Growing up, Disney always inspired me to stay true to myself. I wasn't like the other children. To put it simply, I was weird. Despite this, I never felt useless, because Disney movies would teach me that no matter how different I was, I could still be a hero.
Films like Dumbo and Finding Nemo helped drive this point home, as both of these films dealt with characters who overcame their disabilities while remaining true to themselves. While I didn't possess any disabilities of my own, I was still inspired by this message.
Finding Nemo is without a doubt the best example of #Disney telling a story about overcoming difference. All three main protagonists in the film each possess their own unique disability, and all three overcome their issues by the end of the film, learning to appreciate themselves too along the way.
Marlin suffers from PTSD, Nemo was born with a bad fin, and Dory possesses "short-term memory loss" (amnesia). While these are obstacles that the characters must overcome, they are never shamed for it. Instead, they find a way to stay true to themselves and become heroes, proving that they're more than just their disabilities. Finding Nemo taught us that being unique isn't bad at all, and that people are more than just the stigmas and stereotypes society places them under.
So What's The Issue?
Lately, I feel that Disney isn't working as hard as they used to in order to portray disabled characters as three-dimensional figures. Instead, it appears as though Disney has reached the point where they're actually starting to mock characters simply for being different.
Gerald - 'Finding Dory'
For example, take Gerald, the mentally disabled sea lion in #FindingDory. Throughout the film, his peers repeatedly shunned Gerald simply for being different, stopping him from sitting on the rock. There was no personal development for this character - he just kept mindlessly fighting to sit on the rock, over and over again.
Unlike the characters from Finding Nemo, who proved they were more than just a disabled stereotype, Gerald the sea lion was simply portrayed as a stigmatized character included as a punchline. I would've expected this out of an Adam Sandler movie, but it felt very out of place, and just wrong, in the sequel to an inspiring movie like Finding Nemo. While other characters such as Dory and Destiny overcame their disabilities through inspiring means, Gerald's treatment suggested that you cannot overcome your disabilities if you are stupid.
Becky - 'Finding Dory'
Other Finding Dory characters were stigmatized too, such as Becky the loon. Becky is clearly mentally disabled, yet she's pretty much treated like a mindless slave throughout the film's running time. Marlin turns to Becky for help throughout the film, but is irritated by her disability.
This is similar to the relationship between Marlin and Dory at the beginning of Finding Dory, but the difference there is that Marlin came to understand Dory, and gained an important relationship in his life. Becky, on the other hand, was not developed like Dory, and was still treated poorly by Marlin by the film's end, as if he had learned nothing about how best to treat others throughout his journey.
Heihei - 'Moana'
Moana was another inspiring Disney film about defeating one's personal obstacles, such as when Moana overcoming her father's refusal to let her out into the water, and Maui deal with the pain of his past. Sadly, Heihei, the rooster "sidekick," did not have one of these "overcoming-obstacles" story arcs and instead became another example of Disney making fun of mental disabilities.
As soon as Heihei was introduced, it was clear that Heihei was different. He was not like the rest of the roosters and was quite clearly not all there in the head. This excited me, as it appeared as though Heihei would go through quite the character arc throughout the course of the film, and would soon be accepted as more than ust a burden to Moana. I hoped Moana would soon accept Heihei without stigma and realize that he is a talented and unique individual — But I was wrong.
Instead, Heihei just remained a mentally disabled rooster, undergoing almost zero character development. Moana and the Ocean had to find new ways to protect Heihei, as he was too dim to become a legitimate character and save himself. By the time the climax rolled around, Heihei had already floated away. This was a huge missed opportunity on the part of the filmmakers.
He was a fun character, don't get me wrong, but that's all he was. Heihei never overcame the stigma of being mentally disabled, and the only time he proved himself useful was when he swallowed a rock. Disney let us down by not using this opportunity to create a mentally disabled character who evolved into a fleshed-out character that broke the stigmas lesser animated films had created.
Disney has always been great at destigmatizing disabilities, especially mental disabilities. Characters like Goofy, Pumbaa, and Dopey were comic reliefs because they were on the lower end of the intelligence scale, but their characters still had development and improved the story because of it. Recent characters like Heihei and Gerald, however, are only used for comic relief, or to conveniently move the plot forward.
I would've expected this kind of pointless comic relief out of a show like Spongebob, but I expected a bit more out of #Pixar and Disney. For a company that has often fought stigmas in the past, it's disappointing to see mentally disabled characters like Heihei being misrepresented.
What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading!