Disney made a slew of animal centered films between the Pre-Renaissance Princesses Era and the Renaissance Era. All these movies, surprisingly, tackle similar issues of greed and class. Let’s take a closer look at these films and see what it has to say on the topic, how it says it, and why Disney chose animals as its messengers.
I was a little surprised to notice a whole crop of animal films all made relatively right after each other. Here’s a list:
- Lady and the Tramp—1955
- (Sleeping Beauty—1959)
- 101 Dalmatians—1961
- (The Sword in the Stone—1963)
- The Jungle Book—1967
- The Aristocats—1970
- Robin Hood—1973
- The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh—1977
- The Rescuers—1977
- The Fox and the Hound—1981
Look at that! 30 years of animal centered tales with one only two human stories. With the exception of some of the latter films—Winnie the Pooh and The Fox and the Hound—all those films have subtle or overt themes of wealth and rank.
Lady and the Tramp
Even the title is laced with that theme of class. While ‘tramp’ is not a title, ‘lady’ certainly is. However, the word ‘tramp’ carries enough weight that you know something negative is being expressed.
It’s the story of two dogs from differing class status. It’s amazing how even the design of the dogs shows this. Lady’s droopy ears appears more like curly hair than fur. She has a shine to her, while Tramp has grey fur and the hair around his mouth looks a little scraggly. Lady also has a fancy collar, almost like jewelry. The design of these dogs effortlessly conveys that there is a difference between them.
Setting wise, Lady’s home is huge. I think it has a Victorian mansion feel, but I’m not an architecture buff. Compare that lavish setting to Tramp’s rail yard:
A note about the animation, look at even the difference in the brightness of the colors.
Lady has free reign of the house: from a puppy she climbed upstairs and settled herself right on that big comfy bed.
Tramp, on the total flip side, sleeps outside, near the trains. His morning routine is shown in contrast to Lady’s. While she runs outside and gets the paper (and chases birds, how idyllic), only to be rewarded by Jim Dear with coffee and a donut, Tramp has to bath himself where he can and beg for food.
She has love and he’s alone and excuse me while I:
Later, when Tramp wanders into Lady’s posh neighborhood, he calls it, “Snob hill.” That’s one of the biggest details that always sticks out to me. Not only are they of different ranks, but there is conflict between them. There is dislike, maybe jealousy, probably gross assumptions on both sides. Tramp finds the fences around trees absurd and expects there to be a lid on every trash can. He refers to them as “the leash and collar set” and assumes they’re total bores.
Lady’s friends Trusty and Jock definitely have prejudices against Tramp simply because he doesn’t come from a well off family like them. Jock calls him a “mongrel,” partly because he doesn’t like Tramp scaring Lady, but also just out of initial dislike. Their parting words, though, have to be the best.
“The name’s Jock.”
“Heather Lad O’ Glencairn to you!”
Like Jock has an actual title and Tramp is so beneath him!
But let’s move onto the actual relationship that develops between Lady and Tramp. The love to end all loves! Not really. Kinda. Anyway!
“What are you doing on this side of the tracks?” If any (all) of you were like, “Mic, you’re taking this way too seriously,” Tramp actually admits there is a class difference. SO HA!
Besides Jock, Trusty, and Lady, there are two other characters that symbolize the upper class: the Siamese Cats. I don’t want to say too much about them because they are a pretty racist interpretation, but they do relate in terms of class.The Siamese Cats are our example of the upper class that live up to Tramp’s assumptions. Lady is the heroine, we root for her. She’s good and kind and we watch her learn about babies and step out of her comfort zone. She’s the one mistreated by Aunt Sarah. Lady is not the definition of “Snob Hill.”
She definitely cares about her appearance and the fact that she has a collar values a lot to her. But she’s not shallow; there’s more to her.
She’s open to Tramp’s pessimistic view of babies when she first meets him, she accepts his help getting the muzzle off, and she falls in love with him. So we need characters that uphold Tramp’s worldview and thus we have the Siamese Cats.
The differences between classes are also seen outside Lady and Tramp’s relationship. One of the biggest threats is being caught by the dog snatcher and sent to the pound. Who is at risk for being sent to jail? Unlicensed dogs, aka lower class dogs. We can easily relate this to being homeless or living in poverty since any “money” one had would go to securing food and shelter, not buying a collar.
