Walt Disney adapted harsh realities found in early versions of folk narratives for family-friendly heroic sagas that still enjoy enormous popularity with people of all ages.
For every problematic vision of historical folk stories that Disney might have created, there is a child who came to love fairy tales and was drawn to the rich source materials that Disney’s films were based on.
In 2006 Disney bought a Silicon Valley company originally founded by George Lucas. The company, Pixar, has had more impact on the way individuals consume story than just about all entertainment companies combined.
Most professional storytellers have embraced at least one of the major lessons that Pixar has taught to the culture at large. Pixar specialized in creating stories that could be enjoyed by people of all ages, just as Walt Disney had aimed to achieve. Pixar was deliberate about presenting complex truths that could be understood by children yet still resonate profoundly with adults, often on an even deeper level.
While Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, has become known as the bibel of the exploration of myth, it also has a great deal to say about fairy tales and folklore. And while heroes often conjure images of strapping young males, Joseph Campbell defined heroes much more broadly.
It's important to recognize that when he discusses the heroic persona in the book, he’s looking at a psychological archetype that can be embodied by anyone—including a child.
Pixar was revolutionary in choosing protagonists that subvert many of those traditional cultural expectations that constitute the heroic, especially regarding children. Movies like Brave, Coco, and Onward are just a few of the Pixar stories of children acting as heroic protagonists.
Most recently, Pixar has offered Luca, the story of a young boy and his friendship with a sea monster disguised as a human, and Turning Red, a tale about a 13-year-old girl who suddenly “poofs” into a giant red panda when she feels certain emotions. Both films tell stories of children who encounter unusual creatures, one within his community, and the other within herself. Both stories also offer mythic lessons about conditions of “otherworldliness” that we encounter in our world and within ourselves.
Joseph Campbell tells of a myth about a young Arapaho girl from the North American plains who encounters an unusual creature in her world: a porcupine. She desires the animal’s quills, and eventually chases the animal up a tree. The tree, playing the divine role of nature, extends its trunk higher and higher, giving the porcupine more and more distance to run. The girl looks down and sees how high she has climbed. She sees her friends below beckoning her to come down. However, the little girl becomes wonderfully enchanted by the creature and eventually ascends into the sky with the porcupine. She achieved something which was within herself, made possible only by accepting and, eventually, embracing what the “other” had to offer.
Without spoiling Luca or Turning Red, these stories offer this same precise theme. Is it any wonder such stories resonate across age differences, gender identities, and cultural geography? As the heroic myth so often depicts, the mysteries explored in these stories are universal across time and space and people of all ages relate to them.
Myth and fairy and heroic tales are, by their very nature, stories of magic that teach us a great deal about who we are and who we could be.
Marie Louise Von Franz, a Jungian scholar whose voice Joseph Campbell valued, described the child found in mythic stories this way: “The child is thus an apt symbol of the Self—of an inner future totality and, at the same time, of underdeveloped facets of one’s individuality. The child signifies a piece of innocence and wonder surviving in us from the remote past, both that part of our personal childishness which has been by-passed and the new, early form of the future individuality.” (Von Franz, Marie Louise. Interpretation of Fairy Tales, Spring Publications, Dallas, Tx. 1970. pp. 144-145)
We see ourselves in the myths of the young Arapaho girl and in the stories of Pixar, accounting for Pixar's incredible success over several decades. We see that which is still developing inside us. We see the potential of the heroic and our relationship to our community. We see the innocence and wonder that survives in us from the most remote reaches of our past—and who we may become in the future.
Taking just a rudimentary look at the impact of Disney turns up some truly astonishing numbers. Over 600 movies going all the way back to Fantasia in 1940 and box-office revenue measured in the hundreds of billions.
Just two statistics that demonstrate the power of storytelling.
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