Dark Disney: Use of Mature Themes in Children’s Animation

Disney’s Encanto has been the talk of the town for several months now. Apart from featuring multiple incredible songs with relatable lyrics like Surface Pressure, the movie has numerous other factors working in its favour. One of them is the incorporation of 'heavy themes' like intergenerational trauma, neglect and so on. However, this isn’t the first time that Disney has successfully incorporated a more mature theme in a children’s movie. In fact, several other such animated movies, though severely underrated, exist and are a great watch for audiences of all ages because of their art, stories and themes. 

Lilo & Stitch

This movie is perhaps among the best animated movies to ever exist. It is a truly unique story about two Hawaiian orphans, the antisocial six-year-old Lilo Pelekai and her older sister, Nani. After the death of their parents in a car accident, Nani is forced to take up the responsibility of her sister, even though she herself is only a young adult. Lilo adopts Stitch, a genetically engineered alien that distantly resembles a blue koala. Released in 2002, the movie stands out among its contemporaries because of its storyline and themes. 

The Bechdel-Wallace test is a popular measure used to check for female representation in various productions. It is easy to pass the test: the production must have at least two female characters, who have names and converse with each other about anything but a man. Unfortunately, most movies fail this test even today. “Lilo and Stitch” stands out in this regard because not only does it pass the test, but also one of its central themes is the relationship between the two sisters. Such a theme was extremely rare back then and the scene hasn’t changed much since. There are some exceptions of course. Most notably, “Frozen” features two royal sisters- the first of its kind in the Disney princess lineup. 

Lilo is often misunderstood as a bratty child by the audience as she often misbehaves and lashes out at Nani. However, acting out is common in those who have had deeply traumatic experiences as the two sisters have. Unlike most Disney movies, where the character would most likely be grateful to the older sister, this is a more realistic depiction of the consequences of a tragedy. Lilo also articulates the reason for her anger: “I like you better as a sister than a mom.” and the realisation: “We’re a broken family, aren’t we?”. The story also explores their economic hardships and other struggles that come with their kind of family dynamic, including Nani trying to prove to a rightfully tough social worker named Cobra Bubbles that she is a responsible caregiver. At one point, even after giving Nani a chance to prove herself, Cobra Bubbles realises that Lilo is not safe in the household and that her sister is not a suitable guardian because of her temper and immaturity. The sisters come very close to separation. 

The art is yet another thing that deserves a lot of praise. Nani, unlike most animated young women, is dark-skinned, pug-nosed and has a curvy figure. Also, the story does not make a big deal out of this. That is to say, her not being pretty in terms of the West’s definition of the word is not a central theme and quite unlike most of its contemporary movies, there is no ugly duckling to swan transformation. She is strong and real, and certainly not a damsel in distress. We also get a glimpse of her budding romance with David, her coworker. 

Another important theme is love and redemption. Lilo’s need for companionship and Stitch’s desire for a sense of belonging defines their relationship. Stitch was originally a mere experiment (Experiment 626) aimed to cause destruction. However, the love and kindness that Lilo shows helps Stitch make revelations about humanity and opt for a path of change. The film features some of the most iconic Disney dialogues including Lilo’s “Ohana means family, family means no one gets left behind or forgotten. But if you want to leave, you can. I'll remember you though. I remember everyone that leaves.” and Stitch’s “This is my family. I found it all on my own. It is little and broken but still good. Yeah…”. At the end of the movie, Stitch, Jumba and Pleakley become a part of Nani and Lilo’s family, relieving some of Nani’s burdens and creating a better environment for Lilo to grow up in. 

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

A strong competition for the crown of the best animated film ever is The Hunchback of the Notre Dame based on the Victor Hugo novel of the same name. Now, for those who have read the novel before, the title itself raises some red flags considering the fact that the movie is meant for children. An uninitiated child might not be able to notice the themes in play in the movie, but as an adult, watching it again, the messaging is clear and very important. 

The story revolves around Claude Frollo, who is extremely prejudiced against gypsies. He calls them “sinful, invading gypsies” and is consumed by the desire to rid Paris of them, by any means necessary. Frollo’s abuse of power and rhetoric that aims to “other” the gipsies is one that we hear often even today, especially in the context of immigrants. Songs like “God Help the Outcasts” sung by the female protagonist and an outspoken gypsy woman, Esmeralda really leaves no space for doubt regarding what the story is about. She begs God, whom she confesses might not be the kind to pay heed to a meer gypsy’s prayer, to help her people, the “The poor and downtrodden”. She knows that there are those who are “Less lucky than I” and insists that God should help them because all of them, even though outcasts from society, are the “children of God”.