“The pressure’s really on, signs all over town.” Tramp’s words imply that this has been building for awhile and now things have really gotten out of control. The order also comes from City Council, which is similar to situations we’ve seen all over history. The government mistreating poorer classes instead of finding ways to help them. Yes, I am seriously seeing a movie about adorable dogs as having immense symbolism. Just go with it. Tramp also does not reach “Snob Hill” until he runs from the dog snatcher. The dog snatcher was not putting up signs in the wealthy area of town.
When Lady is caught without a collar, we finally see the situation at the pound. It turns out to be a kill shelter (which, oh my gosh, dark much, Disney?), but that also tells us how different classes are treated. Lady receives special treatment—the dog snatcher takes pity on her because she doesn’t appear like a street dog. He finds her owner right away. The other dogs are not so lucky and even appear to be wearing jail suits.
After Tramp gets sent to the pound by Aunt Sarah, the dog snatcher says they’d been looking for “this one” for months, which confirms what I said above about it seeming like unleashed dogs were being targeted for awhile now. The fact that Aunt Sarah, the dog snatcher, Jock, and the Darlings immediately assume Tramp was attacking a baby, that there was no other explanation, further proves how the upper class looks down on the lower class.
EVIL RAT! RUN!
But when Jock finds out the truth, he is ashamed and says, “I misjudged him… badly.” He’s not just talking about assuming the worst of Tramp in this moment. He’s referring to the first meeting and everything after.
There’s also meaning in having Tramp referred to as “this one.” Tony gave Tramp a name–Butch–because he values Tramp. But the dog snatcher does not. I believe he calls Lady “pretty” when she’s in the pound, proving his bias against wealthy vs poor. The names we choose to call people (dogs, whatever) says a lot about a person.
But by the end, Tramp and Lady are together and happy with a litter of puppies. Tramp gets a collar, joining Lady’s class. I found it interesting that many early novels followed this idea of a courtship plot, that eventually ended in marriage and some social mobility (one person entering another class through marriage). That is essentially what happens here.
Tramp and Lady fall in love, get together, and Tramp moves into a new class. He’s accepted by Lady’s family and Jock and Trusty. He’s no longer under threat from the dog snatcher.
Lady and the Tramp is a really interesting film since it delves into these issues. There’s prejudice and class differences and puppy love. Was that a pun? I don’t know.
Class/Wealth in Other Films
My original plan was to talk about how each movie displayed class/rank/greed. Maybe I’ll come back to it at another point and go more in depth for certain movies. But I think just by looking at them, you can see for yourself.
101 Dalmatians is more about greed than class. Cruella lets her desire for a fur coat get the better of her, stealing puppies to get what she wanted. Maybe there’s something to say about class, since she despises Roger and makes fun of his music while thinking herself so refined.
The Jungle Book is all about class/rank since we have man vs animal and also hierarchy in the jungle. The animals fear Shere Khan. I’m not actually sure where King Louie stands in relation to everyone—it’s been awhile, I need to watch the movie again. The animals are initially reluctant to accept Mowgli because he’s human; they don’t trust him. Purely because of his class (or species… whatever).
The Aristocats is also about greed, especially because of the evil butler dude that wants to inherit money he doesn’t even deserve. BUT, look at that title! It’s a direct pun on aristocrats, which, um, is a term used in relation to class and wealth. Even the name Duchess, as our mommy cat is called, relates to class. It’s an interesting parallel to Lady, who is also named a title while Tramp and Thomas O’Malley the Alley Cat are just names that convey something about the character. Subtle, you are not, Disney.
Robin Hood might as well have my theme tattooed on its forehead. It’s all about someone stealing from the rich to feed the poor. CLASS, CLASS, CLASS. No explanations needed. I do wonder why Disney chose to adapt this story by using animals, though. Was it just to continue with their theme of animal movies?
So Winnie the Pooh totally has nothing to do with the theme (as far as I know?), but I included it because it was an animal film.
The Rescuers I’m fuzzy on, but I remember Madame Medusa trying to steal diamonds or something.
The Fox and The Hound is another animal movie and I think this is where Disney kinda strayed away from the class theme. Winnie the Pooh didn’t have those themes present, The Rescuers did, but wasn’t as steeped in it, though it was also an animal film. Fox and the Hound definitely had undertones of discrimination based on species (class, if you REALLY want to try to make an argument for it), but wasn’t really about rank and wealth. And alas, the talking animal movie trend was put to rest.
I think it’s really interesting this trend developed. Did Disney find it easier to explore these themes using animals as stand ins for humans? Can animals get away with more than humans? Was Disney able to discuss these themes in more subtle ways by going this route?
Can you see themes of class/wealth in these movies? What do you think? Do you have a favorite film of the Talking Animals Era?