Guardians of the Galaxy

The unnamed one-legged prisoner in Guardians of the Galaxy appears briefly and only as the butt of another character’s joke. When Rocket the raccoon devises a plan to break out of a galactic prison, one of the things he orders his companions to procure is the prosthetic leg of another prisoner. They take him seriously, probably thinking he needed the electronics from it. Peter Quill talks to the amputee prisoner, realizes the prosthetic leg is “wired in” to the man’s nervous system, and buys it off of him for 30,000 credits. (Why the man was willing to part with it for any amount was not explained, as he’ll presumably be serving out the rest of his prison term without it, and without a way to receive or spend the money.)

When Peter returns with the artificial leg, Rocket complains that he expected Peter to fight with the man over his leg, and that he had demanded it not because he actually needed it for the escape plan, but because he thought it would be funny to see the one-legged prisoner hopping around. In this way, viewers learn–if they haven’t picked up on it already–that Rocket can be a real jerk.

We can interpret the one-legged prisoner’s presence in the script as a way to show Rocket’s later personal growth, but it’s still problematic that the actor playing the prisoner is not an amputee himself… especially because Disney put out a casting call in 2013 looking for amputees and albinos to play aliens. Disney bafflingly still chose a non-disabled actor to appear as an amputee, no doubt necessitating even more CGI. So there were no amputees qualified to play the one-legged prisoner, and any actual amputees or people with non-standard pigmentation–both within the range of human variation–were relegated to the background as aliens.

Disney, you’ve been taking baby steps, but you still have a long way to go.

The Lone Ranger

Despite its reputation for family-friendly fare, Disney just can’t seem to resist identifying their villains with disabilities or disfigurements, as a shorthand to indicate to the audience that the bad guys are bad. In The Lone Ranger; the Native American-oppressing, human flesh-eating outlaw Butch Cavendish, has facial scars and a cleft lip. (Disney even admits this was the rationale on Butch’s character page: “Cavendish is a ruthless outlaw whose terribly scarred face is a perfect reflection of the bottomless pit that passes for his soul.” Cleft lip organization Transforming Faces issued a response.) Butch is portrayed as being unnatural almost to the point of being supernatural, and his superstitious pursuers feel the need to fabricate a silver bullet in anticipation of his capture.

If that wasn’t enough, Disney also added some incongruous cannibalistic bunny rabbits. They’re explained as “nature out of balance”, but the allusion to the “harelip” colloquialism is obvious.

One of Butch’s past meals comes back to haunt him, though; brothel-owning Red Harrington has replaced her missing leg with a beautiful ivory prosthesis, decorated in scrimsaw and concealing a built-in double-barreled shotgun. The male characters are fascinated with her leg and express desire to touch it, but Red refuses permission until letting someone do so aids her revenge.

Finding Nemo

Ann Millett reviews Finding Nemo for the Disability Studies Quarterly much better than we could. An excerpt:

In “Finding Nemo”, I discovered sunken treasure—a multifaceted representation of disability. The protagonist, Nemo, displays a small, or “deformed,” fin that is a congenital result of a fatal attack on his mother and sibling eggs—a corporeal characteristic that the story surrounds, yet does not drown in. In an aquatic natural world where species maintain characteristic, standardized appearances, Nemo is marked as visually and socially different, yet hardly inadequate. He explains that he has a “lucky” fin when questioned by his classmates, who then offer their own explanations of distinctive physical quirks: a squid confesses to having a lazy tentacle, a seahorse boasts of his “H2O intolerance.” Nemo’s peers accept him, even admire his self-confident attitude and plucky spirit, because in this diverse “school” of fish, everybody’s different.

Give it a read!

Friendly young clownfish Nemo embarks on an epic journey.

Tangled

Disney hasn’t always been known for positive portrayals of women, minorities, and the disabled, but in the recent animated film Tangled the company seems to be trying to turn it around . On Princess Rapunzel’s first journey outside of her tower, she visits a dive bar named The Snuggley Duckling full of thugs in Viking clothing. All are odd-looking and menacing, and several have various visible disabilities.

One is missing a hand and, in a clear allusion to Captain Hook, uses a hook as a simple prosthesis:

Tangled's Rapunzel intimidated by Hook Hand Thug

One has six toes and a goiter:

Big Nose Thug shows Rapunzel his six-toed foot.

