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Love Undisneyfied

How the House of Mouse both developed and deceived our childhood selves

By Joe O’ConnorPublished 2 months ago Updated about a month ago 9 min read
Top Story - March 2024

Boy and girl meet, usually from different worlds. They fall fast, and though forced apart by dastardly villains, clashes in class, or cultural disapproval, they overcome the odds and are united at the end, to live happily ever after...

Stop me if you’ve heard this story before.

Beauty and The Beast. The Little Mermaid. Aladdin. Pocahontas. Tarzan. Hercules. The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Was that opening summary too reductive? A bit. Was it true? Very much so.

The 90's classics that formed the backbone of my childhood viewing experience, formally known as the Disney Renaissance, are core memories for me. Growing up in the days of VCRs and the dawn of DVDs, I remember going to the local video-store on a Friday night, or perusing through my parent's videotapes on the shelf for something familiar, something warm and fuzzy, something funny and full of life, laughter, and love.

The familiar beats of Disney animated films formed a big part of who I was growing up, and still remain inside me today.

I was there when Belle defended her father from the Beast's wrath, refusing to be cowed into silence.

I was there when Aladdin gave his loaf of bread to the two little starving street urchins, despite being one himself.

And I was there when Pocahontas came to Mother Willow for help, torn between her heart and her people.

These are the characters I cheered for, and my childish brain absorbed these lessons as ways to move within the world.

Stand up for those you can protect.

Give to those who need it.

Seek advice from those older and wiser.

I use the word childish in its truest sense, and not as an insult- I was a kid, and though I wouldn't have necessarily been able to spell out these messages, I believe I understood them on the inside. While I have never talked back to a monster, stolen food for others while being chased by sword-wielding guards, or talked to a tree when in need of assistance, I have taken these ideas as guidelines for how to treat people.

This I have done- advocated for those with quiet or silent voices, whether in the classroom as a teacher, or Parliament as a protestor, bought sandwiches for the homeless outside train stations or supermarkets, and gone to my parents, my colleagues, and my mentors for guidance in times of indecision and uncertainty. If this sounds boastful, then take it as me affirming small messages from beloved movies that I can still quote. They did stick with me, even if I don't carry the characters consciously throughout my day.

I deliberately picked the first three scenes that came to mind from these films, rather than cherry-picking for bombastic moments of bravery, where swords, claws, spells, punches, fire, and magic are the scene-stealers. In doing so, I hope to illustrate that each of these movies has a ton of moments where impressionable young watchers can be shown the right way to act or speak (if there is such a thing), because they did for me.

And alongside these numerous life lessons, I also picked up on ideas of love.

Tarzan lives in the jungle while Jane is from England, yet they find a way to make it work.

Hercules is naive where Megara is cynical, but they overcome their differences.

Esmerelda is a gypsy girl and Phoebus is a soldier of the city, yet still that does not stop them.

Disney showed me, in coloured animation, memorable songs, and all manner of different settings, that love overcomes all. And for that, I am thankful. I like to think I am a more optimistic and open person because of this, and my Spotify playlists stand as evidence that these tunes still hold a special place in my heart (shoutout Phil Collins).

Yet just because the storybook closed at the end of the movie, doesn't mean the whole story was told. In fact, to drag out the metaphor, you could say that more than a few of these romances would only be up to Chapter One by the time the credits rolled on their relationship. They kiss, they get married, and that's the last we see of them (unless of course, you went for the straight-to-video sequels).

So what was my childhood self supposed to believe about love? I guess I grew up thinking that there was only one person you were supposed to be with, that there was no earthly problem that would keep you apart if you truly felt that way about each other, and that happily ever after was the rest of your life, just like that.

Obviously, this was slightly problematic.

It took me a long time to grow up enough to understand what real love is. And maybe without Disney, it might not have taken so long. I carried unrealistically-high expectations into adulthood of any potential partner, would fall head-over-heels at the slightest indication of possible attraction from a girl, and would be unable to see the genuine, honest flaws in a person in the face of their charms.

As I grew older, I shifted from animated films to movies with real faces and real people, moving from Pocahontas to Pride and Prejudice, Tarzan to Titanic, and the Genie in Aladdin to Good Will Hunting.

