Disney: Let’s Be Animated About Its Symbolism!

disney main

Disney films do not only entertain. They teach many lessons, each character often symbolizes various things. Donald Duck, for instance, symbolizes the anger, aggravation, and sense of injustice of an average viewer. Cruella de Vil symbolizes evil, fashion, grudges, and dangerous consumerism. And Disney princesses each have various meanings as well as symbolizing femininity, growing up, and female empowerment.     

Disney Films Teach Us

If you have children, are a child, or are a child at heart, you probably have seen lots of Disney movies.  Like all movies, Disney movies are not just about telling a story.  

Disney movies teach us things, including by using their characters as symbols. A simple example is how each of the seven dwarves in Snow White has a name that stands for some aspect of their personality.  Do you remember their names?  I bet many adults reading this still do.  

Dopey is not just a man with limited brainpower.  He symbolizes any number of people who are not that smart.  Dopey’s symbolism is simple while in a way being profound.  The power of Disney films arises in part from their ability to reach young children as well as their parents.  

Our job here, and you are allowed to whistle while you work, is to examine how some Disney characters symbolize various things.  If you find this interesting, maybe you will also enjoy more extended examinations of each that will also soon be available (or already are!).  

Donald Duck

There are Star Wars people and there are Star Trek people.  I am more of a Daffy Duck person than a fan of Donald Duck.  But, Donald Duck deserves his due, including symbolically.

Donald Fauntleroy Duck is the prime comic relief character in  the Mickey Mouse cartoons. Donald, dressed in a sailor outfit, often started off happy.  But, soon enough, something aggravated him.  A basic character trait is his irascible nature; how easy Donald was angered.  

Donald Duck is approachable since he is a flawed character, who has to deal with problems many viewers could relate to, especially fairly powerless children.  

Photo by Kin Li

A basic character trait is his tell-tale voice, which makes it hard to understand him. Donald’s speech impediment, like that of various other animated characters, is very relatable to many children who have their own issues.  And, few people do not have one.  

A later episode suggests his anger arose from his fear that people could not understand him.  Anger is often mixed with fear.  And, the mix results in people not taking him seriously

Donald became a bit of an “everyman” character.  When the government wanted to promote the importance of taxes and war bonds during World World II, Donald was used to help appeal to the Average Joe.  He is a bit of a braggart but remained approachable. 

Donald’s anger did not make him a forlorn character.  Donald always retained hope things would get better in the end.  His optimism, however, always ran into difficulties.  His anger symbolizes Donald’s strong sense of justice.  His bluster was comical while still being somewhat admirable.

Sebastian (Little Mermaid)

Sebastian Horatio Thelonious Ignacious Crustaceous Sebastian is a crab who serves as the court composer of King Triton, the father of Ariel (aka the Little Mermaid).  

Sebastian is not “crabby,” but a lively sidekick and protector for Ariel.  He is Trindianian (an island in the West Indies) with a bit of Bob Marley.  Sebastian is supposed to enforce the rules, but also is part of a secret catfish club band.  

Sebastian symbolizes friendship and protection.  Authority mixed with a bit of rebellion.  Music and the importance of self-expression.  He also symbolizes the West Indies.  

What do they get? A lot of sand. We got a hot crustacean band. Each little clam here knows how to jam here under the sea.

Sebastian sings Under the Sea to try to convince Ariel that the “grass isn’t greener” in the human world.  Sebastian symbolizes here the appeal of the familiar, which sometimes leads us to glorify things too much.  Or, at least, to focus on the good, ignoring the bad.  

Sebastian is also familiar to children because he is small and worries sometimes about the limits of his size.  He worries he will not keep up with Ariel and Flounder (a quicker moving fish).  Sebastian also at times covers up his fears with a bit of bluster and feigned assurance.  

Read more about Sebastian here.

Cruella de Vil

Cruella de Vil’s first name is a mash-up of “cruel” and “devil.”  Her last name, “de Vil,” can be a reference to an alias used by Dracula (the evil vampire) or an expensive car (symbolizing wealth).  So, her very name is very symbolic.  

There have been many versions of Cruella de Vil’s story, from the book, the most well-known animated film appearance (A Hundred and One Dalmatians), and a recent live-action film that presents her early years (Cruella).  Each version tweaks the story in various ways.

