Ten Reasons Why Disney Movies Are Modern Mythology

Mythology World Literature

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Disney HerculesFrom Pinocchio, Cinderella, and Dumbo to Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Mulan, Disney animated movies are an almost-universal language, a collection of common stories we practically all recognize. They may be popular entertainment, but they also serve some of the same functions that myths did for ancient peoples. In a way Disney movies are modern mythology.    At its most basic level a culture’s mythology is a collection of stories that embody what that culture values. Mythic stories don’t determine what a culture believes; they reflect it. What other body of work produced in America by Americans has been so universally experienced and ingrained into our culture? Since Disney animated features began in 1937 and continue even to this day, these films cover generations of viewers. Many of the older films have achieved “classic” status among our works of art, and the newer films continue to address problems and reflect changes in our culture.  So here are ten reasons why Disney movies are modern mythology:

  1. Disney movies are based on ancient stories. Let’s start with the most obvious connection: The subjects of most Disney films are literally fairy tales, legends, and myths from times gone by. The very first Disney animated feature was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Walt Disney chose this story because of its timeless appeal and storytelling possibilities, and the fairy tale trend has continued throughout the years. Some bemoan this as “ripping off” and violating classic material, but this is not the case. No matter how unfaithful an adaptation is, it still has the power to interest viewers in the source material. So rather than demeaning these stories, the Disney films have helped preserve them and expose them to new generations. How many of us would know these stories if Disney movies had not first introduced us to them?
  2. Disney movies tell stories with mythic style. Hero myths from all over the globe follow a similar pattern: A hero comes from a simple background, has missing or deceased parents, learns of a special heritage, receives training from a wise mentor, etc. This sounds like every Disney movies ever made, and many have criticized Disney’s reliance on The Hero’s Journey, the mythic storytelling pattern touted by researcher Joseph Campbell; however, Campbell published The Hero with a Thousand Faces in 1949, while Walt Disney made Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937. This means Disney was able to tap into an age-old way of telling stories before Campbell published the book that made it apparent to the rest of the world. With Walt Disney, the story always came first, and that’s a standard that’s as old as time.
  3. Disney movies are deceptively simple. Myths seem simple on the surface: An inventor builds a set of wings in an attempt to fly. Yet they teach deep life lessons: We must listen to wisdom or pay the consequences. While many Disney movies are simple enough for a youngster to gather the basic plot, they are designed to entertain adults as well. This is something Walt Disney himself felt strongly about. His films were never for children—although he engineered them so that children could enjoy them just the same. He intended to entertain—and move—all ages. Myths are made the same way.
  4. Disney movies teach life lessons. Myths serve as warnings: Don’t go against the gods, don’t get too prideful, don’t mate with animals, etc. Disney films teach lessons, too—something they are often derided for. Yet Disney often weaves these lessons into the story so masterfully that the viewers don’t catch onto the fact that they are learning. Look at the film Pinocchio. Not only is it a great work of art, it teaches many important lessons about listening to guidance, finding yourself, and doing the right thing. Along the way Pinocchio learns how to be a good person, and we learn along with him. Myths worked the same way—imparting important lessons to their listeners while telling an engaging story.
  5. Disney heroes and heroines embody the traits we value most. The men and women a culture chooses to celebrate will tell you the personality traits that culture values—especially if these celebrated heroes are fictional. When the Roman poet Virgil developed the character of Aeneas, the hero of his epic poem, the Aeneid, he made sure Aeneas was the ultimate Roman—patriotic, determined, and brave; therefore, many Romans identified with Aeneas and embraced Virgil’s story. It’s interesting to note though that Virgil did not create the character of Aeneas. He first appears in the Greek poem the Iliad, written hundreds of years before Virgil’s time. Yet Virgil took the character and reinvented him to be a Roman hero. Disney characters are engineered in the same way. Although many of the Disney stories originate in other cultures, the heroes of these stories are reimagined with American values in mind. If you don’t believe me, read the original myth of Heracles (Hercules) and see how different the Disney version makes him. But why is this done? To create relatable heroes that share our values; therefore, just like mythic heroes, Disney heroes demonstrate the personality traits our culture values most.
  6. Disney movies take us to far-off, adventurous lands. One of the functions of mythic stories is escapism. These stories take you to far-off lands filled with new experiences—dangerous challenges and menacing monsters. Myths are pure imagination. Disney movies consistently transport us in the same way. Peter Pan flies you to Neverland, Alice leads you down a rabbit hole to Wonderland, and Aladdin whisks you away on a magic carpet ride. Disney movies are always exploring new cultures and time periods. For many children this is their first experience with other cultures or ancient times, and these fantastical stories pique their curiosity in a way that stimulates the imagination.
  7. Disney movies embrace tragedy and embody our deepest fears. You probably don’t view Disney films as frightening, but try watching them with a four-year-old. If you don’t think the death of Bambi’s mother is traumatic, you may be a little jaded. This is just one of many morbid and shocking things that occur in Disney movies—does anyone have a count for dead or missing parents in Disney movies? But this is one of the functions of myths: to take us into the darkest, most frightening places imaginable—the land of the dead or a maze-like labyrinth where a monster is stalking you. They take us into tragedy. They show us the evil underbelly of life. Sometimes it is horrifying, but this catharsis releases our negative emotions and allows us to view our own lives with fresh eyes.
  8. Disney movies embrace our highest hopes and dreams. “If you can dream it, you can achieve it” is a motto that the Disney films reinforce. A flying boy takes you to a land where children never grow up. A penniless girl dreams of going to a royal ball. This wish-fulfillment is what myths are made on. Look at the myth of Daedalus and Icarus, which gives us a brief feeling of what it’s like to fly. Heracles (Hercules) overcomes mortality and becomes one of the gods. Likewise, Disney movies tell us, “When you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.” This is the basis of myth—a hopefulness for things above everyday life.
  9. Disney movies are culture capsules. If you want to see what a culture believes, you read their favorite stories. The Iliad is a window into the mind of the Greeks, and the Aeneid performs the same function for the Romans. We have already established that although very few of the Disney films are set in America, they so boldly show how Americans view the world. That’s what myths do. They embody the values of a culture, so that anyone who reads them (or watches them) can tell what a culture values. People all over the world learn American culture through the entertainment our country produces, and it is often the Disney movies that they gravitate to the most often.
  10. Disney movies are the stories we all know. In ancient times a collection of myths united a people. Anyone could reference a certain story and have that reference understood. In our time, as media diversifies, making an allusion to a certain story and having that reference be understood becomes harder and harder. Yet almost every person, no matter their generation, has seen the same collection of Disney films. Children experience them at the knee of adults who remember the same films from their own childhoods. This common knowledge unites us by giving us common ground. And that’s what good stories do.

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