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  • Writer's pictureLoren Javier

A Look At People Of Color In Disney Animated Films

Yesterday, we got exciting news via The DisInsider that Zootopia directors Byron Howard and Jared Bush will be directing an animated film called Encanto set in Brazil. The story revolves around a young girl who's family has magical powers. However, she does not.

This will be the third woman of color, the other two being Moana and Raya, that Walt Disney Animation Studios has developed in the last five years which is wonderful.

I thought we'd take a look at people of color in Disney's and Pixar's animated feature films. So, we will not look at live action nor any of the shorts or television shows. We will also not get into live action films with animation such as Song of the South and Mary Poppins.

First, we have the crows from Dumbo. They are widely accepted as a "step and fetch it" jive talking African American comedy act. Obviously, this scene is very offensive. And to add insult to injury, the lead crow's name is Jim Crow, a reference to the laws that promoted segregation. Another offensive representation of African Americans were the black centaurettes in the Pastoral scene of Fantasia. While most centaurettes were tall and slender and representing white women, the black ones were small and slender and had donkey bodies instead of horses. These centaurettes have, however, been edited out of subsequent releases of the film.

I suppose the first look at people of color as actual humans would be in Three Caballeros with Gauchito from "The Flying Gauchito." He is cute and adorable, but fairly light skinned for an Argentine gaucho. But, there's nothing overtly offensive about this little package. There is also another package entitled "Las Posadas" that was more Mary Blair illustration than animated, but there was nothing offensive either and it's actually quite charming.

Then there are Jose Carioca and Panchito Pistoles who are from Brazil and Mexico respectively. At least they were voiced by people from those countries. And they are quite fun.

I don't really include The Gaucho Goofy and Pedro in Saludos Amigos. And, because she's live action, we're not including Aurora Miranda who played the yaya in the "Baia" sequence in Three Caballeros.

The next film to feature people of color would be Peter Pan which had horribly offensive stereotypes of Native Americans. To make things worse, the movie included the song "What Made The Red Man Red." I don't think I need to explain why it was offensive.

Next, in Lady and the Tramp, we yet again have stereotypical representation of people of color in Si and Am, the Siamese Cats. They so obviously wanted us to believe that these were Asians, with the slanted eyes and offensive accents.

We wouldn't see another person of color until 1967 and The Jungle Book. The only thing is that Mowgli was voiced by Bruce Reitherman, a white child. It's hard for me to accept him as an Indian child, but here he is. There's nothing overtly offensive about him and we should be thankful that they did not try to have him imitate an Indian accent.

Disney's next film, The Aristocats, would go back to another stereotypically Asian cat (what do they have against cats?) where we have Shun Gon voiced by Paul Winchell. He was slant eyed and buck toothed speaking with an offensive accent. And he played the piano with chopsticks. It was awful.

The next time we'd see a person of color would be Oliver and Company where, yet again, the representation would be in animal form. We are talking about Tito the Mexican Chihuahua. At least he was voiced by Mexican American Cheech Marin.

Up next is Aladdin. The problem with Aladdin is that all the voice actors were white, with the singing voice for Jasmine being Filipino. But, again, at least they didn't try to use stereotypical accents.

Then, we have Pocahontas. It's difficult with this one because I think Disney actually gave some thought to Native Americans in this film by hiring Native actors to voice the majority of the Powhatan characters. Despite the beautiful music and wonderful artistry, the problem with Pocahontas is that it is revisionist history. Disney would have been better served if it had picked from the many Native American folktales out there.

Mulan comes next. Again, I felt like the animators really tried to incorporate actual Chinese culture and hired Asian actors to voice the characters. But, again, the problem was the choice of story. Mulan is a beloved folktale in China and many didn't understand the Westernized interpretation. Although, to be fair, Disney has always given their stories that "Disney touch." They've often completely reinterpreted stories. Look at Frozen which is a far cry from it's source in Hans Christian Anderson's "The Snow Queen."

In The Emperor's New Groove, the characters are supposed to be Peruvian, but Disney went back to hiring white actors to voice them. Even though the film is one of Disney's funniest, it will always have that mark against it.

Lilo & Stitch featured characters of Hawaiian and Asian decent. I thought it was beautifully told and the animators spent time in Hawaii trying to incorporate the culture. While I appreciate them hiring actors from Hawaii to voice Nani and David, I wish they had also done so with Lilo.

And then we come to The Princess and the Frog, the first time truly African American characters appear in a Disney animated film. They did a great job with the story and hiring wonderful African American actors. Now, if only Disney would dip into the treasure trove of African and African American folk tales to get more African American representation out there.

Over at Pixar, we have Up which featured a Japanese American child named Russell voiced by a Japanese American actor. This was a wonderful way to have a person of color in a film. He didn't have to be Japanese American, but he was and it makes the character and film richer because of it.

Big Hero 6 had a very diverse cast filled with Asian American, Latino American and African American characters. All the characters are appropriately voiced and they told a great story. Again, none of these characters needed to be people of color, but the fact that they made the whole cast diverse is wonderful.

Then, we have Moana. Animators really spent time on several Polynesian islands soaking up the culture. They even hired a group of Natives to consult on the film. And, they hired all actors of Polynesian descent. It's a far step from the older stereotypical films as well as a step up from Lilo & Stitch.

Back to Pixar and Cars 3 where they hired Mexican American actress Cristela Alonzo to voice Cruz Ramirez. Again, what's great is that the character did not need to be Mexican American. She just was.

And, the next Pixar film was Coco. What a fantastic story. Again, animators spent a lot of time soaking up Mexican American culture and what Dia de los Muertos means. The cast are all Mexican American. It was just beautifully done and Coco is adored by the Latino community.

Finally, we come to Raya and the Last Dragon which will come out this year. Not a great deal is known about the film other than it takes place in the mythical South East Asian realm of Kumandra. Raya must go in search of the last dragon for some reason. If Disney follows the trajectory that it's been in, this film should be great.

And, so, I can't wait to see what Encanto has in store for us, but I do hope it follows the recent footsteps of the Disney films really investing time in learning about the culture and hiring Brazilian or Latino actors to voice the characters. Hopefully, with all the people of color representation as of late that Disney will look into the other folklore and mythology out there as fairy tales don't only exist in Europe.

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