And one elderly man is of short stature and appears to be wearing a diaper.

Tangled Short Thug

Short Thug, inadvisedly, hits on Rapunzel's Mother Gothel. This is why you should always bring a wing man.

Rapunzel is initially intimidated by all the strange men at the Duckling, but as they’re about to drag her guide Flynn away she tells them she needs him to fulfill her dream of seeing the annual floating lantern event, and asks them if they have dreams too. This gives the thugs pause, and they break into a song and dance number, led by Hook Hand Thug who explains that his dream is to be a concert pianist.

Hook Hand on the piano

Hook Hand does a bang-up job on the piano.

Similarly, Big Nose Thug wants a girlfriend. (All the thugs have dreams that someone coming from a perspective of privilege might consider implausible or strange.) In real life many amputees and people with disabilities still follow such dreams; they have relationships, and some do enjoy playing musical instruments to the best of their abilities. Here’s one fellow who plays quite well with stiff, immobile hands:

Since Rapunzel has taken the time to get to know them as fellow human beings, the thugs help her escape from her witch of a mother. Hook Hand is rewarded with a chaste kiss, and though none of the disabled characters have ever been given proper names, they are all shown to have become friends with the princess and attained their dreams at the end of the movie.

Hook Hand on the piano in the finale

Hook Hand, now with a golden hook, has trouble turning the pages of his sheet music, but manages without it instead.

The Aristocats

The Aristocats is not thought of as a “disability movie”, but like many Disney movies, it does have a character with physical and visual impairments due to aging to provide visual humor, and a character who may have a more “hidden disability”. The former is an elderly lawyer who comes to the palatial mansion belonging to the old woman who owns the cats who are the stars of the movie. Though she seems physically fit, she is older, and clearly thinking of “end-of-life issues”. She calls her lawyer, Georges Hautecourt, (who obligingly makes house calls) to draft her will, leaving everything to her cats. Hautecourt is portrayed as being senile, but is a label misapplied to a man with a lot of vitality who’s evidently still practicing law despite minor disabilities.

He drives one of those new-fangled motorcars, but has trouble getting out of it

He drives one of those new-fangled motorcars, but has trouble getting out of it

After all, he drives one of those new-fangled motorcars (the movie is set in 1910), attempts to kiss his client on the hand (getting the cat’s tail instead, the only instance in which it is hinted that he may have a vision impairment), and dances with her before getting down to business. He uses a cane to help with his unspecified but obvious mobility impairment (he has visible trouble getting out of the car, and is shown to have an irregular gait when he is seen to be walking up to the grand house.

Hautecourt dances with Madame Adelaide

Hautecourt dances with Madame Adelaide

Hautecourt sling-shots himself up the stairs using the butler's suspenders

Hautecourt sling-shots himself up the stairs using the butler's suspenders.

However, before he came to the upstairs room in which the dancing, romancing, and legal document drafting takes place, he was offered the choice of getting to his destination by taking a (human-operated) elevator, or by climbing a long, treacherous staircase of polished marble. He derides the elevator as “that birdcage” and in one of the most memorable lines of the movie, declares that “elevators are for old people”. He attempts to climb the staircase, and predictably, slips and falls backwards. Luckily, he had been accompanied up the stairs by the butler, who aids him through several slips and falls, the last and most memorable of which resulted in him hooking the butler’s stretchy suspenders with his cane, and effectively sling-shotting himself to his destination. This resulted in the butler’s pants falling down when he showed the lawyer in to the upstairs room. While it is wonderful to have a positive attitude about aging, the lawyer seems to be in denial and in spite of the comedic aspect of the scenario just described, he has put himself in any number of risky situations, setting himself up for some potentially more serious mobility impairments. This scene does nothing to advance the plot of the story, and serves only to add comic relief by poking fun at Hautecourt’s disabilities.

The butler, however, may have a more “hidden disability”. Though he may have obvious reasons to resent his job (how would you like to be effectively “pantsed” by a character like this?) his knee-jerk reaction to get rid of the cats when he overhears his employer declare her intention to leave them her considerable estate bespeaks impulsivity and poor decision making. If the cats were to get the estate, surely they would need a conservator and caretaker (after all, cats are not considered mentally competent and can’t spend money or clean up after themselves).