5 Life Lessons You May Have Missed From Disney Movies
Everyone knows that Disney movies are chock full of upbeat, family-friendly messages about life, love, and happiness (and occasionally some unhealthy ones). But there are a number of solid messages that these animated adventures were trying to teach us that many of us missed; messages that, while a little unconventional, are still important lessons for children, teens, and adults alike. To prove it, here’s a list of five of biggest Disney movie lessons that went unnoticed (along with some honorable mentions.)
The Little Mermaid
The Little Mermaid is a story about a teenage girl who desperately wants to leave home and marry a cute guy she’s only seen from a distance, all against her father’s wishes. As the generations who grew up on the movie have matured and become more genre savvy, most of us have picked up on how Ariel’s deal with the devil is probably not an example we want our own children following. For some of us, Ariel’s happy ending even seems a bit of a cheat and fails to match any reasonable or responsible life path available to us in the real world.
That said, the movie is hiding at least one valuable lesson in its briny depths (pun intended). Yes, it’s true that Ariel’s an absent-minded slacker and a rebellious teen, who pursues a boy despite her stern father’s strict instructions. It’s a pretty typical stereotype: the nice, innocent girl falling for some miscreant male juvenile delinquent. Many a real-life dad has tried to put a stop to such philandering, often to no avail, and at first glance, that seems to be the situation Disney has set up in the film.
There’s just one little problem: Prince Eric isn’t a bad boy. In fact, he’s quite the opposite. First, as a prince, he’s a member of established authority, rather than a hoodlum trying to subvert it. He’s a good leader too—kind and fair to those serving under him. He’s an animal lover and a musician. He’s brave in the face of danger and willing to risk his life for others. When he comes across a mysterious woman who has washed up on the beach, he doesn’t take advantage of her. He puts her up in the castle and shows her around.
Perhaps most important, he’s not hung up on appearances, or wild fantasies. It’s clear when he finds Ariel that he’s still looking for the woman with a beautiful voice who saved his life.
But after two days with her, and almost kissing her, he goes to the beach to think. He plays Ariel’s melody on his flute as he thinks, obviously weighing his far-fetched fantasy against the real woman he’s been spending the two past days with. Then, in a moment of firm decision, he throws the flute away. Ursula had been right—Ariel, even without her magical voice—had won the love of the prince with just her personality and zest for life.
And let’s not overlook the fact that Ariel’s faith in Eric pays off, as he finally rids all of the ocean of Ursula’s threat once and for all, proving himself a good guy once more. When Ariel had told her father “You don’t know him,” she had been the first teenage girl to be right.
The Moral: If you’re going to throw caution to the wind and fall for someone against all warnings, make sure you pick a real stand up guy (or gal).
One of Pixar’s most recent outings, for those who haven’t seen it yet, is a film about what’s going on inside our heads. The story follows an 11-year-old girl named Riley, and the five emotions (Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and Anger) that live inside her head and help her live her life. For the most part, Joy runs the show. Things get complicated, though, when her family uproots and moves to San Francisco. In the resulting emotional chaos, Joy and Sadness get sucked out of “HEADquarters” and wind up stuck in long-term memory, with no way to help Riley make decisions. The three remaining emotions try (and fail) to maintain the status quo as Joy and Sadness try to find their way back.
It’s a moving tale about embracing your emotions and leaning on those you love when you can’t handle how you feel. What many people don’t know is that it’s also a movie about mental dysfunction, and how changes in life can leave us reeling.
The primary conflict in the movie comes from Joy and Sadness being removed from their position at the controls and getting stuck where they can’t influence Riley’s actions. This leaves the girl experiencing only emotions of anxiety, repugnance, and frustration, numb to happiness and melancholy.
This mimics the experience of some who suffer from depression or similar mental illnesses. Many report feeling a disconnection from most healthy emotions (like Joy and Sadness), and instead feel apathetic and numb. The fact that Riley ultimately decides to run away from home also falls in line with the kind of drastic and uncharacteristic choices that are made by mental patients suffering from a severe episode.
Mental health challenges are as real as physical ones and often go undiagnosed and untreated. Riley eventually recovers by embracing the emotional pain that accompanies change and seeking comfort in her family. Not every sufferer is so lucky, and we should be on the lookout for visible symptoms in those we care about if we want to help damaging negative choices or self-harm.
