The Disneyfied Outlaw:
How the Walt Disney Company Constructs its Own Outlaw Hero Model
by Victoria Muir

 The world of literary research devotes significant time to the study of the outlaw hero archetype. Traditionally, the outlaw hero follows the general principles of a Robin Hood-like character. Many literary scholars, such as folklorist Graham Seal, define models for what it means when a character follows the outlaw hero construction. In its animated films, the Walt Disney Company takes the classic literary principles of outlaw hero status and “Disneyfies” them—the act of “Disneyfying” is a term often used when discussing how the massive Walt Disney franchise develops its own trends and characteristics based off of preset notions. The act of Disneyfying something is often referred to as “Disneyfication”. Much like the traditional Robin Hood figure, a Disneyfied outlaw hero lives as an outlaw due to oppressive forces and an imbalance of wealth in the outlaw’s community. Thus, the outlaw steals from the wealthy members of society in order to feed himself and the community’s more impoverished members. Though many outlaw stories contain scenes of violence and often even the death of the outlaw hero, a Disney outlaw hero tale lacks this element due to the young audience of the films. A Disneyfied tale ends with the reformation of the outlaw instead of the death of the outlaw hero. The Disneyfied outlaw hero eventually abandons his life of crime and freedom in the forest. Thus, the outlaw hero finds his place in upper-class society. The reformation of a Disney outlaw hero occurs when the outlaw hero falls in love with a woman from the upper class (usually a princess). The Disney animated features Robin Hood, Aladdin, and Tangled contain the characters most appropriate for an in-depth look at the Disneyfication of the outlaw hero legend. When undergoing the process of Disneyfication, an outlaw hero transforms from a Robin Hood figure living outside the law to an upper-class citizen who lives happily ever after.

 Literary folklorist Graham Seal defines a widely accepted literary model for an outlaw hero character in his article titled “The Robin Hood Principle” from the Journal of Folklore Research. Seal describes the outlaw hero as a “charismatic individual” who is “spurred into defiance” by a minor incident or an oppressive authoritative force (69). Most often, the outlaw hero arises as a representative of the lower class fighting an imbalance of wealth and power. In Seal’s model, the outlaw hero lives in a supportive community of others who further the hero’s causes. Further, Seal writes that an outlaw hero usually refrains from unnecessary violence, brings no harm to women or children, and only kills in “justified retribution” (74). For instance, in the 1938 Warner Brother’s film The Adventures of Robin Hood, Hood kills the treacherous Sir Guy of Gisbourne who terrorized the innocent lower class by burning their homes, beating them, and collecting unreasonable and oppressive taxes. In this film, Sir Guy’s death is “justifiable,” and Robin Hood kills him in accordance with Seal’s model. Seal also notes that an outlaw hero usually dies at the end of the tale due to some act of betrayal (74). The outlaw hero lives on in society as a symbol for freedom and a force against the corrupt authorities. Disney certainly draws on many aspects of the Graham Seal outlaw hero model when constructing outlaw heroes in its animated feature films. Characters such as Disney’s fox-version of Robin Hood, the “street rat” thief named Aladdin, and the suave outlaw Flynn Rider in Tangled serve as excellent examples when analyzing Disney outlaw heroes. These men possess similarities to Seal’s model for an outlaw hero, but they also undergo the process of Disneyfication to meet Disney’s specific outlaw hero qualifications.

It’s easy to thus conclude that in Disney films, the absence of a stable family in outlaw heroes’ childhoods allows for them to find family situations in comic resolution within the film.

 A Disney outlaw hero follows Seal’s concept of fighting an imbalance of wealth and/or corrupt powers in his community. The creation of the 1973 Disney film Robin Hood acts as one of Disney’s first major attempts to Disneyfy an outlaw hero figure for a children’s animated feature, and the film largely followed the Graham Seal model for an outlaw hero. The Disneyfication of Robin Hood in this film sets the tone for the future Disney outlaw heroes to come. In this animated feature, the entire cast of characters exists in the animal world. Robin Hood is a fox, Little John is, ironically, a rather large bear, and the villainous Prince John is a scrawny lion. The plot revolves around the corrupt ruler of Nottingham, Prince John, who unfairly taxes the citizens to accumulate wealth for the royals. The baseline of Disney’s interpretation of the Robin Hood legend possesses many of the same characteristics as Seal’s “Robin Hood Principle,” such as stealing from the rich to help the poor and doing so in a supportive community.

