Monthly Archives: November 2014

People of Color in Animation

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Today we’re going to talk about people of color (POC) in animation. POC, for our purposes, refers to anyone who is not white.

Here is a compilation of POC characters in animation:

  • Pocahontas [Native American] [Disney]
  • Esmeralda [race not identified] [Disney]
  • Tiana [African American—but not officially identified] [Disney]
  • Little Creek [Native American] [Dreamworks]
  • Chel [a native of Central or South America] [Dreamworks]
  • Lucius/Frozone [presumably African American] [Pixar/Disney]
  • Lilo [Hawaiian] [Disney]
  • Aladdin [Arab] [Disney]
  • Mulan [Asian] [Disney]
  • Kuzco [Incan Empire/Native South American—modern day Peru] [Disney]
  • Tiger Lily [Native American] [Disney]
  • Mowgli [Indian] [Disney]
  • The Prince of Egypt [Dreamworks]

(Note: I’ve included Native Americans and Hispanics in the list because Native Americans are currently a miniscule population due to atrocities committed during the forming of this nation and Hispanics currently face great hardships like immigration laws. I’m also including Lilo because “Hawaiian/Pacific Islander” has its own box on job applications/standardized tests/etc. Also, if I didn’t, there’d be, like, no one on this list.)

(Other note: I’ve not seen Dreamworks’ The Prince of Egypt, so I don’t feel confident talking about it.)

This discussion has been building for a very long time. Disney has faced criticism for their all white casts and the usual defense has been, well, these stories take place in Europe back in the day, so everyone was white.

Yeah, no.

I’m here to burst your bubble because: you can see people of color represented in Medieval European art and considering the Iberian peninsula was conquered by Muslims in the 700s, I’d say Europeans were no stranger to people of color. Marco Polo traveled to Asia in the 1200s. And if you still doubt, my Tudor era professor confirmed that England, namely London, was already a mixed metropolis in the 1500 and 1600s.

To curb this backlash, Disney released The Princess and the Frog. I enjoy this film and the return to 2D, and I love the humor. However, this offering was meant to halt the criticism, but it only spurned more. Our first black princess and she’s a FROG for 70% of the film?

reaction do you feel the judgement

I don’t know if any other animation house has faced as much backlash as Disney. Presumably they are the target because they are the most successful and influential. However, it appears Disney may have the best track record compared to some of the other houses—though there is room for drastic improvement. Tallied from the above list, Disney has 10 characters of color. That’s a minuscule number compared to their collection of 50+ films, but when Disney does utilize diversity, they do so richly and create compelling stories (mostly, we’ll see exceptions below).

In addition to mounting movement in the animation world, this meta was also brought on by the senseless shootings of unarmed black adults and children at the hands of police officers.

From 2006 to 2012 a white police officer killed a black person at least twice a week in this country. [x]

I am saddened and angered by what’s been happening around us. This meta was always coming, so lets get to it.


The most shocking thing I noted was every story featuring a person a color is extremely dated.

  • Pocahontas = Age of Exploration (specifically 1607)
  • Esmeralda = Hugo’s novel was published in the 1800s, though the book is set in the 1400s
  • Tiana = 1912
  • Aladdin = unspecified, but based on the very old One Thousand and One Nights (though the genie loves his pop culture references)
  • Mulan = I really don’t know because the Huns were burning shit since the dawn of time, but Mulan first appeared in poems between the 300s and 600s
  • Kuzco = 16th century
  • Little Creek = Around the time railroads were being built, so 1800s
  • Chel = Age of Exploration (Spanish conquistadors—1519)
  • Lucius/Frozone = CONTEMPORARY (FINALLY)
  • Lilo = CONTEMPORARY (YAY!)
  • Mowgli = date unknown
  • Tiger Lily = exists in a world where time does not pass, but The Darlings’ interaction with Pan happens in the 1900s

The majority of stories being told here are set in very vivid time periods, as if the only story worth telling of people of color are their trials and tribulations in history, which are clearly over now because we live in a post-racial, globalized world. We know this is untrue. There may not be Jim Crow laws or homelands being overrun by industrialization, but there is still plenty of injustice.

Many Disney films give off old timey feels, but none are really held back by their time period. Beauty and the Beast has no identifying marker of what year it is, nor does the very recent Frozen, or Lady and Tramp, or Cinderella (in my opinion). But when you throw in the Age of Exploration, that dates your film. That sets the story firmly in one universe.

Next, lets look at who the protagonists of these films are:

  • Pocahontas, check
  • Tiana, check
  • Lilo, check
  • Mulan, check
  • Aladdin, check
  • Kuzco, check
  • Mowgli, grey area, but check
  • Tiger Lily, no
  • Esmeralda, no
  • Little Creek, no
  • Chel, no
  • Lucius/Frozone, no

Pocahontas owns her story and while Tiana is a frog for most of it, she does not cease being black (literally, she’s green, fine, but her character does not change). Kuzco is the male Tiana (or a prototype of Naveen, since those two are more similar) where he’s stuck as a llama for the majority of the movie.

emperor's new groove llama face copy

Lilo and her sister Nani are too wonderful for words (best sisters ever–sorry Anna and Elsa) and make me sob, sob, sob.

lilo and stitch sad copy

Aladdin is populated with other people of the same race. And Mulan just needs no introduction.

mulan tea

The fact is, only seven cases can be made for an animated movie led by a person of color. Maybe even four if you don’t want to include The Princess and the Frog, Emperor’s New Groove, or The Jungle Book.

Esmeralda plays an integral role in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, for sure, but it’s not her story. Ultimately it is about Quasi learning how to love himself and be confident. Little Creek, likewise, is super important in Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, but it’s not his story, either. The film is about Spirit making his way home and becoming a leader. If you catch my drift here, Chel’s role in The Road to El Dorado is one of a love interest and ally to the two main characters. Lucius/Frozone is a wonderful friend and sidekick, but he’s absent for the entire middle portion of The Incredibles.

They are players, but not major players.

Pocahontas, Lilo, Tiana, Aladdin, Kuzco and Mulan: Taking Names and Kicking Butt

pocahontas indignant lookliloprincess and the frog tianaaladdin copyemperor's new groove dancingmulan

 

Disney gave us six POC leads. Each of them are strong, flawed heroes. We have a very diverse list of races/cultures/ethnicities here: Native American, African American, Hawaiian, and Arabic. In addition, we also have supporting characters to reflect this, too.

It’s clear when Disney sets a story within a particular framework, they usually go all the way to actualize the worlds.

In Pocahontas we see the Powhatan tribe farming the land and praying to spirits for guidance. Healing practices, transportation, customs and homes are all shown to us. Their way of life contrasts with the settlers so starkly. Pocahontas teaches John Smith many things, most importantly that land is not something to own. But she also teaches him about her culture, such as how their tribe says hello and goodbye.

Lilo and Stitch takes us to Hawaii, where we have Lilo, Nani, and David and wonderful world building. The perception is that contemporary stories are easier since there is no fantasy world or past to explain, but that’s not true. Contemporary stories require just as much work to get right and Disney was not afraid of the challenge.

lilo and stitch 2

In addition to our sisters and a couple aliens, we have the social worker, Cobra Bubbles. He is darker skinned than the others and clearly holds a higher position of power (I point this out because of the power structure in Frog). Surfing and hula are all integral to creating Lilo, Nani, and David’s pastimes. David and Nani work at a resort and tourism has the biggest influence on the GDP of Hawaii. I’m sure this movie taught everyone the meaning of Ohana and several other Hawaiian words. Nani also sings a song in Hawaiian when she’s forced to say goodbye to Lilo.

lilo and stich hands

The flowers they send into the wind are also the same flowers shown on leis throughout the film.

