Thursday, May 14, 2015

More Than Just Princess Movies

My loyal readers will be well aware that no matter what I'm doing I like to reflect back on things that I have learned. Along with my love of stories it's surprising that it took me so long to get to writing about all the things I've learned from Disney movies over the years. Whether you enjoy them or not Disney movies eventually work their way into everyone's life. 

Before I get going lets take a minute to clear up that for this discussion I'm sticking to traditional Disney and Pixar movies. I will not be branching out into the Disney affiliate companies for the purposes of this blog. Also I do acknowledge that many of the "classic" Disney movies are not original stories but are based on fairy tales and literature from other sources. For some reason we all keep coming back the fluffy versions that Disney makes. Many (not all) people prefer them to the often darker and more grim (pun intended) original version.

We often get caught up in the voice actors, and advancements in animation, or the quality of the songs in the film and forget that most of us have learn some very important life lessons from those animated friends we all had. Everyone of course will take different messages from each movie and circumstance but what follows is a faithful and nostalgic account of my own experience.

 ***I apologize in advance for my unnecessary references to the Lion King I may have watched it on repeat for a summer because it's the only movie we had my mom would let me watch unsupervised***

Things I've learned from Disney Movies

- Never take the short cut
Like me, those of you that have left your 20's behind can understand in very real way that forks in the road are a staple of life. In Disney we are presented with literal forks in the road where characters are choosing which direction to go. The character always chooses the road that looks easier, shorter, and less scary. With out fail this leads to more problems, like Belle's father who chose the path that looked smoother and far less scary which led to him being chased by wolves and captured by the Beast and thrown in prison. Marlin chose the path above the trench because that also looked less scary and after being surrounded by jelly fish Dori almost died. While these are literal examples, these and many others come to mind when I'm forced with possible "short-cuts" in life. These stories taught me to realize that what seems too hard and scary might actually be the best thing for me.
- You can't expect other people to believe in you if you do not believe in yourself
Good self-esteem is one of the most elusive realities I have ever known in my time on this earth. We all have those friends and family members we can confess all our self doubts to and they will boost us no matter what. When it comes to the rest of the world the truth is the people around you can tell when you don't believe you will succeed and they won't believe in you either. Even Flynn didn't believe in Rapunzel when they left her tower but when she started to believe in herself she not only changed her thinking but Flynn and a whole bar full of questionable characters. Everyone around her was effected by her belief in herself. By believing in herself Mulan was able to find the will to go from the worst recruit in the Chinese army to saving her country from the Huns. Most of us are not lost princesses or fighting off an invasions of the Huns but when I remember to believe in myself I am able to give presentations, take risks, try new things, and really open up to people. I learned that to believe in myself is more powerful than fear and failure.
- The past can hurt
My absolute favorite part of the Lion King is when Rafiki hits Simba with his staff and tells him "It doesn't matter it's in the past!" to which Simba complains that it hurts. The moment is hilarious and that is why people like it as a child but when you revisit the Lion King as an adult you realize that it rings true throughout life. We all have to live through our share of shit. Do you want examples from the Disney world? Name a movie, it doesn't matter which one, pick you're favorite. Bad things happen and they will always suck. You will always feel terrible about it and it could very possibly feel like life will never move on. But it does and as Rafiki points out we all have the ability to learn about ourselves, others, and the world each time it happens.
- Truly original ideas are rare
I was odd as a child, my favorite version of Cinderella was not Disney it was the Roger & Hammerstein's musical version. I knew early on that Disney was not the only person to tell these classic stories and other tellings were also wonderful. Cinderella, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White all belong to the Brothers Grimm. The Little Mermaid, and Frozen were penned by Hans Christian Anderson. Lewis Carroll gave us Alice & Wonderland. Beauty & the Beast is a French folktale and we owe Victor Hugo for The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Mulan is based on a Chinese poem as Aladdin has its beginnings in The Arabian Nights. Pocahontas is history (albeit not accurate), and the Lion King is Hamlet. If you haven't caught on let me say it plainly with out it's satellite companies Disney has very few truly original stories. These revelations could easily ruin a person's childhood but what I took from it is this: it's OK if you're not the first. Spoiler alert, most of your thoughts have been thought before by someone else. What matters is not being the only one to have the idea, what matters is adding to the idea to make it better. That's what inspires progress.
- Loss
The loss of loved ones, special gifts, or treasured pocession etc. is a reoccuring theme in Disney movies. In fact the percentage of parents who are lost in Disney movies could be called astronomical! If you ask any person what their least favorite scene in all of Disney two that are bound to come up are Mufasa's death in the Lion King & when Bambi's mother dies. I may have been odd because these movie events never traumatized me but seeing such loss, in any movie, stays with you. Watching Disney movies as a child taught me simply, loss happens. It's real. You will loose things and people throughout your life. As I got older I started to realize it isn't just the heros that loose things that are important to them, all they characters do and they are defined by how they respond to that loss. The characters that allow their grief to make them stronger are the characters that become the heros we all know. Where as those that focus all their energy on trying to have something they will never get back become the villains we love to hate. Once I learned that I was able to see loss as a test of my own character, which doesn't make it better but easier to bear.

