Disney has owned the imagination of children’s minds for decades. When I was a child, I certainly was well aware of Mickey Mouse and all his pals. “Mic” — see you real soon — “key” — why? Because we like you — “Mouse.” The catchy and inviting songs and cartoons helped define my childhood, much the way endless texting, emojis and Taylor Swift songs do for this generation.
Recently, we took our son to the Broadway production of “Aladdin.” While the singing, dancing, staging, choreography, sets and lighting were truly spectacular, something occurred to me. What role do parents play in these Disney stories, which become the foundation of our children’s cultural legends?
Looking at Aladdin himself, the Broadway version suggests he loved his parents and that he thinks they were spectacular people. That’s nice, but they are gone from the picture, which makes them invisible saints, who help by inspiring him to be better or reminding him from a distance that he hasn’t done much with his life besides living as a “street rat” with a heart.
Then, there’s the ridiculous, all-powerful sultan. He has educated his daughter and given her a chance to think for herself. Ultimately, though, he wants her to get married so her husband can rule the kingdom. That’s an inconsistent message from one of the many single parents Disney has brought to life.
How, exactly, can he not notice that his evil adviser manipulates him and is clearly out for his throne? Despite Jasmine’s fury with Jafar, the sultan doesn’t see Jafar for what he is. It seems this well-intentioned wealthy man who lives in a spectacular castle doesn’t listen to his daughter.
In “Beauty and the Beast,” Belle’s father Maurice, who is also a single parent, is an absent-minded genius she has to protect. Peter Pan? He takes kids away from their parents to Never Never Land. In “The Little Mermaid,” Ariel runs away from her father Triton to pursue a life — and a love — he has forbidden. Looking for Ariel’s mother? She’s not under or above the sea.
Speaking of a child without a mother, in “Finding Nemo” poor Nemo grows up under the overprotective fin of his humorless clownfish father Marlin. Sure, Marlin is heroic but he has a long journey, physically and emotionally, to find his son — and in a way, himself.
I don’t recall seeing Cinderella’s father at all, leaving her with the evil stepmother — seems like a bad call on the father’s part there, too — and her horrible stepsisters.
Maybe taking away parents — or turning them into buffoons — creates plot points that these heroes have to overcome. It gives them a chance to learn to trust themselves and their friends and to believe in who they are. I realize the stories aren’t about the parents and maybe, in some backhanded way, these stories encourage kids to find courage when their parents can’t simply hand it to them or purchase it online from Amazon.
I guess there wouldn’t be as much of a heroic role for a child who helped conquer something just by learning or listening to his well-intentioned parents or to grandparents who attend every concert and are eager to hear about school.
Taking parents away, or giving them questionable judgment, creates opportunities for kids to take control of their perilous lives.
Perhaps Disney has bequeathed real-life parents a gift through all these invisible or flawed guardians. It gives the rest of us a chance to say, “I messed up here, honey, but it could be worse: I could be a Disney parent.”