One of my many roles at MIT is as a Hall Councilor in my graduate dorm, Sidney-Pacific. The role mostly means that I hold small events for my hallmates, often with free food. For the last event of my tenure, they voted unanimously to watch Big Hero 6, which seemed to be Disney’s best impression of what grad school is like.
SPOILER WARNING: As you can probably tell from the title, I’m spoiling a bunch of recent Disney movies: Along with Big Hero 6, I also talk about Frozen, Wreck It Ralph, and Toy Story 3 in detail, and mix in Tangled a bunch as well. If you still want to see any of these movies, I’d suggest you bookmark this post and come back to it after you do so.
Okay, now that we just have people who’ve seen these movies, let me remind you of the most dramatic plot twists in each of them. If you haven’t seen them but don’t plan to, you probably want to instead read the Wikipedia entries (linked to in the titles) to get the whole plot.
- Big Hero 6 (2014): The villain in the Kabuki mask is actually Professor Callaghan, the previously warm and brilliant robotics professor and an inspiring mentor to the whole lab. He stole the microbots after the fire and is using them to get back at Alastair Krei for the death of his daughter. After that, he callously dismisses Tadashi’s attempt to save him in the fire as Tadashi’s own fault (which it was, but that’s not how you respond).
- Frozen (2013): Hans, the attractive prince whom Anna gets engaged to, takes responsibility for Arendelle when Anna runs off to find her sister Elsa, and is showing himself quite competent, unlike Anna or Elsa. When Anna returns needing act of true love from him, he reveals that he didn’t really love her, but only wanted to take control of the kingdom. He leaves her to die, blaming Elsa for her murder.
- Wreck-It Ralph (2012): King Candy, the frequent winner of his game, Sugar Rush, tells Ralph that since his newfound friend Vanellope had a glitch, letting her race would mess up the whole game, leaving Ralph in a true moral dilemma (that I was honestly hoping he would have to resolve). But King Candy had lied, and as Ralph discovers, had inserted the glitch into her code in the first place.
- Toy Story 3 (2010): This twist happens a bit earlier in the plot. SunnySide Daycare, where Andy’s toys (except Woody) are taken, seems at first to be a great place, led by the friendly Lots-O-Huggin’ Bear. But not long later, it’s revealed that Lotso is actually a ruthless gang leader, deliberately putting new toys in harm’s way (the toddlers).
What do they all share? The surprise villains are always the characters in authority who seem to be trustworthy. The natural lesson? Don’t trust and follow authority figures, even if they seem responsible.
The excellent Honest Trailer for Frozen put it best: “Experience a clever twist on past Disney films that teaches girls everywhere they don’t need a prince to rescue them, because all men are disgusting loners, greedy murderers, or lying, manipulative, power-hungry sociopaths.”
In other words, Disney seems to be completely turning on the prince-rescuing-a-princess storyline. Even Disney’s recent takes on Rapunzel, the classic rescue story, in Tangled and Into the Woods both feature [rot13‘d for spoilers] cevaprf gung ner xvaq bs wrexf naq pregnvayl abg nalbar jbegu vzvgngvat.
It seems that Disney characters these days can’t both be powerful and morally upstanding. In other words, the only Fellowship of the Ring characters that can show up in Disney movies are the hobbits, Boromir, and I guess Gimli for the comic relief. There aren’t any knights in shining armor, no super awesome Aragorn or Legolas to save the day in style, or even Gandalf to offer wisdom and the occasional balrog fight.
A few characters in these films come close to being inspiring authority figures. Tadashi is a great older brother to Hiro, but he dies trying to save Professor Callaghan from the fire, showing that the only way to actually die in a Disney movie is to try to be selfless. Kristoff is also selfless in trying to rescue Anna, but sort of alone and clueless as well. Sergeant Calhoun is pretty badass, but is also grizzled from her constant fight against the Cy-Bugs and somewhat dark backstory. Bonnie is a great new caretaker of Andy’s toys, but in the end, she’s just a little girl playing with toys.
And I get it, competent leadership is boring. There’s a reason Lord of the Rings ends with Aragorn’s coronation; his reign in Gondor would feature many fewer epic battles, I’m sure, and Disney doesn’t really do action movies so that part isn’t an option.
But I think there’s a deeper, more theological reason here, too. What we don’t see in these movies is a wise king and queen who oversee all of the actions of their children and subjects in the kingdom. (Tangled has royalty, but the only thing they do is release lanterns.)
It’s interesting to see the most approximate depictions of God in these movies.
In Big Hero 6, God is Baymax, a robot with powers like omniscience (can scan everyone in San Fransokyo instantly) and omnipotence (can hold back any giant concrete slabs hurtled at him), but was created by humans and remains ultimately subject to their choices about which software to run. In Frozen, God is the magical troll rocks who characters pray to, uh, whenever Anna is about to die, but who respond vaguely, leave their words open to poor interpretation, and are a little too obsessed with romantic love. In Wreck-It Ralph, God is the actual people who run the arcade, known most for their wrathful vengeance (unplugging games that don’t work anymore), which causes the characters to live in fear of this judgment. And in Toy Story 3, God is Andy, who doesn’t realize that his toys are actually alive and have feelings and desires of their own as well.
