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In fourth grade, my parents surprised me with a trip to the Happiest Place on Earth, Walt Disney World. I’d always enjoyed the Disney films but never imagined being able to step foot inside the Magic Kingdom, or walk around the world in Epcot, or even see the Muppets up close at MGM Studios (sorry, you won’t be able to take that away from me Eisner). And while my love for all things Disney has only grown since childhood, I’ve been thinking a lot more about what the male characters in Disney films taught me.
And honestly, it wasn’t much? Part of the transformation of the Disney princess from one who leans into traditional gender stereotypes (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves is an excellent example) into a fierce, independent leader (Mulan, although she does take on masculine traits to gain respect and recognition from her colleagues) comes from the fact that women have been having the conversation around what it means to be a woman while men are still struggling to communicate.
So it would make sense that the transformation of male Disney characters is lagging behind their female counterparts, but I never realized just how bad they were. If we look at Disney films in a pre-Mulan and post-Mulan frame of mind, then it’s noticeable how the female leads began to shift, while the male characters remained in a sort of limbo until the 2000s where the male characters really started to show growth. So with that in mind, here’s a list of the best male Disney characters of all time.
From Prince Charming to becoming an elf
The first time I read The Great Gatsby, I immediately fell in love with the story of Daisy Buchanon and Jay Gatsby. Heck, I even dedicated my first real book of writing to whomever my future Daisy was going to be. Years later, I recognize what a damn fool I was. I imagine the writers for Disney movies are having a similar epiphany when it comes to writing male characters who aren’t either flat, creepy, or reliant on the worst possible gender tropes possible.
Take, for example, the story of Prince Charming who forgets what Cinderella looks like, or the fact that Beast holds Belle hostage. Remember, these are the heroes whom young boys are supposed to be looking up to. Young boys are left to wonder: what am I supposed to be learning here?
Thankfully a lot of the newer Disney films have taken a hint from the growth of their princesses and developed new visions of masculinity for the young boys watching their movies. Concepts of masculinity include being vulnerable when faced with loss, understanding the importance of friendship, and even setting an example for being an invested, caring father.
If we are to expand our Disney palette past the animation studio, there’s always Luke Skywalker, who learns by the end of Return of the Jedi that violence isn’t going to save the day, but compassion and understanding. Or what about the Marvel films? Characters like Captain America experience grief and trauma in healthy ways and admit that despite all of his physical strength, his emotional depth is what carries him through the snap.
I don’t blame Disney for their lack of strong, healthy male characters. Like I’ve repeated time and time, the conversation around what it means to be a man is just starting, and even the smallest changes make a difference. But as a company that wants to be innovative in the world of impressionable children, it’s equally important that they continue showing growth in both their male and female characters.
1. Marlin from Finding Nemo
When writing our manly man’s guide to being a great dad, Marlin from Finding Nemo immediately stood out as one of the best dads and best male Disney characters, to ever hit the big screen. Life is complicated, and the most beautiful moments in life come from growth. And it’s hard to argue that any father figure in the world of Disney grew more than a fish terrified of the sea.
Marlin, an orange clownfish, is the father to the title character Nemo. At the beginning of the film, we’re introduced to Marlin’s backstory in which his wife Coral and many of their fish eggs were lost in a barracuda attack leaving only Nemo. He is wildly overprotective of his son, still suffering from the trauma of losing most of his family. But when Nemo is captured by a group of scuba divers, Marlin’s fatherly instincts kick in, and he must reckon with his anxiety to save his son.
It’s important to talk about Marlin’s growth as a person first. At the beginning of the film, he’s anxious and afraid of the water, but when circumstances demanded he work through his trauma, Marlin found a way. Alongside his friend Dory, Marlin adventures throughout the ocean encountering every single nightmare-fueled fish. It’s on this journey that he recognizes how pain affected his parenting style and eventually stopped him from growing as an adult. Stagnation led to Nemo’s recession.
Which is the second positive that comes from Marlin’s growth: trust. Marlin needs to trust himself, but more importantly, learn to trust that Nemo can take care of himself a bit too. It’s no different than that first day of school when your child steps off the curb onto the school bus. You need to trust that they will be okay without you guiding them all of the way. This moment always reminds me of the moment my parents said goodbye to me as I left Buffalo for Virginia: for the first time, they wouldn’t be just a phone call away. They needed to trust that I’d be okay on my own, and quite frankly, I needed to learn that about myself too.
