Mark Mayerson

Writer, Cartoonist, Sculptor

Conflict in Disney Films
(March, 1994)

You can split Disney features into two categories: villain films and problem films.

In the villain films, the villains are the main motivators. If you chop them out of the film, there's no conflict. The hero or heroine is happy and nothing would happen. These films include Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians, The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Robin Hood, The Rescuers, The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, Oliver and Company and The Rescuers Down Under.

If the Queen isn't jealous, the rest of Snow White doesn't happen. If Cruella doesn't want a dalmatian coat, the dogs live uneventful lives. If Shere Khan doesn't hate men, then Mowgli stays happily in the jungle. Put simply: no villain, no movie.

In the problem films, the main characters have to solve a personal problem and they face a variety of villains or obstacles. The main characters provide the motivation and no single villain must be defeated. Pinocchio confronts Stromboli, Gideon, the Coachman and Monstro in trying to become a real boy. Dumbo has to deal with kids, elephants and clowns while trying to fit into society with big ears. Bambi has to deal with weather, hunters, dogs, sexual rivals and fire in order to survive. Other examples are Lady and the Tramp, where Lady has to adjust to a new baby, and The Sword in the Stone, where Wart needs to get an education.

The Brit Lit adaptations are problematical. Alice in Wonderland doesn't fall into either category. Peter Pan falls into both. It's a problem film for Wendy, who's been ordered to leave the nursery, and a villain film for Captain Hook.

The trouble with both these approaches is that their conflicts are so simple. The heroes or heroines do not have any hard choices to make. In the villain films, the world is a good place until the villain disrupts it and when the villain is defeated, the world is once again good. In the problem films, it's solve the problem or face ruin. In Pinocchio and Bambi, that ruin is death. It's not quite so severe in the lighter problem films like Lady and the Tramp and The Sword in the Stone. The characters don't agonize over choices, because the alternative to success is completely undesirable.

In addition to being simple, these approaches are completely external. Conflict is between characters or between a character and his or her world. The conflict is never in the mind of a single character. Compare this to the classic Bogart movie Casablanca. At the end of the film, Bogart has a difficult choice. He can leave with Ingrid Bergman. That reunites him with the woman he loves, but it condemns Paul Henried to death with the Nazis and weakens the anti-Nazi resistance. Or he can send Bergman and Henried off, but he loses the woman he loves forever and he puts himself at risk with the Nazis. While Bogart has been playing cat and mouse with the Nazies for the length of the film, the central conflict, the thing that the whole movie turns on, is internal. Will Bogart make the right choice?

For almost 50 years after Casablanca, no animated Disney hero or heroine had to make a similar choice. It's only when Howard Ashman and Alan Mencken arrived at the studio, bringing their background in the Broadway theatre, that conflict became more complicated in Disney features. The two films that Howard Ashman was most closely associated with, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, contain far and away the most complex characters to ever grace a Disney animated feature.

In some ways, The Little Mermaid resembles Peter Pan. It's a problem story with Ariel and a villain story with Ursula. But where Wendy's conflict with her father was stated at the start of Peter Pan, it's resolved painlessly at the end of the film. While Hook might be her father's stand-in (and both characters are voiced by Hans Conried), Hook's conflict is with Pan and not Wendy.

The conflict between Ariel and her father, Triton, is much better developed and runs through the film. Ariel has to choose between obeying and disobeying her father. She has to choose between the surface and the sea and in doing so has to choose between her voice and her legs. Her choices are not made to survive, her choices are made to define herself as a person. None of these choices is easy as each leads to some kind of loss.

Similarly, Triton has to decide between having a relationship with his daughter on his terms or on hers. At the end of the film, he can keep his daugher and break her heart, or he can lose his daughter and make her happy. This kind of ending is very Casablanca-like in that it is bittersweet and atypical for Disney.

Beauty and the Beast continues the use of a complex, inner conflict. There are surface conflicts between Belle and the town and specifically Belle and Gaston, but the film's main conflict is within the Beast. He has to learn to control his anger. Finally, he has to choose beween keeping Belle against her will in order to break the curse or let her go to her ailing father and stay a beast. It is another situation where each alternative has an associated loss.

Unfortunately, Disney reverts to one of its tradiational happy endings. The Beast makes the tougher decision to let Belle go but still has the curse broken at the end of the film.

Aladdin retreats even further from the notion of internal conflict and complex choices. Aladdin's choice is between keeping his word to the Genie and losing the princess or breaking his word to the Genie and winning the girl. This choice does not carry a lot of emotional weight for several reasons. For one thing, it occurs after the climax of the film. Jafar has been defeated by Aladdin, so there are no momentous plot consequences to come out of this choice. For another thing, there is no question that Aladdin has won Jasmine's love. The question is whether he can marry her. The conflict is based on a legal technicality and not on conflicting emotions. Lastly, while Aladdin makes the right decision and frees the Genie, his loss of Jasmine lasts only seconds until the Sultan decides to change the law. As in Beauty and the Beast, the right moral decision entitles the character to a happy ending.

Conventional wisdom in the animation business says that the stronger the villain, the stronger the film. That statement is as simplistic as the films that have grown out of it. The strength of a film may lie in the strength of the conflict, but that conflict can be internal as well as external, within one character as between characters. Conflict can be simple, with black and white choices, or complex, with difficult decisions.

In its recent films, the Disney studio has concentrated more on internal conflict and difficult decisions. While it has stuck to happy endings, it has flirted with complex emotions. I'm waiting to see if the Disney studio really understands what it has accomplished in the films since The Little Mermaid and whether it can contunue this trend in the future.