Skip to main content

Top Five Socially Aware Disney Films

Cartoonist and cartoon historian, Koriander seeks to preserve the magic of animation.



Contrary to what you might think, there are actually a few socially aware Disney films that present a great chance for you to talk to your kids about some important issues—without beaning them over the head with the lesson or making them cry.

"The Hunchback of Notre Dame"

"The Hunchback of Notre Dame"

1. The Hunchback of Notre Dame

While a myriad of things were dropped from the book (such as the reveal that Quasimodo is actually Esmeralda's long lost baby brother, Phoebus's fiancee, Esmeralda's husband and all of those pesky, nasty deaths), the film uses the premise of the famous novel by Victor Hugo to talk openly about ableism, religious zealotry, racism, abuse in the home, and about the need for social justice and respect for your fellow man.

The film's release also exposed an underbelly in sexism in the media when multiple groups invented problems with Esmeralda just because she is a strong woman who is comfortable with her natural beauty but also fights against intolerance. Back when it was released in 1996, conservatives tried to have the film banished to the Disney vault forever simply because Esmeralda dances in a way they confused with stripping—despite the fact that she stays fully clothed throughout the film. These topics should be addressed with tweens, and this film does it in an exciting way that isn't preachy.



2. Zootopia

On the surface, Zootopia seems like just another silly, buddy cop comedy. Rabbit cop Judy Hopps finds herself paired with a sly fox named Nick Wilde. Nick acts like he knows better than everyone because he has street smarts. Judy is tiny and everyone doubts her ability to be a police officer because she is short. Hilarity ensues and we all learn that tiny cops are just as important as big cops. All nice and tidy, right?

Well, that's where the movie fools you, because that is not the message at all. When Judy accepts her award, she lets loose a quip about predator animals that is simply offensive, disgusting, and shocking to Nick. Why?

Because Nick is a predator animal.

From this point on, the movie finds a brilliant way to teach children about racism and police brutality in a way that never gets too violent or scary. Instead of using racial terms, the film focuses on predator animals and prey, illustrating a need for police reform and for education against prejudice while also getting the point across brilliantly, even tackling times when we say things without realizing how hurtful and mean we can sound to someone who is different. The villain reveal isn't just a great surprise, it also shines a light on racism existing where you'd least expect it.

"Ralph Breaks the Internet"

"Ralph Breaks the Internet"

3. Ralph Breaks the Internet

While Wreck-It-Ralph hearkened back to 1930s Ub Iwerks cartoons with the unsavory message of "stay where you are and don't change," Ralph Breaks the Internet flipped that stagnant attitude on its ear with an opening message more in alignment with more modern Disney films. The message is: "get out of your comfort zone and grow," which is much more fitting for today's kids.

Once you get past the tired, old internet jokes, there are little drops of social awareness here and there, such as the popular segment where Vanellope meets the other Disney Princesses, and the film calls out Disney princess tropes and uncomfortable issues with imprisonment. But going past that, the film dives into an even more important lesson, that being not just the dangers of the internet but the dangers of toxic friendship.

As Vanellope starts to grow and change, Ralph starts losing his temper. He can't control her, she won't stay stagnant in the same place she was in forever, and as she spends a little less time with him here and there and starts making new friends, he gets moody and destructive, leading into a powerful moment where they both do an about-face on their relationship and learn about the importance of boundaries. This film is much better than the first movie and is exactly what kids today need.



4 and 5. Frozen and Frozen 2

All right, so you were dreading this entry, right? Well hold on, there's something you may have missed. Let's start with the first Frozen feature.

We all know about Elsa being shut away and being taught to be ashamed of her powers, and if you follow the Christmas special, it's even more clear how abundantly neglectful her parents were towards Anna, but there's another lesson here.

The lesson of stranger danger.

Now fairy tales have always dealt with strangers in playful ways. Little Red Riding Hood has to be careful of the mean, ugly old wolf. Pinocchio ends up in a bad situation because of one ugly stranger after another. But not Anna. No.

Anna has Hans.

Hans is cute.

Hans likes the same things you like.

Hans comes from a nice family everyone knows.

Hans sings the same songs as you.

And Hans is still a stranger, and not all strangers can be trusted, a lesson Anna learns the hard way very late in the film, when he reveals his evil plans.

Hans is a fantastic way to teach about stranger danger to today's kids because a lot of them do meet very good-looking strangers online. We've always taught children that strangers are old and ugly, but as we see in the news every day, that's not always the case.

Bleeding into Frozen 2, we have even more great lessons in ways a child can digest. Picking up from the first movie, Elsa this whole time has been learning how to create her own closure. She can't confront her parents about how they isolated her, made her feel bad about herself, and how they neglected Anna, so she has to learn how to be comfortable without gaining that reconciliation. In Frozen 2, we find out that her grandfather was racist against those with magic, and once again, Elsa won't be able to confront him, so she has to find closure through fixing the damage his reign as king wrought upon two different kingdoms. Finding your own closure is something most of us only learn late into our adult years, but with so many kids having to deal with abusive family members at home, it's a valuable lesson this movie teaches in a heroic way.

It's true that the songs will be stuck in your head for days, but these films deserve one more chance to help you talk to your kids about very big issues.

© 2021 Koriander Bullard