- Friendship is truly valuable
There is probably a BuzzFeed quiz out there where in you identify the appropriate best friend to the Disney character. Friendship is as integral to Disney as loss. Heros and secondary characters alike have their best friends and often times people talk about them together more than separate. Like Lilo & Stitch, Sully & Mike Wazowski, or Timon & Pumba. Their friendship defines the roles they play in the story. Just like the saying "You are the friends you keep", the friendships we build in our lives help define what role we play in our own stories. We also see friendship holding characters accountable for their actions. Aladdin didn't realize he'd gone too far until he saw the hurt look on Abu's face when he walked away, or how Flounder continually reminds Aerial that she needs to follow the rules. In the same way we all (even secretly) hope that our friends will tell us when we've gone to far or made the wrong choice. The people in our lives calling us out can sometimes be a truer test of friendship that standing by when they stand by us. But what is most amazing is how we see the friendships of Disney always pushing each other to be better than what they are & succeed. Marlin & Dori are a great example of this, they push each other to overcome different issues and end up better than where they started. In Up Carl & Russell become an odd pairing that is exactly what each one needs to be happy. They even sneak up on you sometimes, look at Max & Flynn Rider from Tangled! By watching Disney movies I learned how to have the BEST selection criteria for friends ever, and that I should cherish all the unique ways they make my life better.

- The power of choice
If my nerdiness hasn't shown already it's about to. Choice is something that's covered in the "Hero's Journey" and you guessed it all Disney movies follow this pattern. Which means there is always at least one major choice to be made. Simba had to choose whether or not to return home, Rapunzel had to choose whether or not to leave the tower, Mulan chose to return to warn the emperor, and Aerial choosing to barter her voice for legs. The list goes on really. Some of these moments are what made our characters heros, such as Simba or Mulan. In other cases they were the choice that started all the challenges like Aerial & Rapunzel. Whether these choices were solutions or catalysts each of these moments have several things in common. First they all required bravery, and in most cases the characters did not think they had it in them. Simba thought he could never face his family again. Second they changed the way the hero sees themselves and the way everyone else in the story sees them too. Those choices is what made Mulan a hero, and what made Aerial's dad view her as old enough to love & be taken seriously. Third, they set our heros on a completely different path from the one they were on before. Our lives might not be quite so dramatic as a movie, I know that mine is not but I can easily identify choices I've made that have required bravery, changed the way I am seen, and altered my journey's path so much I never saw it coming. These are the stories I always tell people and they are the moments that shape my life. That's a lot of power wrapped up into one small decision.

- Be yourself
This is an idea that Disney reinforced for me more so than taught me and it is pretty close to the top of my "hardest lessons I've ever learned" list. For as long as I can remember I was told by every adult in my life "just be yourself and everything will work out" but as the uncool odd ball in school this seemed cliche and far fetched. This isn't meant to be a sob story about how unaccepted and bullied I was, although I was. I bring this up to illustrate that kids grow up in an environment where having certain interests, or certain personality traits, or even certain possessions will gain you acceptance and friends. Which we all have come to know as "popular" or "normal". As a result many people (children & adults) will try to mold themselves into what they think they should be. I am no exception, I spent a great part of my younger years trying to fit in but not succeeding. At some point in college that changed. I don't know if I got tired or I just decided it wasn't worth it but I decided to "embrace my nerdiness" and just do what I like and talk about it with people who cared to join me. I stopped worrying whether or not people thought it was nerd and responding "yes I am" when others pointed out that I was a nerd or a dork. What happened was amazing, suddenly I was perceived as cool and fun to be around. I found myself with more quality friends than I had ever had before in my life and since that point in my life I have succeeded at things I never thought I would. Public speaking & performing are just two. I say Disney reinforced this because as I watch Disney movies now I realize that what I experienced in my own life was happening before me on screen. Snow White & Cinderella were persecuted for being themselves but they continued anyway and it eventually led to their success. Jasmine only fell in love with Aladdin after he stopped trying to be the prince he thought others wanted him to be and was himself. Beauty & the Beast was all about being who you truly are. Elsa could only save her sister and her kingdom after she conquered the fear of who she was. I only wish I had take the advice of the adults in my life, and of course Disney, sooner because being yourself is such an important lesson.

- Destiny is yours for the taking
I won't lie to you I wrote out this heading and I instantly heard Darth Vader saying it, which due to a technicality is now part of the Disney-verse, but I stated I was sticking with our classic animated tales and so I shall. Many, if not all, of the Disney fairy tales see the hero in situations where they future has been decided for them. Sometimes they are told they have a role or a destiny to fulfill and sometimes the villain is simply trying to get rid of them but one thing is certain. It's hard to talk about the idea of destiny with out talking about the concept of choices but I feel like it's more than just making a choice. We are all faced with potential futures every day and what happens when we start throwing around the term destiny is all the options go away and we are only looking at one future. We loose all sense of hope & responsibility for where our lives are going and what actions we have taken. Disney is full of characters like Tramp, Simba, and Pinocchio that took responsibility for their own actions and in doing so took control of their own Destiny. Likewise there are plenty of examples of characters that simply by finding (or re-finding) hope like Rapunzel & Tiana gave themselves far more options for happiness than they were faced with at the beginning of the story. Losing hope is easy these days. Anyone facing unemployment or mountains of student loans will tell you that. And responsibility virtually doesn't exist anymore in our culture but both are key if you want to be the author of your own great story. There are a lot of variables in life that we cannot control but what we are going to be and how our story ends doesn't have to be one of them.

- How to grow up
Whether you're watching Bambi or like me you're re-watching the Lion King for the 1 millionth time all Disney movies essentially boil down to the same thing. Coming of age. All of these other points can really be summed up into one unbelievably important lesson: How to grow up. We live in a world full of Peter Pans whether they are trying to not age physically or they are attempting to act like children their whole lives. As Wendy & her brothers learn we all have to grow up, life demands it of us. We are faced with the very same challenges as our Disney movie counter parts. Not how to save China or turning ourselves back into a human after being a frog, and unfortunately there are not many monarchies left in the world. The challenges I'm talking about are learning who you are, how you fit into this world, and how do you make a difference? If you pay attention, and glaze over some of the fluffy bits, Disney actually does give you the answers. So the real question is: If your life somehow played a role in a yet to be made Disney movie, what kind of character would you be?

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