The Color of Our Childhoods: The Historic Issues with Representation in Disney and Pixar Films

Many if not all of us have had some sort of Disney and Pixar related experience, whether it was going to an amusement park, seeing one of their films in theaters, or streaming one of their movies from home. Throughout the few decades that these animation studios have been creating feature films, their portrayal of people of color is not as positive as we thought. Are they doing better now?


TheGreatGlobetrotter, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

“You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality,” said Walt Disney.

Ever since Disney’s first animated piece with sound, Steamboat Willie, the company  has established itself as a major innovative animation studio. Pixar followed suit with its first feature film, Toy Story, and has continued to be an influential force in the animated movie industry alongside Disney.

These two animation studios have recently been including more protagonists of color in their films, notably in Pixar’s Soul and Turning Red and Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon and Encanto. However, Disney and Pixar both have unique histories behind the way they choose to represent characters of color in their films. 

Disney has a much more expansive history than Pixar, especially because it is over four decades older. Disney’s older 2-D movies are known to be centralized in European settings, so the majority of their films include a full cast of white characters. Until recently, most of Disney’s films have excluded people of color entirely, and those that did include people of color (also known as POC) are viewed by many as impeccably racist, often being used as a personification of a stereotype or trope thought of that race. 

Some beloved childhood movies such as Dumbo and Peter Pan are still available on Disney+ but have been tagged on the platform for containing racist imagery. 

In Dumbo, there weren’t really any humans in the film, as it predominantly consists of animal characters. However, it’s still possible to code a character as a certain background. Coding, such as Black coding, is a term used to describe when a character is implied to have a particular trait. This trait can be of racial or romantic orientation. Dumbo featured a scene in which a group of crows sang about how they’ve never seen an elephant fly. Although the premise of the song itself doesn’t seem racist, the issue lies in the way in which the crows are presented. One of the crows is named Jim Crow, an inappropriate and completely unnecessary reference to the laws that restricted African Americans for decades before the Civil Rights Movement.

Peter Pan was more straightforward with its bit of POC characters. Similar to many other Disney films of the era, Peter Pan has an all-white main cast, but the film features Native Americans in one scene, which is a misinterpretation of Native American culture.  

These two examples alone are sufficient enough to provide a small glimpse into Disney’s history with POC characterization in their feature films. 

None of the aforementioned characters contribute to the plot. They are simply personifications of racial stereotypes rather than important side characters, or more specifically, unnecessary filler characters that only serve to personify harmful racial stereotypes. 

These films didn’t gain as much traction as the major Disney princess films. However, they most definitely have an impact on the way in which POC are perceived by audiences, particularly young and impressionable audiences. When they see stereotypes, it not only causes children to question how their culture is viewed by the rest of the world, but it also places inaccurate images of these cultures in the minds of those who aren’t a part of them.

“I don’t need a character who’s my direct mirror, but it’s an incredible feeling to have the world look at you and want you,” said John Aster ’25, from the High School of American Studies at Lehman College.
(Robert Collins / Unsplash )

When asked if he felt Disney films accurately represented his ethnic background, Elliot Babilonia ’22 of Fordham High School for the Arts said, No, I could never see myself in these films. Why try to portray us if you’re not going to portray us correctly?” 

Like many others, Babilonia felt that Disney and Pixar were leaving people of color out of the loop, which just causes a vast number of children from all around the world to feel as though they cannot be like their animated white heroes on the big screen. 

In reference to the iconic Disney princess lineup, all princesses before Jasmine and Pocahontas are white. So for the majority of the time of  “classic Disney,” people of color were not included in starring roles at all. Many viewers now have issues with the way in which Pocahontas and Jasmine were handled as representations of Native American and Middle Eastern individuals. 

Pocahontas is based on a historical figure, but her story was completely changed for the animated children’s movie. Disney’s Pocahontas was turned into a film that was far from the tragic truth. The historical Pocahontas was taken and married to John Smith against her will. The story’s broader picture was completely changed to suit Disney audiences. 

But of course, those are the old films. The new films aren’t that bad…right?

Sorry to disappoint, but Disney and Pixar still have a long way to go. 

The representation of POC in older Pixar films may not be as inappropriate as that in older Disney films, at least not within the feature films themselves, but the fact that characters of color are nearly nonexistent in most if not all of their older films is still questionable. 

Their newer films, however, have included people of color as the main protagonists, much like the new and upcoming Disney animated films. 

These films have brought about a new set of issues that doesn’t quite resolve the problems that these animation studios had with their POC representation before. 

