Mini-Essay — Why Is Kingdom Hearts’ Combination of Disney and Anime Interesting?

Note: there will be some mild spoilers for Kingdom Hearts 3 in this mini-essay.

It’s not the only reason, but part of why I haven’t written too much as of late is because I’ve been playing through the new Kingdom Hearts game. Just finished it recently and while it was fun, it’s most likely my least favorite of the main trilogy, disregarding all of those spin-offs and such. There were a lot of improvements to the gameplay and individual storytelling as well as a lot of effective emotional scenes in this third installment, but there was also a lot of questionable big picture story decisions due to the usual overwritten nature of Kingdom Hearts’ plot, and there’s no denying that there is a lot less content compared to the previous games.

Even if you discounted the Final Mix versions adding in a lot more stuff, Kingdom Hearts 3 just doesn’t have much to do outside of the main story. There’s no coliseum, there’s only one optional boss (who is piss easy), there aren’t any Final Fantasy characters aside from the Moogles, and the game is just way too easy even on the highest difficulty due to all of the mechanics given to you. It’s possible that some of these problems will get fixed with future patches, but I’ve already finished the game, so it’s got to be some really good content for me to overlook the somewhat bare-bones release this game had. Although putting Sephiroth back in as an optional boss would be a good start.

But this isn’t a review of the game. My readers made it clear that they’re not interested in that sort of stuff, and honestly talking about the entire thing isn’t all that interesting to me. What does interest me is how the Disney worlds are handled in this installment compared to the previous ones. Because overall I think they were a massive improvement over the Disney worlds in the previous games. They’re way more expansive. They feel more alive thanks to the NPCs. And with the exception of the worlds based on Tangled, Frozen, and (to a lesser extent) Winnie the Pooh, they felt a lot more important to the overall story and delivered on the potential that made me pay attention to Kingdom Hearts in the first place when it came to mixing Disney with anime.

Now I’ve talked about my history with Kingdom Hearts before, but just to reiterate, while I’m not a fan of Disney’s live-action stuff from their live-action reboots to the entirety of the MCU, I do enjoy their animated division. When I was a child, I loved the Disney Animated Canon and Pixar. Now that I’m an adult, that love has faded somewhat, but I still really love Pixar’s earlier stuff. And while I don’t adore animated Disney films anymore, they’re still good movies. They may not achieve the heights that anime is capable of at its best, but the tradeoff is that they’re more consistently entertaining as long as you’re watching the right era of films, and we’re currently living in one where they’re all critically acclaimed and huge money-makers, as well as products I find mildly enjoyable. I don’t even mind Big Hero 6 despite its complete lack of originality.

And what intrigued me the most about Kingdom Hearts ever since it first came out in 2002 are the possibilities that can come from an animation style that prefers straightforward good v.s. evil plots combined with an animation style that’s more well-known for moral ambiguity, especially in the Final Fantasy series that makes up the majority of the “anime” you see in Kingdom Hearts. As a guy who really enjoys stories about different ideologies butting heads and bringing out the best in each other, I think there’s a lot of potential in the arguments that can occur when the ideology driving a princess who wants something more butts heads with the many multifacted ideologies that drive the plot of Code Geass.

Amongst the Disney worlds in Kingdom Hearts 3, it’s a common opinion for the Pixar settings to be amongst the best the series had to offer whilst the Frozen/Tangled worlds are considered the worst in the individual game. Part of the reason why the latter is true is due to some bad gameplay choices (seriously, whoever thought the Olaf mission was a good idea deserves to have his pay cut for a month), but the big reason is due to how the plots of both worlds were basically just abridged versions of their respective films with the overarching story inserted into the gaps between plot points, not too dissimilar from how most Disney worlds are treated in Kingdom Hearts.

