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Inside Depression

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I was told Inside Out was a movie about depression.

I was very late watching Pixar’s latest tear-jerker offering (as in, I watched it for the first time last week), so I had plenty of time to hear what other people thought about the movie, and that was the message that stuck. Inside Out is about depression.

So imagine my surprise when I finally saw it, and didn’t think it was about depression at all. Not even metaphorically. It sounds like it should be — Joy and Sadness go missing, leaving Anger, Fear and Disgust to control a twelve year old girl’s brain — but the story only covers a couple of days, and the ultimate message is more about what happens when a person feels unable to express sadness than about mental illness. Although it’s a good tool to approach discussions of depression, especially with children, it’s really a story about mental wellness, and the importance of accepting and processing all emotions, including negative ones.

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Family in Disney’s Lilo and Stitch

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I just saw Lilo and Stitch for the very first time.

I know, I know, I should have seen it before. But it came out during a misguided teenage “too grown up for Disney” phase, and I never got around to watching it.

To be honest, I’m not sure whether that’s a good or a bad thing. Because Lilo and Stitch was possibly the most heartbreaking Disney movie I’ve ever seen.

You know how most Disney/Pixar movies have that one tear-jerking moment, when a character seems dead and all hope seems lost, but then something quickly swoops in to save the day and they all live happily ever after? The writers of Lilo and Stitch seemed to decide that making viewers cry once simply wasn’t enough, and made it their mission to make a movie that is an ever-growing ball of pain and heartbreak that makes the viewer choke on their tears until it finally reaches a bittersweet happy-ish conclusion.

Maybe I’m overstating it. But oh god, it hurt. And the reason it hurt so much was its heart-wrenching look at family.

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Big Hero 6

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Big Hero 6 was finally released in the UK last week, which means that I finally got to see it. And it was almost as good as the hype from America suggested it would be. Almost.

Because Big Hero 6 is a fun movie, and a sad movie, and a wonderfully animated movie, and even a fantastically diverse movie, but it is slightly lacking in narrative structure.

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A Year of Frozen

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It’s officially been a year since Frozen was released into the world, and judging by the Christmas shopping frenzy, the movie is more popular than ever.

Some people are probably tired of Frozen fever by now. But the fact that Frozen and Elsa in particular are so popular with young girls is really heartening. People might comment that the movie doesn’t always have the tightest plot, or isn’t the most beautifully animated thing we’ve ever seen, but it does provide a lot of really powerful things that have been missing, or at least under-appreciated. In a bleak environment of boy-focused cartoons and a dearth of compelling female characters in any media, the popularity of Frozen is an absolute godsend.

Let It Go is an inspiring song

Let It Go is one of the first Disney princess songs to go nuclear that isn’t about the central romance. It’s a song of self-affirmation and self-confidence, a song about deciding to leave criticism behind and be entirely yourself. When little girls sing Let It Go incessantly and emulate Elsa — her footstomp, her declaration of her own independence, her delight in using her magic to create a place of her own — they’re emulating a female character who is taking control of her life and declaring who she is and who she wants to be. It’s a powerful message, and one that young fans must internalize as the sing the song again and again.

Elsa is a very flawed character

Although Anna is sweet and energetic and adorable, Elsa is the character that has won people’s hearts. And this really matters, because Elsa is an imperfect and quite fearful character — she makes many mistakes, she gets scared, she has lots of fears and self-doubt and arguably suffers from severe anxiety after a lifetime of self-repression. Her journey isn’t one of a happy but different girl finding adventure and happiness and true love. It’s an unhappy young woman learning to accept who she is, to control her power, and to become a queen who is free to be herself without isolating herself from everyone and everything she knows. Less glamorous, perhaps, and definitely less traditionally fairy tale, but a far more useful narrative for girls looking for fictional role models and heroines. She feels real, and she conquers real, relatable issues, wrapped up in magic.