Soul, for example, was a hit Disney and Pixar film. The animation was beautiful, and Pixar gathered a team of Black employees to contribute to the story. This team was utilized to ensure that Black culture and experiences would be presented appropriately in the film. 

As great as all this sounds, there’s still one issue: Soul fell into a trope. Along with The Princess and The Frog and Spies in Disguise, Soul contributed to the movies starring a Black protagonist where the character was a non-human creature for the majority of the film. 

Although this trope was necessary to the plot of the story, many people wonder what it implies about the way in which Black people are viewed. Why is it that for the first 10-30 minutes of the film, viewers are introduced to a driven, hardworking, and fun character, just to see them get reduced to a frog, or a pigeon, or a small soul for the rest of it? Why is this trope most commonly associated with POC characters?

Pixar’s newly released movie, Turning Red, is a coming-of-age movie about a young girl named Mei who one day wakes up and discovers that she will turn into a giant red panda whenever she feels a strong emotion.

Although turning into something whenever a strong emotion overcomes oneself is definitely an interesting take on the trope, it still shows Pixar falling into the pattern of people of color turning into something non-human throughout their film. However, the film maintained Mei’s humanity throughout the film, and her transformation into a panda did not remove from the liveliness of her character, but an extension of herself and her form of expression. 

It’s safe to say that Pixar has had an easier time with redeeming themselves, but Disney has a lot more of its history to make up for. 

One such example is Disney’s release of the film Encanto, which is considered to be Disney’s best form of representation so far. Aside from the fact that the story could have been developed much more and focused on the way in which Disney decided to represent Colombia, the movie truly is as exceptional as the magical gifts of the Madrigal family. 

Encanto featured Colombian cuisines such as perico, buñuelos, and arepas; it featured architecture based on Hacienda style homes; and also included traditional Colombian dress into the character designs. All of this creates a harmony between a typical whimsical Disney story and a beautiful Latin American culture that is often depicted as violent in films. 

However, not all of Disney’s most recent POC feature films were met with the same amount of satisfaction as when Encanto was shown to Latino audiences. 

Raya and the Last Dragon was a project made in hopes of representing all of Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia is composed of eleven countries, each with its own distinct culture. Encanto only focused on one Latin American country rather than all of Latin America. There would just be too much to cover in one film, but Raya and the Last Dragon was not approached that way. 

With such an ambitious project, one would assume that they would try to be as accurate as possible. 

At the very least, some efforts were made. 

The voice behind Raya is indeed of South East Asian descent, but almost the entirety of the rest of the cast was not. Furthermore, only five out of the eleven South East Asian countries were visited by the production team. And yes, visiting eleven countries would have been a lot to handle, but so is trying to condense all of these different nations as if they were one. In a survey, John Aster ’24 of The High School of American Studies at Lehman, said,Raya is consistently lambasted for portraying South East Asia as a monolith, cherry-picking particular aesthetics with seemingly little regard for the actual diversity of South East Asia.” 

This film was released in 2021 and had the same issue of grouping up diverse Asian cultures as if they were one as Aladdin did with Middle Eastern cultures, which was released in 1992. Even after two decades, these trends seem to continue. 

Despite the film’s shortcomings, there were some accurate elements that some South East Asian viewers appreciated, such as the accuracy and variety in the fighting styles and the inclusion of a weapon from the Philippines used by the main protagonist Raya, sometimes called the whip sword or the Urumi.  

So, there’s a lack of representation, good and detailed representation, and representation that just continues to fall short.  

It’s amazing to see more people of color being included in films by renowned animation studios, but it’s still rather disappointing to see the same old tropes and stereotypes being repeated. 

Pixar and especially Disney have improved in the way in which they represent people of color. There is no modern use of offensive slurs, and less of the white savior trope in their new movies. During an interview, Bronx Science English teacher Ms. Wilhelm said, “ So if you address it with yourself, then you can make better choices for the work that you end up creating and putting out, because there’s messages in everything that we put out in the world. And I don’t think that the people at the top realize that.” 

Wilhelm continued, noting, “We can have representation and diversity without having to stereotype people, without having to put people in specific categories that make it digestible for us.”

Once the studios stop treating these films like a checklist, children of color will hopefully sit in front of a screen and see characters that look just like them. They will also feel a sense of pride in that piece of their identity. 

These two animation studios have recently been including more protagonists of color in their films, notably in Pixar’s Soul and Turning Red and Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon and Encanto. However, Disney and Pixar both have unique histories behind the way they choose to represent characters of color in their films.