So I was lying in bed the other night, staring at the ceiling in another bout of pandemic insomnia and thinking about Disney movies (you know, as you do), and I had an epic epiphany. The same message I love from Frozen II can be found in every single Disney animated feature, and likely the Pixar ones too (though I haven’t put it to the test yet). So what’s this elusive message in every Disney movie?
The protagonist isn’t where they belong, and that’s the source of their unhappiness/strife/struggle. Finding where they belong, either emotionally, physically, or mentally solves their issue and roll credits. Mind. Blown.
The examples that first come to mind are Frozen II, Moana, and Hercules. Elsa is loving life with Arendelle’s gates open, which we know from the song Some Things Never Change. She sings, “The winds are restless/Could that be why I’m feeling this call?/ There’s something coming/ But I’m not sure I want things to change at all.” Most of her is happy with her life, but part of her feels like she doesn’t belong…which we know from Into the Unknown: “Or are you someone out there/ who’s a little bit like me/ who knows deep down/ I’m not where I’m meant to be?” When Elsa finds the truth about their parents and grandparents, she finds inner peace and where she belongs. Turns out the call was inside her all along- just like Moana!
Moana is also a great example of a protagonist feeling like they don’t belong and yearning for something more. Once again, we learn our protagonists’ innermost thoughts via song when she sings, “I can lead with pride/ I can make us strong/ I’ll be satisfied if I play along/ but a voice inside sings a different song/ what is wrong with me?” In both the Frozen films and Moana, our heroines blame themselves for feeling out of place and different. That seems awfully familiar, doesn’t it? I think that’s a message we all feel at some point in our lives. It isn’t until Moana finds the truth and realizes her desire to be on the water isn’t a bad thing that she can accept herself and build a new kind of life.
We see this same theme play out in Hercules, once again in song form. The entire song Go the Distance is about this very message- I don’t belong, I’d give anything to know where I’m meant to be. Here’s the full song in case you haven’t heard it in awhile. It’s completely worth the listen:
Okay, so this theory clearly works…in those three movies. But what about the rest of the Disney canon? I’m glad you asked.
- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Snow White isn’t where she belongs, saves herself, helps disenfranchised, finds happiness despite being naive (also don’t take food from strangers).
- Pinocchio: This little annoying puppet thinks he’s not where he belongs, finds he loved home after all, abandons comrades trapped as donkeys working in mines. (Can you tell this one isn’t my favorite?!)
- Fantasia: These vignette films are going to be harder, but there’s at least one skit in each combination film that this message fits.
- Dumbo: Clearly being a clown wasn’t where Dumbo was meant to be- he was meant to be with his mother.
- Bambi: Sorry, crying. Hold on. This movie destroys me. Bambi must learn to be his own hero and build his own kingdom to find where he belongs.
- Saludos Amigos: Right, from here through Melody Time are the war years movies. These are all vignettes, and you can bet this message applies to them. They’re all actually worth watching though, so go find out for yourself!
- The Three Caballeros
- Make Mine Music
- Fun and Fancy Free
- Melody Time
- The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad: Sometimes, the message is just realizing we don’t belong there. Poor Ichabod Crane.
- Cinderella: Cinderella stayed true to her heart despite trauma, and found where she belonged.
- Alice in Wonderland: Alice finds her own strength and courage, and to fight for where she belongs (which is clearly not Wonderland!)
- Peter Pan: Peter Pan and the Lost Boys may belong in Neverland, but Wendy and her brothers learn that they don’t. Wendy knew where she belonged all along- in the nursery- she just had to go to Neverland to find her voice to fight for what’s important to her.
- Lady and the Tramp: Tramp thinks he’s showing Lady where she belongs, but really she’s the one leading him home.
- Sleeping Beauty: This one is a doozy. Aurora belonged with her parents, but they let fear lead them and so she became Briar Rose and was hidden away. Since that’s not where she belonged, she found her way home and caused a bit of trouble along the way. (But isn’t it reassuring to know someone will fight a dragon for you?)
- 101 Dalmatians: Cruelle belongs in jail, and this is the story of how she gets there! But seriously, the pups who want to grow up too quickly learn the value of having a home and that being a little one is a privilege. And they help 84 other dalmatian puppies find where they belong, too.
- The Sword in the Stone: It’s hard to believe you belong anywhere when everyone’s always picking on you. Yet what we find is that when you find your own strength, it’ll lead you right where you belong.
- The Jungle Book: Mowgli belonged with people.
- The Aristocats: Sometimes life tries to take where you belong away, and you have to find your way back.
- Robin Hood: Where did Robin Hood belong? With Maid Marian, of course!
- The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh: Pooh belongs with his friends in the hundred acre wood, and with Christopher Robin.
- The Rescuers: The entire plot of this is getting someone back where they belong.
- The Fox and the Hound: Stop breaking my heart, Disney. Foxes can be pets and friends with hunting dogs and no one will ever convince me otherwise. Wait, was that not what we were talking about? Todd and Copper have to find where they belong in the world and in the hierarchy within that world. Also there’s a scary bear.
- The Black Cauldron: This is classic being forced to find where you belong under duress. I mean, there’s a risk of an army of the undead being summoned. (Yes, this is really a Disney movie, and it’s incredible. GO. Watch it. I’ll wait.)
- The Great Mouse Detective: Olivia knows where she belongs, with her father. But Dawson has just returned from a tour of duty and must find where he now belongs. Turns it out it’s solving mysteries.
- Oliver and Company: When your heart is telling you one thing and someone who’s shown you kindness another, how do you know where you belong? Thus little Oliver must find where he belongs: either in a loving home with a psycho poodle or on the streets with a gang of stray dogs. What’s a kitten to do?
