Movies and TV shows often characterize fathers as stereotypes. Typically they’re not very bright, not good listeners, and have a dreadful sense of humor.
In Disney, things are a little different. While there are certainly a few stock character dads such as Maurice or The Sultan, Disney fathers often play powerful roles that dramatically impact the main character’s story. Last month the Mothers of Disney showed us how women can be strong. The fathers of Disney can show us how important and irreplaceable a good father is.
Bambi’s father, the “Great Prince of the Forest,” is an example of a father who fails at his role. He rarely appears in the film at all, even after Bambi’s mother (his wife) dies. He is emotionally detached and unsupportive of Bambi.
His distance from his family is depicted powerfully in the few scenes where he makes an appearance. Whenever we do see the Great Prince he is standing alone on a cliff, peering across the forest. He’s removed from his family and places himself (literally) above the rest of the animals who ultimately are the ones that provide the protection, love, and guidance that young Bambi requires.
Compare this to Mufasa who, like Bambi’s father, is the king of the animals and has a designated cliff on which to stand and watch over the kingdom. Unlike Bambi’s father, Mufasa brings his family to Pride Rock with him and is constantly involved in the day-to-day workings of the kingdom. Bambi’s father is a harshly realistic portrayal of a father who is a workaholic, has emotionally abandoned his family, and will never understand what it truly means to be a father.
Similar to Bambi’s situation, young Jim Hawkins (Treasure Planet) and his mother Sarah were abandoned by Mr. Hawkins when Jim was only a young boy. Jim’s lack of a father and fear of being hurt again is the catalyst for the many struggles he faces during his teen years.
As a seventeen year-old he’s guarded, rebellious, and unsure of himself. That all changes when he meets the pirate-cyborg John Silver. Silver, like Jim, is quick to judge and afraid to trust. But he recognizes that Jim’s tough guy act is nothing but a wall built to protect himself from more pain, and slowly, to Silver’s own surprise, he begins to open up to Jim, who in turn begins to trust him.
The scene when Silver tells Jim everything Jim’s own father should have told him is is one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever seen in a Disney film. Jim’s birth father wounded him deeply. But your birth father doesn’t have to be your “dad.” Silver becomes a father figure to Jim which makes both of them better men and helps them to find their places in the universe.
Two beautiful examples of fatherhood are Mufasa from The Lion King and Fa Zhou from Mulan. Both of them have very high standards and expect their children to meet them. For example, Mufasa expects Simba to recognize that he gives him boundaries and rules in order to keep him safe and guide him on the path to kingship.
When Simba “deliberately disobeys” his father, Mufasa is disappointed — not because he wants Simba to blindly follow rules, but because he knows that Simba is better than the foolish choices he made. Both fathers instill in their children a sense of self worth which ultimately brings them through hardship. Simba’s most difficult burden is the belief that he’s not like his father, and Mulan’s greatest motivator is the desire to make her father proud.
Neither Mufasa nor Fa Zhou bow to outside opinions that tell them their children are not good enough. Fa Zhou is raising his daughter Mulan in a time and place when women are looked down upon as inferior to men, yet he treats his daughter with as much respect as a man and he always speaks to her with moving affection. In fact, Mulan seems to be closer to her father than her mother (an uncommon occurrence in cinema), something I attribute to the fact that her father spends so much quality time with her.
There isn’t one way to be a father. But there are a lot of choices to be made that will determine whether one can be a bad father or a good one.
The fathers of Disney offer examples of both. A loving father loves and accepts his child simply because of who they are rather than what they can be or do, and conveys that in his words and actions every day.
Every father should be able to repeat Fa Zhou’s words Mulan, “The greatest gift and honor is having you for a daughter.”