Remember him? Big blue guy, wise-cracking, shape-shifting? As you probably know, Genie was voiced by the late Robin Williams. Five years later in 1997, Williams played the grizzled-but-gentle therapist Sean to Matt Damon’s troubled genius Will, and one line from that film has been stuck in my mind recently.

In one of the movie's most iconic scenes, Sean and Will sit on a bench overlooking a lake in Boston Common, and Williams delivers an absolute masterclass in the form of a seven-minute monologue on love, punctuated by these words- “you don’t know about real loss, because that only occurs when you love something more than you love yourself.“

Among all the brilliant lines in that film, and there are so many gems, this one reared its head when I began thinking of what to write about love. Sean chastises Will because while the young man knows so much beyond his years from reading books, there are some things that cannot be found between pages, and two of these are love and loss.

These concepts are entwined more than we realise when we’re young, even though they've been there in front of us the whole time.

Bambi loses his mother to the hunter, Belle is forced to farewell her father and be imprisoned, and Ariel leaves the only world she has ever known. Not to mention that most of the Disney leads have lost one if not both parents by the beginning of the story. These characters suffer much during their journeys, and I bet we can all think of at least one heartbreaking scene from each of the films mentioned at the beginning (Simba and Mufasa in the canyon anyone?) These losses only matter as much because the cartoon characters loved first; their family, their freedom, and their home.

Likewise, we go through similar trials, though usually with far less singing. We suffer our first break-up, we lose a family member to illness, and we finish high school and are cast out into the real world. And likewise, these things hit us hard because love came before loss. We revelled in our first-ever relationship, we remember the fun times with aunts, uncles, and grandparents, and some of our fondest memories (not that we realised it then) come from hanging out with our best mates in the schoolyard or classroom every day for the better part of seven years.

Love and loss go hand-in-hand. It's part of what it means to be human. Our favourite characters all have to learn it at some point, and so do we. The climax of most Disney films often sees the protagonist realise right before it's too late the thing they needed to understand- and it's almost always about love. When they are threatened with the loss of their special someone, it all becomes crystal clear.

For us, knowing that we have finite time on this planet helps give perspective, as does the loss of family and friends. Unfortunately, we can be quite short-sighted when it comes to romantic relationships, especially as we get the sparks first- the Disney love.

Eyes catch, hearts swoon, hands hold, limbs tangle, flowers are given, proclamations are proudly made, messages read and re-read, crazy dates happen, and you feel invincibly, uncontrollably alive, certain that this is what love is.

Can we be blamed whole-heartedly for seeing through such rose-tinted glasses, when our vision has been swamped with damsels being saved from distress, spells being broken with a kiss, villains thwarted by love's power, and marriages arranged in a matter of days, since our earliest memories?

This is what gets missed when the screen goes black and the sparks subside- the rest of the relationship. The normal, ordinary, every-day things that aren't particularly memorable, but are vitally important. The unsung moments that form the base for a healthy love.

Sitting quietly beside your someone without needing to talk. Holding them close when you realise they need comforting. Doing the dishes without being asked. Coming down to greet them after a long day's work. Making a cup of coffee in the morning so they can have five minutes extra sleep. Messaging to say you'll see them later, along with a few of their favourite gifs.

Real loss comes when we put others above self, and while no-one wants to experience the pain of heartbreak or death of a loved one, it's the price we pay for real love.

So what do we do with the time in our entwined hands?

We love, properly.

We talk to each other honestly. We support each other when times get tough, when money gets tight, and when sickness strikes. We encourage each other to reach for goals and dreams and wishes. We show up, we buy in, we become a team. We love so much that loss becomes a real presence, but one that is understood as part of the deal.

We never saw Beast walk with Belle in the woods, discussing whether they should live in the castle or her village.

We never saw Esmeralda ask Phoebus how his Tuesday at work as a soldier had been.

And we never saw Hercules sneak out of bed to make pancakes for breakfast.

I like to think that those all things happened, and that we just didn't see it on the screen as kids. Maybe those moments were meant to be kept private, because Disney understands that the most intimate things can come from the smallest of gestures.

Unlikely though.

I believe that Disney understands that even in films for children, excitement sells. The Mouse House gave us 90's kids a decade of absolute bangers- fantastic kingdoms, belting songs, kickass heroes and heroines, and some epic couples (Aladdin and Jasmine are goals). We learned that love can be all-powerful, life-changing, heart-stopping, sparks.