Next we move onto The Princess and the Frog, which may have the weakest world building of them all. This is not a surprise if Tiana’s skin was colored just to appease outcries. Mardi Gras really grounds the city as New Orleans and jazz and gumbo tie us back to the African American culture. But that’s really all that can be said, sadly.

princess and the frog exhausted

As for supporting characters, Dr. Facilier is clearly not white and Mama Odie, Tiana’s mom (and dearly departed dad), and Prince Naveen are all dark skinned.

princess and the frog reaction  basic bitch

This is offset by the white characters like Charlotte, her father, and Naveen’s evil minion, Lawrence. We are presented with a diverse New Orleans, brimming with French influence and lively jazz. Frog presents us with the uncomfortable image of an all white power structure: Charlotte’s dad being rich, the two men Tiana wants to buy the restaurant from being white, and Tiana’s mother working as a seamstress. As mentioned above, this is not the case in Lilo and Stitch, a film made before Frog. However, Frog is set about hundred years before Lilo, so that could be one argument in favor of the movie.

Then, we have Aladdin. We open on a desert, which right away sets the story. The marketplace, the sand, the palace, they all present a clear picture. The strength in Aladdin’s world building really comes from visuals: clothes, places, animals. There’s nothing that the characters do that really identify them, besides, to say it again, their clothes. The custom of a princess needing to marry does not differentiate it from other princess films. The art of the movie is really what saves it.

Mulan trumps all in terms of world building.

mulan reflection

The fact that Mulan is Chinese is very important to her story. Mulan, like Pocahontas, is a historical figure so it is not shocking her race matters to the story. Chinese culture is presented to us everywhere: praying to the ancestors, the matchmaker, the clothes, the writing. Gender roles, especially, and honor thy father all influence Mulan’s arc and the story Disney is telling. Mulan and Gender Roles is its own meta, but Disney consciously created a Chinese character and set her in her world, effectively showing us a new culture and race.

Finally, there’s Kuzco. While Aladdin sets us up visually and The Princess and the Frog is relatively weak, but still a decent effort, Kuzco isn’t anything special. Yes, he’s a native South American, but the only cultural addition to the film are llamas. Of course, there’s jungles and nature and the contrast between poorer homes on the hilltops vs Kuzco’s palace. Besides the llamas, though, this film could be set anywhere and it wouldn’t matter. Props to Disney for reimagining Mr. Andersen’s Danish fairy tale in this way, but the world isn’t strong enough.

I haven’t spoken much on The Jungle Book. Mowgli is Indian, but besides his name and the names of all the animals around him, that’s not very obvious. He certainly does not have an Indian accent, nor does he even possess any understanding of the concept of “Indian.” The girl in the village wearing the tilak (or bindi) at the end of the film is the only real connection we have to this culture.

Esmeralda, Little Creek, Chel, Lucius: Lets Be Honest, Taking Names and Kicking Butt, Too

hunchback seeing him spirit little creekel dorado chel idiots face incredibles frozone

Esmeralda is the leading female of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. She is one of my all-time favorite characters. She’s idealistic, loyal, brave, kind. As a gypsy, she’s hunted by Frollo and made to feel unworthy.

I don’t know if you would listen to a gypsy’s prayer… Yes, I know I’m just an outcast, I shouldn’t speak to you…
–God Help the Outcasts

She represents discrimination and persecution. She’s hunted for being a gypsy, for being a woman, and for being a person of color. But she’s prepared to become a martyr, to die for what she believes in.

She’s Quasi’s first example of a decent human being and becomes his first human friend (gargoyles, anyone?). She helps bring him out of his shell and quell his fears about being feared. She would know, too, since she’s used to mothers frequently telling their children not to go near her (see: the beginning of the film).

Esmeralda is another example of a Disney woman saving her man, but her and Phoebus may also be the first interracial couple (and they make me swoon)!

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a very brave film. It doesn’t shy away from personal issues like religion and hate and sexual undertones. But it also tackles race and bias and unfair persecution. Esmeralda is an amazing character, she’s strong in the best sense of the word and brings amazing representation to the Disney animated universe.

I’ve been talking about Disney a lot, so lets turn to Dreamworks.

Little Creek is my baby. He’s a Lakota Native American and we first meet him when Spirit is captured by US soldiers. Little Creek was caught trying to free the cavalry’s horses and as the film shows us, Little Creek and his tribe care very much about horses. They don’t want to see them saddled, branded, or whipped. When he and Spirit escape, Spirit is brought back to Little Creek’s tribe and nourished back to health after The Colonel tried to starve him that way he would become milder and easier to tame (spoiler alert: not happening).

Little Creek becomes the most important human Spirit meets. He is the embodiment of kindness and they become good friends. He is the opposite of the regiment’s men, the ones who want to destroy the land and nature and build roads and railways. He wants to train Spirit, but he also is in awe of his power and respects him.

spirit 5

who wouldn’t be in awe of Spirit? look at that pretty horsie

Little Creek’s version of training is of course very different from the soldiers, but when Spirit still resists, he lets go. He does not try to wield power over Spirit. And when Spirit sees that, that is when he lets Little Creek ride him.

spirit 3spirit who could not be broken

In the Road to El Dorado, we meet Chel. She is not a Disney princess, but like most of them she has dreams of going on adventure and discovering something new. In fact, the first time we see her she’s running away from home with some gold she stole.

el dorado chel copy

She’s native to El Dorado, the city of gold, somewhere in Central or South America. Where The Emperor’s New Groove failed, El Dorado excels. El Dorado is a fully real, actualized city. There is an opposing ruling force and tension within the community (the chief vs the high priest), distinct artwork and games that are played. Visually, also, the movie stuns, creating a rich world to contrast with Spain.

Chel’s role is fairly straightforward. If this was Disney, she’d have an “I Want” song and a love song with Tulio. She doesn’t have either of those here, though they are important aspects of her character. As the story goes on, we see her helping Miguel and Tulio pass off their con about being gods. She is vital to their success, filling them in on customs and traditions and getting them out of sticky situations.

el dorado chel idiots face

Chel’s face every time the idiot boys don’t listen to her

And when the chance to leave El Dorado and travel with them to Spain is presented, of course she’s ready to go for it.

el dorado end

Lucius/Frozone is a wonderful bestie in The Incredibles. His scene at the end of the film–

incredibles wheres my super suit

–is one of everyone’s favorites. His wife is never seen, but even she’s legendary (I am the greatest good you are ever gonna get). There’s nothing about him to emphasize his race, but it doesn’t matter because that’s how life is. Your friends are your friends. We know all kinds of different people.

Also, the list of black superheroes is slim. Frozone does have a small role, but he is a splash of diversity in an otherwise all white film.


Do I think this is suitable? Of course not. More can and should be done to bring diverse characters into the mainstream animation houses. As we’ve seen with Mulan and Aladdin and Lilo and Stitch, amazing movies happen!

But, I wanted to highlight the fact that Disney, who largely faces the most criticism for their all white stories, have brought us people of color in their films. They’ve given us the biggest majority of POCs as protagonists, too.

I left out the film Brother Bear by Disney because there’s not much to add–it follows the standard interpretation of Native Americans we’ve seen in Pocahontas and Spirit, plus POC being an animal for most of the film.

brother bear new in town copy

I also left out Ice Age by 20th Century because 1, I forgot about the nomadic tribe, and 2, because they are a tiny facet of the film. But by the nature of the film, it dates itself back millions of years, which ties into a point made above. Also not mentioned are The Croods, which follows the same logic for Ice Age. The Book of Life, I have yet to see, but it seems Hispanic culture plays a bigger role there than Emperor. Big Hero 6 features an Asian protagonist, but I’ve not yet seen it yet, either.

People of color have stories to tell! Historical OR contemporary, their lives matter. Their lives in reality and their lives in art and animation.

If you take anything away from this post I hope it is either:

  • Disney has given us the most diversity of any animation house
  • But: we should still be critical of Disney and encourage more diversity among all animators
  • The majority of stories about POCs focus on historical aspects, which is great, but there needs to be more of a balance between past and present

Leave your thoughts and opinions below! How do you feel about diversity in animation?

Cheers!
-M&M

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Pocahontas and Spirituality

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Since Thanksgiving is coming up on Thursday, and the holiday season is upon us, I thought it would be fun to talk about spirituality – or more specifically, spirituality in Pocahontas. I’ve always been a very spiritual person, and the last time I watched Pocahontas, it really struck me how much that aspect is touched upon. So today, we’re going to talk about animism, spirituality and what exactly the colors of the wind really represent.

