Across fantasy, the real world, and the anthropomorphised animal world, dads have started to get more billing in animated movies over the past couple of decades. The older films of Disney (along with others) did not have fathers who were as present in the plot as the ones today. This father’s day, we take a look at some of the animated fathers from a litany of favourites, many of which are from Disney.
Walt Disney, the creator of the Walt Disney Company lost his mother at a young age after she committed suicide. The trauma that followed lead Disney to potray parents in his movies in a certain way. While cinematic, the truth may be that that parents were simply not the main focus for target audience. Where father figures are present, they’re mostly an afterthought, or a flat plot device. Today animated films flesh out their characters more giving animated dads growth in character.
The line between the roles of mothers and fathers in a family are blurring, and animated movies are moving away from depicting them as strawmen, to actual human beings. Take The Incredibles, for example. Both instalments have Mr. Incredible overcome his flaws to grow and learn over the course of both movies. He goes from the first movie’s tired family man who thinks he needs to leave his family to achieve his dream, to being a functioning, supportive father and husband by the end of Incredibles 2.
Mr. Incredible is protective in the sense that he doesn’t want his daughter to date. In the fantasy world, you get dad who doesn’t want his son to play with dragons. In Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup’s aptly named father Stoick the Vast is set in his ways, and wants only what he believes is the best for Hiccup. He refuses to listen, and believes it’s his way or the highway until finally faced with the consequences of his own actions. All his actions prove disastrous for everyone around him and he never learns. It’s easy to see why Hiccup disobeys him a second time in the second movie, a decision which results in Stoick dying.
Set in similar times, Brave, a decidedly feminist film, has a protagonist whose father King Fergus is probably the most progressive dad we’ve seen so far. He supports her decision to learn archery and her desire not to get married. Since the conflict here is with the mother, he is relegated to being the “side-parent” in this movie. After all when has a ‘progressive’ dad ever moved the plot forward? Parents still exist largely as a force to rebel against.
Naturally in this line up of fantasy dads and superhero dads, non-human dad play a big role too! Disney’s The Lion King and Disney-Pixar’s Finding Nemo are old and new products of the same studio. Nemo’s father is a single dad, Marlin, whose fear of losing his son makes him neurotic and overprotective. Nemo resents him, and is lost while attempting to escape Marlin’s rules. The film centres on his character development and has him grow and learn, unlike an older classic, Mufasa.
The Lion King’s Mufasa might be the oldest dad on this list, and in many ways exemplifies how not to be over-protective. Mufasa is a firm king, and doesn’t give Simba good reasons for why he sets the rules he does. A lot of problems would have been avoided by Mufasa just telling Simba he’s got this skeevy uncle who really wants to be king, and that an elephant graveyard is generally a very bad place to hang out. Instead he just uses the classic “because I said so”, leaving Simba in the dark, and causes a series of events that leaves Simba without a dad.
Disney has a series of reboots lined up, making an effort to update some of the father figures for today’s audience – (eg. Beauty & the Beast, Aladdin). Perhaps we might see some more character development for Mufasa as well in this year’s reboot of The Lion King.
Dads are figures of authority whose views and ideas tend to greatly influence the plot. However thought-out their personality is, all these animated dads have one thing in common: Protectiveness.
The version of fathers that animation studios portray today is more complex and vibrant than it has ever been. Even though father-characters have become more vibrant and present, one thing always rings true through the years: Most stories with fathers are strongly based on his children rebelling against him, and setting out to find their true selves…Kind of like real life?
(The author is a brand & visual communications designer, and occasional pop culture writer based in Bengaluru.)