In the board game world, Disney doesn’t have a reputation for much beyond slapping their IP onto garbage toy-games. Like they say: merchandise, merchandise, merchandise. On the other hand, Disney has a rich history of peppering their animations with board games to improve their narratives. Let’s look at 10 times board games got into Disney films.
Beauty and the Beast – Chess
No one matches wits like Gaston. Exceeds often, but matches never. Regardless your feelings about the mixed messages and plot holes in Beauty and the Beast, we can all agree that if you flip the board in chess, you’re an asshole.
Especially since Gaston managed to play long enough that his only remaining pieces were two Pawns and his King. Did Gaston really think he had a chance up until that point?
Gaston is the kind of person who would drag out a chess game for hours, and then flip the board. Ignore the rest of the film: that alone makes Gaston the villain.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame – Poker
Of Quasimodo’s three gargoyles, Hugo is portrayed as the streetwise schemer, reinforced by a bit of playing card manipulation. The character quirk expands into a quick anachronistic poker moment during “A Guy Like You”.
While the felt table and casino visor are out of time, playing cards have an interesting history in France. During Quasimodo’s time, most playing card designs were influenced by Spanish culture. It’s interesting that another Spanish influence is Esmeralda’s name.
Though minor, these elements help deepen the “otherness” of Quasimodo and Esmeralda from the French establishment and Frollo.
Mulan – Xiangqi
On her way to impress the matchmaker, Mulan’s actions speak to her personality. She is remarkably uncomfortable with cosmetics and fashion, but perfectly at home with strategy and conflict.
During the song, she takes a thoughtful moment to turn the tables in a game of Xiangqi. Xiangqi shares a common heritage with chess, but is a little closer to a military simulation.
One of the defining features of Xiangqi is that the King may not leave the “palace spaces”. Mulan moves a piece deep behind enemy lines to threaten the opposing King in his own Palace.
It’s a clever bit of foreshadowing, but also shows that Mulan has the strategic mind to conceive of such tactics.
The Great Mouse Detective – Chess
Basil, our Great Mouse Detective, is very much a Holmes stand-in. Some references are explicit (like his silly detective hat), while others are more nuanced. Holmes famously loved “chess puzzles”, exercises where you deduce from the state of a given chess board what the previous moves had been.
When Basil’s mystery starts to come together, we find him on an oversized, in-progress chess board. It becomes an explicit metaphor for piecing together the past using clues from the present.
Rescuers Down Under – Checkers
The mouse-run airport in Australia is the kind of backwoods operation that doesn’t handle a lot of traffic. Jake and his fly companion play checkers to pass the time. To match the miniature scale, the checkers themselves are black and red buttons.
Jake loses hilariously in checkers, which puts him in a foul mood just when an albatross tries to land on a runway that is much too small. The checker game sets both the setting and the scene.
Brave – Chess
It is particularly interesting to see chess in Brave. By most estimates, Brave takes place in a 14th century fantasy Scotland, which means that chess was a relatively recent development in the region. That in itself isn’t a problem, but Merida’s mother uses the game board as a narrative device to tell an ancient legend.
The legend itself is about the division of a kingdom among 4 kings, while chess is a decidedly two-sided game. Interestingly, the ancient Celtic game of Tafl was certainly around during this time period and is about four groups working together towards a common goal.
Brave’s chess set is also very evocative of the Lewis Chess set, which is weird. Though the chess set was famously found in Scotland, the pieces themselves were very much a part of Norwegian history and culture. Brave felt like it checked a bunch of Scottish checkboxes, but they could have done a lot better.
Toy Story – Battleship
Life as a toy must be tedious, so it’s no wonder they’d look to pass the time with a game like Battleship. Honest question: if toys are alive, would a board game be too? What about electronic talking Battleship? Thoughts like this keep me up at night.
Like all Pixar scenes, this one is steeped in delightful visuals. Battleship very cleanly illustrates a power structure. Not only is Potato Head losing, he is losing badly. He hasn’t hit a single ship.
Which is . . . suspicious, looking at his attempts. What are the odds Potato Head has managed to fill his sonar with misses? Mr. Potato Head is concerned with Hamm peeking, but he should be more worried about him lying. Who would have thought a piggy bank would come to represent self-interest run amok.
Aladdin – Chess
Genie is a fountain of anachronisms, so it’s not terribly surprising that he’d have a decidedly modern European chess set in . . . whatever Aladdin’s setting is.
Chess is an interesting choice for people trying to discern Agrabah’s place in history. While Arabian nights may be as hot as Arabian days, a lot of Agrabah’s features point to Indian influences over Middle Eastern. Chess, like the Taj Mahal and Bengal tigers, would be more at home in an Indian setting.
Were the artists just drawing whatever vaguely foreign things they wanted? Yeah, probably. Is this indicative of Disney perpetuating oriental exoticism by equating multiple “eastern” cultures. Yes, definitely. Does it help place Aladdin in your Disney headcannon timeline? Unfortunately, no.
Tangled – Chess
Tangled is the story of Rapunzel, but more than that, it is the story of a girl showing strength in a series of bad situations. She starts locked in a tower, and things get more difficult from there.
The opening song walks through Rapunzel’s day and all the many ways she occupies her time while a prisoner in her own home. More than simply listlessly staring out the window, she tries everything from cooking to candle making, ballet and chess. She balances practicality and art, body and mind. We see Rapunzel as enterprising and bright, but the chess game shows off her best quality: resilience.
Looking closely at the chessboard, she moves her King orthogonally to take out a Rook. That means she must have been in check, and her only other piece is her Queen. Trying to win a game of chess with just your Queen is almost hopeless. Even in a bad situation she makes the best of it; even when she’s threatened, she will fight to the end. Whether it means persuading strangers, fighting bandits, or defying her mother, Rapunzel will spend her every breath fighting for what she believes in.
Emperors New Groove – Checkers
You can always count on a pair of old folks playing board games outside when you need generic advice. In the Emperor’s New Groove, they give Patcha’s home village a sense of urban normalcy.
It’s interesting that checkers was their board game of choice. While it’s easily identifiable by children, checkers is very much a European game. If it is indeed checkers, these characters could only have encountered it from European explorers. If our Incan characters got checkers from the Spanish, it paints a surprisingly grim future for our protagonists.
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