illustration of girl hugging a dragon from disney
Illustration by Kalyn Street, Drexel University

Disney Movies Shift From Themes of Romance to Friends and Family

While their first movies were about princesses who got their happily ever afters, recent movies focus on friends and family.

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illustration of girl hugging a dragon from disney
Illustration by Kalyn Street, Drexel University

While their first movies were about princesses who got their happily ever afters, recent movies focus on friends and family.

Everyone is familiar with Disney. From humble beginnings, the company has grown and produced many noteworthy movies. One reason for Disney’s increased popularity is their willingness to change. Throughout their run, they have shifted from themes of romance to friends and family in their animated movies.

In the Beginning

“Snow White,” Disney’s very first animated movie, was released in 1937. Most are familiar with the fair girl that escapes her envious stepmother and flees to the woods. However, that is not good enough for her stepmother, who puts Snow White under a sleeping curse with the bite of an apple. Only a kiss from her true love wakes her. Similarly, in 1950, Cinderella was rescued from her cruel step-family by her true love, a handsome prince, and in “Sleeping Beauty” (1959), a brave prince saves Aurora from another sleeping curse. True love’s kiss broke the spell and romance was the center of the story.

However, “Pinocchio” (1940), Disney’s second movie, highlights the relationship between a father and son. “Dumbo” (1941) also portrays the love between a mother and son, as well as a friendship between a mouse and an elephant who help and challenge each other. “Bambi” (1942) also focuses on a parent-child relationship and a friendship. These three are the first in decades that portray a positive relationship between a child and parent, yet Disney chose to switch back to romance with “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty.”

In the late 20th century, Disney started making movies where the female lead takes more action. “The Little Mermaid” (1989) features Ariel, who makes a deal with a sea witch to become human after her father forbids her from going to the surface. Of course, the only way Ariel will remain human is a kiss of true love from the prince that she rescued from a shipwreck. Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” (1991) and Jasmine from “Aladdin” (1992) also make the decision to leave home, which first causes tension, but ends in love. These three princesses disobey their father’s wishes and make questionable decisions, but the end result is their happily ever after. However, Aladdin develops a genuine friendship with Genie and uses his final wish to set him free, sacrificing his guarantee to be with Jasmine.

“The Lion King” (1994) explores different kinds of love. First is Simba’s relationship with his father, who sacrifices himself to save Simba. Then Timon and Pumba teach him “Hakuna Matata,” which helps Simba through his father’s death and the trio become a well-knit group. After Nala and Simba are reunited, their interest in one another is rekindled and romance ensues.

Returning to human characters, both “Pocahontas” (1995) and “Mulan” (1998) feature young women trying to figure out their identity. Both love their families, but disobey them to find their own way as they fight for what they believe in. Both of these stories include a hint of romance and even end in a sorrowful parting.

Similar to Pocahontas and Mulan, Tarzan is an outsider. After a leopard killed an infant’s parents in “Tarzan” (1999), a recently childless gorilla mother takes in the baby. Although the rest of the gorillas know Tarzan is different, he becomes a part of the troop, though some take longer to win over than others. Jane (the love interest) and her father trek into the jungle to study gorillas, but after meeting Tarzan, they teach him how to be a man. At the end of the movie, though, Tarzan decides to stay in the jungle and becomes the leader of the gorillas. He stays with his family and Tarzan still gets to be with Jane, who chooses to live in the jungle with Tarzan.

A New Era of Disney Movies

While they still create movies with romance, after 2000, Disney had a definite shift to familial relationships, and “Lilo and Stitch” (2002) is a remarkable example. After losing their parents, Nani does her best to provide for her younger sister, Lilo, while a social worker threatens to separate them. Nani hopes that a dog will help Lilo, but instead, Lilo chooses to adopt an alien, which she names Stitch. He misbehaves often and causes many problems, but a recurring statement in this movie is, “Ohana means family and family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.” Lilo does her best to train Stitch to make things easier for Nani and in the end, Stitch realizes what that motto means. Nani is willing to face down aliens for Lilo and although they argue, their bond is strong. In the end, the sisters are allowed to stay together and Stitch becomes part of the family.

“Brother Bear” (2003) is another story of sibling bonding and fostering brotherhood, even in unusual places. Likewise, “Meet the Robinsons” (2007) is all about finding family in the people around you.

Toward the end of the 2010s, though, Disney returns to romance for a key change. Disney puts compelling twists on classic tales in “The Princess and the Frog” (2009) and “Tangled” (2010), but just like the originals, a love interest is the factor that alters the women’s lives.

A Focus on Friends and Family

While Disney has alternated between themes of romance, and friends and family, in the last 10 years especially, Disney has shifted away from romantic love. While romance is often seen in these movies, the main character often does not have a love interest.

In “Wreck-It Ralph” (2012), Ralph, the main character, does not experience romance, but rather forms an unexpected friendship, where the two help each other find their worth. Elsa from “Frozen” (2013) keeps Anna, her sister, at a distance while trying to protect Anna from her ice powers. In the process, Elsa freezes Anna’s heart, which can only be thawed through an act of true love. While she could have easily run to her love interest for a true love’s kiss, Anna chose to sacrifice herself to protect Elsa, throwing herself in front of a sword meant to kill her sister. This act of true, sisterly love not only saves Elsa but saves Anna as well.

Disney’s next movie, “Big Hero 6” (2014), switches back to the theme of friendship. When Hiro loses his older brother, with whom he was very close, he becomes lost in grief. However, his brother’s friends help him cope and Hiro creates an unbreakable bond with them.

In “Zootopia” (2016), Judy Hopps, a bunny, and Nick, a fox, although natural enemies, become great friends over the course of the film, but nothing more. The only romance seen in this movie is between Judy’s parents. This theme was also present in another Disney movie released in 2016, “Moana.” The titular lead has no love interest. As the daughter of a chief, she leaves her home to save her tribe from the rot and ruin that is spreading across the ocean. Although Moana seeks help from Maui, there is no hint of romance between them.

Disney’s most recent movie, “Encanto” (2021), especially emphasizes family connection. Mirabel is the quirky and empathetic main character, who does her best to help her family realize that they are under too much pressure to be perfect. Throughout the movie, she embraces and encourages her family, loving and supporting them to be unapologetically themselves.

Pixar Is Platonic

While Disney’s animated films have encompassed various themes, Pixar has always made movies that emphasize family and friends. “Toy Story” (1995), Pixar’s first movie, focuses on the rocky relationship between Woody and Buzz Lightyear, though they became good friends. ”Monsters, Inc.” (2001) also relayed the story of two good friends as they faced hard times. Both “Finding Nemo” (2003) and “The Incredibles” (2004) invoke the importance of family. While “Cars” (2006), “Ratatouille” (2007) and “Up” (2009) all include hints of romance, the overarching, developing relationship is one of friendship.

In 2012, Merida (“Brave”) took a stronger approach, rejecting marriage and creating a rift between her and her mother. However, they came to understand each other better and their relationship flourished. “Inside Out” (2015), “Coco” (2017) and “Luca” (2021) focus on friendship and family, where once again, romance is only shown between the main character’s parents.

If the current trend continues, Disney will continue making movies that emphasize friends and family, though they may decide to switch back to romance, as they have in the past. Disney has one constant, though: Pixar is a dependable source for showcasing platonic relationships.

Writer Profile

Kim Becker

Aquinas College
English Writing, Communication Minor

I’m an aspiring author who has dreamed of publishing my work. Reading, writing and watching science fiction and fantasy remain my favorite pastimes. I love traveling and the memories that accompany those experiences.

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