Animism
So, what is animism, and what does it have to do with Pocahontas? Well, if you Google the word, you’ll get two definitions.

The first definition is: the attribution of a soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena.

This one’s the easiest to relate to Pocahontas. So much of Pocahontas’ culture and way of life is defined by animism. She and the rest of the Powhatan Tribe hold the spirits and the land sacred. Instead of trying to conquer and plunder the land, like Radcliffe and his men, the Powhatan Tribe works with the land, only taking what they need and respecting it.

As Pocahontas tells John Smith (and us) in Colors of the Wind:
But I know every rock and tree and creature
has a life, has a spirit, has a name

pocahontas has a lifepocahontas has a spirit

pocahontas has a namepocahontas butterflies

(Doesn’t that lyric sound a lot like the definition above? I certainly think it does.)

The word animism also reminds me of animals, and animals are pretty big in the Disney universe as a whole. We have animal-centric movies, like The Lion King, Bambi, Lady and the Tramp… And just look at all of the Disney princesses/princes with animal companions. Aladdin has Abu, and Jasmine has Rajah. Ariel has a whooping three animal BFFs (Flounder, Scuttle, Sebastian). Sleeping Beauty has an entire set of forest friends. Cinderella has her mice. The list goes on and on.

Pocahontas is no exception: she’s got two animal besties, Flit and Meeko, each with their own distinct personality and quirks. Meeko the raccoon is kind of a brat (but a lovable one) who enjoys stealing people’s food, and doesn’t always play nice with others. Despite all that, he’s adorably curious and ultimately a kind raccoon at heart.

pocahontas meeko's so kind

pocahontas meeko checking on percy

Flit on the other hand is an adorable hummingbird: serious, stubborn, but also friendly and very curious about the world around him.

pocahontas flit

pocahontas flit's reflection

They’re as close of friends to her as Nakoma is, and the movie doesn’t trivialize them because they’re animals.

The animals in Pocahontas all have a life, a spirit, a name, just as Pocahontas tells us. The film also uses them as symbolism at times: for example, Meeko represents the settlers. Much like they pillage and steal from the land without regard for its citizens, Meeko steals food from John Smith and others. Percy, in contrast, represents the Powhatan tribe: he was entirely content with his position until Meeko came in and started stealing his food and harassing him, much like the settlers disrupt Pocahontas’ life.
And of course, just as the settlers and tribe make things right in the end, so do Percy and Meeko.

pocahontas animal besties

The world of Pocahontas is very bright and vibrant, full of life and spirit. One of the best examples of this is in Grandmother Willow. We’ll talk more about her later, but for now, I’ll just say that she’s one of the best examples of animism to offer. We don’t see any other talking trees, but I like to assume that’s because we follow Pocahontas’ view for most of the movie, so obviously we’d spend the most time with HER tree grandmother rather than the relatives of others. There are also more general spirits to consider, like rocks, the sky, the Earth itself…which ties into the natural phenomena aspect of the world. The Powhatan tribe prays to and respects the spirits deeply.

Definition two, according to Google, is “the belief in a supernatural power that organizes and animates the material universe.”

Most of the songs in Pocahontas, at least the ones surrounding Pocahontas and her tribe, relate back to the spirits (and animism). They look to the spirits for guidance and for food. Steady as the Beating Drum illustrates this really well:
Plant the squash and reap the bean
All the earth our mother gives

O Great Spirit, hear our song
Help us keep the ancient ways
Keep the sacred fire strong
Walk in balance all our days

The spirits all hold a sacred place in their lives. The Earth is their mother, the Great Spirit that they look not only for food and shelter, but also for guidance. They appeal to her to remind them to “keep the ancient ways” (keep with tradition), and to “walk in balance all our days” (to stay in balance with the land, and never take more than is needed). They also look to her in times of great turmoil, like when they’re forced to deal with new, unexplained phenomena, like gun shots and frightening pale-skinned men that shoot first and ask questions never for the most part.

One of the most interesting scenes in the movie to me was when Kekata, the tribe’s shaman/medicine man, conjures images from the fire, ones that end up later predicting events from the film.

pocahontas smoke men with guns and armor

pocahontas spirit wolves

The wolves surrounding Kocoum represent his death, and Chief Powhatan stopping their path represents the final conflict, when Radcliffe attempts to kill him. I also found it interesting the way the tribe managed to find ways to explain the unexplained phenomena around them. For example, the settlers’ weapons and armor, things the tribe doesn’t understand, are explained in ways that make sense to them. Their armor gives them “bodies that shine like the sun” and their guns are described as “weapons that spout fire and thunder.”

pocahontas smoky armor and gun

There’s also the comparison of the settlers to wolves, and how both consume everything in their path. Considering that wolves have probably caused trouble for the tribe when it comes to hunting, it makes sense now that they would compare them to the settlers, who, just like the wolves, wind up ravaging the lands and consuming resources the tribe needs. They trust Kekata, with his connection to the spirits, and trust the spirits themselves to guide them through the conflict of the movie.

And much like the tribe, who believes in path of the spirits, and the power that organizes and animates the world, Pocahontas shares the same beliefs.

Listening With Your Heart: Pocahontas’ Spiritual Journey
Pocahontas’ journey isn’t just about bringing the two groups together. It’s a big part of it, but that’s a journey that everyone is a part of (well, except Radcliffe, but no one likes Radcliffe anyway). Pocahontas’ own personal journey, her spiritual journey, is about finding her path.

Her “I Want” song is Just Around the Riverbend, and like most Disney Princesses, it boils down to two important aspects: a longing for adventure and choice.

pocahontas he wants me to be steadypocahontas waterfall

Like so many princesses, Pocahontas wants to chart her own course. Her father has charted one for her (a marriage with Kocoum), and while it’s a smooth course, one that would be easy to choose, Pocahontas has always been one to make her own way. The adventurous streak we see in Pocahontas from the beginning wants something more, or at least a chance at something more.

pocahontas riverbend rainbow

But she’s torn:
Should I choose the smoothest curve
Steady as the beating drum?
Should I marry Kocoum?
Is all my dreaming at an end?

pocahontas should i marry kocoumpocahontas kocoum riverbend
Or do you still wait for me,
Dream Giver Just around the riverbend?

pocahontas choosing another course
When Pocahontas reaches the two paths at the end of the song and proceeds down the jagged course, rather than the smoothest course (the one her father implores her to take), it’s clear that she’s made her decision, and of course, soon after that, she meets John Smith for the first time and her story really swings into high gear. Part of Pocahontas’ journey is learning to trust in the spirits, but more importantly, trust her own heart and decide what it is that she needs to do in order to find the happiness she seeks.

In her quest, she has two helpful sources to guide her: a willow tree and the colors of the wind. And I’m going to talk about why exactly both are so important to her, and how they influence her final course by the end of the story.

Grandmother Willow

pocahontas meeting grandma
Can I just talk about how amazing Grandmother Willow is? One of the things I’ve always loved about Disney is the fact that they aren’t afraid to make the powerful spiritual guides – aka the mystics of the universe – women.

Grandmother Willow is a great example of this. Without her mother there to guide her, and with Nakoma being too by the books (and too busy crushing on Kocoum) to be neutral, Pocahontas’ female guiding force in matters of the heart is Grandmother Willow. In fact, it’s her going to see Grandmother Willow about her dream that sparks off a lot of our plot, because it’s there that she sees the “strange clouds” (the ship sails) and the settlers come into play.

pocahontas grandmother willow from afar

pocahontas grandmother willow 3

Now, let’s talk about that dream of Pocahontas’. Pocahontas has a recurring dream involving her running through the woods, and in front of her is an arrow. When she looks at it, it starts spinning faster and faster, and then it suddenly stops. Why is this important?

pocahontas spinning compass

Well, first of all, the dream ties directly into Pocahontas’ quest. Whether it’s the spirits reaching out to her with this vision or it’s just her own mind trying to make sense of her path, it’s something that’s deeply important to her. It’s also important to see how the vision plays out, because while there’s a possibility the spinning arrow is a reference to John Smith’s compass, it’s also a reference to John Smith himself, and how he ties into Pocahontas’ journey. The arrow represents Pocahontas’ uncertain path, made even more uncertain by the appearance of John Smith.

