The Cliches of Disney Dads

As Father's Day approaches, we take a look at dads, through the eyes of Disney movies...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

This article contains mild spoilers for The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Frozen, Moana, and Beauty And The Beast.

Picture the scene: King Triton and the Sultan are making their way through a bottle of Duty Free Glenlivet after a solid paintball sesh, having dinghied harmless crackpot Maurice due to his low social status and shan banter. At this point the Prince of the Forest walks in and they all bond over how difficult it is being a single parent powerful dude. It’s hard enough being a good dad and ruler without worrying about how dog memes are getting hecking incomprehensible these days. Can’t people see that they only want simpler dog memes and what’s best for their daughters? Maybe if they weren’t so headstrong and feisty…

Narrative Necessity explains a lot of story cliches. It’s why people split up to investigate the unexplained torrents of red bits over Witchguts Hollow, or why the unlucky in love decide to embark on elaborate schemes in order to sabotage someone-they-fancy’s relationship with a humorless and demanding model only for it to fail (!) humiliatingly in front of the one they should really be with. The story’s got to happen somehow.

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Disney movies are no stranger to these tropes. Frequently based on fairy tales, they focus on princesses and princes who have often lost at least one parent. The survivors then struggle on, though their loved ones’ deaths motivate them, either to overprotective fear or insatiable wanderlust. Many Disney movies simply wouldn’t happen without severe trauma leading to questionable parenting.

Frozen, for example, is a film where nearly everything occurs due to the mistakes of well-meaning parents. It may seem like a good idea to tell your child to bottle up all their emotions leading to a life of isolation, fear, and distrust, but we must remember that these characters aren’t British, and to be honest it doesn’t work that well for us anyway. Then, Elsa and Anna’s parents go off sailing into an ominous storm, and probably die. Maybe they just fake their deaths and go hang out on Responsibility Free Island with Bruce Wayne. The important thing is they take advice from trolls – who happen to be Kristoff’s adoptive parents – who have just mindwiped their daughter (which everyone seems totally fine with), and then interpret the advice of ‘she needs to control her powers’ as ‘you need to suppress her powers’.

Then you have – to name a few – Bambi’s dad’s austere distance, Triton being borderline racist against humanity, the Sultan fussing over his daughter’s marriage, Moana’s father refusing to let her leave the island – all of these things based on overprotectiveness and a position of command. A lot of Disney dads are essentially the King of Swamp Castle from Monty Python And The Holy Grail, and their offspring Prince Erbert, except that Disney’s own personal idiom is to have both characters go on emotional journeys – the father comes to terms with his loss and overprotective nature, the child gets to see the world but also understand their father’s point of view.

A lot of Disney films have their origins in fairy tales, and in many cases being ancient stories handed down in the oral tradition. Aladdin’s tale was added to Arabian Nights in 1710, and The Little Mermaid was first published in 1837. The Brothers Grimm’s first collection of fairy tales was published in 1812. These were published at a time when people could be possessions, and a single man of good fortune must be in want of a wife. Their origins are from even further back, when fathers were more distant, mortality rates were higher, and women were expected to give birth to as many children as possible, increasing the risk of death. Plus all the stories were written by men, plus it’s one less character to write, plus it drives the story along. The reason Disney dads are like that Monty Python sketch is they’re both inspired by the same stories.

Disney films are comedies, in the sense of Ancient Greek comedy where everyone gets paired off at the end, the villain gets their comeuppance (the model Shakespearian comedies use), and the protagonist is frequently a young person struggling against the society expectations of the older generation. The young person grows throughout the course of the story, stepping up in the face of sudden hardship. A lot of our storytelling comes from pre-Christian traditions, hence the recurring ideas and tropes we see throughout cinema. These are old ideas that are lodged in our minds, so it’s not totally surprising that Ron Clements and John Musker released The Little Mermaid in 1989 and Moana in 2016, and the story is driven by the daughter of an authority figure longing to expand her horizons, only for her dad to forbid her from doing so.

Moana shows some developments in storytelling, in that here we find out her dad’s motivation in this movie, and not a straight to video prequel made years later, and Moana’s struggle with her dad has more empathy and nuance than Ariel’s. Plus, she just becomes platonic buddies with The Rock instead of instantly falling for a white guy with Aladdin’s face. I think we can all agree this is a better outcome, but the stories remain similar. These similarities belong to the old stories that Disney retell.

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The House of Mouse have, in recent films, started deconstructing their own tropes, or at least reacting against them. It’s an ongoing process. Pixar’s Brave has the conflict between mother and daughter. Frozen is ultimately about the bond between sisters. Moana has shown it’s possible to have conflict between father and daughter without the partner/mother being missing. The stories might remain the same, but all that it takes to freshen things up is to tell them from another perspective.