The Cinema Behind Star Wars : The Disney Connection

Bryan Young | November 26, 2012

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It’s easy to watch Disney films and see the similarities between so many of the motifs of classic storytelling and the hero’s journey that is ever present in the Star Wars films. It’s difficult to pin whether the films and cartoons of Walt Disney directly influenced the creation of Star Wars (with a few notable exceptions), but the style of story and method of storytelling on display is so similar it’s hard not to feel they came from the same school.

Take The Sword in the Stone, for instance. It looks at young Arthur’s journey toward becoming king — with the help of an eccentric wizard that everyone thinks is just a crazy old man. Sound a lot like A New Hope? The entire movie plays like an extended, comedic training sequence of Master and Padawan, right down to the mysticism and hard life lessons. Parallels to Luke’s time on Dagobah in the cave could very easily be drawn to Arthur’s time spent as a squirrel or a fish. He learns hard lessons in a situation he doesn’t completely understand and has to face difficult truths about himself and his life.

Could anyone argue with the parallel between Snow White finding herself pursued by a huntsman in the woods and given refuge by kindly dwarfs, and Princess Leia on Endor, pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents and given refuge by kindly Ewoks?

You would easily be forgiven if you mistook Yoda for a little green man dispensing advice and telling you to trust your feelings that Disney created. His name was Jiminy Cricket.

There are more substantive similarities as well. As the middle act of a mythological story, The Empire Strikes Back has the distinction of being darker in tone, sending our heroes into the dark of the unknown, plunging them into the deepest pits of despair. Who could forget the Millennium Falcon bursting from the jaws of the Space Slug with all the aplomb and cinematic majesty of Geppetto freeing himself of Monstro the whale, one of Disney’s darkest early cartoons?

These parallels are no surprise, though, since the Star Wars films draw so heavily from the classic themes of the mythologies and fables that have permeated the world for as long as we have a history for it.

One of the most striking influences though, and one that I think is a direct and obvious influence, comes from the swashbuckling adventure films that Disney produced in the 1960s. The most prevalent is none other than Swiss Family Robinson, which was directed by a fellow named Ken Annakin.

Yes. You read that right: Annakin.

In any case, Annakin included in this classic film a scene that plays very much like one in A New Hope. Two of the young heroes and a girl in disguise are trudging chest deep in murky water, only to be attacked by a massive snake. Fritz struggles with the beast, dragged under the water repeatedly, shouting for help as his younger brother and the girl look on, shocked. Soon, the other boy (played by Tommy Kirk, a dead ringer for Star Trek’s Wil Wheaton) is embroiled in the battle until the snake just disappears in the water. Many of the shots and even some of the reactions are repeated almost verbatim in the trash compactor sequence on the Death Star.

The Star Wars movies follow the same patterns as all the best Disney films of this type and took so much more from them, even through subconscious inspiration. And the influence flows the other way, too. I could cite many examples of Star Wars, in turn, influencing the cinema of Disney. With Disney and Lucasfilm coming together to give us more Star Wars films, is there a doubt in anyone’s mind that they won’t carry on the same quality of mythological storytelling for years to come? They certainly have a good track record for it.

Bryan Young is an author, a filmmaker, journalist, and the editor in chief of BigShinyRobot.com!

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