In recent years, Disney and Pixar have been diversifying their filmography with animated pieces about people from various cultural backgrounds. However, despite the recent increase in inclusive representations of different social groups, Walt Disney and the Disney franchise have been associated with being problematic regarding racism as discussed in the Vulture article. In the Disney and Pixar franchises, a large amount of the representations of Black people and Black culture are often displayed through talking animals rather than people which I will analyze in three films from different decades.
The Lion King, released in 1994, was meant to be a representation of African culture and the diversity within the continent, and that Disney was not racist. While the film was supposed to show Disney’s positive relationship with Africa, I found that it managed to highlight more racist ideologies in the portrayal of all the characters as talking animals like lions, hyenas, and a multitude of other animals. The film touches on many aspects of Black and African culure, and so, by showing Black culture through animals it promotes the dehumanization of Black people by associating such things with animals rather than people. Disney has been able to portray other cultures in animated films using humans like in Pocahontas (1995), Mulan (1998) and Moana (2016). In addition to this, most of the voice actors for the original animated film were white American and British people who are not representative of Black people. There is minimal representation of Black voices like James Earl Jones who voices Mufasa and Jason Weaver who only voices the singing parts of Simba’s character. Black people are not representatively portrayed in this film and are hardly represented through voice acting which is damaging to the progress of inclusivity and diversity within the Disney Universe.
In 2009, The Princess and the Frog was released and Tiana, the main character, became the first Black Disney princess in the Disney universe. As a young Black girl during this time, it was exciting to finally be represented in a Disney movie through a princess who is the epitome of working class Black women. Her characterization was empowering to see, as she promoted many values within the Black community. However, in her 40 minutes of screentime within the film, Tiana spent approximately 17-19 minutes as a human before she was turned into a “slimy little frog.” Her lack of depiction as a human limits the effective representation of Black culture by disassociating these values and beliefs from people and attributing them with animals. As I mentioned previously in analyzing The Lion King, this representation is dehumanizing and places negative connotations on the values and social norms within Black culture.
Soul is the most recent animated Pixar film with a Black protagonist, released in 2020, and follows the trope of Black people being represented as animals. In this film, the main character Joe Gardner is a music teacher and aspiring jazz musician who dies on the verge of his big break into the jazz music industry. From that point in the film, Joe undergoes a few drastic changes from being displayed as a “green blob,” a soul, and then spends the majority of the movie as a cat who lives in the shadow of 22, the unborn soul who ends up inside his body. Throughout the movie, Joe is forced to mentor 22 as she navigates through life and finds joy in living through a Black man’s body. Not only does this movie promote depictions of Black people as animals but it also sends negative messages regarding Black people achieving their dreams. This arguably illustrates societal inequalities by having the main character live his life vicariously through the white woman inside his body. It also deems Black people inferior in terms of Joe having to mentor 22 and take on a role as a caregiver rather than live a life of his own.
Disney and Pixar have made several attempts at representing Black people and culture through their films and I think they could do this more effectively by depicting them more as people. By not implementing this, it is hard to associate different aspects of Black culture and social norms with humans. As a result, this leaves room for the invalidation of Black struggles and promotes the social oppression of Black people.
By: Elaina Irving, Contributing Writer
Graphic by Shae-Lynn Henderson, EIC