Vladimir Propp examined hundreds of folk myths and fairy tales in Russia in 1928. His work was generally unnoticed in the West until it was translated in the 1950s. The Russian formalist scholar identified 8 typical characters and 31 functions which can be applied to almost any story, be it in literature, film, theatre and television. Propp’s theory is a form of structuralism which is a view that all media is inevitably in the form of certain fixed structures.
While Propp’s research is focussed on Russian folktales, I’ve chosen to focus on the more contemporary Disney and apply his functions and character types to the same. Disney has always held great fascination, being the staple diet every girl grows up on. From the beautiful princess to Prince Charming, they were the stuff dreams were made off. 17 years later childhood stories are revisited and put under Vladimir Propp’s microscope. Aladdin, Cinderella and The Lion King.
Aladdin (Hero) is the story of a young man who grew up without any parents, and learned to survive on his own in the streets. Princess Jasmine (Princess) is the daughter of the Sultan. Trapped in the paradise that is her life, she jumps over the palace wall and explores the land she has only heard of. Walking through the marketplace, she meets Aladdin (Hero is introduced). Meanwhile,the Sultan (Father), frustrated over his daughter’s stubbornness, is unaware of Jasmine’s whereabouts, and turns to his royal vizier, Jafar (the villain, the donor, the dispatcher and the false hero), for a solution.What the Sultan does not know is Jafar’s evil plot to find a certain magic lamp and take over as ruler. Jafar discovers that Aladdin is the “Diamond in the Rough”(Villain receives information about the hero)and captures and imprisons him, telling Jasmine that he is dead. (Villain carries away hero)
Jafar tries to deceive Aladdin by telling him if he will help him obtain the lamp from the Cave of Wonders, that he will in return offer him the rest of the treasure. Jafar is attempting to deceive Aladdin by lying to him because Aladdin is the “diamond in the rough,” meaning he is the only one who can retrieve the lamp. (Trickery) The magic carpet helps Aladdin to escape the cave, where Jafar tries to kill Aladdin and take the lamp (Villainy/Hero is tested) However, Aladdin manages to survive and keep hold of the lamp.(Beginning of Counter Action)
Aladdin rubs the magic lamp and a genie (Helper/Dispatcher)comes out and reveals that he will grant Aladdin three wishes(
Receipt Of A Magical Agent) Aladdin’s first wish is to become a prince so he can marry Jasmine, but is rejected by her until she realises his true identity (Hero given new appearance)
Jafar once again captures Aladdin, convincing the guards to chaining him and throwing him into the ocean, but Aladdin uses his second wish to escape.(Hero is pursued and rescued from pursuit) Aladdin then returns to the palace and reveals Jafar’s evil plot to Jasmine and the Sultan. (Exposure)At the end of the story the Sultan changes the law so that Aladdin and Jasmine can be married and they celebrate their engagement(Hero marries)
With Cinderella, it is a tale of a young woman living with her step mother (The Villain)and two-step sisters (The False Hero). She works as a servant for them and caters to their every need. She does all the cooking and cleaning, and is treated like a servant. The Prince (The Hero) of the village sends out invitations (Hero is introduced) to a ball held in his honour to all the villagers,Cinderella begs to go but her step mother will not let her (Villainy).
The night of the ball arrives, and the sisters and mother leave. Cinderella cries her heart out, much to the despair of Gus and Jaq (The Donor) A Fairy God Mother (The Helper) appears and uses her magic so that Cinderella (Receiving a magic agent). Gus and Jaq work together to make Cinderella a beautiful dress so she can go to the ball and they also steal the key to the attic from Cinderella’s wicked stepmother, in an attempt to save her. The fairy Godmother turns a pumpkin into a carriage and tells Cinderella that the spell will only last until midnight.
Cinderella goes off onto the ball, and while she is there she attracts quite a bit of attention especially from the Prince. The two dance all night, till Cinderella hears the clock chime. She remembers what her god mother said, and dashes off, leaving only a slipper behind. The Prince is desperate to find this mystery woman.
The Princes father, who encourages him in his new-found mysterious love,demands that a search for the mysterious maiden is conducted, and sends his most devout servant with the remaining glass slipper to find her. The servant goes to all the women of the village to find its owner. Just when all hope is lost Cinderella’s step sisters try the shoe Cinderella then tries on the shoe and it fits perfectly shocking everyone,especially her step sisters and evil step mother.Cinderella marries her Prince Charming and lives happily ever after. (Hero marries)
The Father is a character who is missing from the fairy tale but the story opens with his tragic death.
The Lion King has been an eternal favourite, a young lion prince; Simba (The Hero) is born, thus making his uncle Scar (Villain/False Hero)the second in line to the throne. Scar plots with the Hyenas to kill King Mufasa (Villain causes harm) and Prince Simba, thus making himself king. The king is killed and Simba is led to believe by Scar that it was his fault (Villain attempts to deceive hero with trickery), and so flees the kingdom in shame (Member of the family absents himself from home) leaving behind childhood sweetheart Nala (The Princess/The dispatcher). Timone and Pumba (The Helper) are Simba’s friends who discover and look after Simba. After years of exile he is persuaded to return home(counteraction/location shift) to overthrow the usurper (Villain defeated)and claims the kingdom as his own (True hero is recognised). Simba and Nala are married (Hero marries and ascends throne).
The other two characters are Rafiki, the all-knowing monkey, who is the donor and Nala’s mother Sarafina. The princess’s father is left out and Sarafina seems the closest.
Analysing Disney is always fun, however applying a theory written in the 1920’s to contemporary media is hard. While even the adaptations of the Disney tales have maintained loyalty to the characters and functions, the original itself contains disparities with every character/function not necessarily being clearly defined. These structures are often culturally derived and form expectations in the mind of an audience from within that same culture.
Walt Disney Studios. Aladdin. 1992.
Walt Disney Studios. Cinderella. 1950.
Walt Disney Studios. The Lion King. 1994
Vladimir, Propp. Morphology of Folktale. University of Texas Press: Austin and London. 1968.