- The Little Mermaid: Ariel yearns to be part of another world. See: the song titled “Part of Your World.” But seriously: this film goes to show what someone will do to find where they belong.
- The Rescuers Down Under: Again, the whole plot is getting someone back where they belong! Both rescuing a golden hawk and saving a little boy.
- Beauty and the Beast: “Madam Gaston/ Can’t you just see it/ Madame Gaston his little wife/ No sir, not me/ I guarantee it/ I want much more than this provincial life/ I want adventure in the great wide somewhere/ I want it more than I can stand/ For once it might be grand/ To have someone understand/ I want so much more than they’ve got planned.” Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.
- Aladdin: Jasmine feels trapped by privilege and laws. Aladdin feels trapped by homelessness and poverty. Can they solve each other’s problems? Only with the help of a genie. Where do they belong? Together, obviously.
- The Lion King: Simba must overcome childhood trauma to stop the tragedy that results from his uncle destroying the Pridelands. So…he must find where he belongs, in the physical world and in the ruling order of his pride.
- Pocahontas: Pocahontas never thought she didn’t belong with her tribe. Her story is much like Belle’s: she wants more than what’s being offered to her. She doesn’t want to just marry Kokoum and be a wife. She wants to lead her tribe to great things. She finds her voice to speak up for what’s right, even when everyone she loves believes the opposite, and finds where she belongs: leading her tribe.
- The Hunchback of Notre Dame: Quasimodo doesn’t belong hidden away like a monster. He’s human and deserves to be among humans.
- Hercules: See above.
- Mulan: Mulan and Pocahontas have a similar struggle, and both are spurred to act to protect their loved ones (which also involves standing up to their loved ones). Mulan finds where she belongs by finding her voice, showcasing her intelligence, and returning home.
- Tarzan: This movie is definitely in the top 5 saddest opening scenes. But where does a man raised by gorillas belong? Where does Jane belong? They have to chart their own course to find where they belong.
- Fantasia 2000: This goes with the previous vignettes. Many shorts combine to make one film, but belonging is a central theme.
- Dinosaur: A dinosaur raised by lemmings battles time (and other dinosaurs) to find where he belongs.
- The Emperor’s New Groove: Kuzco finding where he belongs is both internal and external. He learns empathy and taking care of his kingdom, thus internal belonging, and he also finds a family and builds an awesome waterslide (external).
- Atlantis: The Lost Empire: It’s hard to be an explorer when you’re stuck in a building. But Milo finds where he belongs and then must protect it.
- Lilo and Stitch: Lilo finds a friend and Stitch finds a home, and this is where both of them belong.
- Treasure Planet: This is basically Atlantis in space, so see above but change the names.
- Brother Bear: Again, with the heartbreaking beginnings. Kenai must find where he belongs and let go of his anger- at himself and the world.
- Home on the Range: We don’t talk about this movie. It does not exist.
- Chicken Little: Relationships need healing, expectations need managing, don’t jump to conclusions and you might just find where you belong.
- Meet the Robinsons: Sorry, crying again. This one is a heart wrenched but so beautiful. Lewis is trying to make a time machine to meet his mom (where he thinks he belongs). But someone from the future comes to stop him- and everyone learns sometimes they have to go through the hard stuff to get to where they belong.
- Bolt: Dang these dog movies always playing with my heart. Both Bolt and his person have to find where they belong, and sacrifice a lot along the way (but also pick up Mittens and Rhino and help them find where they belong, obviously).
- The Princess and the Frog: This one is actually a little tougher. Tiana and Naveen need each other to find that middle ground between hard work all the time and happiness seeking all the time. They inadvertently get cursed and become frogs, and must find their way back to the human world they belong…But they also must find where they belong in that human world.
- Tangled: I could easily have used this as an opening example, because obviously Rapunzel and her opening song, “When Will My Life Begin?” clearly demonstrates her search for where she belongs. She just knows something is missing, and yearns to find it.
- Winnie the Pooh: I stand by my original WtP ramblings. I mean argument.
- Wreck it Ralph: Classic where do I belong plot. Ralph is tired of being a bad guy, Vanellope is tired of being a glitch. It’s only when they embrace who they are that they find where they belong.
- Frozen: In this first installment, Anna and Elsa are trying to find where they belong in their world. Anna feels shut out and yearns for romantic love to fill the hole that familial love has left, and Elsa longs to be free. Once they both let go (see what I did there?) of their expectations and fears, they’re able to find where they belong: sisters ruling Arendelle.
- Big Hero 6: What happens when you’re super smart but tragedy strikes your life in more ways than one? You spin out of control and have to find where you belong.
- Zootopia: Her whole life, Judy Hopps has been told to make her dreams more attainable. There’s never been a bunny cop, blah blah blah. But she listens to her gut and shows the whole world- including herself- where she belongs. Yes, Disney did make a buddy cop movie and it is in my top 10 all time favorites. Go watch it.
- Moana: We discussed this in the intro.
- Ralph Breaks the Internet: The first Ralph film has him accepting who is and finding his place. But now it’s Vanellope’s turn to find where she belongs, in a much bigger world.
- Frozen II: We discussed this in the intro, but this song sums it up nicely:
Well, there you have it. A (mostly) solid argument about how the message of finding where you belong is in (basically) every single Disney Animation Studios feature film. What do you think? Do you have any other evidence of where this theme has popped up in the Disney canon? All of these movies are available on Disney+ and we’re all supposed to be staying home (unless we’re essential, of course!).
I, for one, am grateful that Disney is always encouraging me to find where I belong.