For fathers or future fathers, Marlin’s story of growth is the same story we’re going to revisit in our lives. To be a strong father, you need to continue growing as a person. Personal growth doesn’t stop the moment you have a kid, and the more effort you put into improving yourself, your child is going to notice. Set them up for success by showing them that life isn’t about staying in place, but growing as a person.
2. Kristoff from Frozen
Hot take: “Love is an Open Door” is better than “Let it go.” I know, hit me with all of that hate but I stand by it. Of course, “Love is an Open Door” is partially ruined by the fact that its lead singers are Anna (still good) and Hans (not good). Hans literally sweeps Anna off her feet into what first-time viewers imagine to be the coldest love story ever told until he reveals his true intentions. Basically, Hans is a dick, and he is not one of the best male Disney characters.
Enter Kristoff. He converses with his reindeer, was raised by trolls, and is one of the best male Disney characters of all time. And for anyone who doesn’t know, men raised by trolls always turn out to be perfect gentlemen. Okay, maybe I made that last part up. Doesn’t matter. Kristoff is the real Disney Prince in Frozen as he travels alongside Anna to help bring back Elsa to Arendelle. On their adventure, Anna is struck in the heart by an ice-laser bolt thingy, and the only way she will survive is from an act of true love that will reverse the spell. And despite Kristoff’s feelings towards Anna, he rushes her back to Arendelle to meet her “prince” Hans. Remember how I said Hans was a dick? Well, he can’t save Anna. Elsa is the only one who can save her sister.
As for Kristoff, Olaf says it best: “Love … is … putting someone else’s needs before yours. Like, you know, how Kristoff brought you back here to Hans and left you forever.” And it’s true. Loving your partner sometimes means putting their wants and desires above yours.
But what might be the most critical lesson Kristoff can present to young men is the importance of vulnerability and growth. The Kristoff introduced at the beginning of the film is reserved, and angsty towards the world. By the end, he’s open to new experiences and willing to grow. To put it in terms that fans of Too Hot to Handle fans would understand, Sharon needed to break down his walls to have a healthy relationship with Rhonda: Kristoff needed to break down his barriers to make real human connections (and I’m not including you, Sven).
3. Lightning McQueen from Cars
Can a car be gendered? I have no idea, but Lightning McQueen‘s transformation in Cars from an egotistical race car to someone who truly understands the value of friendship showcases so many of the best traits in masculinity. I don’t even know where to start since his relationship with Mater displays how close male friendship impacts your mental health, and the fatherly mentorship of Doc Hudson is an excellent example of how communities can come together once men are willing and able to communicate.
McQueen opens the movie as one of the fastest rising rookies on the racetrack, but after falling out of the back of a tractor-trailer, he is forced to confront his biggest failure as a human…I’m not even sure what to call McQueen. Anyways, McQueen realizes that despite the love and appreciation he receives on television and from his manager, he lacks real male role models (if The King had a more significant role, you can argue he could be a mentor) and friendship which he only finds after realizing McQueen can’t do it by himself.
There’s a moment early on in the film when McQueen’s agent lets him know that he can invite 20 of his closest friends to the final race in California, and the audience (and probably McQueen) realizes he doesn’t have any. Men who struggle with close male friendships often remain reserved emotionally and live less fulfilling lives. But once Mater, a rusty tow truck voiced by Larry “The Cable Guy,” and the rest of Radiator Springs showed McQueen what life looks like with companionship, McQueen finally started to grow as a person.
The other meaningful relationship is between former Piston Cup winner Doc Hudson and McQueen. Hudson opens the movie reserved, quiet, and often downright hostile towards McQueen. We find out that Hudson struggled with life after racing because, like McQueen, he thought he could do it all on his own. It wasn’t until Hudson and McQueen bonded that both recognized the value of their father-son relationship. Young men should observe McQueen’s relationship with Mater to understand the importance of friendship, but the most important lesson comes from Hudson. Hudson displays the most important ideal that a father can show: be there for your child when they need you most. Throughout the film, when McQueen needs someone to put him in his place or guide him through a difficult lesson, Hudson is one who is there.
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4. Woody and Buzz from Toy Story
How did I publish the first run of this list without Woody and Buzz? Yes, I am aware that there are two characters here and that’s okay because while Lightning McQueen highlights the importance of community, Woody and Buzz show off how to strengthen a friendship through constant work.
There’s the moment where Woody reminds Buzz Lightyear of who he really is.
Or the time Buzz reminds Woody exactly who he is.
And of course, there’s the ending to Toy Story 4.