What sort of God do you believe in? Is God just a human invention? Distant and vague? Wrathful and concerned only with our performance? Or completely oblivious to our own feelings and desires?
As a Christian, none of those feel that accurate to me, although Baymax and Andy bear some similarities. Of course, Tolkien was a Christian, so his closest analogies to God (Aragorn and Gandalf) have more in common without being as literal as CS Lewis’s Aslan.
Let me be clear: I don’t mean to say that Disney makes godless movies that No True Christian should watch because they will corrupt your mind. Not at all — by thinking through these examples, we can come to a better understanding of how the world would be like with a God like any of these, and from the Christian perspective, why it’s important that God isn’t like this.
For everyone, though, what world do we really live in, and how does that introduce conflict into our lives? Do we continually fear rejection because we’re not good enough, and might be shut down soon? Are we just sort of blustering about making tons of mistakes on our own like Elsa and Anna in Frozen with nowhere to turn except when we’re about to die? To improve, do we have to buckle down and “upgrade” ourselves like Hiro does? Or does it all just not matter, since we’re subject to so much random chance, like Andy’s mom mistakenly throwing us away?
The Devil gets an interesting treatment as well. In fact, all of these stories feel a need to explain their surprise villains’ backstory rather than just casting them as evil through and through. Callaghan went mad after his daughter died in an accident caused by the hasty negligence of his rival, Alastair Krei. Hans was desperate for power, and didn’t see any other future as the 13th brother in a large family. King Candy is really Turbo, a character from an older game who had grown jealous of a newer game becoming more popular. Lots-O-Huggin’ Bear grew bitter after being replaced by a similar-looking bear by his first owners when they had left him behind on vacation.
Putting it together, the demons we face are all within, stemming from our own desires for power and revenge, our own jealousy and bitterness.
I actually like this change, because it humanizes the bad guys and helps us understand where evil comes from and see how we could venture down that road ourselves. They’re better than the enemies of past Disney movies, who are often just straight-up evil from the beginning.
Beyond the theology, the artistic choice to make all of the competent authorities secretly evil also reflects a modern prevailing attitude. The news from General David Petraus’s drawn-out trial is just the latest in a line of disappointment in former heroes like Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, and Alex Rodriguez.
In many ways, this means we’ve become more moral, raising the standards that we require of our leadership. Since Watergate, we won’t look the other way at JFK’s philandering or Woodrow Wilson’s racism anymore. We’ve become very concerned, rightfully or not, about the e-mail address Hillary Clinton used as Secretary of State, or how a bunch of money got from Russia to her husband’s charity. Of course, there are political reasons there, too.
And yet, so few have survived the scrutiny of that spotlight that we’ve become jaded. We’ve come to believe, like Frozen, that there isn’t anything good to be found in powerful men.
One area of authority that seems almost immune to this sort of concern is family. None of these movies portray parents who betray their children. In fact, Callaghan is even driven mad because of his love for his daughter. One might think of Brave and Tangled as counterexamples, but [rot13‘d for the spoilers] va Oenir, gur zbgure-qnhtugre eryngvbafuvc vf abg nobhg orgenlny ohg erpbapvyvngvba, naq va Gnatyrq, Tbgury vfa’g npghnyyl Enchamry’f zbgure.
Instead, Disney makes all of its main characters into orphans, so no one can blame their parents when things go wrong, because their parents are dead. And when a character like Tadashi becomes a bit like a parent, he dies so he can’t be blamed for anything that goes wrong after that, either.
Of course, an obvious reason for this is that parents still decide what movies little kids watch, and enough parents wouldn’t tolerate a direct assault on their authority that any such movie would tank. But I predict it won’t be long before such a take comes out. (And no, the new Cinderella doesn’t count, since it’s her stepmom who mistreats her, not her own mother.)
After all, the culture has already shifted to critiquing parenting techniques as well. As usual, it started in the world of sports, the place where Americans think most morally, with the outrage against running back Adrian Peterson for whipping his 4-year-old son. But it’s continued in the outcry over the decision of the parents of Joshua/Leelah Alcorn to propose therapy rather than embracing his/her transgender identity, leading to his/her suicide.
What’s the lesson I take from all of this? Personally, it makes me ever more motivated to be a positive example in the midst of all of this chaos. I don’t know what my future holds, but I expect many of us will be leaders in some capacity, whether that’s work or parenting, and I’d encourage you to remember to not neglect the moral component of leadership.
To do so, it won’t be enough to just go it alone. We need to be conversant in morality, whether from reading the Bible or David Brooks columns. We need better and more inspiring examples of real people to look to. And we need a community to gut check our own decisions and hold us accountable to the values we claim to hold dear.
It might sound like I’m about to advertise that my Christian faith gives me all three of these things, and it does, but I’m actually more humbled by the fact that some of these fallen heroes, like Adrian Peterson, were also Christian. Clearly it takes more than just our faith.