Many classic Disney movies will be familiar to us all. They will have been a large part of many people’s childhood. It is glaringly obvious to see that classic Disney movies have held an important and enduring place within popular culture for most of the last century.
These films have captured the imagination of people of all ages because of their entertaining and thrilling stories, their likeable and relatable characters, and the universal themes that they express. But these films hold very profound meanings beyond what you may have originally realised.
Particular classic Disney movies have incredibly in-depth imagery, symbolism, hidden meanings and archetypal themes that take a bit of prying to expose. However, we must first examine the influences and origins of these stories before delving into intriguing themes.
Origins and Popularisation of Fairy Tales
Fairy tales are short stories and are usually categorised as folklore genre. Such stories have been around for many years, although the history of the fairy tale can be very hard to trace. Many have emerged from stories that are centuries of years old. But only literary forms can fully survive. Variations of these stories will have been told orally much further back in time in an array of societies and cultures.
Research conducted at Durham University and the New University of Lisbon suggests that certain tales can be traced back several millennia. The furthest back their estimations go is 6,000 years ago, which is at the time of the bronze age. The longevity of these stories is a testament to their enduring themes and their universal appeal that have ignited people’s imaginations for several millennia.
The genre term ‘fairy tale’ was first coined in the late 17th century. Oral stories had been passed down through the years in different European cultures. These stories were first categorised as a separate genre by Renaissance writers and were then recorded and immortalised in literary form by the writer Charles Perrault and the famous Brothers Grimm.
Now, these stories weren’t just oral folklore, they became pieces of literature that could be shared far and wide. Stories could be told through a whole new medium when cinema emerged as a new art form at the end of the 19th century.
Walt Disney was a pioneer of cinema and animation and integrated fairy tales into mainstream popular culture. Disney is also credited for establishing the fairy tale as a children’s genre. These colourful, cinematic, animated portrayals of archetypal stories captured the imaginations of many people and brought the fairy tale into a new era, context and significance.
The popularisation of traditional tales has meant that classical stories have been brought to the masses. These stories are and continue to be a source of joy and happiness for so many people. However, Disney’s revamping and revitalising of fairy tales for primarily a child audience may subsequently mean that the deeper meanings of these stories are more easily missed.
4 Classic Disney Movies with Deep Meanings You Might Have Missed
The original literary forms of the fairy tales we have seen in Disney movies often have much bleaker stories. The commonly perceived fairy tale ‘happy ending’ that Disney has come to normalise is usually not the case in the original stories.
Exploration of this is for a different time, but this demonstrates how these modern adaptions could have changed or dumbed-down narratives, connotations, and undertones of these tales. This could lead to the core meanings and cruxes of these fairy tales to be glossed over and become less discernible than in their original counterparts, even if the changes are nuanced.
Nonetheless, these deep meanings are still prevalent in classic Disney movies. Uncovering these aspects of the stories can reveal that the Disney movies that we all know and love are perhaps much more profound and philosophical than what we first realised.
Here are 4 classic Disney movies with deep meanings that you might have missed:
1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – The Garden of Eden
There is an abundance of symbolism in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Even Snow White’s appearance throws up all sorts of imagery: “skin white as snow, lips red as blood, and hair black as ebony” (signifying innocence, life, and death). There are many ideas to analyse and many interesting messages to pry out.
However, there is one famous scene that carries glaring biblical imagery that you may not perhaps have been aware of before. The evil queen, disguised as an old woman, finds Snow White and urges her to take a bite of the poisonous apple. Snow White knows that she shouldn’t be talking to strangers, but she is tempted nonetheless. She ultimately pays the price by falling into a deep sleep, unable to be revived.
The concept of spiritual death
The parallels between this scene and the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is uncanny. In the book of Genesis, Eve is warned not to eat the fruit in the tree but is tempted by Satan (who is disguised as a serpent) to take the fruit. Eve gives some of the fruit to Adam and they feel ashamed and guilty for disobeying God. They are then banished from paradise.
In the Bible, this symbolises the birth of sin and spiritual death as the first man and woman disobey God. A death of innocence as Adam and Eve are exposed to the fruits of the tree of knowledge and hence exposed to evil and sin. Similarly, Snow White is tempted by the evil queen and falls unconscious. She is exposed to evil in the world and her innocence dies.
These biblical connotations can lead to many interpretations. It is certainly an intriguing parallel whatever conclusion one may come to about what the poisonous apple truly means.
2. Pinnochio – The Belly of the Whale
Pinnochio is a tale that speaks to the true nature of our being. It is also typical of the ‘hero’s journey’ narrative that is present in many mythical and folklore stories. Such a story charters the hero who goes on an adventure, faces a crisis, and emerges triumphant against all odds. He/she is also transformed in this emergence and is reborn.
There is a stage in the hero’s journey commonly referred to as the belly of the whale. It is a widely used trope and can be seen in many stories across many genres. Here the protagonist often faces danger and death, is confronted with a separation of his/her’s known world and self and undergoes a transformation as he/she finds his way out.
The symbolism of the transformation
You should be now well aware of how this is relevant to the story of Pinnochio if indeed you are aware of the narrative of this tale. Pinnochio literally and figuratively enters the belly of a fearsome sperm whale to save his father. He faces near-certain death but is triumphant and soon after undergoes a drastic transformation. He changes from a wooden puppet into a real boy.
