They say that you get three turns of the wheel: your childhood, your kids’ childhood, and your grandkids’ childhood. On my first spin I fell into Generation X.2, which put me right in the sweet spot for both the silver screen’s Disney Renaissance and the small screen’s Disney Afternoon. Kids my age knew the theme songs for Gummi Bears, Rescue Rangers, and Talespin. By sixth grade we were all certain that Ariel was the greatest possible tribute to Alyssa Milano, right up until Guardians of the Galaxy.
But the Disney of the 1990s wasn’t all Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. Soon came Hercules. And Atlantis. And (shudder) Home on the Range. Yeah, that happened; someone at Disney thought it would be a great idea to have a slapstick Wild West cartoon starring Roseanne Barr, Dame Judy Dench, and the Bride of Chucky as musical cows. There were some smallish diamonds in the rough, however. Lilo and Stitch touched on powerful family issues, and my college roommate and I could recite the entirety of The Emperor’s New Groove by heart. Maybe we still can. But Meet the Robinsons? Chicken Little? Man, the Disney Renaissance of my childhood was well and truly dead.
Then I had kids. And Disney met Pixar.
Peculiarly, the collaboration of these two studios seemed to keep coinciding with major events in my life. When our son was little, he loved cars and trains and tractors, and so the movie Cars, with all its overabundant merchandising, was like toddler crack to him. This was also back when he was an only child, so we had little compunction about showering him with toy vehicles. I found myself developing an oddly emotional connection with the Cars film, however, and when I stopped to examine why, I could only come up with two reasons: (1) My son adored it, and I was seeing it through his eyes; and (2) Cars is the story about a cocky, self-centered city guy who unexpectedly finds love, peace, and meaning out in the country. At first he views this transition as an agonizing exile, but soon comes to realize just how empty his old life was.
Did I mention that we were watching this shortly after I fell in love with a Minnesota girl and moved from the urban East Coast to the rural Midwest? Go figure.
Like most little boys, our son soon transitioned from machines to animals. He especially loved whales, sharks, and sea creatures in general. Well, there’s a kids’ movie for that too: Finding Nemo. It was love at first sight for him. Before long everything was Nemo this and Nemo that. Again I found myself oddly invested in my son’s favorite movie, and for similar reasons. I loved it because he loved it, and with a degree in biology this was an interest we easily shared. But Finding Nemo is also the story of a dad with a vulnerable child, who is forced to confront his own terror of losing the son he so deeply loves.
Did I mention that our son was born with a rare heart defect that required $300,000 of open heart surgery, and that it was two weeks before we could even hold him? Yeah. I still have trouble visiting the NICU. And this is why I found myself tearing up every time we watched that bloody movie together. Every dang time, right when the seagull tells the story that makes Nemo proud of his dad. Gah.
Meanwhile, the quality of non-Pixar Disney films demonstrated some improvement. Bolt wasn’t terrible. The Princess and the Frog was really pretty decent. (I automatically give any story set in New Orleans an extra star.) But Tangled was something special.
We became parents again with a pair of daughters, nearly Irish twins. And while our girls do enjoy werewolves and broadswords and crossbows, they also love their princesses and frilly dresses. Tangled was their gateway drug. The middle child especially has since branched out into the classics—Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty—but Rapunzel was our household’s first Disney princess. And if the girls like it, Daddy likes it. (This was followed by Wreck-It Ralph, a love letter to every child of the 80s, which culminates in the line, “If that little kid likes me, how bad can I be?” Should you happen to be a father of little girls, that sucker will get you right in the feels.)
Then came The Big One. Of course, we didn’t know that at the time. Brave had come out a few years after Tangled, and though it definitely improved upon later repeat viewing, I hadn’t been impressed in the theater. So when we heard about Disney’s latest, something called Frozen, I thought the best it had going for it was that it looked an awful lot like Tangled. On Thanksgiving I took my son and two nieces to the cinema to see Frozen, and as it happened we had to make a potty break right at the film’s showpiece song. Yes, we missed “Let It Go.” My initial judgment was that it was a good movie, and obviously destined for Broadway, but I still preferred Rapunzel.
The thing about Disney films, though, is that the good ones really do grow on you. We took the kids to see Frozen again about a month later, with a negative 47 degree wind chill. Weather be damned, that theater was packed. Minnesotans took an immediate shine to the story. Stave churches, rosemaling, ice, snow, Minnesota accents, friendly wild creatures, whispers of trolls, Lutheran bishops, saunas, Hans Christian Andersen references—good heavens, Disney had made a movie about us! And don’t even get me started on the religious imagery. I’ve taught classes on the spiritual symbolism hidden away in Frozen. The kids started listening to the soundtrack in the car.
That February my wife and I had planned a belated honeymoon trip to Egypt with Zahi Hawass. It was a once-in-a-lifetime sort of deal. But then Egypt came down with a bad case of civil war, and that was the end of that, deposit and all. My wife, however, was bound and determined for us to take some time off together, and so she signed us up for something we’d never done before: a short Caribbean cruise. A Disney Caribbean Cruise. I wasn’t particularly enthused about the idea—the Caribbean over Egypt?—but hot snot, once we were there, it was like paradise on earth. I can’t even describe. We spent four days, together, without kids, for the first time in seven years. It was glorious. Ends up we’re still quite fond of each other. Who knew?
In addition to live theater every night, the ship had this crazy 3-D surround-sound cinema which outdid pretty much every other 3-D surround-sound cinema I’ve ever seen outside of Captain EO. (Yes, I’m old enough to remember Captain EO.) And what were they showing? Why, Frozen, of course: the story of a beautiful Norwegian girl who introduces viewers to a magical world of ice. Rather like my wife. And that’s what did it—that was the tipping point. We now began to understand those friends and family who were obsessed with Disney not just as an entertainment provider but almost as a worldview.
So today I don’t mind that Disney has metastasized all over our home. I don’t mind that our daughters want to wear their Elsa dresses and play with their Elsa dolls and read the latest Elsa books while sitting on their Elsa bedspreads. We pretty much drank the Kool-Aid. And as it so happens, we did end up finding an appropriate replacement for that Egyptian honeymoon. When Disney announced new cruises inspired by Frozen, spanning Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Scotland, I sold my grand prize Harley Davidson (won in an undertaker’s raffle two years earlier), giving one third of the value to charity and putting two thirds towards a Viking-themed Disney Cruise with my Viking-themed wife. I wouldn’t recommend waiting a year and a half between vacations, but this summer it’s going to be just me, her, and the lands of the Prose Edda. And I have the Queen of Arendelle to thank for that.
Well, her and a certain Mouse.
RDG Stout was born and raised amongst the Pennsylvania Deutsch but has spent the last decade as a country preacher in the windswept wilds of Niflheim, a.k.a. rural Minnesota. He lives in a mead hall with his Viking wife, three kids, and a bizarre assortment of stories. His musings may be found here and at Grimly Optimistic.