Disney’s 1992 film Aladdin furthers the development of Seal’ outlaw hero model and supports the trait of Disney outlaw heroes as representatives of an oppressed class. The film tells the story of the title character named Aladdin—a “street rat” living in a fictionalized Middle East. As the audience learns from Aladdin’s opening monologue song titled “One Jump Ahead,” Aladdin is a poor young man living on the streets. He states that he must “steal only what [he] can’t afford…and that’s everything.” The film’s opening shows a comical series of events in which Aladdin exhibits his finest trickery to steal bread and is subsequently chased by palace guards. However, once he escapes their sight, Aladdin sees two children digging through garbage to find food. Aladdin immediately gives the bread he stole for himself to the kids so they can have a meal. Within the first five minutes of the film, Disney establishes the clear analogies between Aladdin and the Robin Hood outlaw hero. Aladdin is forced to steal because of the oppressive imbalance of wealth within his community. Aladdin satisfies the quintessential outlaw hero requirement of stealing from the rich to give to the other poor members of his community.

 One of Disney’s most recent blockbusters from 2011, the computer-animated film Tangled, contains an outlaw hero character named Flynn Rider who serves as an extension of the Disneyfied outlaw hero archetype. Tangled tells a version of the story of Rapunzel, the princess with infinitely long hair. Rapunzel is born a princess in her kingdom with magical long hair that has the power to heal. An evil old woman named Mother Gothel kidnaps Rapunzel as a baby and raises her as her own in a secluded tower, using Rapunzel’s hair to keep herself young forever. A cunning thief named Flynn Rider meets Rapunzel in a chance encounter. Rider builds upon the Disneyfied model set in place with earlier Disney characters such as Robin Hood and Aladdin. The film opens with a picture of Flynn Rider’s “WANTED” poster, setting the tone for Flynn Rider as a criminal and immoral person. Much like the introduction to Aladdin, Tangled starts out with a scene where palace guards chase Flynn Rider for thievery. However, the audience quickly learns that, unlike Aladdin, Rider commits greater crimes. Aladdin steals bread to survive, and he shares it with the other poor people in his community. Flynn Rider, on the other hand, steals valuables such as crowns from the royal palace. In addition, Rider initially displays no intentions of helping anyone but himself. Rider even sacrifices his two “friends” who help him steal a royal crown to the guards to ensure that he will not be captured. In one of the first songs of the film titled “I’ve Got a Dream,” Flynn says his dreams “mainly happen somewhere warm and sunny / On an island that I own / Tan and rested and alone / Surrounded by enormous piles of money!” Still, the audience cannot help but root for Flynn Rider because of the way Disney constructs the outlaw to be such a likeable and charismatic character, just like Seal’s description of an outlaw as a “charismatic individual.”

 In its animated films series, the Walt Disney Company builds upon the traditional outlaw hero model to create its own brand of Disneyfied outlaw hero men. A Disneyfied outlaw hero enters lower-class society after undergoing a troubled childhood. The imbalance of wealth and oppressive forces usually propel the outlaw hero into his life of outlawry based on the need to survive. However, through the help of a lovely lady, the outlaw hero is able to reform and enter society as an upper-class individual. In addition, the outlaw hero offers a sense of adventure and escape for his love interest. The Disney animated film series subjects itself to many criticisms, mostly from parents. Peggy Orenstein, a feminist literary scholar and parent of a toddler daughter obsessed with Disney, mentions many criticisms of the messages in Disney animated films in her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter. She highlights the concerns associated with the somewhat lighthearted portrayals of crime in the Disney films. Particularly, she worries about the questionable lessons associated with teaching young girls to fall in love with bad boy outlaw hero figures. Orenstein’s analysis demonstrates that the Disneyfied outlaw hero model does not go without critique.