In contrast, the Pixar worlds are well-received, not just for how they take place after their respective films and are thus allowed to be original, but also for how they have scenes like Woody telling Young Xehanort to keep his convoluted speeches to himself or Sully saving Sora from Vanitas. The Toy Story world in general is a pretty decent mix of Pixar magic and anime storytelling in my opinion – even though the dialogue is still as cringy as ever – with details like Rex wanting to play a Final Fantasy-esque game and how toys based off of video games can be different from toys made by Mattell. But what really sold it to me was Young Xehanort – a very rambling bad guy who wouldn’t be out of place in a Shonen Jump series – trying to talk about the complications of plastic figures having feelings and Woody telling the guy to shove it because he was never loved the way the toys were.

Now even though Pixar films generally offer more complex emotions than Disney films, they still tend to have a clear divide between good and evil for the most part. It’s easier to sympathize with characters like Syndrome or Lotso, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re evil pricks who deserve to be machine-gunned to death in their respective films. And honestly, a lot of anime villains are the same, but because anime likes to play with moral complexity, they try a lot harder to make us care about them than they probably should. As such, Woody calling bullshit on Young Xehanort’s ramblings regarding darkness is a standout moment in the game, showcasing how most anime villains are really just a bunch of pretentious monologuers whilst highlighting some of the strengths of Toy Story as a franchise.

There’s a scene in the Hercules world where one of the main bad guys confronts the titular character about how the only reason he can spout his self-righteous bullshit is because he was gifted with godly strength that mortals don’t have, plus he has Sora to bail him out if he can’t do anything alone. Now this doesn’t really go anywhere interesting in the actual game, but I liked how that scene called into question how the only reason a lot of Disney protagonists are pure do-gooders is because they were born under circumstances either no one else can match or are nowhere near as harsh as would happen in the real world. For example, imagine if Aladdin was born in a more realistic poverty-stricken area rather than the colorful streets of the Arabian marketplace depicted in his movie. Would he really be able to keep his cheerful attitude or find a rich woman to marry if the former had happened? I’m going to guess “no”, and I’m 90% sure the cast of Tokyo Godfathers would agree with me.

While they may be born from different cultural viewpoints, there’s a lot about Disney animation and Japanese animation that’s compatible with each other. They may go about it in different ways, but both mediums do utilize love and friendship as the answer to a lot of conflicts. How Kingdom Hearts generally showcases romance is when a couple gets together in a Disney World, Sora tends to get reminded of his relationship with Kairi or one of the other characters will remark about their long-lasting friendship with someone else. Obviously, I find this kind of combination to be very token. A better combination would be that when a Disney couple gets together, they awaken a powerful weapon that Sora can use in battle. A truly great combination though would be if an anime character was going through relationship troubles and a Disney character told them to stop thinking and just go for her the same way they go for their love interest. Obviously it needs more context than that, but it is true that there are a lot of overcomplicated romances out there that can use simplistic Disney logic as a solution.

And don’t get me wrong, a lot of Disney relationships are naive and sometimes sexist. That’s why a bunch of recent Disney films have been poking fun at the old princess romance narratives, although they still resort to cliche in the end for the most part. Basically, a good middle ground is the key to a lot of things in life, and since Disney films tend to go one way while anime tends to go another way, I think if they shared their knowledge of love with each other, said middle ground can be reached. A Disney character could confront a shojo protagonist and go “if you truly loved her, you’d tell her. I told my love in just ninety minutes you know. Why is it taking you twelve freaking episodes?”. And conversely, said shojo protagonist can go “what you have isn’t real love because you just met each other. You need to actually go on dates. Get to know each other first, and then decide you’re ready”. This will result in both parties changing their morals a little whilst still being true to themselves, and ultimately they’ll be in healthier relationships for it.

That’s just romance too. There’s all sorts of commonalities that Disney and anime can share with each other to both mediums’ benefit. Like how they do action. How they do coming-of-age. I can imagine a scenario where Hercules meets Deku with the former helping the latter out due to being able to use his strength without any repercussions since birth whilst Deku obviously can’t. I can imagine a scenario where Miguel from Coco meets Koyuki from Beck and contrast how they both achieved the musical talent they have. There’s obviously a lot of potentially good combinations to explore rather than the usual “we’re anime characters guest starring in a Disney movie” approach that Kingdom Hearts often uses, but since Kingdom Hearts is the only anime-esque property that’s allowed to even negotiate for the licenses to Disney stuff, we’re stuck with what it has to offer if you want that sort of stuff.