Besides symbolizing evil and cruelty, Cruella symbolizes fashion for fashion’s sake.  Cruella is evil, but she has a sense of style, including her white and black hair.  

But, this fashion sense is taken to such extreme levels (harming puppies), it is also a symbol of uncontrolled capitalism and greed.  At some point, it is not just uncontrolled, but crazy, though there is lately more of an attempt to explain her actions in a more rational way.

Cruella is also an example of evil having a sort of twisted attraction. She is fun (if in a crazy way), independent (the book has her husband taking her name, which was a big deal in the 1950s), and even a bit of a feminist.  On the other hand, her evil taints what might be good qualities. 

Olaf  (Frozen)

The movie Frozen is about two sisters, Anna and Elsa.  As children, they built a snowman named “Olaf” while playing in a winter wonderland that was a result of Elsa’s magic.  

A symbol of sister togetherness and love as well as happier times, Olaf came to life during the famous “Let It Go” song.  The song, which many parents heard a bit too much often, involves a little moment that many might miss where Elsa uses her powers and Olaf comes to life. 

A character that might be assumed to be mostly an amusing bit of comic relief (who likes warm hugs) turns out to be filled with symbolism as well as playing an important part in the plot.  

Olaf’s very name is symbolic, since St. Olaf is the patron saint of Norway.  

Olaf is a symbol of childhood, optimism, cheer, and moments of simple child-like wisdom.  He is also a symbol of love, willing to melt to protect Anna (“Some people are worth melting for.”)  

Olaf is also a symbol of dreams, wanting to experience summer.  Dreams can come true, with a bit of magic, because Elsa in the end does help him do just that.  

Dory (Finding Nemo)

Finding Nemo is an animated film about the search for a clownfish named Nemo by his dad (Marlin) and a regal blue tang named Dory.  A “dory” is a common name for a fish.

Dory is the focus of a sequel, Finding Dory, which is about the search for her parents as well as further adventures of the characters in the first film.  

Dory is a ditzy fish, especially because she has a serious case of short term memory loss.  Dory is brave, fearlessly putting herself into danger during her adventures.  

Dory has a childish side, but is loyal, and has a special ability to find good in people.  She is very optimistic and open to adventure.  Dory symbolizes these qualities and is a very positive character, if one that is a sort of comic relief in Finding Nemo.  

One review notes that the sequel focuses more on her condition, also including other characters with some disability.  People make assumptions about her limitations that are shown to be mistaken.  This includes the idea she cannot be emotionally hurt, since she would just forget.  

Again, it is common for animated characters to have some disability that makes them memorable, but does not define them as a person.  This helps many viewers who have their own particular disability understand they are a lot more than that one part of themselves.  

Timon and Pumbaa (The Lion King)

Timon Leslie Berkowitz (a meerkat) and Pumbaa Smith (a warthog) are a duo from The Lion King.  

“Pumbaa” means “foolish” and “lazy” in Swahili (an African language).  “Timon” means “honorable” and “respected.”  Both names turn out to be appropriate in some fashion.  Pumbaa often seems foolish and lazy.  And, Timon in the end does show himself to be honorable to his friends.  

Pumbaa  is the subject of a popular song that states the duo’s philosophy: “hakuna matata” (“no worries”).  The song notes that though he appears tough, he has a sensitive side.  Plus, being a warthog, some find him a bit stinky:

He found his aroma lacked a certain appeal

He could clear the Savannah after every meal

I’m a sensitive soul, though I seem thick-skinned

And it hurt that my friends never stood downwind.

The Lion King is a version of the Shakespeare play Hamlet, which involves a prince gaining justice for the death of his father.  Timon and Pumbaa are partially based on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Hamlet, but have a more positive role in the plot, including teaching Simba how to enjoy life and ultimately also watching over Simba’s daughter.

Pumbaa is brave while Timon is often more of a scaredy-muskrat.  Timon is a troublemaker and likes to take credit for other people’s work.  Different in various ways, Pumbaa and Timon are best friends.  Timon ultimately is loyal to his friends and family.  

Each character has qualities with a lot of symbolic content. The duo together symbolizes fun, friendship, a laid back view of life, loyalty, and bravery when it counts.  

Woody (Toy Story)

Sheriff Woody Pride, an old-fashioned cowboy, is Andy’s favorite toy at the beginning of the movie Toy Story.  Bo Peep eventually becomes his girlfriend.  He later is owned by Bonnie.  