I just wish they had shown us a bit more of the really good stuff; the love that steadily grows, a flame that is fed by the little actions of two people who love even in the face of loss, and who strive to put other before self.

Years removed from my childhood, I'm still learning and trying to love as best I can, finding I can change.

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About the Creator

Joe O’Connor

From New Zealand, living in London and teaching in Surrey while I travel for a few years.

English is my first love, but also PE, History, RE, and Hockey Coaching.

I love a good story, and write about whatever comes to mind:)

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Comments (16)

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  • L.C. Schäferabout a month ago

    This is a huge peeve for me, tbh. Not just Disney, either. Romance in general (in books as well) portrays relationships in a wildly unhealthy way, and a lot of us aren't lucky enough to have the healthy sort modelled growing up. Look at how Hollywood has trained a generation of Nice Guys to believe persistence will win them the girl... when they SHOULD just fluff the fluff off and leave her alone. Easy enough to say we shouldn't look to films, TV and books for these messages... but that's the power of Story, isn't it!

  • Rowan Finley about a month ago

    I'd like to recommend that all the Disney couples seek some marriage counseling at this point. :) Haha!

  • Call Me Lesabout a month ago

    Fellow Disney Millenial here. I think you nailed it. And I love the moments you chose from the films. I think maybe Beauty and the Beast captured a little of the small moments though. I always remember them reading together and I look for that now. But yes overall we really got wrapped up in the larger than life feelings and themes didn't we? I think I might do a couple rewatches. I need a lift. Thanks for this piece and especially for praising Pocahontas which remains my all time favourite and is so often shredded now. My inner child felt very seen. 💛

  • Mackenzie Davisabout a month ago

    Wonderful exploration of love and all its definitions and manifestations, Joe. I particularly love how you show that love is all about actions, without needing to say as much. I’d love to see a new take on fairy tale adaptations, where the small stuff is shown, as you describe, rather than making large the love story and too far out of reach (in its magical perfection). I wonder if that would do more positive things for children who watch Disney, as I certainly see issues as the company stands now. It’s always hard to grow up and realize just how much we have to learn or relearn, and I think many of us had to do that with Disney movies. The power of stories… Great read!

  • Lindsey Altomabout a month ago

    Congratulations! I loved this! I have been devastated as I have grown older to realize that Disney love does not exist but as your story points out it does but Disney needed to have shown us that love takes work too. It’s not all roses and magic carpet rides! I love this!

  • Anna about a month ago

    Congrats on Top Story!🥳🥳🥳

  • A. J. Schoenfeldabout a month ago

    Very nicely written and thought out. I appreciate that you can recognize where Disney fell short teaching us about love but point out where they succeeded with other important lessons.

  • Dharrsheena Raja Segarranabout a month ago

    Back to say congratulations on your Top Story! 🎉💖🎊🎉💖🎊

  • Brin J.about a month ago

    I feel like being raised on Disney films certainly helped us bridge empathy as children. Great article. And congrats on TS.

  • Daphsamabout a month ago


  • LASZLO SLEZAKabout a month ago

    Congratulations, very nice,

  • Merrie Sandersabout a month ago

    That last line got me as Beauty and the Beast was my favorite growing up. Really well done and enjoyable read.

  • Ali SPabout a month ago

    I loved your take on this challenge and how you introduced so many Disney stories and intertwined them with yours. You took me back to the times when I watched them and it forced me to think about love differently. Thank you for that. This was a great piece and so well written.

  • Lindsay Sfara2 months ago

    I love it. I love this comparison of all the classics and what true love is. I'm always amazed at how media can warp certain concepts for, as you put it, excitement that sells, even in novels. It's very hard for me to read anything with a romance that's more classic Disney than real, slow burn growth in relationships. Well done on this piece!

  • I'm a hugeeeee fan of Disney! My favourites are The Little Mermaid and Aladdin! "Love and loss go hand-in-hand." I totally agree with that. If I have to experience loss to experience love, then I don't want it at all. If there is no love that isn't intertwined with loss, then I'd rather be loveless. You know the saying, "It is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all". Yea, I prefer to have never loved at all. Lol, I'm so sorry for being so cynical. I've just been burned wayyyyy too many times.

  • Christy Munson2 months ago

    Thanks for posting. I enjoyed reading your perspective and thinking through your points, many of which I’ve considered previously. Worth revisiting these questions, so thanks for bringing these points back to the forefront.

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