The Rescuers: A message of worth

If you’ve had a preschooler, you know they go through obsessions. Foods, games, books, films—they will latch on to one until you are ready to scream, then move on to something else. My gal has been movie hopping—first it was Cinderella, then Peter Pan, then The Incredibles, and now it is Disney’s 1977 The Rescuers.

The interesting thing about seeing a movie a billion times in a row is that you see things you wouldn’t normally see in just a few viewings. This happened to me with Peter Pan, when I examined why I like Captain Hook as a villain. With The Rescuers, I suddenly caught a social angle I hadn’t seen before.

Cover of "The Rescuers"

Cover of The Rescuers

In The Rescuers, two mice must go to rescue a kidnapped girl. The female mouse, Miss Bianca, is a member of the Rescue Aid Society, an international organization of mice that meets in the basement of the United Nations building and answers any calls for help that come its way. The male mouse, Bernard, is the janitor for this organization.

Every movie is a reflection of its time, and The Rescuers is no exception. Miss Bianca is an adventurous mouse who asks to be given the rescue mission—the first female agent to go on a mission. Every male agent wants to be her co-agent, but she chooses the timid janitor Bernard to accompany her. And this is where I noticed something odd.

We are all familiar with the trope of a character starting the story in a lowly position. Usually, this is accompanied by that character being treated badly and often feeling that they are less than everyone else in society. Then, after they save the world or what have you, at the end of the movie everyone loves them because they are heroes. In other words, being a good person wasn’t enough—they had to show the world “what’s in it for me.”

Disney does it differently. Bernard has clearly been the janitor for a long time. As all the delegates—the elite—enter the building, he is sweeping up. He greets them, and they all greet him, many by name. Never is he snubbed or “put in his place.” He speaks freely to the Chairman, so obviously he has never been told to be seen and not heard. And when Miss Bianca chooses him—over all the fawning male delegates—to accompany her, the company cheers for him.

Had this movie been made today, those cheers would have been boos. Disney has turned the trope on its head. The movie shows in very subtle ways that a man’s (or mouse’s) worth is not in what he can do for you, but in who he is at his core. Bernard does menial work, but he is respected by all the delegates—respected before he has done anything heroic. Respected for being a decent, hard-working mouse.

I think that’s a great message to send to kids. In this day and age, so much of the media message seems to be one of greed—of not asking if this person is a good person, but what that person can do for you. Of not measuring a person’s worth by the size of their heart, but by the size of their bank account.

Perhaps Bernard’s position of respect in spite of his menial job was also a sign of the times. A time when a person wasn’t judged by what you could get out of him, but by what was inside of him. I’d like to think that America is not gone. That we can get back to a time when we respected people for their work, instead of their paycheck. When you didn’t have to be a hero to be a somebody.

We’re all somebody—and our humanity alone is worthy of respect.

Why Disney’s Captain Hook is a Great Villain–and how yours can be, too

My daughter has been obsessively watching Disney’s Peter Pan (1953) the past few weeks. And it struck me suddenly that I like Captain Hook, in spite of his villainy. I’ve seen my share of Disney movies, and he’s the only bad guy I empathize with. As a writer, I started to wonder why.

First, I compared Hook to other Disney villains and their main emotional drives. Showing my age, my examples are ones from my childhood. Some modern Disney villains may also employ the techniques that make Hook a great villain, but the lessons I gleaned from Hook still hold true.

    1. Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty) – revenge
    2. Stepmother (Cinderella) – greed
    3. Evil Queen (Snow White) – jealousy
    4. Cruella De Vil (101 Dalmatians) – vanity
    5. Hook (Peter Pan) – revenge

On the surface, Hook seems much like the others, driven purely by some dark emotion. But although I enjoyed the other villains, I never empathized with them on any level. I identified 2 things that set him apart.

1) Motivation backstory – for most Disney villains, we never know why they are driven by these dark urges. Did Maleficent snap over a lack of invitation because she was a nerd in high school? Did the Stepmother grow up dirt poor and swear “never again”? Was the Evil Queen so insecure about her looks because her mother always told her she was ugly? Did Cruella De Vil want to stand out so much because she had always been overlooked as a child? We never know the backstory—we only see the results.

With Hook, we do know why he is driven—and it is a nuanced why. He’s not seeking vengeance for Peter cutting off his hand—no, he wants revenge because Peter threw the hand to a crocodile, causing the beast to stalk Hook constantly.

2) Vulnerability – The other Disney villains are pure evil. Chilling. The stuff of nightmares. And they have no human weaknesses.

Hook, though, has a glaring weakness—he is terrified of the crocodile. Not just nervous, but scream-like-a-child, jump-into-Smee’s-arms hysterical whenever he hears that clock. Such blatant vulnerability in a man who casually shoots his own crew when they annoy him opens up a very human side we can access.

These 2 techniques (combined with a touch of comedy) give Hook accessibility that many Disney villains lack—and therefore allow us to empathize with him.

I’m going to keep that in mind for my villains. While I have always known they need to be 3-dimensional, I have focused more on making them strong enough to push the hero than on making them accessible to the reader. By giving them nuanced motives that I allow my readers to see and by adding a vulnerability the reader can relate to (who wants to be eaten by a crocodile, after all?), I can make my villains stronger, deeper, and more memorable.

Do you have any tricks for making your villains relatable to the reader?

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