Most of us are now old and wise enough to know that Disney isn’t all that innocent. From theories about suggestive subtexts – remember when it sounded like Aladdin asked you to “take off your clothes?” – to the dubious political views of Big Walt himself, Disney is shrouded in iniquity.
But maybe some of Disney’s darkness can be explained by the origins of its stories. Stemming from creepy fairytales and grisly medieval folklore, these 19 movies and the stories they’re based on will shatter what remaining belief you had that Disney is wholesome family fun.
19. The Fox and the Hound
This tale of fox and hound Tod and Copper, who defy the odds by becoming best friends, is based on an altogether darker novel by Daniel P. Mannix. In it, a hunter called the Master trained Copper to hunt Tod after the fox killed the Master’s favorite dog. Tod later died from exhaustion; Copper, meanwhile, was shot when the Master got too old to care for him.
18. The Lion King
The Lion King, so the theory goes, is based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet – a tragedy in which a vengeful son sought revenge after his uncle killed his father and claimed the throne. Sound familiar? Fortunately Disney omitted the bit where, after securing the throne, the young king got poisoned and died a slow and painful death.
It was only when his lies started turning him into a donkey that Pinocchio finally learned his lesson. But Carlo Collodi’s original Pinocchio wasn’t just a liar; he ended up, while in a rage, killing poor Jiminy Cricket with a hammer. Pinocchio was subsequently hanged for his grave offence, though Collodi’s editor later asked for the puppet to be rescued by the Blue Fairy.
16. Sleeping Beauty
Sleeping Beauty can be traced back to Giambattista Basile’s 1634 fairytale, Sun, Moon, and Talia. But in that story, instead of waking the princess with a kiss, the prince raped, impregnated and abandoned her. She awoke shortly after giving birth to twins, at which point the prince returned, and the pair, despite the circumstances of their first encounter, fell in love.
15. Aladdin and the King of Thieves
The straight-to-video Aladdin sequel – which brings Aladdin face-to-face with his noble-thief father Cassim – is based on Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. It all ended happily for the pair in the movie, but in the original tale Cassim got sliced into pieces as a warning to other thieves. He was later sewn back together to make his death look natural.
14. The Little Mermaid
Ariel went through real adversity in The Little Mermaid after she was betrayed by Ursula and lost her voice, but she’s got nothing on the original Hans Christian Andersen character, who endured terrible pain when the sea witch granted her legs. To make matters worse the prince ended up marrying someone else, which resulted in Ariel – who could have saved herself by murdering him – dissolving into sea foam.
Cinderella is forever upbeat as she overcomes her cruel family and goes to the ball with Prince Charming. But the original fairytale by the Brothers Grimm is a little more gruesome, with Cinderella’s ugly sisters chopping off bits of their own feet in a bid to fit into the glass slipper. And Cinderella wasn’t exactly the forgiving type; she later ordered birds to stab her siblings’ eyes with their beaks.
12. Snow White
Again demonstrating the Grimm brothers’ obsession with revenge, in their particular tale Snow White wasn’t just whisked off to a castle after the Evil Queen fell off a cliff. Instead, their titular character invited the queen to her wedding, whereupon she forced her into a pair of red-hot iron shoes and told her to dance until she “fell down dead.”
There is an element of truth in the story of a Native American woman and her relationship with a British colonialist. But rather than have a relationship based on love, the real-life John Smith, who was in his mid-30s, is believed to have raped and impregnated the 12-year-old Pocahontas. She was later kidnapped and forced to wed another Englishman.
10. The Hunchback of Notre Dame
There’s a predictably happy ending in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but things weren’t quite so rosy in Victor Hugo’s solemn novel. In it, Quasimodo got so angry at Esmeralda for not returning his affections that he betrayed her to get her hanged. He later felt so guilty that he starved himself to death.
9. Peter Pan
Peter Pan didn’t want to face the adult world, but in J.M. Barrie’s play the young hero’s distaste for adults was pathological. Because there was an adage in Neverland that an adult dies every time you breathe, Peter, whenever he got inside his tree, decided to inhale and exhale as quickly as possible.
8. The Princess and the Frog
Disney stuck to the popular rendition of The Frog Prince, in which princess kisses frog and frog turns into prince. But earlier versions of the fairytale saw the far more frustrated princess, who was desperate to trigger the amphibian’s transformation, chuck the innocent frog against a wall or, more alarmingly still, try to burn or behead him.
1999’s Tarzan was fairly innocent, what with Jane and her father shacking up with him and his gorilla family in the jungle. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original books, however, were more than a little bit racist. Tarzan, for example, happily killed tribal people; he even introduced himself as “the killer of beasts and many black men.”
6. The Sword in the Stone
Disney’s take on Arthur, the boy who becomes king after pulling the sword from the stone, is pretty faithful to the original – though it never showed what happened later in the Arthurian legend. Guinevere, King Arthur’s wife, had an affair with Lancelot, his best buddy, while Arthur later died at the Battle of Camlann. No wonder Disney never bothered with a sequel.
5. Robin Hood
Disney’s telling of Robin Hood cast the hero as a fox who defied the money-grabbing Prince John. But the olde English tales weren’t so sugar-coated: one 13th-century ballad, the “Geste of Robyn Hode,” told of how the outlaw killed 15 foresters for not paying up after they lost an archery-related bet.
4. The Jungle Book
Disney would have you believe that The Jungle Book is the coming-of-age tale of Mowgli, who eventually reintegrated with human society after meeting a pretty girl. But this wasn’t the case in Rudyard Kipling’s short story, where an embittered Mowgli, fresh from being rejected by the human villagers, goes back with Bagheera and a pack of wolves to raze the village to the ground.
The birth of Disney’s Bambi was celebrated by all woodland critters. In Felix Salten’s book, however, there was no fanfare. Rather than frolicking around with Thumper, Salten’s Bambi was exposed to the realities of living in the wild. The white-tailed deer later got shot by a hunter, but he escaped by spreading his blood on the ground to throw hunting dogs off the scent.
Mulan, the story about a woman who dressed as a man to fight in the army, is rooted in ancient Chinese legend. The Disney version is based on the “Hua Mulan” ballad, where Mulan happily returned home at the end. In an earlier telling, however, she committed suicide after discovering on her return that her father had died and that she was destined to become one of the emperor’s concubines.
Hercules, as you know him from the Disney movie, had it pretty easy: he beat up Hades, got the girl and lived happily ever after. But Hercules’ life in Greek myth reads like a serial killer’s profile: early in life the hero killed his music teacher, and then, after marrying Megara, he killed her and their children in a fit of Hera-induced rage.