Another victim of Frollo’s beliefs is the male protagonist Quasimodo. The film begins with Frollo pursuing some gypsies. Quasimodo’s mother is among them and she dies on the steps of the Notre Dame Cathedral during the pursuit. The Archdeacon, a clergyman of the cathedral, witnesses her death when he walks out to respond to her call for sanctuary. He is presented as a positive character, antithetical to Frollo’s character and ways. In the book, however, Frollo was the Archdeacon. Keeping it that way would have caused issues with the Church, which is probably why this change was made. The Archdeacon insists that Frollo take up the guardianship of Quasimodo to make up for his sin of killing his mother. 

Quasi is physically deformed and his guardian is utterly repulsed by him. He is constantly told that he is a monster that even his own birth mother did not want, and that what little Frollo does for him is a great act of mercy. Quasi spends his life in the Notre Dame, hidden from everyone else, resenting the way he looks and with a job to ring the bells of the cathedral as required. His self-respect is severely damaged and he is left afraid of the world. 

The story also provides a commentary on the mob mentality that results in Quasi’s public humiliation during the Festival of Fools and towards the end of the film, the burning of the city of Paris. Much like Esmeralda, Quasi is an outcast looking for a sense of safety and belonging. However, not only does she not see the reason to make him an outcast because of his looks, Esmeralda stands up for him during the Festival of Fools. These are among the reasons that he falls for her. However, Esmeralda falls in love with Phoebus. At the end of the movie, we see Quasimodo accept the fact that Esmeralda is in love with someone else (which is in contrast with Frollo’s actions, as discussed in the following paragraphs). It is common to have characters in a similar situation take this as a challenge and pursue the woman relentlessly or get mad at the world for being “friend-zoned”. This protagonist, on the other hand, takes a more realistic and healthy approach to the situation. 

The most shocking aspect of the film is the representation of Judge Frollo as a lascivious character. It is his lust for Esmeralda that makes him burn down Paris. In one scene, he sniffs her hair and the following exchange takes place:

Esmeralda: "What are you doing?"

Frollo: "I was just imagining a rope around your neck"

Esmeralda: "I know what you were imagining!"

Frollo even blames her for pushing him to commit a sin in his song Hellfire (the lyrics showcasing Frollo’s lust for Esmeralda is in stark contrast with the lyrics of Heaven’s Light that Quasimodo sings moments prior, confessing his love for Esmeralda). The lyrics go:

Like fire


This fire in my skin

This burning


Is turning me to sin

It's not my fault

(Mea culpa)

I'm not to blame

(Mea culpa)

It is the gypsy girl

The witch who set this flame

(Mea maxima culpa)

It’s not my fault

(Mea culpa)

It in God’s plan

(Mea culpa)

He made the devil so much stronger than a man

'Mea Culpa' translates to 'my fault'. You can literally see him arguing with himself- whether he wants an answer from Beata Maria (Virgin Mary) or Hell’s fire (he spends most of the time looking at and addressing the fire). Unlike other Disney villains, he is not having the time of his life, he is conflicted. The song is accompanied by some of the darkest visuals and symbolism to exist in any Disney movie: of hellfire and Esmeralda dancing provocatively in the fire. He wants her to be “mine and mine alone” and towards the end of the scene he gives her an ultimatum:

Now gypsy, it's your turn

Choose me or

Your pyre

Be mine or you will burn

(Kyrie Eleison)

God have mercy on her

(Kyrie Eleison)

God have mercy on me

(Kyrie Eleison)

But she will be mine

or she will burn!

Frollo is probably the only Disney villain which can and has existed in the past in real life. This only makes him scarier. So, if you did not enjoy the movie as a kid, it's time to watch it again. 

There are, of course, several other Disney animated movies that are very sophisticated in the themes that they present: Big Hero 6 talks about depression caused by loss, Mulan talks about misogyny, Luca talks about fear-mongering and othering, Lion King talks about familial betrayal, Coco talks about death, betrayal and familial love, and so on and so forth. These themes make the movies, not only fun for people of all ages to watch, but also introspective and educational, especially for a slightly older audience than the one we usually associate with 'cartoons'. 


Oindrila Ghosh

I am a student of Chemical Engineering at BITS Pilani and an Egyptology enthusiast, who loves reading about cold cases, creation and everything else that will probably never benefit me in my future career.

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