Unlike Kocoum, John Smith is someone her father would probably not approve of (and he doesn’t, at first), but he’s also a lot more similar to Pocahontas. They both share the same sense of adventure. John Smith’s little “I Want” segment is actually all about adventure, which shows his own path diverging from Radcliffe’s; while Radcliffe only cares about money and getting gold, John Smith wants adventure in a new land, and more importantly, he wants to know about it. In that way, Pocahontas is good for him as well: she’s exactly the teacher he needs, and just as she influences him, he also has an influence on her. His presence offers her another option: another reason to diverge from the path her father has set her on.

The arrow spinning faster and faster could easily represent events put into motion, like the conflict between the settlers and the tribe, and the arrow stopping could represent so many things, but I like to think it represents Pocahontas finally choosing her course. Savages is the song that sets up the climax of the film, with the settlers and tribe determined to fight. John Smith’s execution is planned, and there’s really no going back for either side at this point… or so we think.

When Pocahontas sets out to save John Smith and unite the tribes, she’s finally taking the initiative to chart her own course for once. Standing up to save John Smith means going up against her father, but Pocahontas does it because it is the right path, and because she loves him. She loves both of them, and wants the conflict to end.

pocahontas this is the path I choose

And while all of this is going on, Grandmother Willow is Pocahontas’ guiding light. It’s interesting because while Pocahontas goes to her for advice, Grandmother Willow acts as more of a counselor. She does tell her to listen to the spirits (“All around you are spirits, child. They live in the earth, the water, sky. If you listen, they will guide you.”), but more importantly, Pocahontas must listen to her own heart and find out what she wants. She needs to make the right choice for herself, even if it isn’t the easiest choice or the smoothest course.

pocahontas right path is not easiest

And when all seems lost, Grandmother Willow reminds Pocahontas of her dream. “It’s not too late, child. Let the spirits of the Earth guide you.”

Then comes one of my favorite scenes of the entire movie: the colors of the wind swirling around Pocahontas. The compass stopping, just as we pan to the sunrise, the path to the conflict about to begin, and John Smith’s execution.

pocahontas compass

“You know your path,” Grandmother Willow prompts, “Now follow it.”

And like a badass, Pocahontas does, to the tune of one of the best musical montages of the entire movie. When she needs them, the spirits come through for her and get her to John Smith in time, so that she can stop the conflict. Her course has been decided, and the spirits are 100% behind her on this one.

pocahontas eagle help my feet to fly

The Colors of the Wind
Now before we get to the resolution, there’s something else I need to talk about: the colors of the wind. No, not the song. What I mean when I mention “the colors of the wind” is those pretty leaves that circle around Pocahontas and John Smith. Do you know what I’ve always thought those leaves represent? To me, they represent the other important spiritual presence of the movie: Pocahontas’ mother.

pocahontas pretty leaves
Now, we don’t get much about Pocahontas’ mother during the movie. We know that she’s passed away, because she’s spoken about in the past tense, and we do know that Chief Powhatan loved her deeply, because he speaks very fondly of her. Pocahontas is also compared to her, both by Chief Powhatan and Grandmother Willow.

pocahontas has her mom's spirit

We can tell Pocahontas cares deeply for her too, because of how deeply she cherishes the necklace she wears, the necklace that was once her mother’s, and how she speaks about her. And just like Grandmother Willow, Pocahontas’ mother is with her as well. If we think of the leaves as Pocahontas’ mother, then a lot of the plot makes sense. The leaves are there to guide her whenever she needs them. They appear a lot in The Colors of the Wind (of course), they draw Pocahontas and John Smith together (which, yes, means that Mama Pocahontas ships her daughter and John Smith just like the rest of us), and they’re what guides her toward the cliff so that she can reach John Smith in time.

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They’re also in that horrible heartbreaking ending scene none of us like talking about, where they pass on Pocahontas’ love to John Smith as he sails away.

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(Nope, why are we talking about this, let’s move on from the heartbreak.)

Anyway, looking at Pocahontas from a spiritual stance, and seeing her mother as the leaves means that Pocahontas’ mother is her other important guiding force. An important facet of spirituality to me is knowing that the ones you love are still watching over you, and I think both Pocahontas (and Chief Powhatan) get that experience through her mother’s spirit watching over them.

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Conclusion: Pocahontas’s Path Decided
I’m going to wrap this up by talking about the end of Pocahontas’ spiritual quest. After everything – finding her path, bringing the tribes together, all that jazz –, Pocahontas knows what she wants.

Unfortunately, John Smith is going back to England, due to that lovely gunshot wound he got from Radcliffe, and Pocahontas knows she can’t go with him. Her path led to him, but unfortunately, their paths have to diverge, at least as long as it takes for him to get patched up and come back to her (my preferred ending; I like to pretend the sequel doesn’t exist), and she’s okay with that. It’s hard letting go of people, even for a short time, but Pocahontas sacrifices what she has with John Smith, because her people need her more.

pocahontas always be with you

In the end, we get a sort of compromise. Pocahontas takes responsibility for her people and her role in the community, but she’s also on her own course, and no one can choose her path but herself. It’s not the path she imagined for herself, but as they say, you never know what’s waiting just around the riverbend.

pocahontas just around the riverbend

Notes: When we started brainstorming topics for the site, I knew that I really wanted to talk about Pocahontas, because it’s one of my favorite Disney Renaissance films, and once I started thinking about the movie, I realized that it would be wonderful to talk about the spiritual themes of the movie. I also thought it would be good timing, considering the holiday season is beginning. 😉
(Also, if you guys were wondering, the lyrics came from: http://www.stlyrics.com/p/pocahontas.htm)

Comment below with thoughts/feedback/opinions!

Cheers!

-M&M

The Lion King: Hamlet Without Hamlet

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Will Shakespeare and Disney: arguably the two most influential creators ever. Sure, one is an Elizabethan playwright and the other is a billion dollar corporation, but Mr. Shakespeare and Mr. Disney have created art that has proven to stand the tests of time.

Unsurprisingly, Disney has been influenced by the great playwright and have thrown many Shakespeare references into their films. But one stands above the rest: The Lion King is a painfully obvious retelling of Hamlet: Prince of Denmark. It’s practically fanfiction (kinda… sorta… not really) (totally) and I’m about to tell you why.

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This meta has been broken down by characters, easily identifiable by their amusing headings. Due to the length of this post, I refrained from giving Gertrude/Sarabi, Ophelia/Nala, and Horatio/Rafiki entire sections to themselves.

Introduction: Lets Get This Party Started

We shall begin at the beginning, as so many stories do. In its simplest form, the catalyst in both stories is: king killed by jealous brother. Claudius poisons daddy!Hamlet in the ear, while Scar shoves Mufasa off a cliff… into a wildebeest stampede. It’s all very dramatic. The death of their fathers’ propels Hamlet and Simba into action (or delays it—you’ll get it soon, I promise) and drives the story.

Hamlet and Simba: Just Can’t Wait to Be King… Kinda… Sorta… Not Really

When the play Hamlet begins, Hamlet’s father has already been murdered and Claudius sits upon the throne. Hamlet has just returned home from school and is grieving his father’s death. Worse, his mother tells him that it’s time to stop mourning and he should get on with his life (spoiler: this pisses him off). The opening scene is two guards discussing what will happen with the pressures of war with Norway mounting and their new king un-obliged to do anything about it. This sounds awfully similar to the lions vs hyenas conundrum Disney sets up in The Lion King very early on, as well. But we’ll get to that later.

Simba’s beginnings are far gentler than Hamlet’s. Simba is a naughty child.