 As Graham Seal notes, in addition to redistributing wealth, an outlaw hero often comes from a troubled background (74). The absence of parental figures in Disney films fulfills this outlaw hero requirement. As Disney Scholar Janet Wasko notes in her book Understanding Disney, “While ‘sanctity of the family’ is said to be a dominant theme in Disney features, ironically, few complete families are represented” in films (116). Aladdin continues with this trend; the audience knows that Aladdin is an orphan, implying some sort of rough upbringing. Many other Disney characters, such as Flynn Rider in Tangled, Lilo in Lilo and Stitch, and Elsa in Frozen also possess the parentless characteristic, making them contenders for outlaw hero analysis like Aladdin. It’s easy to thus conclude that in Disney films, the absence of a stable family in outlaw heroes’ childhoods allows for them to find family situations in comic resolution within the film. The idea of finding a family and a place in society by the end of the movie acts as another outlaw hero trait for the Disneyfied outlaw hero

To continue its efforts to denounce the criminal acts of its outlaw heroes, Disney develops its own characteristic for its outlaw hero model: the character’s reformation.

  For instance, in Aladdin, Aladdin finds his place in society as a member of the royal family when he marries Princess Jasmine. This marriage resolves the lack of family issue for the Disney outlaw hero outlaw hero. Disney sets up their outlaw hero model once again by making Flynn Rider from Tangled an orphan who starts out as a thief just to provide for himself and the other orphans he lived with. Rider’s upbringing of stealing to survive and provide for others eventually turns him into a criminal who steals for the fun of having nice things. The troubled childhoods of Disney’s outlaw hero men set the stage for their outlaw lifestyles.

 Though Disney conforms to some of the outlaw hero model presented by Graham Seal, the company differs in many ways to develop its own outlaw hero characteristics. Much of this comes from the fact that Disney films target young audiences; so creating main characters who commit crimes becomes a delicate and controversial situation. Disney’s version of the classic Robin Hood story serves as an example. As literary scholar Tison Pugh notes in the book The Disney Middle Ages, “turning Robin Hood and company into animals establishes a degree of moral distance in the animated film” (139). For Disney’s target audience, it becomes necessary to increase the sense of fantasy when creating a film revolving around protagonists that commit crimes. Toning down the plot for a younger audience plays a huge role in the development of how Disney presents their outlaw heroes. Disney most often removes the majority of acts of violence from an outlaw hero plot line. Based on Seal’s outlaw hero model, “the outlaw hero kills only in self-defense or justified retribution rather than wantonly or capriciously” (74). Many versions of the Robin Hood legend contains a scene of Robin Hood killing an enemy, such as the killing of Guy of Gisbourne in the 1938 rendition of the legend in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Disney likely recognized that having its adorable fox version of Robin Hood viciously slaying another animal would not go over too well with the young viewers or their parents, so the Disneyfied Robin Hood legend lacks any death scenes. It follows then that, in a Disney outlaw hero legend, the outlaw hero does not die at the end of the film. The concept of an outlaw hero dying from an act of betrayal often appears in outlaw hero literature, as Seal notes. For instance, in the 17th century English ballad The Gest of Robin Hood, Robin Hood dies from an abbess treacherously bleeding him to death. In those legends, Robin Hood lives on immortally as a symbol for his supportive community. The Disney Robin Hood, however, lives through the film and even becomes a member of the royal family through his marriage to Maid Marian the fox. Instead of simply removing them, Disney chooses to place heavy emphasis on the sound moral qualities of the outlaw characters throughout the film. The badger, Friar Tuck, one of Robin Hood’s merry men in the film, even tells Robin Hood that “You’re no outlaw. Someday, you’ll be called a great hero.” Disney’s efforts denounce the notion of being an outlaw to the young audience.

