I assume every kid, at some point, sees themselves in a Disney movie. It may be less often that we see our parents in them.
With the huge influence Disney movies have on our culture, it felt like a significant thing to realize that my mother is in “Sleeping Beauty,” and my father is in “The Rescuers: Down Under.” It does make it impossible to see those movies the same way I did as a kid, and maybe that’s all the significance there is. Jez’s recent article about Disney villains just got me thinking back, to the times when I realized exactly how the animated screen was reflected in my world.
It is not possible to overstate how much I was influenced by Flora, Fauna and Merriweather. For a good part of my childhood I was largely raised by my mom and her two best friends. The three of them shuffled kid-watching duties around, and most nights were spent at our house, Sharon’s or Brenda’s.
Sharon was the tallest, with curly brown hair and a no-nonsense, bossy manner. She had no intention of putting up with your crap, but she would hug you and listen, and be compassionate at surprising times. My mom was the middle, and the ultimate mother – she was soft spoken, sweet tempered, always tried to see the best in everyone and everything, and adored children. And Brenda was a short, dumpy, nearsighted woman with black hair, a strong stubborn streak, and a determination to get through whatever life was throwing at her (which was quite a lot, in the end). Sheltered by those three women, I believed unreservedly that any problem could be solved. They were the trio, always there for each other, always helping each other out, complaining and laughing and trash talking during card games together.
Every time I watch Sleeping Beauty, I laugh my head off, because it’s all so PERFECT. Every line, every reaction, every adorable and awesome face those wonderful fairies make feels like an interwoven memory. It makes me feel warm and nostalgic, with that underlying tang of sadness and regret that always comes from looking back.
When we moved away, I realized how much of that relationship hinged on Fauna, who seems like the most benign and least important fairy of the group. It wasn’t until we left that I realized how much Flora and Merriwether needed Fauna, not just to keep themselves from killing each other, but to keep them sweetly uplifted and positive, to remind them to look on the bright side.
Sharon and Brenda stayed friends, but the relationship became strained over the years, and eventually things fell apart, along with marriages and family ties. Brenda struggled with diabetes until her premature death, and after she went, Sharon, now widowed, moved to Arizona and lost all contact with her old life.
Later on in life, I found myself in the closest relationships of my life with my two best friends – a bossy, impatient boy, a sweet-tempered, innocent girl, and stubborn, practical me. Maybe I was searching for a dynamic that had shaped my early years, or maybe Disney was just telling us something about the potential magic when the right personalities meet. Maybe good things come in threes.
I used to climb in my parent’s bed right before bedtime and beg my Dad for a story, usually a story from his childhood, because he had so many good ones. Dad’s childhood seemed so different from mine, so full of adventures like the one in possibly my favorite, the crocodile story. This is probably because he told it so well, in a low voice, with sound effects, building the suspense, sending a chill up my spine. It was a tale of narrow escapes, the stuff of movies.
It took years – too many years – before I realized exactly what that story was, and the realization horrified me.
Skipping the dramatic “thump, thumps” and slow buildup of suspense, the story was simple: my dad had gone fishing with his abusive stepfather. They spent all day on an island in the middle of a lake, and they lost track of time. By the time it was dark, it was really dark, and in this particular area, it’s important to get out of the wetlands before the crocodiles come out to hunt.
They got in the boat and headed for the shore, but the crocodiles were already out in force, swimming in the water, thumping their tails on the bank. One brushed the boat, scaring the dog they had with them, and the dog jumped out of the boat and swam back to the island.
Dad’s stepfather refused to take the boat back, since they were halfway across. Instead, he ordered my father to jump in the water, swim to the island, and swim back with the dog. Because a good hunting dog is valuable – clearly, more valuable than a stepson’s life.
The rest of the story was dramatics – the sounds as the crocodiles swam nearby, opened their maws and hissed, the feeling of brushing tails in the water, the struggle to keep the dog from howling or panicking as he swam back. As a kid, I was thrilled by the successful ending to a hair-raising adventure.
As an adult, I was sick.
And eventually, I realized why my father loved “The Rescuers” movies, and yet why he always left the room during the climax of “The Rescuers: Down Under” when MacLeach lowers Cody into a crocodile-infested river to be eaten. Growing up, “The Rescuers” movies were among my favorites, especially “Down Under” (it's still one of the most gorgeous, moving movies to me) because it seemed so much more important than marrying a prince – rescuing a kidnapped child? Saving animals from being skinned for sport? Whether or not Frank was going to get that blasted key? RIVETING STUFF.
And after a certain point, the dark undercurrents to the story became much more real, and much more disturbing. Maybe especially because in real life, there are no plucky mice to swoop in and save the day, to put a stop to the terror inflicted by cruel adults, and to get everyone safely home to their happy endings. Maybe because that film impressed me so strongly because I could not imagine a villain so evil that he would kidnap a child, hold him hostage, and feed him to crocodiles, knowing full well that the consequences would never touch him – and years later, I found that there were in fact people like that in the world, and that one of them called himself my grandfather.
Which is why, even with all of their magic, princesses, spells and happy endings, Disney movies impress themselves so deeply on our childhood and stick with us to adulthood, because at the end of the day they’re about us. We grow up thinking that no matter how bad things can get, everything will end happily eventually. We go through adulthood hoping, rather than believing, that that could be possible.
And no, the fairies don’t always save the day or even stay together, and the Rescuers don’t always get there in time or even try to help. And coming to terms with that is what makes fairy tales dreams, and what makes life real. And sometimes to get through real life, we need the dreams, even if we know from personal experience that they are manifestly impossible.