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He loves his father very much and looks forward to the prospect of being king. His father is his mentor. The father-son relationship is established so strongly that we all bawl our eyes out when Mufasa is killed (if you don’t, I’m side eyeing you).

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By doing this, the focus shifts from a tale of revenge (Hamlet) to one of a young prince growing up (The Lion King).

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In coming of age stories, parents usually have to bite it in order for the child to learn how to make adult decisions. Oops.

With the death of their fathers’ the course of Hamlet and Simba’s lives are changed. Hamlet refuses to believe his uncle could do such a thing, despite being told by this the ghost of his father. ghost!Hamlet also tells his son to avenge him. So, great, basically poor grieving Hamlet was just told, “Your uncle killed me! KILL HIM! Blood be damned!” There’s also a line about ghost!Hamlet unable to leave purgatory until he’s been avenged, which, woah, major guilt trip. Understandably, Hamlet wants to be sure of everything before he does something irreversible. Henceforth spawns Shakespeare’s longest play, full of Hamlet intellectualizing and philosophizing and seeking to delay action for as long as physically possible (seriously), looking for irrefutable proof of his uncle’s guilt. Hamlet’s uneasiness and indecisiveness makes him wonder if he is a coward, thus more soliloquies are desperately needed.

lion king oh, goody

“This doesn’t sound like The Lion King!” you cry.

Yes, I know. Just bear with me.

Hamlet delays action. Well guess what, Simba does, too! When Mufasa is killed, Simba is terrified of being blamed for the death. His guilt claws at him (get it?). And it doesn’t help that good ol’ Uncle Scar is there whispering in his ear (CLAUDIUS POISONED HAMLET IN THE EAR). Simba runs away. He’s convinced he’ll never return, in effect, delaying action. On his journey he meets Timon and Pumba and if you thought four hours of Hamlet was long, years go by for Simba before he takes any action. His childhood, quite literally, passes. He grows up! And gets a mane! In essence, I like to believe this was a nice homage to Hamlet and his pages of poetic waxing while also keeping the film to a standard run time (and the attention of all those kiddies!).

lion king time lapse gif

(Side note: roughly 1,000 lines of speech are said per hour during a play and Hamlet is around 4,000 lines. Thus, we get four hours.)

Okay, done, boom. Hamlet and Simba both delay action, dragging out the conflict. Where Hamlet is concerned with proving Claudius’ guilt, Simba wants to forget all his problems (Hakuna Matata!).

In his quest to uncover Claudius’ motives, Hamlet uses his grief as a cover, acting out in crazy ways to convince everyone he’s losing his mind. Hamlet wants Claudius to feel that he is not a threat to Claudius’s newfound throne. Hamlet’s madness allows Claudius a sense of relief: he’s won, the next in line is not a threat. Simba staying away has the same affect on Scar: Scar believes he’s emerged victorious. But here lies one of the main questions of Shakespeare’s play: Is Hamlet insane or is he just pretending to lure the truth out?

I have my own opinion, just like everyone who has ever read or seen Hamlet, but this is not the place for that discussion. The parallel I want to draw here is when Simba is reunited with his bff and ultimate soulmate Nala.

After the initial spell of happiness has worn off, Nala wants to know why Simba’s been hiding out for so long. Their argument is basically Nala asking Simba if he’s gone insane (ta da!).


See the lines: “What’s happened to you? You’re not the Simba I remember. … Just disappointed. [You’re starting to sound like my father] Good, at least one of us does.” It does not go to the extremes like in Hamlet, but there is still this subtext. It may be one of the weaker ones, but I do think it is worth noting. However, this scene still ties back into both Hamlet and Simba’s indecisiveness and reluctance to live up to the legacies their fathers’ have left for them.

lion baby paw print in big LEGACY

What happens once Hamlet knows Claudius is guilty? How does Hamlet’s arc intersect with Simba’s? After delaying action for so long, Simba has gotten comfortable in his new life, as seen multiple times in the film and in his argument with Nala. Simba doesn’t want to go back. What happens next for Simba is what happened to Hamlet at the beginning of the play: the ghost of his dad pays him a visit. The timing of this is excellent because Simba is most in need of guidance here. Just like, oh, yes, Hamlet was pretty distraught at the beginning of the play and in need of guidance then.

“Remember me,” in act one, scene five is Disney-fied into “Remember who you are.” The plot of revenge in Hamlet further continues to transform into a coming of age story.

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(Yes, that is Mufasa. Don’t judge me.)

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The Lion King may be the most creative of them all [animated movies]—it digs down to the heart of the story, carefully removes the skeleton of the plot and Hamlet’s drive for vengeance, and wraps those elements in a world of talking animals and upbeat musical numbers.

Hamlet doesn’t quite jump into action the same way Simba does, since now he begins his long process of snooping around and looking for proof (spoiler: he hires a bunch of actors to create a play (it’s a play within a play!) that will feature a brother killing his brother to become king.).


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For Simba, though, this encounter brings him back to the Pride Lands and solidifies his goal to unseat Scar as king.

The Lion King’s screenwriters excised Hamlet’s heavy emphasis on philosophy and political maneuverings; Simba never launches into ‘to be, or not to be’ speeches, but he shares Hamlet’s indecision in living up to his father’s legacy.

Not anymore! Simba returns and there’s a big final confrontation just like there is in Hamlet. Because this is a Disney movie, there is a far happier ending for Simba and co. than there is for Hamlet.

The similarities between the Danish prince and lion are quite striking. For me, these parallels are the most compelling.

Daddy!Hamlet and Mufasa: Daddy Issues (& Ghosts)

Poor, poor Hamlet and Mufasa.

Also, Shakespeare get a random name generator or something. The play is called Hamlet. The main character is called Hamlet. Then there’s daddy!Hamlet. Getting back to the point—

We see absolutely zero of daddy!Hamlet and a little of ghost!Hamlet, but from reading between the lines, we can gather that he was a pretty decent king. His ghost appears clad in armor, maybe a symbol he was a strong and confident ruler. Mufasa, though, gets way more screen time.

lion king there's more to being a king than getting your way all the time

We also see the Pride Lands—it’s beautiful, in full bloom, and all the animals show up to rejoice at the continuation of Mufasa’s line via the birth of Simba. Mufasa and his clan are well-liked.

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In contrast, when Scar becomes king, the Pride Lands are barren, dying. Everyone is starving. The same thing happens in Denmark when Claudius becomes king: war is brewing with Norway.

lion king scar's pride lands

As you are well aware at this point, both are killed by their brothers and both visit their sons as ghosts. However, daddy!Hamlet visits Hamlet several times, while Mufasa only pays Simba one holiday. Because Disney cut the revenge aspect of Shakespeare’s play, the messages conveyed during these interludes had to be changed, as well. This was already touched upon in the previous section.

Daddy!Hamlet and Mufasa are the driving forces behind their sons. They become symbols. Whether Hamlet and Simba are acting or not acting, everything ties back to the father sized hole left on their hearts.

Claudius and Scar: Never Trust Your Uncle (also, a lot of Scar gifs)

Muahahaha, the evil ones!

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The second child that did not get enough love.

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Claudius and Scar have been corrupted morally and crave power. As was previously established, they murder their brother and, here’s a new piece of info, they take their brother’s widow as their new bride. This is never explicitly stated in The Lion King (kids movie flag waves), but it can certainly be implied in the way he defers to her for status reports.

lion king queen sarabi

The Broadway version, though, has Scar set his sights on Nala, which isn’t quite the same, but still a close enough parallel.

lion king deleted song gif 1 lion king deleted song gif 2 [x] [animation of the Broadway song]

It is overtly clear in the play, though, which is something that fuels Hamlet’s madness (or fake-madness?) and anger. In defense of Hamlet, I think this can totally be excused because who would NOT freak out if your mother marries your murdering uncle shortly after your dad’s death and then tells you to stop mourning? Moving on…

Murder methods were different, outcomes identical.