The Moral: Sometimes drastic life changes can result in serious mental health challenges, so don’t be afraid to seek (or offer) help.
A Bug's Life
Pixar’s second Disney-funded outing was about ants. In a colony of ants enslaved to a bunch of grasshoppers, one ant tries to invent devices to make life easier on everybody. His devices have a tendency to cause catastrophes, however, and the colony is eager to get rid of him for it. But when one device mishap angers the grasshoppers and puts everyone in danger, it’s the inventor who puts together a plan to save them. By the end, the ants win, everyone starts using Flick’s devices, “and the grasshoppers leave.”
This one’s pretty straightforward, though it’s also been overlooked. While almost everyone picks up on the story of rising up against oppression, most miss the “all the other reindeer” plot. Flick is seen as weird, troublesome, and a nuisance. When he offers to venture out into the wide world to get help to fight the grasshoppers, his whole colony supports him, believing the errand a death wish. They effectively sentence him to an execution they tricked him into accepting willingly. By the end of the story, though, everyone has seen the value in Flick’s progressive ideas and miraculous machines, and are embracing his more effective methods.
Our real-life society is very similar, with technology (especially digital technologies) ruling the day. Those who know how to build and use these technologies are quickly becoming the masters of realms beyond their own, earning buckets of cash while the rest of us work for peanuts. There are plenty of examples: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg being just a few of the more obvious names. These people were geeks and outcasts in their formative years, but these days, while all their jock peers are working middle-class jobs, Mr. Gates doesn’t even bother picking up dropped Benjamins.
The Moral: Be nice to the nerds. They may be a loser now, but one day that nerd will be running the show.
A story about a princess who can do ice magic and about how we should all just “Let It Go,” Frozen has saturated the planet at this point, much the way Star Wars and Harry Potter have. So we’ll skip the refresher, and get straight to the point.
When Elsa charges off and abandons the kingdom, insisting that she won’t live in hiding anymore, she does something awful: she freezes the kingdom in eternal winter. Well, we can’t prove it’s eternal since it only lasts a day. Maybe the summer would have had all that snow cleaned up in a week, we don’t know. But she did some damage. It was seriously cold, and people were probably freezing to death since they were unprepared for it.
Then, when Anna tries to convince Elsa to come back and take her place as queen, she declares “I don’t know how to fix it, ergo, it is not my problem” (we’re paraphrasing). Things don’t get better until she finally accepts that though she should embrace her uniqueness, she also has a kingdom to take care of, her parents being lost at sea and all.
The Moral: Be yourself, but don’t neglect your responsibilities.
Beauty and the Beast
Beauty and the Beast is a fun movie, Stockholm Syndrome notwithstanding. Yet again, though, many have missed an important detail in the film: both Belle and her father are nerds. By definition, nerds and geeks are enthusiasts—they’re passionate about intellectual things like books, inventions, and games of chess. While it might not be as obvious because Belle never left her cottage with her Tardis bag over her shoulder, we still should have picked up on the fact that she preferred to put her nose in a book.
We should have also picked up on the fact that everyone, especially Gaston, is trying to beat her weirdness out of her. Everyone in the village treats her the way the ant colony treated Flick, with the exception that, because she’s good looking, they don’t mind keeping her around. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Belle is what happens when a guy like Flick manages to land an attractive wife.
Back to the point. There’s only one person who, besides her father, embraces and encourages her weirdness: the Beast. Say what you will about his anger problems, the man knew how to give a gift. What nerd wouldn’t want to own a whole library, complete with sliding ladders? The Beast never questioned Belle’s passion, and never tried to dissuade her from it. He fed her obsession, encouraging her to be as passionate about her fandoms as she wanted to be.
The Moral: Encourage those you love to pursue their (healthy) interests, even if your own interests lie elsewhere.
There’s not really room to enumerate every oddball lesson Disney movies can teach, so we’re going to sum up a few, just as a sampling of what’s out there.
The Lion King: Shirking your responsibilities helps no one.
Sleeping Beauty: Sometimes all you need to fix your troubles is a little rest.
Pocahontas: Everyone assumes their way of life is the right way.
Hercules: Forever is a long time if you don’t have someone to share it with.
Moana: Even a goddess can become a monster if a man rips her heart out.
Wreck-It Ralph: Embrace your talents, and be the best you can at what you do.