 To continue its efforts to denounce the criminal acts of its outlaw heroes, Disney develops its own characteristic for its outlaw hero model: the character’s reformation. An outlaw hero traditionally chooses a life of outlaw freedom over a life of morals in a wealthier class. Consider how Robin Hood abandons the luxuries of life under the king’s service to return to freedom, thieving, and adventure in the woods in the 17th century English ballad The Gest of Robin Hood. When an outlaw hero undergoes Disneyfication, he must lose outlaw hero traits by the end of the film. Furthermore, in what has become an established Disney tradition, the outlaw hero gives up a life of outlawry because of a woman’s influence. Disney presents this idea of reforming the outlaw hero in Robin Hood when the fox marries Maid Marion, leaves a life of freedom in the woods, and joins into the law-abiding society as a member of the upper class. This theme is seen in some other renditions of the Robin Hood legend, such as Robin becoming the Baron of Locksley and the Earl of Sherwood and Nottingham, as well as marrying the royal Maid Marion in the 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood. Disney incorporates that part of the Robin Hood legend into its 1973 animated feature. The outlaw hero changing his ways to live life happily ever after with his woman is a major theme in the Disney film franchise.

 Modern Disney films continue and expand upon the idea of Disneyfied outlaw heroes reforming throughout the movie from a woman’s influence. In Aladdin, Princess Jasmine establishes this idea of Disney women taming their outlaw love interests. As Disney scholar Amy Davis notes in her book Good Girls and Wicked Witches: Women in Disney Animated Features, Aladdin is one of the first Disney films “in which one character is shown contributing to another character’s self-understanding” (182). Through his love for and marriage to Princess Jasmine, Aladdin recognizes his self-worth and leaves the freedoms of life on the streets for the structured yet lavish lifestyle of the royal palace. The phrase “diamond in the rough” is constantly used throughout the film to describe Aladdin. The “rough” represents his initial commonplace status as a thief who steals to survive. The “diamond” represents his potential to leave the outlaw hero life and be something more in the royal kingdom. Flynn Rider too undergoes a similar process. Flynn abandons his life of outlaw hero activities to live in the royal palace with Princess Rapunzel. In other words, Rapunzel followed the same path as Jasmine and reformed her outlaw hero bad boy into a law-abiding citizen.

 Through outlaw hero men such as Aladdin and Flynn Rider (and even Robin Hood in the 1973 film), Disney develops an important characteristic of mystery and adventure surrounding the outlaw hero that appeals to their female love interests. But Disney women who fall in love with outlaws share another characteristic in that each comes from a background of confinement. For instance, Jasmine lives in an Arabian palace where she cannot leave the palace gates without escorts. Jasmine’s father even gets to decide whom she marries. Similarly, Rapunzel spends her entire life locked in a tower. Both princesses only receive the chance to leave their worlds of confinement in their homes when the outlaw men entire their lives. Flynn and Aladdin offer their women a life of adventure and wonder. In addition, both men demonstrate a strong physique with physical prowess such as climbing towers and parkouring over buildings. Flynn Rider in particular demonstrates the “ladies man” quality of a Disney outlaw hero. He describes himself as “not bad with the ladies” and as having “superhuman good looks.” A Disney outlaw must offer his love interest a sense of adventure and freedom. In return, his love interest will help him reform and abandon his life of criminality.

 Disney develops their outlaw hero model much like the character described by Graham Seal: a handsome, adventurous young man with a talent for thievery and a way with the ladies. Their troubled upbringing propels them into outlaw hero life. Incorporating outlaw heroes into children’s movies has proven to be quite a controversial subject. Kids often lack the maturity to understand the wrongdoings of outlaw heroes when they are presented in such a lighthearted and positive Disneyfied manner. Disney even offers an online Tangled game where kids can play as Flynn Rider, steal the castle jewels, and run away from the authorities. In addition, as Orenstein notes throughout her book, the “bad boy” outlaw hero image can be detrimental to young girls and cause them to reject perfectly nice men who don’t offer them the sense of the potentially dangerous outlaw adventure. Despite the controversy, Disney continues to bring to life more and more outlaw hero characters, such as Elsa in Frozen and Jake and the Neverland Pirates, a Disney Junior TV show. With all of the company’s success, one can certainly expect the list of Disneyfied outlaw heroes to keep growing.

Works Cited

The Adventures of Robin Hood. Dir. Michael Curtiz and William Keighley. Warner Bros, 1938. DVD.

Aladdin. Dir. Ron Clements and John Musker. Walt Disney Productions, 1992. DVD.

Davis, Amy. Good Girls and Wicked Witches: Women in Disney’s Animated Feature Film. Eastleigh, UK: John Libbey Publishing, 2006. Print.

