I read an article this morning about what parents can learn from children’s shows. Obviously, this is something I talk about myself regularly. But one of the specific examples was about Coco, and it started a conversation between me and our own Anthony Pizzo about parenting in Disney movies. (This would probably be the time to mention that, yes, a lot of my Byways columns are hashed out behind the scenes with Anthony. Why wouldn’t I?) Because, yes, the moment where Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach) smashes the guitar that clearly means everything to Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) is a moment of terrible parenting. (No, she’s not his parent, but she’s acting as one in that moment.) And she knows it, and it’s a thing Disney has dabbled in—and, yes, Coco is Pixar and that’s why we’re moving on!
Probably the most noteworthy example from my own childhood was in The Little Mermaid. King Triton (Kenneth Mars) decides that the way to get his daughter to respect and obey him is to destroy everything she cares about. And you can see that he immediately regrets what he’s done. It’s a subtle piece of animation, honestly. But it’s too late, and the damage is done, and it’s obvious that she’s not going to forgive him right away. And you know, he’s actually right to give her a little bit of space in that moment, and it’s not his fault that agents of his greatest enemy happen to be waiting to swoop in and take advantage of the moment.
In fact, one of the things I quite like is that the difference between parents we’re supposed to approve of and parents we’re not is that the parents we’re supposed to approve of realize their mistakes. It’s not that they don’t make them. There is no such thing as parents who don’t make mistakes. The only parents who don’t make mistakes are the dead or absent ones. And as long as there have been Disney parents, there have been Disney parents making mistakes.
Yes, the first Disney parent was an evil stepparent, and that gets a bit beyond “mistake.” But their second feature gave us Gepetto, and I’ve talked about how bad his parenting of his little wooden son was. And that was all mistakes; he clearly didn’t want to screw up, but he wasn’t ready to parent and it shows. The parents in older films are more likely to make no mistakes that we can see, but even the first time we’ve got a parent who genuinely cares about their child, it was clear that it’s possible, even easy, to screw it up.
Okay, so I’m not sure Gepetto ever quite realizes that he made a mistake in not just, you know, walking Pinocchio to his first day of school. And that’s one where you feel sorry for the teacher if Pinocchio had actually made it there. But even in the ’50s, you get King Hubert (Bill Thompson) delivering an ultimatum to his son with, well, pretty much exactly the same result Triton got. So Disney’s been teaching us for over sixty years now that it doesn’t work out when you do that? And we know Hubert realizes his mistake because he tries to tell King Stefan (Taylor Holmes) about it.
Oh, I also have quite the rant about how the parents in the Frozen movies are setting Elsa (Idinia Menzel) up for failure by isolating her from her feelings instead of teaching her how to work through them. Every time she feels emotion, she then adds terror to it because feeling emotion is automatically losing control. And they never live to learn how much they’ve damaged their daughter by it—and how much they’re damaging Anna (Kristen Bell) by locking her in the palace without socialization. It’s the worst non-evil parenting in the Disney canon, if you want my opinion.
Yes, worse is Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy), who fits all the warning signs of gaslighting, and that’s just for starters. For one, at least Anna and Elsa’s parents think they’re benefiting Elsa, not just themselves. But she’s in the villain category, and I genuinely like that bad parenting isn’t exclusive to the villain category. No, not parenting that bad, but imperfect parenting, at the very least. You get the occasional Mrs. Jumbo (Verna Felton), but by and large, Disney parents aren’t saints. And even Mrs. Jumbo lost her temper.
Honestly, if you tell me that you’ve never doubted your own parenting—and you’re a parent or parental figure—I’ll go ahead and doubt it for you. Parenting should be humbling, because the responsibility is immense. In the last year, I think a lot of us have become ever more aware of exactly how immense our responsibilities toward our children are as we spend so much time with them. One of the things Disney movies do that I think is underrated is sometimes show that, yes, you can make mistakes with all the best intentions in the world, and what matters is where you go from there. If it’s an elaborate musical number, maybe you’re not the good parent.