Disney’s been in the business of animated film for a long time, with decades of children’s classics under their belt. Fans tend to categorize these movies into different “eras”, each marked by a certain art style and/or other common elements such as certain kinds of storytelling. For example, the Disney Renaissance, which spanned 1989 to 1999, mainly consisted of romantic coming-of-age musicals.
Things got a bit more complicated when Pixar was brought into the fold, as with its addition, Disney had two animation studios producing feature-length films – even more so when Walt Disney Animated Pictures started producing 3D animated movies. These days, much of the general public have difficulty discerning between “Disney” and “Pixar.”
What adds to this confusion is the two have started to follow similar trends. There was a period of time in which it felt like every Disney movie was deliberately subverting the tropes of past Disney movies, as a way to prove to the audience the studio had moved beyond its past. There were the notorious “surprise” villains that quickly became predictable. Then there were a couple years in which a vast swath of films from both Disney and Pixar ended with the main characters of a beloved franchise going their separate ways.
All of these new tropes received mixed audience reception as they showed up more and more frequently. But a new one that has emerged is getting mostly positive feedback so far.
Pixar’s 2017 hit Coco received glowing reception, most notably about its story focusing on a Mexican family dealing with generational trauma and learning to better understand and listen to each other. It seems like Disney and Pixar took that feedback and ran with it because in the past few months two more movies have had familial generational trauma as the main conflict: Disney’s Encanto and Pixar’s Turning Red.
While all of these movies feature child or teenage protagonists, and are great for kids, the inclusion of this issue has been a great way to help Disney appeal to older audiences. All three aforementioned movies have gained strong followings of teenagers and adults, who can relate to the deeper and more nuanced aspects of the trauma shown in them.
The question now is: will this go the way of many other Disney movie trends and get stale quickly? Honestly, I suspect it might not get old as quickly as some of the others. It doesn’t hinge on novelty compared to something like the surprise villains, where the trope soon lost its shock value, and is simply a relatable arc that can be presented in different ways. Each of the three aforementioned films features a different-sized family from a distinct culture in a different time period. Each protagonist goes on a different personal journey, and while everything works out fine in the end for each of them, that path and endpoint look very different for each of them.
That said, it is noteworthy that in each of these stories, the family matriarch is treated as the root of the trauma. However, she is never quite villainized and is shown to be a victim of circumstance. Still, in order to keep the use of this theme fresh, it might be interesting to explore patriarchal family trauma in the future.
Ultimately, generational trauma as a theme has allowed more adults (and kids) to connect with Disney’s recent output. Here’s hoping the company continues to incorporate even more topics that audiences of all ages can enjoy and relate to.