Who among us doesn’t know Dory from “Finding Nemo,” Luke Skywalker from “Star Wars,” or Tony Stark from "Iron Man"?
Disney has been a powerful force in pop culture for decades, but acquisitions of big properties over the past decade – including animation studio Pixar, massively successful comic book movie company Marvel Studios, and the Star Wars franchise – have put Disney in control of some of the most famous and successful stories in the world.
Disney has been a cultural juggernaut for a long time, notes Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
When Disneyland opened in 1955, he says, “I think you could have comfortably said, this is a single company that has got a bigger grip on American childhood than any other cultural phenomenon we could point to, maybe except for the public school – and in some cases even more than that.”
Mickey Mouse. Dumbo. Snow White. Bambi. Cinderella.
Disney's early films “were the cultural markers of growing up," he says. "Now when you add to that Marvel, Pixar, Star Wars, ESPN, for heaven's sakes, it really – and I didn't even mention ABC. This is a cultural force of almost unthinkable power.”
What are Disney movies and TV shows teaching today's audience about gender roles and ethics? Most observers see a company that emphasizes "family values" and the power of teamwork, and promotes racial, gender, and cultural equality.
One long-discussed aspect of Disney culture is the proliferation of the princess. Ladies with crowns were part of Walt Disney's strategy from the beginning – Disney’s first feature film was 1937’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
Some have seen the Disney princesses of more recent decades, including Jasmine from the 1992 movie “Aladdin” and Anna and Elsa from the 2013 smash “Frozen,” as having more updated values than characters of the past.
Professor Thompson points particularly to “Frozen,” which centers on sisters Elsa and Anna, as breaking the mold when it came to princesses. The movie includes poking fun at the idea of love at first sight (“You got engaged to someone you just met that day?” character Kristoff asks Princess Anna incredulously) and the climactic battle (spoilers ahead, but some young person in your life must have made you watch this movie by now) has the pivotal “act of true love” be one between two sisters, not a romantic couple.
“You've got two women, they are powerful, they are not completely dependent upon their relationships with men,” Thompson says. “What's so interesting is in spite of the fact that it was a departure from the first Disney princess films, obviously, that it was still so spectacularly successful.”
Greg Forster, visiting assistant professor of faith and culture at Trinity International University, sees a lot to admire in what he calls "the new Disney" – the animated movies being produced in recent years, both Disney animated features like "Big Hero 6" and "Frozen" as well as Pixar movies. With recent films, he says he has seen "the consistent turning out of movies that had these transcendent values."
It was the story of sisters Anna and Elsa that, for him, confirmed the positive direction in which the studio was moving with its animated features.
"I'm observing something that appears to be an intentional project to create a new method of storytelling, a new sort of expectation that when we tell stories, we're not just here to entertain you for a short time, we're here to teach you about what matters in life," Forster says. "...I think there's a lot of concern about the moral direction of American culture, and there is a lot to be alarmed about... [but] what I've been calling the new Disney animation really does reconnect people in a way that cuts across boundaries, so it [includes] people of different religions, people of different races, people of different economic backgrounds ... These [films] are not distinctive to a particular cultural subgroup and that means it can be a force for good in the culture at large rather than being sort of one group's possession."
But the “Frozen” phenomenon still ends with young girls dressing up as princesses, Thompson notes.
“Elsa's come a long way from Snow White, who literally has to be switched on by a man to come awake,” he says. “But in the end, one wonders if all this narrative detail is ... just a way to feature beautiful dresses on women.”
Recent years have also seen more diverse princesses, including Tiana of 2009’s “The Princess and the Frog,” who is an African-American living in New Orleans; Moana, the heroine of an upcoming film of the same name that is based on Polynesian culture; and Elena, the star of the new Disney Channel TV series “Elena of Avalor” who lives in a land based on Latin American culture.
“Thank goodness” for these characters, says Ross Brown, program director for the MFA in writing and contemporary media at Antioch University in Santa Barbara. “The world comes in all kinds of colors and cultures and you want to display it.”
Thompson agrees, but adds, “We could have a much more complicated question about the legitimacy of maintaining that princess narrative, which for many people has got its own political drawbacks and problematic issues.”
In recent years, Disney's acquisitions have added new characters to the endless parade of princesses, including Marvel superheroes and Jedi knights. Many of these movies feature variations on the theme of an ordinary person discovering they are special. See: anyone who gets superpowers or finds out The Force is strong in them.
These stories appeal to young people, notes Professor Brown.
“I think it's a fairly common-seeming experience both for girls and boys to have a fantasy that nobody knows how special you are, and somebody will discover how special you are,” he says.
Marvel stories offer a more diverse set of world views than the traditional Disney fare. Upstanding Captain America, for example, is often juxtaposed with cynical Iron Man. That cynicism is sometimes rewarded, as in the 2014 film “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” in which Cap discovered the organization he believed in had been taken over by the villains.
Thompson sees this as an acknowledgement of the world we live in today. “These things are being made in the second decade of the twenty[-first] century,” he says.
But most of the Marvel and Star Wars characters are ultimately presented as good. For example, the Avengers in the 2012 film of the same name certainly all squabble, but they unite at the end when Earth is facing an outside threat.
Brown says this reflects Disney wanting to present the values of teamwork and other good lessons for all ages.
“I think when you have a brand like Disney does and especially products that are targeted at a youth and family audience there, it's not rocket science to know that you want to promote positive … messages,” he says.
And the violence? Both Marvel and Star Wars movies often have their characters throwing punches, and the films usually end with a climactic battle.
“That's a question that social scientists have been asking for a long, long time,” Thompson says. “We always want to say violence on TV and violence in the movies causes kids to be violent. I don't think that's nearly so simple.”
Disney's messages, of course, reach beyond the big screen. Disney owns ABC, which airs three hits either created or produced by Shonda Rhimes – “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” and “How to Get Away With Murder” – as well as sitcoms like “Modern Family” and “Fresh Off the Boat.”
Ms. Rhimes’ programs have adult plot lines and are marketed as such, but the family comedies like “Black-ish,” “Modern,” and “Boat” are aimed at a wider audience.
Thompson sees the success that ABC – and by extension, Disney – has had with these shows as an extension of Disney positioning itself as the “family” brand.
“They're managing to do fairly family-friendly comedies in an era where there is so little family-friendly stuff on TV,” he says. “That seems to be in the Disney spirit as we used to think of [it].”
Both at home and at the multiplex, many of the most successful projects being seen by people of all ages are coming from Disney. Is that a good or a bad thing?
“That kind of powerful integration ... makes me nervous," Thompson admits. "At the same time, I really, really admire a lot of what comes out of that business model.”