Obviously, I don’t expect Tetsuya Nomura to be able to fully realize any of this potential to its fullest. The guy has always been more about fun gameplay and cool-looking characters/ideas than he is with dialogue and coherent storytelling. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as most Kingdom Hearts fans are aware of the stupidity and just embrace it, like most things anime. After all, flaws can be charming in their own way. In fact, a lot of things that are fun about anime fandom wouldn’t exist if every anime out there was good. Still, whenever he gets around to making Kingdom Hearts 4, I’d like the Disney logic and the anime logic to be interwoven better and not rely on knowledge of the individual movies to appreciate them. After all, if I wanted to see Frozen again, I could just put in my blu-ray copy that’s literally within arm’s reach. Which is incidentally what I did in the middle of writing this post.

Plus, we’ve seen with Re: Creators what can happen when too many ideas are shoved into a narrative. So here’s my advice for future installments: let the Disney characters help out against the main bad guys more. After all, another great highlight of Kingdom Hearts and why I still rate the first game so highly despite gameplay issues is due to how it was about taking down Disney villains with anime logic. The sequels have been more about the original Final Fantasy-ish villains to the point that Davy Jones and the Titans are the only proper Disney characters to get boss battles, and yet the Disney characters (with the obvious exception of Donald, Goofy, and Mickey) rarely lend a hand when it comes to confronting these guys who love the sound of their own voice. Where’s the equivalent exchange in this?

They obviously can’t play a big role in the main plot, but do you know why Sully saving Sora from Vanitas is now one of Kingdom Hearts’ iconic scenes? Because he used a relatively simple yet funny solution that wouldn’t be out of place in Monsters Inc to take down one of the most annoying bosses in Kingdom Hearts history as well as an integral part of its convoluted lore. That’s what I want to see more of. I want to see a version of Frozen where Elsa is manipulated into believing she’s destined to be alone, only to realize said person is full of bull and freeze them with her newly controlled powers. I want to see The Incredibles confront some guy who hurts people because he had a bad family and lecture him on how a real family acts before beating the shit out of him, and then finding said bad family and beating the shit out of them too. To sum it up, I’d say focus on storytelling that questioned the Disney characters’ morality with anime logic, but ultimately having the Disney logic win out because it’s less bullshit. And more cool when it directly confronts anime logic.

Also, I think the other side of the coin in having the anime logic win out over the Disney logic would be beyond Kingdom Hearts’ power to tell naturally, so I’d recommend against focusing on that.

It wouldn’t fix all of Kingdom Hearts’ problems, but it’d definitely be an improvement on the main reason I pay attention to these games in the first place. I know I rag on deconstructions all the time, but I do like them when they’re in service of something bigger. And what exactly is bigger than Disney at the moment besides Elon Musk’s vision of the future? Plus, I think deconstructions should make it clear that they like the medium they’re deconstructing, so having Disney logic ultimately win out wouldn’t be a problem with me as long as it’s challenged. And, well, what’s a better challenge to Disney logic than anime logic, amirite? Kingdom Hearts has shown that it’s capable of doing this. Now it just needs to actually do this more.

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  • Personally, I’m indifferent to the Final Fantasy characters not being in Kingdom Hearts 3, but that may be due to me knowing this was going to be the case last summer.
  • I would have preferred the ending to Kingdom Hearts 3 if it just ended on a certain journey rather than showing the results of said journey.
  • No idea if the quality of the Disney Animated Canon will suffer from John Lasseter’s departure, but for what it’s worth, I thought the second Wreck-It Ralph movie was alright.
  • Fully aware that the third Pirates movie doesn’t follow Disney logic much and the Pirate world in this game had its own badass moments with Jack confronting Luxord, but I couldn’t find a good place to mention it in the essay.
  • Xehanort’s new voice actor sounds really awkward compared to when he was voiced by Leonard Nimoy.

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