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Alex Grayson: Disney meet Shakespeare — romance, rebellion, action, intrigue and great storytelling

Disney has recently been on a live action movie kick, with The Lion King being the next upcoming release. The Lion King is typically considered to be one of the more famous examples of Shakespeare in Disney (it’s basically Hamlet).

Movie poster of Romeo and Juliet with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Dune, from Wikipedia

However, Shakespearean plotlines are actually present throughout Disney movies, with some being more obvious than others. For example, the classic story of teenagers desiring a forbidden romance à la Romeo and Juliet is seen throughout Disney movies, especially during the Disney Renaissance.

The Disney Renaissance, for those of you who aren’t Disney fanatics like myself, occurred from 1989 – 1999 and saw some of Disney’s most famous movies be created. Interestingly enough, this era is when Romeo & Juliet storylines really emerged in popular Disney movies (it went from about 0 to 9 over the course of 10 years).

So why now? What about these storylines made them appealing and popular?

Well, let’s first look at some of the movies I’m talking about.

Everyone can probably guess Beauty and the Beast since it has a lot of similarities – two different worlds, the town discourages the romance, they become separated, and the man almost dies.

But what about the others? The Little Mermaid, for example, is most commonly compared to The Tempest than anything else. However, it still has the characters coming from different worlds, a disapproving parent, and an almost death (you know, when Prince Eric is almost drowned by Ursula). The same can be said for Aladdin, although the death scene in this one involves Jasmine almost suffocating inside of a rapidly filling hourglass (seriously, does Disney need some help?).

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Since you hopefully believe me by now that Romeo and Juliet is everywhere in Disney, let’s take a look at why. A lot of the culture at the time was focused around rebellious teenagers. This was, after all, the time of Nirvana and MTV.

So why not appeal to this generation by using a classic example of teenage angst and rebellion?

However, Disney doesn’t go all rage against the machine. They are a family friendly company, so they have to keep uprouse. This is best seen in the resisting parents. While they do seem to cater to the teenagers by switching from a place of opposition to approval at the end of the movies, they make all of their actions from a place of love and hope for a positive future. In this way, parents can be tricked into supporting a narrative of teenage rebellion without much convincing.

So what does this say about Disney? Are they truly anti-parent? Well, while their focus is on producing entertainment for kids, they aren’t trying to outright isolate the parents. If they did, the kids would lose access to the very product that was made for them. This means that Disney has to be very careful about their depictions of parents, and this is demonstrated throughout their history.

Early Disney movies, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella, saw evil (step)mothers that reigned terror down on the princess. These movies came out during a time when hyperparenting wasn’t a thing, so parents could feel comfortable showing these movies to their children. After all, they weren’t the ones committing these horrible acts.

We’ve already looked at sort of the middle of Disney movies, where the parents may change their mind, but they are always doing what is best for their future.

This translates easily into today’s Disney, where the parents create rules based upon their experiences. In Moana, the ocean is forbidden since the father lost his best friend in a shipwreck. In Brave, Merida was supposed to become a princess and stop adventuring for her safety, as the bear who attacked her father was still on the loose. In both cases, while these rules ended up being broken for the better, they were made to address issues from the past that could still plague the future.

Disney, by breaking these rules, is telling this new generation of children and teenagers that they have the power to create their own path. They are the next inheritors of the Earth, so they better be prepared to create their own way to navigate life.

Therefore, Disney, while definitely catering to the desires of the younger generation, is seeking to empower people to create the changes needed to have a better future.

So, before you freak out and cut out all Disney from your life, stop and think about what a future with no innovation would look like. And then turn Brave back on – a few minutes won’t hurt you.

Alex Grayson, a graduate of Ryle High School, is currently a student at Harvard University, where she studies Molecular & Cellular Biology and Global Health & Health Policy. During her free time, she likes to play on the Women’s Club Lacrosse team, practice her French with the Francophone Society, and watch Netflix with her friends.

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