Under Childhood is a monthly column on children’s cinema—movies about and for kids.
Among Disney’s massive (and “bizarre”) output of direct-to-video sequels and spinoffs, not many return to or even remember the 2002 film Mickey’s House of Villains. The film expands upon the animated series Disney’s House of Mouse (2001–2003), which takes place in a theater dinner club where Mickey Mouse hosts screenings of shorts and clips starring Disney characters new and old. But this time, it is Halloween night; and the “villains” (Aladdin's Jafar, The Little Mermaid's Ursula, Peter Pan's Captain Hook, Hercules' Pain and Panic, Sleeping Beauty's Maleficent, and more) have taken over the “House.” Together, they perform a rousing musical number (“It’s Our House Now”) wherein the House of Villains is deemed a place where “only greedy, dirty deeds are allowed.” Predictably, before the night comes to a close, Mickey and his pals quickly use sorcery to put an end to the rebellion, and peace is restored before it even really left the building.
What is striking about House of Villains is its grouping of the “villains” as a single entity of generalized badness, strung together with cuts that suggest common ground between Disney’s most vile characterizations of evil, from Orientalist caricatures (the Siamese cats from Lady and the Tramp make an appearance) to an assortment of queer-coded monsters and power-hungry fiends. Among these outlaws, there are no variations or layers of intent beyond a desire to destroy the established order. And of course, for this in itself they must be punished. That movies contain good guys and bad guys might seem a very basic summation of narrative form. However, within the realm of children’s cinema, the stakes and consequences of introducing evil incarnate, a symbol of all despicable things, are especially higher, even considering the agency and meaning-making abilities of the child spectator. The device (as mentioned in an earlier piece) owes much to the fervor of propaganda, and is usually garnished with didacticism regarding how or how not to behave.
To witness the categorization of evil shapes the very mold within the child’s still-adapting mind that dictates what they choose to recognize as evil in everyday encounters with family and friends, neighbors and community members. A 2006 study on demonizing in Disney animation from scientific journal Child Psychiatry & Human Development argues as follows:
[…] Observing demonizing and evil triumphing over good may lead children to focus on the evilness rather than on the situational factors and motivations of people, thus limiting behavioral options when encountering ‘‘bad’’ behaviors of others.
An underestimated component of demonizing, however, is how it may limit the child’s schematic understanding of evil. Binary characterizations of good and (or versus) bad do not encourage any further investigation into what these nebulous terms really mean, not as vague concepts but as ideologies and structures, as actions and reactions that may be clarified by the passage of time. In her application of Jean Piaget’s model of cognitive development to children’s television-mediated upbringings, Dafna Lemish writes that at least “around seven to 12 years of age […] a child is able to see, mentally, an object from the perspective of another person, […] a mental transformation that is crucial for understanding many of television's codes.” But if the material itself—for instance, House of Villains—does not offer the contextual depth necessary for unbridled reflexive reflections, then this act of seeing from the eyes of another becomes a taxing challenge for younger audiences (though again, this does not mean that children do not frequently take on the task by their own free will). For instance, House of Villains does very little to inspire interpretive questions like: “Why would these villains want to take over the House of Mouse? What experiences or circumstances would make them feel like that is a necessary decision to make, and if I were in their position, would I feel compelled to do the same?” If such a process of contemplation was harnessed, the child might also recognize that those deemed evil are often misunderstood or misguided, and therefore can be reconsidered as agents capable of change and growth.
The immediate formal invocation of hatred towards villains—usually through stereotyped coding of the face and body—likewise smooths any ethical or political variations regarding what it means to be good, and what forms of goodness should be championed and subsequently taught to children. When watching Anthony and Joe Russos’ Avengers: Endgame, which depicts a post-apocalyptic battle that is the culmination of the last ten years of the Avengers franchise, a child seated next to me excitedly screamed the names of as many superheroes as possible, thrilled to merely be in their presence. Cheering could be heard across the theatre, but what exactly (or who) were these warriors fighting for besides their own honor (egos bruised since the event of their last defeat), and to restore the world back to the way things were, which (as seen in the last twenty-two films) was not very wonderful to begin with? (For further analysis of the impact of superhero films on kids, consider the 2017 survey by professor Sarah M. Coyne of Brigham Young University, who found that “children who frequently engage with superhero culture are more likely to be physically and relationally aggressive […] and not more likely to be defenders of kids being picked on by bullies.”)
To restore order, and not to change order, remains the ultimate symbolic act of goodness in Jon Favreau’s The Lion King, the CGI-remake of Disney’s 1994 film. But unlike the computer-animated lions of DreamWorks Animation’s Madagascar (2005) and The Wild (2006) (considered by many to be Disney’s derivative rip-off of Madagascar), the studio is continuing in the direction of photorealism, an artistic shift first initiated by Favreau's 2016 remake of The Jungle Book, which integrated computer-animated creatures into a live-action setting. The very first footage to be released—a short clip of the lion prince Simba (Donald Glover) singing with his meerkat and warthog friends Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumba (Seth Rogen)—drew some backlash for its attempt at anthropomorphism, specifically the movement of human-like jaws enmeshed into non-human skulls. But in fact, the film’s technological maneuvers are perhaps its most futuristic components, awkwardly deployed to tell an archaic tale of law and order and keeping the peace. And when witnessing animals who so closely resemble existing wildlife, the superimposition of the man-made monarchy and its detrimental effects upon nature only accentuates the dissonance. The carnivores at the bottom of the hierarchy, like the hyenas and Scar, are so skinny that their ribs protrude through limp fur. Beyond the Pride Lands, the herbivore antelopes and other little critters must share a limited supply of bugs and fruits from the trunks of trees. The royal family is comparably nourished, glowing golden in the sunlight—these lions, we learn, are always first to feast in the hunting grounds.
