In Class: History Lessons from the Magic Kingdom

Why is a world history class discussing Disney films?

Children’s classics such as Moana, Mulan, and The Lion King aren’t intended as history lessons, but still carry messages about the historical times and places in which their tales take place.

Teacher Camryn Crocker’s Humanities II World History class recently discussed “the power Disney has in telling the story of civilizations, peoples, and cultures,” he says. Then they read articles that analyzed the assumptions embedded in films including Moana, Mulan, and The Lion King.

Crocker says those films express Disney’s desire to tell the stories of those who have been typically silenced. And Disney gets history right sometimes, the students found. The Polynesians in Moana are shown as able seafarers (some believe they were the first voyagers to reach the Americas). In The Lion King, Simba’s journey runs parallel to that of a real Malian king named Sundiata Keita. And Mulan reflects its inspiration, a Chinese cultural ballad and myth.

“This changed my whole view of Disney films,” says Berk Metin ’21. “When I watched The Lion King as a kid, I just saw happy animals singing and having fun. But now, I wonder how I could have missed things such as having only actors of color voice all the hyenas” — the film’s savage villains.

Alex Litovchenko ’21 discovered that Scar, leader of the hyenas, had characteristics based on Stalin and Hitler, and came to believe that “stereotypes about Africa were exposed in the Disney movies.” For instance, he says, Africa is shown only as a huge savannah without any people, just an animal kingdom.

Taylor Hough ’21 was struck by the use of light and darkness in The Lion King. “Color provides visual cues that influence our attitudes,” she says. “Scar is shown in dark caves while everyone else is shown in light, bright forests.”

Crocker told his students that impressionable children often absorb more information through films meant simply as entertainment than most adults realize. Hough says, “Putting those foundations in your mind as a kid can build stereotypes for your whole life.” The Disney project made Gina Atwood ’21 “wonder what else I didn’t notice in movies I saw when I was little. Now when a movie depicts a scene from history, I think that there are probably different sides to the story.”