This month, the live-action remake of Dumbo will be gracing our screens, along with two more remakes to come later this year. Disney is continuously pulling us back in with their long list of nostalgic remakes, but are the values of these films still accepted today or is this foreshadowing an end to Disney’s new original films?
The Walt Disney Studio was originally created in 1923 to produce the Alice Comedies, a series of animated short films closely related to Alice in Wonderland. Over the next decade, the studio created the famous Mickey Mouse who pioneered their original shorts throughout the late 20’s and 30’s and has become (to this day) their internationally recognised mascot. In 1937, the studio released their first full length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, to massive success. Over the 1940s, well-known classics that have stood the test of time such as Dumbo, Bambi, Pinocchio, Fantasia and many more were released. Coming into the late ’40s, Disney began the production of its first live-action films and television series. Finally, hitting the ‘50s we saw the release of Cinderella, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, Lady and the Tramp and many other old favourites.
Today, people are still devoted to these classic Disney films. Maybe because of their simplistic, fantasy driven storylines, which allow for an escape from the hardships of everyday life; even the subliminal slices of adult level humour within these children’s movies engage the older generations. These films have not been forgotten because Disney has always remained prominent. With their new films aimed towards the children of the 21st century such as Frozen, their gigantic theme parks and the purchasing of the rights to both Marvel and Star Wars, it’s very difficult to go about your life without Disney somehow dipping their toes into something you love. Now, like a homage to their older generational fans, they are going back to these classics once more. A gentle reminder that these films are still around despite Disney’s new creations and are now more accessible than those clunky VHS tapes that once existed.
These films shaped many childhoods, however the values presented within these age-old films are of a very different time and most are no longer accepted in our present society. There are blatant, racist themes shown in Dumbo, Peter Pan and many others, as well as the maligned princess stereotype present in so many of these classic films that has plagued female representation for years. These are not the best messages to be teaching the younger generations. Looking at how far the entertainment industry has come for women in recent years through the #metoo movement, and the rising fight for equal racial representation in film, it’s both incredible and haunting to see how far we’ve come.
Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and similar princess stories of Disney’s past show a sexist representation of women. Characterised by feminine weakness, they are always being saved by a male character – a trope that has plagued these films in their datedness when viewed with a modern lens. These female characters have also been criticised for being unreasonable idolisations for young girls to grow up to, all represented as thin, caucasian, and passive as other characters make decisions for them. Similarly, for the men, their male counterparts have always been depicted as handsome, strong and muscular, portraying a narrow portrait of masculinity. But we still all grew up watching these princesses, and when one is young, they don’t take notice to the sexist stereotypes. Recent Disney princesses, such as Moana, Elsa and Merida are all strong and independent representation of women who don’t rely on men, representing huge strides in a turning generation.
Outright racist themes were also prevalent within these classic Disney films. The native Americans in Peter Pan for example are called redskins and are represented as savages. In Dumbo, the name of the crow, ‘Jim Crow’ is related to the racial segregation Jim Crow laws in the States. Even Lady and the Tramp has racist, Asian characteristics for the Siamese cats.
Most younger children would not realise the racist references within these films, making them less prominent, but they still exist.
These films from the 30’s to the 50’s are considered to be ‘products of their time’, as they portrayed stereotypical representations of the minorities in a time where racism was sadly prevalent.
This wasn’t only shown through Disney films, but also through other companies such as Warner Bros Studios. The director of older, controversial Disney films, Bob Clampett, quoted during interviews, “everybody, including blacks had a good time when these cartoons first came out. All the controversy developed in later years merely because of changing attitudes toward black civil rights that have happened since then.”
There has been a massive shift in attitude towards minorities and African-American civil rights since these films were first released, and this is where controversy has developed. However, these almost subliminal modes of racism can still have such a huge effect on the impressionable minds of the youth.
Dumbo is always going to be a much-loved character, from his huge lovable ears to the empowering message of self-confidence he conveys. Putting aside the racist value, it is still a great children’s film many can remember and continue to love. A story of self-empowerment over bullying, finding the most special friendships through diversity and the power of individualism, it is still a must see classic. I hope the remake will be able to convey these beautiful messages without the inclusion of those racist values, so everyone can enjoy it no matter your ethnicity.
Sean Bailey, the president of production at Walt Disney Studios who is in control of Disney’s live action remakes recently stated, “Inclusivity is not only a priority but an imperative for us, and it’s top of my mind on every single project.”
It will be interesting to see how these filmmakers avoid the shot for shot re-enactments of the original films and what type of storytelling techniques they will consider to change racial and sexist values in the 21st century.
Words by Amy Papasergio