Sisters form the heart of the story

Sure, there’s romance, and sure, there’s a couple of cute animal companions and wacky hijinks ensuing, but the central focus of the story is two sisters who became estranged and fight to rebuild their relationship. It’s sisterly love that saves Anna, and the same sisterly love that saves Elsa. It’s unconditional “true love,” and it explores how that doesn’t have to mean finding a handsome prince and living happily ever after.

Love won’t change someone — but it brings out their better side

Although the trolls have some strange moments, their big music number emphasizes the central message of the movie — that although you can’t take a horrible person and change them into a better one by loving them, people will be their better selves if you treat them with love and kindness. Bad choices don’t necessarily make a bad person, just a scared or stressed one, and if you react to them with kindness and patience, you might just be surprised by who they can be.

It’s not been branded as “Disney princess”

Which might be a strange thing for me to say, since I kind of love Disney Princess stuff. But Frozen has been branded as a separate entity, and I think that’s really significant. Girls deserve more choice in their toys and in things marketed towards them — not just princesses, not just pink, not just this pre-selected range of Disney heroines redesigned to be extra-pretty. The fact that Anna and Elsa have yet to be mixed in with the other “Disney Princesses” means that they haven’t undergone pinkification. Their dolls and branded items actually look like the characters do in the movies, rather than being prettied up. They’re themed around blue, not pink. The fact that they’re royalty isn’t emphasized. Anna and Elsa often appear in branding as a pair, or with the other main characters in the movie, and the branding is driven by their characters and by Elsa’s magic. It’s presented as another option for girls (and for boys), and not just an extension of the existing brand aimed at them.

It proves that all these things are profitable

People had written off princess movies as a thing of the past. Companies declared that female protagonists aren’t as profitable as male protagonists, and that girls don’t buy merchandise as much as boys. Better to market a movie with an equal male lead (like Tangled) or just make it all about boys, because then both boys and girls will watch it. But movies about female characters and female relationships are profitable. They can become cultural zeitgeists. And with Frozen being so unbelievable successful, why would the movie companies not wish to capitalize on this “new trend” for female-led movies and children’s brands, and create more?

Add in how fun the songs are and the unbearable cuteness of Sven, and I hope Frozen‘s reign continues for a long time yet.

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Aladdin

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Aladdin is a strange movie to discuss in the context of Disney Princesses. Unless I’ve forgotten something, it’s the only official Disney Princess movie where the princess isn’t the protagonist. In fact, although she has a couple of scenes without Aladdin, Jasmine’s role in the movie isn’t that significant, and she’s absent for many of the important scenes. But I think it’s interesting to look at how Disney treats its female characters when they’re not the protagonist of the story.

And it looks like Disney put a lot of effort into giving Jasmine “girl power” and independence, at least in her dialogue and attitude. Unfortunately, they didn’t follow through and give her strength in the plot itself.

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Beauty and the Beast

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Beauty and the Beast is the ultimate “not like other girls” Disney movie.

Make no mistake, the animation and the music are gorgeous, Belle is a great character, and the dynamic between Belle and Gaston gives us some interesting scenes. But although Belle is intelligent and ambitious and wanting adventure, she’s explicitly set up as being different because of it. She doesn’t fit in, because nobody else she knows could possibly also like reading, or dreaming, or want their life to come to something.

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The Little Mermaid

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I may be a tiny bit biased when it comes to The Little Mermaid. This was my favorite movie as a child. I would sing Part of Your World at the top of my lungs and carry my Ariel doll around with me and recreate the dramatic “emerging from the ocean” moment in the bath… it was a pretty big deal to me.

So when The Little Mermaid comes under fire for being one of the most “anti-feminist” Disney princess movies, I take it a little bit personally. The movie that they criticize is not the movie that I remember adoring. Although I’ve written before about how Ariel is a great protagonist, and how these criticisms are off-base, I felt some trepidation about rewatching the movie and writing about it again. I didn’t think I was wrong, but what if I was?

