I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for the higher ups at Square-Enix to work with Disney and its multi-billion dollar IP for the Kingdom Hearts series, but as I left the theater after seeing Frozen II and pondered how that story might play out in the Disney/Final Fantasy crossover, it became apparent to me that something needs to change.
Disney movies are rapidly outgrowing Kingdom Hearts’ perception of “good vs. evil,” and if Square-Enix wants to portray the themes in these movies with the gravity they deserve, it’s time for a reassessment of the rules that are the foundation of how the series frames these stories.
In Kingdom Hearts, light and darkness are two real, tangible forces in the universe, and they’re often attributed to Disney characters and conflicts when they make appearances. For example, Aurora from Sleeping Beauty is a “Princess of Heart,” a person with no darkness or gravitation toward evil or wrongdoing. Conversely, Maleficent, the villain of Sleeping Beauty is a major villain, and an arbiter of darkness in the universe.
Over the course of its 17 years, the franchise has also done a great deal to delve into the grays of its own world as well. While the conflict between light and darkness has been described as a balancing act between the good and evil in all of us, it’s taken a lot of care to say that people exist in the middle, and it’s been at the forefront of many of its original characters’ story lines.
But when it comes to making Disney characters symbols for this conflict, it’s almost exclusively in a binary “good vs. evil” fashion. Whether this is because of the well-documented stipulations put on Square-Enix by Disney or because the rules of the Kingdom Hearts universe dictate it to be so, everything in this world exists as an avatar for the conflict of light and darkness. This is a universal truth attached to stories as cut and dry as The Little Mermaid as well as ones with more nuanced issues like poaching in Tarzan and persecution in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Recent Disney animated films like Zootopia, Frozen II, and Moana have been expanding into stories beyond the typical good vs. evil tropes of the fairy tale-driven worlds of Snow White, Peter Pan, and The Lion King. Zootopia uses the prey vs. predator power dynamic to evoke real world race and class issues, Frozen II puts Queen Elsa and Princess Anna at the center of a conflict between what their kingdom’s history told them and the realities of war crimes committed by their grandfather against a native tribe, and Moana is pretty much lacking in a villain at all, as the entire film is about its titular village chief wanting to cast tradition and fear aside to help her people expand beyond their island home.
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With Kingdom Hearts III focusing pretty heavily on newer Disney properties like Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Tangled, it stands to reason whatever’s next for Kingdom Hearts will focus on the movies we’re seeing now, ones that lean more heavily into real-world themes than Disney of old. When more prominent issues like Tarzan and Hunchback of Notre Dame were so few and far between, it mostly meant you had to deal with an uncomfortable scene of characters spouting their rhetoric within a cloud of darkness once every few games. But as Disney villains become more reminiscent of those we deal with in the real-world, darkness and all it entails feels like a means to excuse away atrocities people are still dealing with the ramifications of to this day.
When it comes to recent Disney villains, the actions of Zootopia’s Assistant Mayor Bellwether and Frozen II’s King Runeard being attributed to a force of nature feels altogether dismissive of the struggles of marginalized people who are victims of the same types of crimes in the real world.
Bellwether using fear mongering and political power to turn the citizens of Zootopia against the predators of its animal-driven society, who are said multiple times to be the minority in the city, still dealing with prejudice, microaggressions, and stereotyping, is an allegory to alt-right political strategies that are used to keep minorities oppressed and the status quo in power. King Runeard, after gaining their trust through a guise of friendship, attempted to wipe out an entire indigenous group called the Northuldra because of their beliefs conflicting with his rule as King of Arendelle. This was discovered decades after tales had been passed down to the next generation casting the Northuldra as the villains. It’s a story about colonialism, monarchical supremacy, and how the history of war is written by the winners.
These movies are written in ways that are palatable for children, so they can only scratch the surface of these issues, but they’re stories that go beyond the themes of Disney of old. But Kingdom Hearts is still very much rooted in those old ways of thinking. For series protagonist Sora, friendship is the most powerful force in the universe and light will always overcome darkness. Since we see the majority of this universe from his perspective, that naivete is intrinsically tied to the way these stories play out and are portrayed through the lens of Kingdom Hearts’ framework.
As these movies grow in complexity, tacking light and darkness onto every story they tell feels more reductive than ever. Kingdom Hearts III was meant to be the end of the series’ first conflict, one where the never ending battle between light and darkness was at the center. If Kingdom Hearts is going to grow alongside the rest of Disney, now is the time to do it. Whether it’s through new additions to its constantly expanding lore, or just by the admission that sometimes people can be terrible to one another, regardless of the existence of light and darkness, Square-Enix and Disney have a decision to make, even if it means pulling at the threads that have kept Kingdom Hearts together for so long.