I love Disney movies. They have a magical quality to them that spans generations and even the most hard-faced of people can find something to enjoy in at least one of them.
Part of what makes Disney movies iconic and often grabs our attention is their songs and attempts to portray a culture or setting. Many Disney films take place in countries all over the world, with each one having its own distinct feel. Now, more often than not though, Disney films portray culture through music in a way that is very loosely interpreting a setting. This happens in films like Aladdin, where there are vague hints of a Middle Eastern backdrop but very little in-depth exploration of the culture from which the folk tale the movie is based came from.
The problem with trying to convey different cultures through the English language is that a film can come dangerously close to cultural appropriation. What is interesting, however, is how including the language of the place the film is set in actually enhances the movie when used correctly.
Lesser-known Disney film Brother Bear, set in a post-ice age Alaska, uses music sung by a Bulgarian choir containing lyrics in Iñupiaq, a language native to the region of the setting. Native languages can be used to add authenticity to a film, creating a sense of place that might not be as palpable if translated into English.
In this respect, opening songs can be helpful in conveying a culture. ‘Steady as a Beating Drum’, the opening song in Pocahontas, and ‘The Bells of Notre Dame’ from The Hunchback of Notre Dame both contain the language of their setting, despite its usage being dropped as the setting becomes more established. The former has its own problems with representation outside of this, though the latter actually contains Latin dotted throughout through prayers and chants, adding to the film’s exploration of pre-Reformation Catholicism.
We even get a form of Saami yoiking at the beginning of Frozen to convey its Scandanavian setting. On top of this, there’s the gorgeous opening sequence of The Lion King with ‘Circle of Life’ that employs the Zulu language, which is sung by South African composer Lebo M.
Even better than including native languages through music is having the characters actually speak them. An emotional moment in Lilo and Stitch gives us Hawaiian, serving to add to the realism of the characters. Brave uses Scottish Gaelic through the lullaby ‘A Mhaighdean Bhan Uasal’ that plays during a flashback scene. Many of the characters’ names in Moana are Pacific island language names or words, while the movie contains a number of languages represented in song including Samoan and Tokelauan – a major step forward for Disney in its representative efforts.
While it is good to see Disney finally pushing to include these aspects of the cultures they choose to depict, it is still rare to see a character speak or sing in a non-English language. Meanwhile, most characters don’t even have the accents of the places being represented, with the movies only recently beginning to cast actors of appropriate descent. What’s worse is that sometimes when a character does have a foreign accent, it is often played as a stereotype or for laughs.
That said, Disney has come far – moving from blatant racism to a modern era of better understanding. They have gone from including zero links to the original setting of fairytales like Snow White in Germany and Pinocchio in Italy to characters actually singing in their native languages. Sure, Disney still has a long way to go in this area, but it is clear to see the efforts made and the prospects that may be on the cards in the future for the animated giant.