My childhood education was a thousand times richer thanks to my extensive collection of Disney movies. It used to boggle my parents' mind, and torment them equally, to see me glued to the TV as I watched Pocahontas for the 500th time. But it was thanks to these movies I learned to speak English fluently, appreciate the musical genre and understand it’s okay to be a little bit different if you are just being yourself.
Now as an adult I still watch these movies every now and then when the nostalgia strikes or when it’s a Thursday night. I have been pleasantly surprised to realize my childhood movies are still relevant and woven with complex themes I can now appreciate more. While some are just fun to watch and sing along to, these are the Disney movies I think show a higher level of maturity for the adults we have become:
1. The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Easily one of the darkest and riskiest movies Disney made, The Hunchback was severely underrated compared to the other movies adapted from fairy tales. It is not a Victor Hugo adaptation without some French misery, right?
While the movie had its usual musical numbers, [beautifully composed by Alan Menken of course] it had strong themes of religion, racism and sexuality, something the average 10 year old is not very familiar with. There was just enough playfulness and jokes for kids to enjoy it and not focus on the heartbreaking moments like Quasimodo’s humiliation at the festival when he is tied down and ridiculed. If that weren’t enough there is the scene with Frollo’s song Hellfire where he is struggling with his burning desire for Esmeralda even though he considers her people, the gypsies, to be the scum of the Earth.
However, the main message in the film of what makes a monster and what makes a man is not lost on the young viewers and it still resonates so many years later.
I knew I loved Pocahontas before I even saw it. A gracious relative gave me a present of a booklet of all the songs and a cassette with the entire soundtrack, which I replayed endlessly until the movie came out. Maybe it was because it was based on historical events I was familiar with or because the animation was more realistic, but I always considered Pocahontas as one of the more mature Disney movies of my childhood.
In an hour and a half, Pocahontas manages to capture the complexities of racism and the fear that feeds it, what it means to choose a certain path and the responsibilities it bears. There is romance but it’s not the central message of the story. John Smith and Pocahontas’s relationship shows us what it took the English and the Indians much longer to understand: we are no different from one another and hatred of the unknown leads to destruction.
3. Lilo & Stitch
Delving into sci-fi territory, Disney conjured up a mean aggressive little alien hiding as a dog in Hawaii with a loving orphan who loves Elvis Presley’s tunes. At first glance, Lilo & Stitch may seem like just a fun movie about the growing friendship between a weird creature and an eccentric little girl but it ended up being so much more than that. Sure, it still covers some of Disney’s recurring themes like orphans and feeling out of place in the world. However, there is an underlying sadness in the story rooted more in the modern day life than in well known fairy tales.
Lilo is lonely and bullied by her classmates. She has a flare for the dramatic and can be as stubborn as an ox. This presents quite a problem for her older sister and guardian, Nani, who is doing her best to keep a job and provide a normal life for Lilo so that Social Services won’t intervene and take her away. It doesn’t get any realer than that.
While Lilo is admirable in her uniqueness, I believe the unsung hero of this movie is Nani. Their relationship as sisters is never smooth sailing but the truth is no one understands and cares more for Lilo than her. When Lilo explains her tardiness to class, she mentions how she always feeds Pudge a peanut butter sandwich and she was appalled when Nani suggested feeding a fish a tuna sandwich instead. She never says Nani told her it was stupid and not to do it. She simply presented a new option, even if it was a tad cannibalistic. Later on, when she is fired from her job as a waitress because of Lilo and Stitch’s antics, she never takes it out on her. As far as strong female characters go in the Disney universe, Nani is right up there.
I have a soft spot for Rapunzel in this movie. I identify a lot with her – minus the blond long hair, being stuck for 18 years in a tower with a domineering fake mother. You get it. Rapunzel’s desire to start her life but being afraid of taking that jump –quite literally- is something that resonated with me and I’m sure with a lot of people. Rapunzel’s dream is relatable but it’s the Mother’s belittling of Rapunzel that most adults will understand. We all have someone who tells us we are not strong enough or smart enough to go after what we want. They focus on our flaws, real or not, to keep us small and instead of trusting our own instincts we give into the fear they have created.
This was also the first Disney movie I saw where the main character’s dream is achieved halfway. Once Rapunzel gets to see the lights on her birthday, she feels sad because now that she has achieved her life’s dream, she doesn’t know what to do next. While children may not understand that, just ask any student who just graduated college or finished med school. The ‘What now’ feeling is something we have all experienced and Tangled shows us it’s about who you become after the journey and you can always find new dreams.
The story of a wooden puppet explored the question of what it means to be human before any Sci-fi movie ever did. Pinocchio’s journey is a dark one, full of confusion and difficult decisions to make. He is often derailed from his path of becoming a real boy by others who wish to exploit him, promising an easy life in the theater or a fun life breaking the rules. It is a story that seems to always go back to lavishness and excess and the consequences it can have. As a result, one of the scariest Disney’s scenes takes place halfway through the movie, when Pinochio’s friend, Lampwick, turns into a donkey, braying and kicking out of fear of what has happened to him.
Pinochio’s story is one of the most challenging ones as he goes over land and sea to find himself and eventually to rescue his father. What is brilliant about Pinocchio is how the creators teach children and adults alike how our choices define us. Even though he has Jimminy Cricket to help him, Pinocchio makes his own decisions, often makes mistakes but learns from them and it is through trial and error he realizes what is really important.
6. The Lion King
When Disney decided to base their jungle tale on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, there was no doubt that some heavy themes would creep in. Psychotic hyenas, a lion with a murderous agenda and family tragedy weave throughout the story of Simba. But what came out of this loosely based adaptation had more depth than any other film by Disney up to this point.
You will surely still cry when Simba finds a motionless Mufasa in the aftermath of the stampede but you will also tear up in other moments that didn’t register before when you were a kid. The sense of guilt and loss Simba carries throughout his life, which leads to him acting out and not committing to anything, will resonate more with anyone who has lost someone they loved or felt like they have lost their way. It is relatable on so many levels which is why The Lion King continues to be one of Disney best movies of all time.
Disney movies are classics and it's not just because they bring us back to our childhoods. It is because they tell universal stories of feeling different and embracing who you are through colorful characters and exciting locations. It is a must have collection for every movie buff and any child's education.