As a child, much of my life was consumed and molded by the animated brilliance of Walt Disney. Whether it was daily viewings of Winnie the Pooh or nighttime readings of The Lion King, my eyes were constantly exposed and opened by a world of creativity that was paralleled by none but revered by all. The first movie I saw in a theater was The Tigger Movie, and even to this day I have dreams of owning a magic carpet like Aladdin. Through Disney, I learned lessons of friendship, trust, compassion, independence and courage.
I am not alone. Around the world, young adults feel united by what appears to be a universal love for a group of characters who have helped us become the people we are today.
But what happens when our beloved icons-the invincible manifestations of self-righteousness, individuality, and happiness-become not so happy? What happens when “Happily Ever After” truly becomes nothing more than a fairy tale?
This is the theory behind the work of Jeff Hong, an animation storyboard artist whose previous work has appeared in Disney films such as Hercules and Mulan. A self-described Disney fanatic, Mr. Hong snatches our favorite princesses and heroes from their tranquil kingdoms and drops them into the real world-a world of global warming, skewed rape culture, oil spills, racism, animal abuse and deforestation. And while his portraits are nothing less than heart-wrenching, they are deeply symbolic of what it means to grow up.
There is no denying that the real world is a dangerous place, but that’s part of why the world of Disney is so appealing to the human condition. For viewers of all ages, this domain of animation provides a means of escaping the daily grind. For hours at a time, we can enclose ourselves in a world of singing bears and whistling, pie-making birds. But when this safeguard is suddenly shattered, when the barrier between fiction and reality is broken down, we are left feeling helpless and confused. Seeing Ariel covered in oil or Dumbo cowering at the crack of a bloody circus whip is a reminder that happiness is more than a requirement for a plot closing. Seeing Cinderella in a tattered dress in the alleyway of a dark road is a reminder that we are not doing enough to alleviate domestic violence. Seeing Princess Belle with surgical lines etched on her face is a reminder that our perception of beauty is monstrous. Seeing Mulan with a mask on her face to avoid the pollution of modern day China is a reminder that we should be thankful to live in a nation where are worries are not focused on the air we breathe. Happiness, as Mr. Hong shows his audience, is something to be earned. Happiness is something to be sought out, something to be shared, and something to be valued. And nobody, not even the most invulnerable of caricatures, is guaranteed it.
But despite all the unhappiness is a gilded message of activism and awareness. As human beings, we have the ability to bring “Happily Ever After” to life. We have the power to end the mistreatment of animals in kennels and circuses. We have the power to end sexual assault and empower those who have fallen victim to it. We have the power to cut off the malignant vine of racism and segregation that is seldom discussed but universally seen. We must stop living in the fantasy that our society is fair and equal for all. This is not to encourage the flow of conspiracy and anarchical thought, but to merely depict the problems that we so easily ignore. And should we choose to make the attempt to close these social disparities, we should do so not just for Aurora or Tiana, but for everyone around us. You don’t have to be a princess to make a change. You just have to be human.
And it shouldn’t be that hard. As said in Peter Pan, “all you need is a little faith, trust and pixie dust.”