Several scholars have penned theories about the hero’s journey and many present them through a psychoanalytical perspective. The crisis faced in the belly of the whale is a psychological death and rebirth of the self.
Pinnochio is a puppet controlled by dark forces out of his control and succumbs to temptation and sin. His transformation is necessary and is symbolised through his confrontation with the darkness in the sperm whale and his rebirth as a real boy. He becomes psychologically awake and is now in control of his life.
This idea can resonate with all of us from a psychoanalytical perspective. We will all face hardships and difficult times in our lives. Perhaps we must face the darkness to truly overcome these facets of our existence, to be reborn psychologically stronger and more resilient than before.
3. Peter Pan – Childhood utopia and the jaws of time
Disney’s Peter Pan is a visual spectacle. Scenes of the cityscape as the children fly through victorian England and their adventures in Neverland is wonderful to behold. It is a fantastical story that ignites the imagination of all, young or old. But all the spectacle represents something very profound.
Peter Pan is is a boy who has not grown up. He has refused to. He lives in a utopian paradise called Neverland where he can stay as a child. He doesn’t bother himself with the responsibilities, issues, and complexities of the real world. Neverland is a state of perpetual innocence of childhood.
The story shows us the necessity and importance of maturing and growing up.
Unless we do this, we can become resentful, bitter, angry, and unable to form relationships with real people (Peter Pan cannot form a meaningful relationship with Wendy and so, he must settle for Tinkerbell). Living in a perpetual utopia of childhood may seem appealing, but it can cause us detrimental harm.
We must mature, face hardships, take on responsibility, and build meaningful relationships. Otherwise, we may become marooned and isolated on the deceptive utopia of Neverland, which isn’t a good life to live.
Another deeper meaning of the classic Disney movie is is the symbol of the crocodile. This represents time and the inevitability that we will all eventually be taken into its jaws. The animal has swallowed a clock and the ominous sound of ‘tick-tock’ we hear as it enters a scene is the impending reality of time eventually taking a hold of us.
Captain Hook is terrified of the crocodile. Whenever he hears the sound of the clock in its belly, he is petrified. The crocodile has already got a piece of him – his hand. Time already has a piece of him. Mortality is setting in. Of course, it is just one of the inevitabilities we must face and the prices to pay in the necessity of growing up.
4. Sleeping Beauty – The spinning wheel of fate
There are many typical themes and symbols in Sleeping Beauty. The damsel in distress, subjugated by a villain or monster, who is then saved by a courageous, chivalric figure is a classic theme in world literature.
It is an archetypal structure that is well-known and recognisable to many. It is easy to analyse the story solely through this lens, but some other important symbols and themes could be overlooked because of this. One of these symbols is that of the spinning wheel.
Maleficent casts a spell on Princess Aurora when she is a baby: on her 16th birthday, she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into an eternal sleep. As a result, the King and Queen order that all the spinning wheels in the kingdom are to be destroyed. But the curse is fulfilled anyway and Aurora pricks her finger and falls into a deep slumber. But what exactly does all this mean, aside from it being part of the trope of a damsel in distress?
The spinning wheel symbolises maturity and the inevitable cycle of life.
After all, what does a spinning wheel do? It spins fibre into yarn or thread for it then to be made into cloth. It develops and changes one thing into something else. It represents the inevitable transition from childhood to adulthood, for which Aurora is ill-prepared for. Therefore, she is literally unable to function as an adult and so falls unconscious to the world.
Why is Aurora so ill-prepared? She has been mollycoddled and protected in such a way that she has not been exposed to anything of value. Her parent’s actions of destroying spinning wheels and sending her off to live in a forest with ‘good’ fairies is an attempt to shield her from all the dangers of the world.
She has no experience, no meaningful relationships with anyone, and has no idea about what the world is actually like. The Princess is unable to make the transition into maturity because of all this. The spinning wheel cannot make the thread into yarn.
The message here is similar to the one discussed with Peter Pan. You can’t stay as a child forever and you mustn’t be shielded and overprotected from the realities of the world as a child. Otherwise, you’ll become isolated from the world (like in Peter Pan) or unconscious to the world when you eventually become an adult. You won’t be emotionally and psychologically developed enough to deal with anything.
You can’t stay as a child forever. Don’t resist the spinning wheel of fate and the cycle of life.
Final Thoughts on Classic Disney Movies
So we can see from this article that there are aspects of these children’s stories that are much deeper and profound than we may have first realised. There are also other ways to read and interpret these tales to pry out intriguing meanings that may have passed us by previously.
Yes, Disney movies are a source of joy and perhaps light entertainment for many people. The fact that Disney is so ingrained in popular culture is stark evidence of this.
However, we should also realise that the themes, symbols and motifs of these movies can be part of an in-depth commentary upon various facets of humanity. Therefore, there is ample material to take philosophical and psychological value from classic Disney movies, as well as them being a source of entertainment.
Of course, it doesn’t end here. Many Disney movies hold profound and interesting meanings that are great to hold a discussion over. Next time you watch a Disney movie, you should think more deeply about what the story is trying to say. You may stumble upon something curious, stimulating, and captivating that you may have missed before.
- 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Jordan B. Peterson, Random House Canada; Later Printing edition (January 23, 2018)
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