And did I find the movie to be all I remembered? Well… yes and no. People are wrong to criticize Ariel as an “anti-feminist” protagonist, and the first two thirds of the movie are fantastic to watch. But as we approach the movie’s conclusion, things start to fall apart.

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Why Anastasia Rocks

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Last year, I did a series on the classic Disney princess movies, analyzing them to see whether they are as traditional and anti-feminist as some people believe. In a couple of weeks, I’m going to revive the series with a look at movies from the Disney Renaissance. But first, I want to look at a non-Disney movie from that era that should be counted in the canon, for theme and animation and music and general awesomeness, if not for the studio that produced it.

Because Anastasia is a fantastic movie. Historical accuracy is not its forte, but it’s also not meant to be. It has zombie Rasputin singing about his hatred of the Romanovs from limbo with a backing choir of luminescent bugs. Clearly, some creative license is going on here. At its heart, Anastasia is an animated fairy tale, adding an optimistic, happily-ever-after, zombie-filled spin on one of the most popular romanticized myths of the 20th century: that the Princess Anastasia somehow survived the revolution and would one day reemerge and find happiness after an otherwise traumatic period of history.

And although it’s not a faithful presentation of Anastasia’s tale, I’d argue that it is a wonderful and feminist movie (as well as being just so darn fun and adorable).

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An Open Door: Love At First Sight in Disney’s Frozen

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Last Wednesday, I wrote about Disney’s Frozen and how problematic it is to hold it up as a “feminist” Disney princess movie in contrast to all that has come before, and I stand by that post 100%.

But Frozen is Disney’s 53rd animated movie since 1937, and it’s natural that, over those almost 80 years, these movies would change in sentiment and (hopefully) become more in line with modern ideals. So while the older movies from the 30s, 50s and even 80s and early 90s have played many fairy tale tropes straight, it’s definitely time to explore those (often sexist) tropes in a more critical manner. Most recent Disney movies have abandoned the “love at first sight” trope altogether by building the romantic relationship throughout the movie, and even having it develop from something more antagonistic or perfunctory (as in Tangled). But Frozen is unique, as far as I know, in that it directly tackles the “some day my prince will come,” love at first sight trope, not simply changing it but exploring its implications and subverting them.

Because, while it’s easy to dismiss the “one glance and it’s true love forever” narrative of stories like Sleeping Beauty and Cinderellathese tropes have realistic elements that create the potential for much darker tales. It’s not entirely surprising that an abused girl who sees the prince as a ticket to a better life would fall for him immediately, or that a girl who’s never met a single soul outside of her three fairy guardians would be beyond excited to finally meet someone new. So while Anna’s “love at first sight” storyline with Hans is a commentary on past romantic Disney plotlines, it’s not a mockery of them, or in any way implying that Anna is an idiot. Rather, it’s a more complicated, nuanced and believable version of these past romances — and one where, for once, the princess gets burned.

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Sleeping Beauty

This article is part of a series looking at Disney princess movies, from the first to the latest, to see whether they are as “anti-feminist” as some might claim.

  • Bechdel pass: yes
  • Number of female characters: 6
  • Goals: To marry her true love; to protect the princess; to kill the princess
  • Lesson: Don’t leave the evil witch out of your birthday party

As I’m think many many people have discussed before, Sleeping Beauty isn’t really about Sleeping Beauty. It’s difficult to critique the way a Disney Princess is presented when she only has about 10 minutes of screen time and doesn’t say a word for the entire second half. There’s a reason that there’s no Sleeping Beauty 2 — Aurora doesn’t have enough of a character to support it.

Opinions will differ on whether or not this is a bad thing. While there isn’t time for her to show depth and character development, there isn’t really time for her to be “anti-feminist” either. She’s mostly an excuse for the rest of the plot to happen… and that plot, in a first (and possibly last?) for Disney, is driven by three older female characters.

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