Disney and Pathetic Fallacy

The Disney Company is really good at what it does. It writers and directors know exactly how to make their audience feel a certain way and are unafraid to manipulate their emotions for all they are worth. This means that often Disney will use literary-style ‘cheats’ to help stimulate a specific thought or feeling very quickly and effectively. I often find the best examples of pathetic fallacy (and some of the most obvious!) come from Disney movies.

Pathetic fallacy, put simply, is when nature is used in fiction to mirror the mood of the story. It’s used in novels such as The Lord of the Flies (in the peaceful, almost heavenly aftermath of Simon’s death) or in plays such as Romeo and Juliet (when the heat helps to insight the Montagues and the Capulets to violence). The basic concept of pathetic fallacy is simple, but everything is easier to explain with some useful audio-visual material!

When analysing the use of pathetic fallacy, you should first identity what nature is doing. Look for changes in the weather, animal activity, unusual plant life… anything naturally occurring. Then you need to decide what mood or emotion is being reflected or emphasised.

The Haunted Mansion (2003) trailer is a really good place to start, and also provides a good cross over with elements of the Gothic genre. There are; gloomy clouds, spider webs, fire which seems to stoke itself, overgrown shrubbery, skeletal trees, most of the action takes place at night and there is also a storm. These different elements combine to create an atmosphere, sometimes of foreboding and broodiness, sometimes of straight-up fear. This is also a good clip because there are so many different types of nature used throughout; it’s not just about what the weather is doing.

Holes (2003), based on the oft-taught children’s novel (published n 1998) by American writer Louis Sachar also provides a good live action example of pathetic fallacy. The part of the film based on Chapter 29 which begins, “There was a change in the weather. For the worse” shows the tension at Camp Green Lake slowly building as the weather becomes hotter and hotter; it’s not until the tension is broken that the rain comes. This scene would also make a great comparison with Baz Luhrman’s interpretation of Romeo and Juliet (1996), Act 3 Scene 1.

Most animated Disney films just go with the basics. Namely; a night-time storm raging during an epic fight scene (to show suspense and anger), or rainfall when a character has died (the rain echoes tears and creates a feeling of sadness). Let’s take the first Disney animated feature film as an example. The final showdown between the Evil Queen and the dwarfs in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) takes place during a thunder storm, with heavy rain and howling wind. There are flashes of lightning as the dwarves angrily pursue the Queen over treacherous rocks towards the edge of a cliff. A small group of vultures look on, anticipating fresh meat.  A lightning blast severs the rock the Queen is standing on and sends her falling to her death; the vultures wheel downward to find her body.

In The Lion King (1994), the battle between Scar and Simba is accompanied by lightning and fire, raging around the now barren Pride Rock. The hyenas watch the conflict expectantly, much as the vultures do in Snow White. When Scar is defeated, the mood becomes sombre; a light rain starts to fall and gradually extinguish the flames. A skull is swept away by the rainfall, suggesting that there will now be a move away from the death and destruction recently occupying the narrative. The clouds part and Mufusa urges Simba to “remember”. As Simba smiles, the scene fades into the rejuvenated landscape; everything has re-grown, it’s the beginning of a new life.

I could get very repetitive here. Let me make it clear; Disney really likes storms. Ursula, Ariel’s  nemesis in The Little Mermaid (1989), is finally defeated in the midst of a great sea storm and her death is accompanied by dramatic lightning flashes. Ratigan falls to his death after a fight during a storm in Basil the Great Mouse Detective (1986). There is also heavy rain fall and lightning as Gaston and the Beast fight on the Beast’s castle rooftop in Beauty and the Beast (1991). In this case, though, the use of pathetic fallacy is pushed even further. When Belle starts to grieve over the Beast’s fallen body, the storm becomes light rain. As the Beast begins to transform, the rain slows and it’s really only a light drizzle by the time he’s fully changed. The mood lightens; the castle transforms and all its inhabitants become human again – it even inexplicably becomes day. Later Disney films seem to be increasingly self-aware of their use of these devices; Enchanted (2007) seems to almost knowingly quote the water-logged, night-time show-down between hero and villain right out of Beauty and the Beast (with a little Sleeping Beauty, 1959, thrown in for good measure).

The Jungle Book (1967) provides another good example of a ‘wet’ Disney death. When Mowgi approaches Baloo’s body, rain drips down the beaks of the watching vultures (not a threatening presence this time, as they are in Snow White) until it looks as if they, like Mowgli, are weeping.  Then, as it becomes abundantly clear to audience that cheeky old Baloo is actually faking, the rain eases off.

Sometimes the pathetic fallacy is used in a slightly different way. For example, in Bambi (1942), the seasons change as Bambi develops into manhood. With The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), fire becomes associated with Frollo’s sinful passion for Esmeralda. It is fire which eventually consumes him when he falls to his death from the cathedral roof. Even in Frozen (2013), the snow and ice reflects the coldness of the relationship between sisters Anna and Elsa; there is a thaw when the sisters are reconciled.

I could go on and I would most definitely become tiresome. I would like, therefore, to turn the lesson over to the class. No doubt I’ve missed out a plethora of great examples of pathetic fallacy, Disney and otherwise. So post below: what examples of this technique can you think of and what kind of a mood is being created by the filmmakers? As always, thanks for reading.