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Similiar to how Claudius drives Hamlet mad (or does he?), Scar physically drives Simba away from the Pride Lands. But even mentally, for awhile there, Simba was clocked out of royal affairs. Our plot diverges here because the play has Hamlet tailing Claudius closely, while Simba has zero to do with Scar, and as such, the feline villain is absent for a fair amount of the film.

The glimpses we do have of Scar show him living up the life and debauchery… kinda… sorta… not really (kids movie flag flies). So there’s no debauchery, but there is plenty of twisted happiness emanating from Scar. Claudius, too, is throwing banquets in his honor and enjoying the pleasure of his new wife. However, Claudius begins to show remorse—or at least guilt—for the murder of his brother (spoiler: Hamlet’s convoluted play worked). Claudius prays to God for forgiveness (spoiler: Hamlet can’t kill him now—his soul is purged! He’ll go right to heaven! HAMLET WAITED TOO LONG and now must wait (some more) till Claudius commits another sin. That could take ages. Revenge is so hard, guys.).

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If Scar ever feels anything besides joy over the success of his plans, this is never shown.

lion king scar and skull HAMLET

Scar takes his lack of regret a step farther and taunts Simba during the final battle. He’s still reveling in killing his brother and the fact that he successfully manipulated Simba his entire life into thinking it had all been his fault. Though things would have been so much better for Scar if life had gone this way:

lion king simba born

These villains meet their ends, ironically—wonderfully— by poison and getting thrown off a cliff. Sound familiar? Tis exactly the method each one used to kill their brother. And in a fun turn of events, Claudius’s murder of daddy!Hamlet was super straight forward (poison in the ear), meanwhile Disney concocted this whole scheme of luring Simba to the gorge, then starting the stampede, then getting Mufasa to come rescue his son, and when he (and Simba) didn’t die in the stampede, Scar had to finish it off (shoving him off the cliff) and tie up the loose end (manipulating Simba). But for the climax, these situations are flipped.

It is now Claudius going to elaborate measures to execute his nephew: there’s to be this big sword duel and there will be poison, and Hamlet will drink the poison, and the blade of his foe will also be poisoned just in case.

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(this gif was captioned “Hamlet the sore winner” and it amuses me to no end)

Unfortunately, things do not go to plan and four out of the five people in the room end up dying (spoiler: Horatio (Rafiki, basically) lives). Hamlet cuts Claudius with the sword and also has him drink from the poisoned chalice. Thus, Claudius dies via poison. Whereas in The Lion King, Simba and Scar are fighting it out and Simba knocks him over the edge. This doesn’t actually kill him, but it is the last contact Simba and Scar have with each other before Scar is torn apart by the hyenas.

I always liked this little detail in the storytelling structure. It also makes sense in terms of where our narratives start. We don’t witness daddy!Hamlet’s death or any build up leading towards it. When the play begins, he is dead and Hamlet is where our focus should be. It would be disappointing to learn about a whole plot after the fact. But The Lion King begins before the murder. We need that to be built up. Who Simba was before his dad died is important. And who he becomes after is even more important. Meanwhile, the arc of Hamlet has been working towards the final confrontation between Hamlet and his uncle, while The Lion King has been working towards Simba embracing who he is. The vengeance of Hamlet has been reconverted for Disney purposes.

To tie up this section, lets just say that Claudius and Scar were both ass hats that got what they deserved. Peace.

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Rosencratz & Guildenstern and Timon & Pumba: Foils of Friendship

I have no love for Rosencratz and Guildenstern, so I’m not going to talk about them much. Basically, they’re Hamlet’s friends, they let him have a good time, allowing the reader/theatergoer to know Hamlet’s life is not all doom and gloom. In The Lion King, we have Timon and Pumba, also the comic relief.

Their bug eating ways are a welcome relief from all the crying and sobbing and heartbreak and Simba’s angst. These distinct duets are actually foils of each other, as I shall illustrate below.

Each group of friends plays their own hand in what happens to Hamlet and Simba. For R&G, they are “secret” servants to Claudius, reporting on Hamlet’s moves.

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Hamlet tolerates them, but is aware he has no real ally in them. Instead, their presence reminds him of the action he has failed to take and Claudius continues to sit on the throne, fueling his melancholy disposition. Timon and Pumba instead try to get Simba to forget about his troubles.

lion king simba timon pumba

But when his past comes roaring back (get it?), they are eager for him to push that aside. They laugh when Nala explains to them the magnitude of losing Mufasa, what’s happened to the Pride Lands, how Simba has to go back and be king. There’s actually a slight similarity here. R&G are semi-working with Claudius, while Timon and Pumba unknowingly further Scar’s aim by keeping Simba away from the Pride Lands for so long.

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In the end, though, I see them as foils because Timon and Pumba eventually come around and help Simba defeat Scar.

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So what happens to Rosencratz and Guildenstern? You may be wondering this since you are very familiar with the fate of Timon and Pumba, now besties with the new king of the Pride Lands. And if R&G and Timon and Pumba are foils, then clearly they got the opposite of a big shiny Happy Ending.

Hamlet has them killed. Backstabbing is hard to forgive, which is exactly what R&G do. I mean, maybe. We don’t really know. Shakespeare doesn’t tell us. And Hamlet, through his fake madness (or real madness), treats his “friends” in a hot and cold manner. Ultimately, Claudius gives them a letter that has Hamlet’s death warrant inside and they’re told to journey to England with him. Hamlet finds out about this letter and switches the name to R&G and sends them on their merry way.

Hamlet and Simba’s friends/sidekicks both play roles in the lives of these young princes. Albeit, slightly different ones, but they still run parallel to each other.

TOTAL WAR: Denmark VS Norway and Lions VS Hyenas

Here we go! We’ve finally reached that little plotline I threw in at the very beginning. Are you excited? I’m excited. Disney turned the Norwegians into hyenas! They also turned Hamlet into a lion instead of Pumba (get it?), but I digress. (Someone should have put me on the creative team of this movie.) (But that would have been impossible since TLK came out a year before I was born. I don’t think I was even a fetus yet.)

The Lion King shows us from the very beginning that the lions and hyenas (cats and dogs, anyone?) don’t get along. The hyenas are not welcome in the Pride Lands, which is why they are so easily swayed by Scar, who promises them the lay of the land for their loyalty.

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When baby!Simba (aka bratty!Simba) traipses into the Elephant Graveyard all pompously, the hyenas have no qualms about ingesting baby!prince. The scenery of the graveyard is really creepy and not an appealing place one would want to spend their time. In contract to the Pride Lands, especially. Mufasa rescues his son and scares the hyenas off and increases the tension between both groups.

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The conflict in The Lion King is over land. Guess what the conflict in Hamlet is about?

Guess.

Have you guessed yet?

Are you guessing?

You must have guessed.

If you said LAND, DING DING, YOU ARE OUR GRAND PRIZE WINNER. You get to finish reading this meta! Yes! Great prize. Really, you’re so lucky. So many people would kill for this opportunity. Poison in the ear or theatrical wildebeest stampede would for sure be their MO.

lion king stampede

Okay, so Norway is pissed at Denmark. Over land. And the fact that daddy!Hamlet killed King Fortinbras in order to accomplish this acquisition of land, but oi, don’t lose sight of this. The conflict is over land. And now baby!Fortinbras wants the land back and Shakespeare seriously needs to buy himself one of those books that list all the baby names.

Norway’s army is marching towards Denmark with Claudius on the throne and not doing anything about it.

With Scar’s reign of terror, hyenas are destroying the Pride Lands (this is why you can’t have nice things. The graveyard probably wasn’t even a graveyard until you got there.). The food supply has dropped and the weather is grey and awful and Scar really messed everything up. There are skeletons everywhere (kids movie flag be damned). Scar doesn’t see anything wrong with this picture, instead blaming it on the lionesses, saying they’re not hunting hard enough.

The political maneuverings in Hamlet matter much more, as Hamlet ends up dying just as Fortinbras arrives on his doorstep.

