Featured Illustration: Andrea Dezsö
Over winter break, I decided to watch some of the films that had been racking up on my watchlist. I stumbled upon Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 Pan’s Labyrinth on Netflix (El laberinto del fauno in Spanish) — a lavish, at times stupendously dark fantasy film set in the era between the Spanish Civil War and the early Francoist period. Pan’s Labyrinth was unlike any other fantasy film I’ve seen. Del Toro masterfully combines traditional fantasy tropes — princesses, locked doors, and magic — against a bloody, and at times, viscerally violent post-war and pre-apocalyptic Spain. By the end, the film’s young protagonist, Ofelia, is met with a fate more in line with traditional, old-age fairy tales rather than today’s sterilized fantasy tropes. The audience is left to wonder, to cry, to contemplate, to rethink — everything that is left to ruin by today’s largest fantasy film studio.
I grew up watching tales of teenage Disney Princesses with their grown adult seducers. Snow White, a fourteen-year-old girl, is wed to an older, near-stranger; Cinderella is swept away by a prince, whose search for the owner of the missing shoe is more tyrannical than romantic; Pocahontas, who in reality was twelve-years-old when the Jamestown settlers ravaged through Native territory, is in Disney canon, swept off with counterpart James Smith.
Being as young as I was, I didn’t think to question the duplicitous nature of these films. To me, they were sweet, never leaning to saccharine, but a sort of perfect fantasia — the “iconic” gowns, sweeping scores, and clever lines never failed to sway me into their worlds.
It was only until I started reading traditional fantasy tales when I began to question what Disney showed me. In the Brothers Grimm, the little mermaid dies after walking on feet that “felt more like daggers than flesh.” In Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Match Girl, the protagonist passes away in the midst of severe hypothermia. In the original version of Sleeping Beauty in the 14th-century prose Perceforest, the prince rapes the unconscious Aurora.
Disney has a habit of factory packaging optimistic fairy tales especially targeted towards young girls. Even if times have changed drastically since the times of damsel-in-distress princesses, it’s still an entirely troubling narrative once we look at Disney’s recent oeuvre. Many of these tales still use the same tropes, if not the slightest bit modified.
The origins of Disney’s sugar-coated and rose-tinted tales are far darker, their moral implications more interesting, and there’s always an acknowledgment of evil, of everything unjust; Disney tends to sweep all of this neatly under a prepackaged narrative made to sell.
The majority of Disney’s current projects are live-action remakes of happy-go-lucky originals, complete with mediocre songs (take the 2019 The Lion King) or through a production sense, a completely twisted set (take 2020’s Mulan, filmed in Xinjiang where the ongoing genocide of Uighur Muslims is happening). Even the non-live-action films seem to follow a formulaic road — it’s almost possible to predict the entire course of the film just by watching the trailer once. There are hardly ever surprises, with the same storylines — a problem, a song propelling our protagonist to face whatever adversity lies ahead, and a melodramatic battle and saccharine ending. The characters and morals are nearly identical, with bold — but not too bold! — young girls as protagonists with fresh, naive eyes. Even the characters look the same, with seemingly the same slightly chubbed-out faces and slim character designs, animating each character like plastic dolls.
It saddens me that the fantasy genre is generalized to the bounds of Disney. When I moved past the “classic” Disney films shown on rainy days between elementary school breaks, I discovered an entire new plethora of fresh and captivating stories. I read stories from Aesop’s Tales to the Grimms Brothers to Hans Christian Andersen to traditional Chinese fairy tales to Roald Dahl and Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and a whole assortment of YA fantasy novels that though I admit, were slightly Wattpad-esque at times, were still endlessly creative and imaginative.
I’ve found it extremely oxymoronic that the fantasy genre is still widely considered child’s play. When put to use, fantasy should ideally have no limits — it is, after all, the very idea of imagining things — especially things that are impossible or improbable. Take any adjective, for example, and place it before “fantasies” — and see what can unfold before your eyes. Sweet fantasies, twisted fantasies, adult fantasies… the mere mention of the word conjures up infinite winding roads.
It’s a world that should have endless possibilities. And I’m reminded of that every time I watch a film like Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth or even his more recent work in The Shape of Water, or even when I revisit the roots of today’s fantasy stories in darker traditional tales. But each time I log onto social media, or just use the Internet, I’m bombarded with ads for the next Disney film with a young girl on the front ad cover looking as Elsa or Anna-like as possible with the only slightly different variation on the same story. And when that happens, I find myself drifting over to my nearest paracosm, to the bounds of my mind where fantasy can exist without the limits of stupid story tropes or thought of a capitalist-generated box office, like Disney — and think of stories that have no end. I think and hope for original creators, those that have less money and less power, with their ideas tailored to their own aspirations and dreams rather than engineering a story solely for capitalization processes. I think and hope the fantasy, with the continued momentum of Disney’s formulaic and at times completely terrifying moronic sameness will continue to live on — for those who care enough to tell its story.