Woody was the star of a 1950s Western.  Westerns provide a somewhat mythical view of American history, including teaching basic values of right and wrong.  Woody himself is a symbol of a traditional male authority figure, without the “bells and whistles” of Buzz Lightyear. 

Woody is honest, reliable, taciturn, brave, but still deep down has various doubts and feels threatened when his place as a leader of the toys is at risk.  

Woody symbolizes what it takes to be a good leader, including admitting one’s weaknesses and mistakes.  Woody symbolizes having good old fashioned values while still being open to change.  

Woody symbolizes how we retain certain aspects of ourselves even as the years pass by, and we have to deal with change and loss.  He symbolizes a certain core stability.  

Buzz Lightyear (Toy Story)

Buzz Lightyear is a new toy given to Andy for his birthday in Toy Story.  

Andy is impressed by his flashy nature and cool accessories.  Buzz becomes his new favorite toy and also impresses the other toys as well.  This causes problems with Woody, the previous leader and favorite toy.  But, by the end of the movie, Woody and Buzz are best friends.  

Buzz is a space ranger from the Intergalactic Alliance and the captain of the Alliance’s team. Buzz is brave and self-assured.  Unlike the other toys, Buzz thinks he is “real,” and is shocked and depressed when he finds out the truth.  By the end of the movie, Buzz accepts his identity.

Photo by Veit Hammer

Buzz symbolizes space and adventure. Buzz Lightyear’s name in honor of Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, part of the first mission to put a man on the moon.  

Buzz symbolizes a stereotypical “cocky” masculine leader in an adventure story.  He symbolizes the willingness to explore and go into the unknown.  His motto is “To infinity…and beyond!”

Buzz also has a clueless side, symbolizing our ignorance of our true nature, and our struggle to accept reality.  Buzz also symbolizes acceptance of the truth, including realizing life can go on. 

Buzz symbolizes friendship.  Buzz becomes Woody’s best friend and they continue to protect and give each other moral support throughout the Toy Story movies.  

Disney Princesses

One thing many girls dream of being is a princess, especially when they are mommy or daddy’s little princess anyways.  Who would not be a princess, being the center of attention, having all the pomp and excitement of a royal life, and having a bunch of adventures? 

Disney has twelve main princesses, who each bring all of these things, while also having their own special personal qualities and symbolic meaning.  The twelve are:

  • Snow White – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
  • Cinderella – Cinderella (1950)
  • Aurora – Sleeping Beauty (1959)
  • Ariel – The Little Mermaid (1989)
  • Belle – Beauty and the Beast (1991)
  • Jasmine – Aladdin (1992)
  • Pocahontas – Pocahontas (1995)
  • Mulan – Mulan (1998)
  • Tiana – The Princess and the Frog (2009)
  • Rapunzel – Tangled (2010)
  • Merida – Brave (2012)
  • Moana – Moana (2016)

Disney princesses symbolize beauty, youth, innocence, femininity, and a sense of adventure.  

The traditional princess was a white European princess, but over time, princesses from a variety of cultures around the world also were introduced.  Each still retains a traditional idea of beauty, being young, pretty, and having a slim figure.  Full diversity comes in installments.

The “modern girl” can have various reasons to find Disney princesses good role models.  Disney princesses are brave, challenge authority, are excited to go out on their own, and experience new things.  Disney princesses are basically teenagers, ready to go out on their own.  

Disney princesses symbolize family, including different kinds of family, including single parents, stepfamilies, and adopted families.  They symbolize balancing family loyalty with other things.  

A Snow White might need help from a male prince, but many Disney princesses, including Mulan and Merida, can defend themselves, thank you, having some Xena (warrior princess) in them.  

Disney princesses still symbolize falling in love and marriage.  But, a lot more too.


The film Enchanted was both a satire of sorts of Disney films while also one that followed the basic storyline of one all the same. Giselle is a somewhat naive princess-to-be, who has adventures in real-world New York City.   Much of the familiar symbolism is present.  

Enchanted is a fun film, including a song that combines a traditional sing while you work song with animals (like pigeons and rats) found in Manhattan.  The fact the film has a lot of symbolism does not make it any less fun.  How do I know?  Well, I watched and enjoyed it!

Recent Posts