What makes Woody and Buzz’s bromance so extraordinary is that they aren’t afraid to be vulnerable with each other. Woody openly talks about his fears of being forgotten about, as Buzz talks about the realization he’s not really a Space Ranger. These are the moments that young men can observe and grow from. Knowing not only how to make friends, but how to maintain them long term is essential to building a happier, stronger life.
Let’s be honest: everyone has wished to have a Woody to their Buzz, or Buzz to their Woody. And the truth is, everyone is capable of having a strong friendship if they’re willing to put in the work.
5. Barley from Onward
I was thrilled to see an email in my inbox announcing Onward‘s arrival to Disney Plus. If theaters were still open, I probably would have found a way to go see it on the big screen, but watching it at home on the couch with my wife and puppy was a great alternative.
For those of you who haven’t seen the film, two teenage elves, Barley and Ian find a magical spell from their deceased father that promises to bring him back to life for one day. Since Ian hadn’t ever met his father, he makes a list of everything he wants to do with his dad when he comes back: play catch, talk about life, and everything else a teenager could try to squeeze in with their dad for 24 hours. Barley, on the other hand, his journey is about saying goodbye to their dad because he never got the chance.
While Ian’s story is plot A and there’s plenty of examples of positive masculinity from his character, I found myself more interested in Barley’s story. Portrayed as the embarrassing older brother, Barley loves magic and fantasy. But Barley also displays one of the most important traits an older brother can have that makes him one of the best male Disney characters: being a mentor. When Ian opens up about his emotional struggles, not knowing who his father is, Barley isn’t afraid to open up in response. By always willing to be vulnerable, Barley proves himself to be a fantastic example for young people who might be afraid to express their fears, emotions, and anxieties.
6. Joe Gardner from Soul
The star of the latest Pixar film, Soul, Joe Gardner has already become one of the most inspiring, liberating male Disney characters of all time. But to understand why, I think I need to start with my own story. On the drive to brunch, I found myself reflective as the realization hit me that I would have to go back to work the next day. Tears welled up, and I lost it. I hated my job.
Big whoop, right? The realization that I was unhappy and experiencing teacher burnout was the catalyst for starting Dudefluencer. So when Soul begins with Gardner working through a musical number as a substitute middle-school music teacher, I knew exactly how he felt at that moment. Proud to be shaping the minds of the future, but still unfulfilled.
Which leads us to the greatest message Soul, and Gardner provide for us. Throughout the film, Gardner believes music is what defines his life, but the truth was the key to a happier life was living. Yes, it’s important to have dreams (i.e. playing music professionally), but those dreams aren’t all you are. If you live your life that way, you’ll soon realize that life is just massively unfulfilling.
Men (and women) oftentimes are stuck in a pattern of non-stop goal focus, you lose the plot and the best parts of life. Taking a deep breath in the winter and feeling your lungs fill with air. The joy in a puppy’s eyes when you first come home. The endless love from your partner. Gardner’s story isn’t just about music, or finding your soul, but it’s about understanding that living is the best part of life.
I wanted to include Captain America in this list so badly, but I already know I’m going to get enough flack for not including any of the classic animated film characters. I can’t emphasize enough that while the Disney princesses have gone through a series of massive changes, their male characters are still lagging behind. Let’s hope that as the conversation around masculinity encourages Disney to continue developing more robust male role models.
Who do you think are the best male Disney characters? Did we forget anyone? Let us know in the comments below.
Marlin gets my vote. He’s phenomenally good character that goes through so much, and shows so many emotions.
Finding Nemo is one of my favourite films ever.
100% agree. That’s what I love about Marlin is that he’s just a genuinely good…umm fish? He’s a great role model for young boys and fathers.
I love Finding Nemo! And Marlin really is a cool dad. My favorite is actually Dory because she is hilarious. Disney really comes out with some great movies and the ones that came out in the 90s and 2000s we definitely great.
Marlin is one of the best dad’s ever! And the sequel was just as good as the first one, I loved those movies!
I’m not a big disney fan but I love how their characters are more than just characters but becoming role models.
That’s true. Disney does a great job at creating universally beloved characters.
Love your site. Fun perspective on my favorite place, Disney
Thank you so much! I miss Disney World so much, it looks like it’s going to be awhile before we go back. Thankfully the magic will always be there!
While I agree with your list, what bothers me is that only one can be regarded as an actual human male in a lead role. Not much out there for my 2 sons to aspire to that actually looks like their dad…
I can’t help but agree. Disney has made a lot of progress when it comes to realistic, human Disney princesses, but they absolutely have a ways to go when it comes to animated human male leads. That could make a big difference for the young men watching these films.