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Hamlet’s last words include giving control of the kingdom over to the Norwegian prince who has also lost his father and is fighting in his honor (a parallel within a parallel, huh Shakespeare?). However, Disney doesn’t shy away from integrating this subplot of Hamlet into The Lion King. This shot in particular is a one man army vs an entire army:

lion king simba and scar final battle

Who can forget Scar’s amazing song “Be Prepared” where the hyenas mimic the very distinct Nazi march?

lion king nazi march

No one, that’s who. The hyenas are meant to represent an army and that provides an added layer and depth to the story.

Conclusion: Hamlet Should Have Been a Musical

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As we have now gone through in painstaking detail, Hamlet and The Lion King share a lot in common. From the wounded princes to the murdered kings and nasty uncles, there’s a lot of rich storytelling here that entrances audiences to this day. I love the liberties Disney took with the play, craftily shaping it into this wonderful film. It retains the core of Hamlet while also telling its own story in the process. The way Hamlet and The Lion King mirror themselves in narrative structure also amuses me: Hamlet seeing his father in the beginning, Simba at the end; Claudius’ easy plan in the beginning vs his meticulously plotted final act vs Scar’s deception in the beginning to his straightforward end at the climax.

I’m tempted to dub The Lion King ‘Hamlet without Hamlet’.

To know one is to know the other, because Simba’s plight would never have been born if not for Hamlet’s tragedy.

NOTE

The Lion King as an interpretation of Hamlet was the topic of my English Term Paper my senior year of high school. I originally covered this, as you can see by the access dates below, two years ago. When Mel and I started the site, I knew right away I wanted to revisit this as a stronger writer and reader. I thought it would be a simple case of editing my term paper and tweaking certain areas, but when I dug the document out, I was cringing so hard. I knew immediately I would have to rewrite the whole thing. The above piece is double the size of the original paper and the only thing that is the same is the final line of the conclusion, also the final line of my original paper.

Maybe I’ll do another rewrite in two years.

Cheers!

-M&M

SOURCES

Greydanus, Steven. “The Lion King: 1994.” Decent Films Guide. <http://www.decentfilms.com/reviews/lionking>. 20 December 2012.

The Lion King. Screenplay by Irene Mecchi and Jonathan Roberts. Dir. Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff. Perf. Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, and Jeremy Irons. Walt Disney Studios, 1994.

McElveen, Trey. “Hamlet and The Lion King: Shakespearean Influences on Modern Entertainment.” The Lion King Unofficial World Wide Web Archive. 17 April 1998.  <http://www.lionking.org/text/Hamlet-TM.html>. 20 December 2012.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. 1600. Ed. A.R. Braunmuller. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.

The majority of Hamlet gifs are from the film version with David Tennant.

Comment below with your opinion! I love debating about this subject, so don’t be shy. Your opinions matter to me. I love Hamlet and The Lion King and could talk about this forever.

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25 Reasons The Little Mermaid Is Awesome and More Feminist Than You Thought

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Since today is the 25th Anniversary of The Little Mermaid, I thought it would be nice to talk about why this movie is so wonderful – and refute those claims that The Little Mermaid isn’t feminist.

It’s bothersome when people write off Ariel as “anti-feminist,” a “bad role model,” and complain about her giving up her voice for a man.

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So here are 25 reasons why The Little Mermaid is awesome and way more feminist than you thought:

1. Ariel is confident in herself. One of the things that I’ve always loved about the Disney Princesses is how so many of them are filled with self-confidence, and confidence in their own abilities. Ariel definitely fits the mold. Even without her voice, even in a world that is nothing like hers, Ariel doesn’t change who she is. She’s out of her element, but doesn’t try to blend in, or minimize her personality. Ariel is wholly herself, on both sea and land, and I think her self-confidence makes her a great role model for girls.

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2. She has hobbies! This might seem like a weird addition, but if you really think about it, how many of the Disney Princesses have hobbies? Not many. Belle has her love for reading (but Belle came after Ariel), Cinderella designs clothes for the mice, and we don’t get to see much hobbies-wise for the other princesses. Ariel is the first princess we have with multiple hobbies. She’s an explorer, she collects human relics, and she even sings in the choir with her sisters. How’s that for a well-rounded list of extracurriculars?

3. She’s adventurous! When a princess starts a movie looking through a sunken ship and facing off against a shark, you know she’s an adventurous badass. Like Belle, Ariel wants adventure in the great wide somewhere, but her somewhere is above land, and she ends up getting exactly the adventure she wants in the end. Everything Ariel does is an adventure, whether it’s facing off against evil sea creatures or figuring out how utensils work on land.

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little mermaid combing hair

Watch how she takes a simple carriage ride:

little mermaid find a new perspective

4. Contrary to popular belief, Ariel didn’t go on land for Eric; he was just the final push she needed. When people call The Little Mermaid anti-feministic, their reasoning is usually because she gave up her voice for Eric, and well, that’s not a very good value to teach girls, is it? But that reasoning is WRONG. Number #1: The movie makes it very clear early on that Ariel has been fascinated with going on land way before she even met Eric. She’s been exploring and collecting human relics for ages.

little mermaid ariel's grotto

Look at that nook of items. There are a lot of things there, which gives us the idea that she’s been doing this for quite a while. Number #2: Listen to “Part of Your World.”

What would I give if I could live
Out of these waters?
What would I pay to spend a day
Warm on the sand?’

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And this amazing:

Betcha’ on land, they understand
Bet they don’t reprimand their daughters
Bright young women, sick of swimming
Ready to stand

It takes place before she even meets Eric, and you can already feel Ariel’s burning desire to experience life on land. The song makes no mention of finding love. The things she wants to experience aren’t related to Eric. True, it is meeting Eric that spurs Ariel to go on land. But he’s not the only reason.

5. She isn’t afraid to stand up for herself and her beliefs, even against her own father. 

little mermaid but if you would just listen

6. She makes mistakes, but more importantly, she owns her mistakes.

little mermaid signing the contract

When the deal fails with Ursula, she finds a way to defeat her and save her father. She also makes things right with her dad after their fight.

7. She has a really awesome group of friends. Granted, those friends are a pelican, a fish, and a crab, but if you think about it, so many Disney Princesses have animal friends. Pocahontas had Meeko and Flint, Cinderella had her mice, Aurora had her forest friends… Ariel’s friends are basically the best though. They’re supportive of her, but honest; if they’re wary of one of her decisions, they’re not afraid to help her. And they’re right by her side whenever she needs them.

little mermaid we're out to discover

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little mermaid the human world is a mess

8. She has an amazing singing voice. Okay, maybe this isn’t a unique reason – pretty much every Disney princess can sing, and sings plenty of awesome songs – but Ariel is the first one for whom her singing voice relates to the plot. She sings in the choir with her sisters and Eric first falls in love with her voice when he hears her sing. Her voice is what Ariel has to give up so that she can go on land, and it’s also what Ursula uses to trick Eric and mess with Ariel’s deal.

9. Ursula is an awesome antagonist.

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She’s an unabashed female villain, which we don’t get very often in the media, and she’s underhanded, and devious without any shame or remorse. “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is such a great song because not only is it just an awesome villain song, but also because it shows how manipulative she is.

little mermaid pathetic copy

She never really lies during the song when she tells Ariel about the deals she makes, or the consequences: she just highlights the reward over the risk, much like a crafty saleswoman. She also knows exactly what she’s doing when she takes Ariel’s voice, because she knows that even if Ariel manages to catch Eric’s attention, she can use Ariel’s voice to distract him, because it’s what Eric originally fell for.

10. “Part of Your World.” It’s Ariel’s “I Want” song of the movie, and it’s amazing. It’s one of the most relatable “I want” songs because think about it: haven’t we had that feeling like we don’t quite belong? Or that we want something more out of life?

little mermaid part of your world flip

Ariel does, and she has the drive to follow through and pursue her dreams of stepping on land.

11. Triton and Ariel’s relationship is wonderfully realistic and heart-warming. A father and daughter who don’t see eye to eye? Story of pretty much every parent-child relationship. We all clash with our parents, and Ariel and Triton happen to clash over their opinions on the world above their own. Ariel wants to see more of it, Triton insists it’s dangerous. Both of them make a mess of things. Triton destroys her relics, basically throwing a temper tantrum, and Ariel runs out without so much as a word to him about where she’s going, which terrifies him. (Bonus: The Broadway version expands on this conflict a bit more on Triton’s side with the amazing song If Only. Listen here.)

