh princess, a Korean princess, a Thai princess, an Amazonian princess, etc.