When Pixar’s Lightyear premiered in June of 2022, moviegoers saw a familiar character cast in a more epic and heroic light. Of course, Disney has had no shortage of heroes in the company’s decorated existence, but many tend to rely on tropes and archetypes in the grand scheme of their stories.
Take for instance characters like Aladdin, Hercules, and Tarzan. While they might come from different movies and backgrounds, they all fit into the bold-and-daring archetype seen across multiple animated adventures. There’s certainly a place for characters like them, but the truly compelling narratives often involve the more unconventional leads.
When it comes to Disney underdogs, they can all trace their origins back to Dumbo the Flying Elephant. From his gigantic ears to his super-cutesy exterior, even a certain few Disney fans might be hesitant to include him in Disney’s hall of heroes. However, there’s more to Dumbo than meets the eye.
While it’s true that Dumbo is mute, clumsy, and borderline helpless until the film’s third act, consider his motives for the entirety of the film. With aid from his friend Timothy, Dumbo does all that he does in the film to be reunited with his mother and to set her free from her cage. Those pure intentions could rival even the likes of Hercules when it comes to persistence and purpose.
Arthur (The Sword In The Stone)
When most people hear the name “King Arthur” the heroic imagery of knights on horseback, crowns, and the sword Excalibur are brought to mind. When Disney fans hear the name, they more than likely picture the scrawny, geeky, accident-prone kid struggling to keep up his page duties and learning from Merlin the Magician.
Arthur, or “Wart” as he’s called throughout the majority of the film, is far from the picture of nobility he would grow into. Even after pulling the titular sword from the stone, he’s quite gawky in his kingly attire. However, the entirety of the film is a learning experience for both Wart and the viewer, establishing that even great figures like King Arthur had a lot to learn before even sitting on the throne.
Tiana (The Princess And The Frog)
The Disney Princesses all come with a sort of reputation for being the ultimate stereotypical Disney franchise figureheads. That might be true to an extent for characters like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, but that’s decidedly not the case for characters like Tiana.
Before she sets forth on her fairytale adventure with Prince Naveen, Tiana shatters the mold for the typical princess. For starters, she’s a workaholic who’s saving up to start her own business, a goal that serves as her driving action for the film. That act of independence alone separates her from a general portion of Disney’s royalty, and it’s certainly served her well.
From the Fellowship of the Ring to the members of Vox Machina, adventurers on a fantastical quest come in many sizes, shapes, and denominations, and Ian and Barley are no different. What they lack in numbers, they more than make u for in resilience and spirit.
Individually, Ian and Barley aren’t exactly noble adventurers. Ian is a scrawny nerd who can barely get a grip on his wizard’s staff and is prone to nervous fits. Barley, despite his heart being in the right place, is brash and doesn’t make the best decisions. However, when they are able to work together, their qualities balance each other out to bring their quest to a successful end.
Carl Fredricksen (Up)
At his age, Carl is the last person who needs to go on a rigorous expedition down to Paradise Falls in South America. On paper, Carl is a senior citizen who lives alone, has slight mobility issues, and is also depressed because of the death of his wife. However, Disney’s logic dictates that the best adventures are the ones suddenly thrust upon the characters.
When given the chance to have the adventure he and his wife both wanted as children, Carl overcomes his struggles to spring into action and rescue an exotic bird from the clutches of his disgraced hero, Charles Muntz. It definitely does more than get him out of the house.
Olaf (Frozen 2)
Olaf was the delightful sidekick in the first Frozen film, but he arguably played a larger and more active role in the sequel. Olaf went through quite the character development between the two movies, though experiencing seasons away from a snowy peak might have had a lot of influence on that fact.
An animated snowman might not sound like the most useful ally outside of a Christmas special, but Olaf does more than enough to earn his stripes. He helps rescue a dying Anna, interprets water’s memory, and even evades sleeping giants. Needless to say, he’s a lot more versatile than most give him credit.
Mei (Turning Red)
Turning Red is one of those movies where the audience just has to surrender to the movie’s laws of reality. A little girl who can transform into a giant red panda might sound like the most ridiculous superpower someone could have, but Mei makes it work and learns to live and love the beast within.
At the end of the day, she is an unconventional hero for a very unconventional film. Although the fantasy elements give the movie a sense of weight and scale, the end goal is just to go to a concert with her friends. Everything else is simply heightened by her perspective as a teenage girl dealing with the struggles of growing up.
Donald Duck (DuckTales)
Donald Duck’s incarnation in the 2019 DuckTales reboot is a decidedly new direction for the character, but one that fans certainly appreciate. In the past, the foul-tempered fowl has been the butt of many jokes, usually at his own expense. However, the reboot saw him take a more proactive role in the adventures shared with Scrooge McDuck.
This version of Donald is greatly more fleshed out than he has been over the course of his career. Not only is his famous temper utilized for a plot purpose, but Donald has also proven time and time again to be a useful ally over the course of the series. Not many animated Ducks can match strengths with gods and demigods, after all.
Quasimodo (The Hunchback Of Notre Dame)
It’s a common opinion among the Disney fandom that The Hunchback of Notre Dame was an animated masterpiece ahead of its time. Although it was a very loose adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic gothic novel, it reinvented the character of Quasimodo in a way that has yet to be more beloved.
Quasimodo isn’t the standard-issue Disney protagonist, and that goes beyond just his appearance. He saves the day, but he doesn’t win the heart of Esmeralda. He overcomes the emotional abuse of Judge Frollo, but his main reward is just to be accepted by society. Quasi’s character arc isn’t so much about what’s in it for him, but rather the bigger picture of the whole narrative. In short, his is perhaps the most mature and grounded storyline in Disney.
Milo Thatch (Atlantis: The Lost Empire)
Atlantis: The Lost Empire should have been Disney’s biggest action film that revolutionized what viewers thought of the company and the animated medium. While its cast of characters is certainly one of the most colorful ensembles in any Disney movie, Milo serves as one of the most unlikely heroes to be given an adventure like this.
For the entirety of the expedition, he’s surrounded by skilled adventurers, mercenaries, and explorers while he’s a linguist and a scholar whose primary job on the trip is to read and interpret hieroglyphs. He’s a proclaimed nerd who manages to break the stereotype and save an entire civilization from total destruction. Hercules and Tarzan can’t exactly gloat about that fact.