What do the children’s films Kung Fu Panda, Moana, and How To Train Your Dragon have in common?
If you guessed that they’re all fantastic films, then you’d be right. However, there is also another weird similarity. Have you noticed anything strange about the accents of the characters?
I’ve noticed that in a lot of children’s films, the protagonist will have an American accent, despite everyone else’s’ accents matching the place in which they live. This includes older films such as Beauty and the Beast (1991), to those as recent and innocent as Moana (2017). Isn’t that weird? How can it make sense for an entire family or village to have an indigenous accent, while our protagonist has inexplicably picked up an American accent as a child? As every choice in movies as big and as well funded as these is carefully considered, this must be significant in some way.
“How can we empathise with the life of the immigrant family next door if it’s so normal for us to look for an accent that denotes English as a first language?”
The only explanation I can offer for this is the only one that seems logical – as these films strive to persuade their viewers to relate to their protagonists, to cheer for their triumphs and despair over their failures, these deliberate accent choices are another way to achieve this. An indigenous accent can add placement and atmosphere to a movie, but it is deemed too ‘alien’ for us to relate to. A Western accent, however, is seen as ‘normal’. Therefore, it is assumed that giving the protagonist an American accent places them in a more favourable light so that we can relate to them. If we only see our prominent hero speaking like this, we deem them relatable, easy to empathise with, and like us.
In our current climate, where we see an increase in hostility to people who look or sound different to a white British or American norm, reinstating the idea that people we’re meant to relate to have to be more like us instead of embracing diversity and looking past accents and languages seems dangerous. How can we empathise with the life of the immigrant family next door if it’s so normal for us to look for an accent that denotes English as a first language?
If this is the case then, why not make all characters American? As I’ve argued previously, accents that seem foreign to us can add placement and atmosphere to a story. We believe in the setting more if the population adds to the illusion. However, this also adds another dimension of playing into the viewers’ preconceptions of people with certain accents. In How To Train Your Dragon (2010), for example, the enthusiastic Scottish accents help create a world where we accept that most people are strong, rugged fighters. Frozen (2013)’s summer supplies seller is entertaining not only because of the irony of his position, but because his ‘big summer blowout’ line is delivered in an accent which is usually marketed as comic to us. In Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), the French accents are employed to imply a superior knowledge of romance.
“Characters serve us by living up to our stereotypes of the mysticism of countries alien to our own, but we do not deem them accessible enough for us to fully sympathise with those characters.”
As soon as a character needs to dispense some cultural and mystic wisdom about the spirit, nature, or history, their regional accent is inserted to convince us of some ancient insight in to the world. This is especially evident in any film where an older character guides the protagonist to victory using their superior understanding of how to deliver an emotional life lesson. This harks back to the old empirical belief that places such as Asia were home to exotic and oriental wonders that were unknown to the West. Colonialists and traders alike harked on about the superior spiritualism of Asia, an assumption which is still being exploited now (as evidenced by the time a white English shopkeeper gave me a funny look for giggling at her overpriced incense and Om necklaces).
These characters serve us by living up to our stereotypes of the mysticism of countries alien to our own, but we do not deem them accessible enough for us to fully sympathise with those characters. Hence, Moana’s grandmother is able to pass down the myths of her ancestors, but Moana herself is played with an American accent in order for us to relate to her humour and personality. While Moana’s voice actress, Auli’i Cravalho is of Native Hawaiian descent, her accent is still distinctly Americanised.
“The fact that this happens at all, and frequently in children’s films, is something which cannot be ignored.”
Granted, this is not true of all films. For every movie where this happens, there is one that is consistent. However, the fact that this happens at all, and frequently in children’s films, is something which cannot be ignored. I realise that using well loved kid’s films to talk about latent imperialistic racism seems ridiculous on the surface, but it is in children’s films that we see some of the most worrying trends. Examples that spring to mind are the anti-Semitic Disney films, the ‘princess getting rescued by prince who she then marries after one day’ trope, or the lack of LGBT* or POC representation.
The film industry should become aware of this pattern in order to make its products more inclusive and attainable for all people. In a time where more and more films are actively trying to undo the old exclusive trends, I’m adding this to a long list of things we need to change.