But ultimately, the two of them make things right in the end. Triton even gives Ariel his blessing (and restores her legs) so that she can live on land. When she hugs him and says “I love you, daddy,” you know that all is right between these two, and it warms your heart.

little mermaid i love you, daddy

12. Eric is an amazing Disney Prince. He’s not my favorite (because no one can top the Disney Prince of my heart, Aladdin), but he’s a close second. Eric is kind, funny, sweet, charming… and most importantly, he loves all of Ariel. He initially falls in love with her voice when she saves him, and spends a lot of the movie wondering about the girl who saved him, but when Ariel turns up on land sans her voice, he starts slowly falling for her all over again. When he realizes the melodic singer that saved him and the voiceless girl who’s charmed him are one in the same, it’s such a great moment for us the viewer because he realizes what we knew all along: he’s fallen for all of Ariel.

little mermaid ariel, you're the one

And when Ursula is thwarted and Ariel is dragged back under the sea by her, he’s willing to do whatever it takes to take her down and save his beloved. He never asks Ariel to give up her place in the sea, and he never asks her to change; more reasons I love him.

13. Ariel saves Eric. A Disney princess saving her man, say it ain’t so! The Little Mermaid is the very first Disney movie to feature a princess doing the rescuing. In that moment a ship is sinking, she’s just seen fire for the first time and realizes it is dangerous, and a serious storm is brewing. She’s been separated from her friends. Yet, she saves Eric. She pulls him out of the water and brings him to safety. At the end of the film, Eric jabs his ship into Ursula, creating a balance between them. Ariel doesn’t always need to be the strong one because she has an equally strong man at her side. There is a give and take in their relationship. Having that equilibrium is healthy and important!

14. Sebastian. Let’s just talk about Sebastian’s character. You know that friend, the one who’s always like “I’m not sure this is a good idea,” or “maybe we should think this through?” The one who keeps the group from getting into chaos? That’s Sebastian. Other reasons Sebastian is awesome: he has a song all to himself (“Under the Sea”) and it is amazing, he’s the mediator who keeps the peace between Ariel and her dad, and despite his stern attitude, he really cares about Ariel. He also gives some hilarious dating advice.

little mermaid i hope you appreciate what i go through for you

15. We can’t talk about Sebastian without talking about Flounder. He’s an adorable sidekick, super loyal to Ariel and super sweet as well. He’s naturally skittish and shy, but he’s not afraid to stand up for Ariel and help her out however she needs him. These two have true friendship. ❤

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16. The Little Mermaid is one of the earliest examples of a princess with siblings who aren’t horrible to each other. (Cinderella’s step-sisters don’t count, at least not initially, because it takes a few movies for Cindy and Anastasia to bond.) We don’t get a ton about Ariel’s sisters, but her, her sisters and her father seem like a fairly close-knit family unit. Her and her sisters even sing together! That’s true family bonding. I thought their A-themed names were cute, and I think part of why Ariel doesn’t feel belonging is because she’s a part of a huge family unit, and she wants to be a part of something that’s hers alone.

17. During Ursula’s  “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” she brings up men’s views on women, which sadly we still deal with in this day and age:
The men up there don’t like a lot of blabber
They think a girl who gossips is a bore
Yes, on land it’s much preferred
For ladies not to say a word

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I personally think it’s pretty brave of Disney to tackle societal issues like this, and it’s important for young girls and boys to realize that you should be who you want to be, not what society expects of you.

18. And do you know what else is awesome about The Little Mermaid? The movie subverts Ursula’s assumptions by having it not be true for Eric. Eric is the exact opposite of that. He falls in love with Ariel despite her lack of voice, but that’s because Ariel is so expressive that she still finds a way to showcase her voice to Eric without saying a word. I think voice or no voice, Eric still would’ve fallen in love with Ariel, and part of what Eric loves about Ariel is how expressive and enthusiastic about life she is. He loves her, with or without her voice, with legs or fins, in a dress or a conch shell bra.

19. Also, just as Eric subverts Ursula’s expectations of men, Ariel doesn’t bend to Ursula’s version of what women should be. Ursula tells her to be “withdrawn”, and that “it’s she who holds her tongue that gets the man”, but those things go against the very core of Ariel’s personality. So does Ariel follow her advice? Not a chance.

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20. Ariel is resilient. Her father destroys all of her relics and tells her to never go to the surface? Well, she’s not giving up on her dreams, no matter what he says, and she finds another way to get there. She doesn’t have her voice to win over Eric? She uses her extroversion to win him over: she’s naturally a bubbly, expressive person, and she uses that to her advantage. Ironically, one of Ursula’s bits of advice proves to be helpful for Ariel: body language helps her communicate with Eric, despite her lack of a voice. Ursula messes with the people she loves? Ariel fights back to make things right. She’s someone who doesn’t give up easily, and all of her persistence and hard work pays off in the end when she finds her happy ending on land.

little mermaid take your dreams into your own hands

21. She proves that women don’t have to give up everything for a man. One of Ariel’s big worries is that she’ll lose her father and sisters if she goes up on land, but Ursula tells her that she’ll have her man, and that life is full of tough choices. Like much of what Ursula says, this turns out to be a lie, because in the end, Ariel learns that she doesn’t have to choose between both worlds. She can live on land with Eric and still keep close ties with her family. The Little Mermaid is all about worlds uniting, and how Ariel can still hold onto her home and family while embracing her place on land with Eric. She also doesn’t have to change who she is for Eric. Yes, she gives up her fins, but that doesn’t mean she has to give up on where she came from or who she is.

22. Ariel is not afraid to cry, but then she can get right back up and fix her problems. After Triton destroyed the grotto, she was emotional, but then she took a visit to Ursula and found a way to get what she wanted.

little mermaid crying

When “Vanessa” arrived and Eric was going to marry her, Ariel was heartbroken, but when she found out Eric was being tricked and the marriage wouldn’t make him happy, she jumped into the water and saved him (again!). There’s nothing wrong with crying when you need to! Crying is natural and it makes you stronger if you can let your emotions out. Ariel is a fully formed woman: she’s not a weepy do nothing, but she’s also not this impossibly strong person. That’s a great message for girls (and boys).

23. Ariel is our first non-human princess, or at least, she starts out that way. Her world is vast and filled with gorgeous scenery, and there’s also some interesting world-building there as well. It’s such a wonderfully thought out world, and I love the fact that so much of the movie is focused on the differences between both worlds, and how the human world is just as fascinating to Ariel as the world under the sea is to us.

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24. There’s this super interesting hinted at backstory with Ursula and Triton, because Ursula mentions once living in the palace and being banished. So what exactly did she do to get herself banished? And if we consider the fact that the original plan was for Ursula to be Ariel’s aunt, how much more twisted and interesting does that make this movie? (I personally like to imagine this as canon that’s not mentioned, because it adds some really interesting depth to the plot.)

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25. Finally, one of the things I love about this movie is that Ariel is 16, and it’s clear in her personality that she’s still growing and developing.

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She’s playful and sometimes naïve and stubborn and I think people get grated by her sometimes because of her immaturity, but think about when you were a teenager. Teenagers tend to have this “I know best” mentality, even if we don’t, and I think Ariel really personifies that. But she learns from her mistakes and matures greatly by the end of the movie without losing her sense of self or her sense of fun and adventure. She becomes the best version of herself, essentially, and isn’t that supposed to be what love is? Finding someone who brings out your best qualities, doesn’t try to change you and makes you want to be your very best self?


The next time anyone scoffs at Ariel you’ve got 25 awesome comebacks ready!

What do you think? Can you think of anymore reasons The Little Mermaid is an awesome feminist film? Leave them and your opinions below in the comments!

Cheers!
-M&M

Happy 25th Anniversary to one of the best Disney films.

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