The Gest of Robin Hood.Eds. Steven Knight and Thomas Ohlgren. . Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales.(1997) TEAMS Middle English Text Series. Robin Hood Project. Web. 21 Feb. 2015. Orenstein, Peggy. Cinderella Ate My Daughter. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2011. Print.

Pugh, Tison. The Disney Middle Ages: A Fairy-Tale and Fantasy Past. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Print.

Robin Hood. Dir. Wolfgang Reitherman. Walt Disney Productions, 1973. DVD.

Seal, Graham. “The Robin Hood Principle.” Journal of Folklore Research 46:1 (2009): 69-85. JSTOR. Web. 31 March 2015.

Tangled. Dir. Nathan Greno and Byron Howard. Walt Disney Productions, 2010. DVD

Wasko, Janet. Understanding Disney. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001. Print.

Muir Headshot

Victoria Muir

My ENGL110 class focused on the legend of the outlaw hero and how the legend varied across time and geographic location. We started with the original outlaw himself, Robin Hood. From there, we discussed deviations from the typical Robin Hood legend and new takes on the outlaw, such as the American figures Bonnie and Clyde and the Australian legend of Ned Kelly. Dr. Burke started off every class with a song or ballad about an outlaw hero, which really kept the class lively and interesting.

Over the semester, I considered how I didn’t recognize the outlaw hero’s presence in many common stories growing up. I have always been a huge Disney movie fan, so I decided to study the manifestation of the outlaw hero legend in classic Disney animated films. Going into the paper, I thought it was going to be quite a challenge to find examples of outlaws in Disney movies. I was pleasantly surprised to find a wide range of outlaw hero archetypes present in Disney films: Robin Hood, Elsa from Frozen, the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, and Stitch in Lilo and Stitch, just to name a few. For the paper, I chose to focus on the three Disney heroes that fit the outlaw description best. So, I took a look at Disney’s Robin Hood, Aladdin, and Flynn Rider from Tangled. I found that these characters possessed many of the same characteristics as the outlaw heroes we discussed in class; however, the characters were “Disneyfied” to make their action appropriate for kids—or to at least appear appropriate. I found that the lighthearted presentation of outlaws in Disney films actually sparks some controversy over the messages we are sending to children by painting outlaw criminals in a positive Disney light. The paper seemed to write itself as I found more and more scholarly sources on the great debate over Disney’s representation of outlaws.

Writing this paper was truly an enjoyable experience because I picked a topic I love: Disney films. My biggest advice to first-year students would be to incorporate their existing passions into their new classes as best they can. It makes homework and projects a much more enjoyable and rewarding experience when the topic is important to you. Have fun with your writing and make it a valuable learning experience!

Professor Kevin Burke

Victoria wrote her paper for a themed E110 titled, “The Outlaw Mythos: Bad Guys (and Gals) as Heroes.” We began with some of the classic studies of the outlaw archetype by Eric Hobsbawm and Graham Seal and then moved through a wide range of outlaw stories in a variety of media and contexts. Students wrote a number of short essays and response papers, examining the dimensions of the outlaw hero archetype and the relation of outlaw stories to particular social and historical moments. We also had a couple of sessions with reference librarian Tom Melvin who geared his instruction to the subject matter of the course and, in the second session, to the students’ individual projects.

Victoria chose the third of three general options for the research paper: the examination of the outlaw hero archetype in a current elaboration. Her choice of the Disney take on outlaws was particularly apt since one of the classic Disney productions is the animated Robin Hood, based on the preeminent embodiment of the archetype. What she did insightfully and engagingly throughout the paper was to use our theoretical discussions and a wide range of outlaw stories very different from the typical Disney animation feature to show how Disney incorporates the same basic structure and many of the same elements as the medieval Robin Hood ballads, the tales of the highway men, and the outlaw ballads of the American West and Depression. While she shows plainly the genre and themes that Disney exploits—not only in Robin Hood but also in Aladdin and Tangled—she also effectively analyzes the ways that Disney shapes and subverts the archetype to conform to the demands of its market and its brand.

Paper Prompt PDF