The story is a variation on Shakespeare’s Hamlet with the slight imprint of the Bible’s Parable of the Prodigal Son, retold in a “circle of life”—though really, it is more of a food chain that is not nearly as symbiotic as the world of “balance” presented in the film—where lions reign supreme. Scar murders Mufasa and leads an army of hyenas who occupy the wastelands of the Pride Lands. Simba, falsely implicated for his father’s death, flees his home and encounters the lackadaisical hippie vegetarians Timon and Pumbaa, who replace his responsibilities and concerns with the Swahili phrase “Hakuna Matata,” which means “no worries.” But Simba’s obligations to the monarchy soon come back to haunt him, and he eventually returns to the Pride Lands to defeat (gruesomely murder) Scar. Both films demand that we (the children of today and the yesteryears) simultaneously and uncritically adore Mufasa’s monarchy in the Pride Lands, and despise Scar, for wishing to take down this system.
Because of its one-dimensional demonizing of Scar, whose only two visible acts as ruler are to allow the hyenas to enter the Pride Lands and then eat to their hearts’ content, The Lion King has been critiqued as a conservative fantasy which conflates leftist political reform (redistribution of food and property) with fascist militarism, and props up the restoration of the existing law as the only solution against such nightmarish disorder. The controversy has been an ongoing one since the release of the original. As Matt Roth states in his quintessential article for the March 1996 issue of Jump Cut, in the Pride Lands, “only the strong and the beautiful triumph, and the powerless survive only by serving the strong.” Professor Dan Hassler-Forest echoes these concerns in his decrial of 2019’s The Lion King, arguing: “[…] By using predator-prey relationships to allegorize human power structures, the film almost inevitably incorporates a worldview in which the rulers’ power derives from their biological superiority.”
What should be pointed out amidst the crossfires of this debate is that when discussing The Lion King as a landmark of children’s cinema (and with the remake, it maintains this position), its political rhetoric (whether it be left or right-wing) does not merely operate on a level of intellect that children do not or cannot yet comprehend. The Lion King is a coming-of-age tale in which the child Simba is born into a world of friends and enemies, and never once is the child given the agency to question the given presumption that there are only good and bad people, and the bad ones should be avoided at all costs. This is where the political and psychological implications overlap, for the film is intent on terrifying child spectators away from whatever lies outside of their comfort zone, and stifling any intellectual curiosity regarding what is truly evil, or even a reflexive examination of what is truly good. When these cognitive abilities are discouraged, what remains is a fear of rationality and a rejection of change.
A very moving moment in Toy Story 4 (directed by Josh Cooley) involves an old doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), with large beady eyes and a relentless urge to find her own kid who will play with her. Trailers for the film hint at Gabby Gabby’s diabolical ways of meeting her goal, including surgically removing Woody’s “voice box” (Tom Hanks), so that she can be fully operational and therefore more appealing to children. But the film clarifies the character, offering a straightforward lesson in how to harness mutual understanding and use it to spark a change in perspective. After discovering that Gabby Gabby has been sitting on the shelf of an antique shop, broken and lonely, waiting for years, Woody sees the part of himself that likewise longs for human affection. He consciously decides to engage with her (despite the risk of harm) because he believes that she, too, can see that they share a common need. He extends his assistance, offering to help her find a kid. The once-abandoned toy is then literally re-purposed and re-integrated, released from the dark shelf and into open arms. This is not a lenient tolerance of evil or bad behavior, but an image of one possible choice among many when children think about how to respond to others: To consider the vantage point of the other and how it may link back to the self, and to be open towards building a bridge of understanding between the two.
What is especially clear after watching The Lion King, the last of the three Disney "live-action" remakes of 2019 (in a market already saturated with sequels and spinoffs for devoted children), is that this upheaval of the archive is most inhibited by the degree to which these films remain faithful to the ideas of their predecessors. It is not the visual shot-for-shot resemblance between the source and the remake that perpetuates these messages of the past (in the polarized America of the present, to still advocate for the murder of anyone of a particular group or demographic or disagreement is quite untimely), but rather the ideological sameness that only indicates the studio’s slow adaptation to the world, where the children who once watched The Lion King repeatedly on VHS tapes are now adults. In his review of The Lion King, Neil Bahadur confesses, “If there's one positive I got out of this (minus some brief bursts of inspiration that are far too short) it's probably that at least Disney finally managed to annihilate my last semblances of one of the most insidious of all afflictions, nostalgia.”