When I was younger, in order to watch a Disney film in a language other than English, my parents had to buy the videos separately. Since I was in French Immersion at school, they undoubtedly figured that picking up Les 101 Dalmatiens and La Belle et la Bete were worthwhile investments, although as a result, I did not have the English versions of these films to watch. Thanks to technology, now one can change languages at the flip of a button on the DVD. In essence, I have three copies of Frozen – if I really wanted to, I could watch it in Spanish too, but I still don’t know Spanish…
Which brings me to why I enjoy watching select Disney films in French – namely, because I already know the story and what the dialogue is supposed to be, I can better practice my language skills without having to try to figure out what is going on. I can translate the words to improve vocabulary. As an adult, I now notice little details in the dialogue that I would not have understood (or even noticed) when younger. For example, in Tangled (which is simply Raiponce or Rapunzel in French), much of the story hinges on the dialogue between the main two characters, Rapunzel and Flynn, in order for their relationship be believable and emotionally connect with the audience. It is indeed the funniest part of the story.
Imagine my surprise when I watched the French version and realised how well they overcame a simple problem: which pronouns would they use for each other? Not because there was any doubt about their gender, but because French distinguishes between whether or not one is speaking to someone familiarly or formally. Flynn starts out using the familiar with Rapunzel because she is young and he is trying to run a power-trip on her (while Rapunzel, having lived her life isolated in a tower, can be excused for using either one). However, once Rapunzel bests Flynn and convinces him to take her out to see the floating lanterns, he falls out of frame and says roughly the equivalent of “that’s it, I’m going to stop using the familiar with you”. (In the English version, he just says a variation of ouch, having fallen on his face.) For the next few scenes, he is polite to Rapunzel, until eventually they get more acquainted with one another, when he reverts back to the familiar.
I was impressed that they made use of the animation to address the issue. I do not know how important such a thing would be to French-speaking children, but it might have made a difference to their parents and grandparents watching with them.
Otherwise, of course, the dialogue is nearly identical and the animation often requires that direct English translation needs to be used, even for expressions that are not common (or jokes) in French. That makes it easier as a learning tool, but arguably less entertaining. Luckily, Disney is getting better about making their films marketable worldwide and have shied away from specifically American-based humour.
The only real snag in translated Disney films is the singing. No matter how closely the songs can be translated, it is always harder to understand the sung lyrics as opposed to spoken dialogue in a less-familiar language. First of all, how close is the translation? Is it the same, perhaps with the words rearranged to suit both grammar and music, or is it new lyrics with a slightly different meaning? Or a song with the the same sentiment but with different words entirely? To properly enjoy the Disney songs, I actually need the subtitles or lyrics in front of me, at least the first time.
On the other hand, with subtitles and direct-translation subtitles, I can watch the musical sequences in multiple other languages as well, even when I have no idea how to speak them.
It is quite fun to see how the new song compares to the original. Is there a slightly different meaning to it? Does this change reflect cultural difference, or just how the language fits better with the existing music? Does the new meaning actually work better with the story? Honestly, sometimes it does, or it is more in character.
It is not that I don’t like films actually intended to be in French, but it is helpful to watch something familiar and learn at the same time.
Plus, they are entertaining either way!