Whether it was The Little Mermaid, Hercules or Tangled, we all have a Disney animated classic that takes us right back to our childhood. The animation powerhouse was the first to produce a feature-length animated film and it hasn’t stopped churning them out since 1937. Though it has a few original stories in its back catalog of movies like Zootopia, Bolt and Fantasia, to name a few, the vast majority are adapted from fairy stories, folkore, myths, literary classics or, in rare cases like Mulan and Pocahontas, real life (to a certain degree.) This formula of retelling familiar stories from around the world is one that has been the studio’s backbone since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and — judging by the stupidly big financial and critical success of 2014’s Frozen — it’s one we’re still happy to lap up.
That early decision of Walt’s to censor the more horrifying aspects of classic fairy stories, rife with assault, cannibalism and gore (the Grimm brothers were pretty hardcore) developed into our cultural concept of something being “Disney-fied.” In other words: filled with cheery music, bright characters and sappy morals. But that doesn’t mean Disney movies have been free from controversy or scrutiny. Over the years, Disney films both old and new have been accused of containing racist caricatures, sexist tropes and ethically questionable lessons for a young audience. These hilariously savage posters created by Christine Gritmon and Nick Nadel expose the “real” truth hiding in your Disney favorites, or just simplify the whole story in a few words.
So, if you haven’t seen a movie that came out over 75 years ago… Spoiler Alert? Just like the bullet from the hunter’s rifle that sliced through Bambi’s mom, this one really cuts deep — straight to the heart kind of deep. Other than Mufasa’s death in The Lion King, the death of Bambi’s mom is one of the saddest in Disney movie history.
Of course, similarly to Mufasa, her death galvanizes her only child to strike out on his own, as well as teaching him a painful but necessary lesson about how dangerous the world can be. It’s a classic coming-of-age story told through adorable, wide-eyed forest critters and a beautiful but unforgiving forest setting. And the moral is? Mankind sucks. For what it’s worth — we’re sorry, Bambi.
14. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
Tale as old as time, bestiality as old as rhyme. Of all of Disney’s beloved classics, Beauty and the Beast leaves us with the most amount of unanswered questions. As this brutally honest re-titling points out, can Belle’s love for the Prince be sustained once she’s free to come and go as she pleases? Or will the allure disappear once the cloud of infatuation from being imprisoned is gone?
Also, speaking of bestiality, it’s hard not to miss the disappointment on Belle’s face when the Beast turns into a hairless human. She’s definitely not crazy about that ponytail. The new royal couple are also going to have to deal with the fallout of murdering the hero of Belle’s hometown and explaining where pseudo-France’s monarch has been this whole time. Revolution, anyone?
This joke just never gets old, and it’ll probably never stop annoying James Cameron for the rest of his life as he slaves away on Avatar‘s 302,684 sequels. In fact, we know for a fact that Cameron was riled up when the comparisons between his 2009 sci-fi epic and the 1995 animated movie from Disney flooded in because he wrote a 45-page letter in October 2012 decrying them.
As well as cartoons like Pocahontas, Cameron’s production company apparently attracted a bunch of lawsuits claiming his idea had been stolen from other sources. He passionately denied it all, calling Avatar his “most personal film to date” and that the idea had come to him in the ’60s. It’s hard, of course, to be 100% original in modern storytelling, but the parallels between Avatar and Pocahontas remain coincidentally tight.
12. SLEEPING BEAUTY
Yeah, you can say that again. Unlike a lot of Disney heroines, Princess Aurora doesn’t get to do much running around or animal serenading before she’s rendered magically unconscious at the tender age of 16 by the prick of a spinning wheel. Panicked, her fairy godmothers decide to do the same to everyone else in the castle and then give Prince Phillip a 101 on dragon slaying.
The weirdness of Disney’s take has nothing on the various literary versions of the original fairy story, though. In one telling, the Princess remained asleep as the Prince went way further than just a kiss with her. She even gave birth while still asleep. In another, Maleficent was actually a Queen who lost her husband to the napping Princess, so she tried to trick him into eating his own children.
11. THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME
Most Disney movies with a romantic subplot — which is most Disney movies, period — end exactly how you’d expect: attractive boy meets attractive girl; attractive boy and attractive girl fall in love and live happily ever after. The key thing to take away is “attractive.” By that logic, poor old “beautiful on the inside” Quasi Modo never really stood a chance with someone like Esmerelda.
As seasoned Disney film fans, we all knew this from the get go, but Quasi didn’t have the luxury of self-awareness and got his hopes up. Is Quasi’s unluck in love a harsh life lesson on setting your expectations realistically low? Maybe. Is it one we necessarily want preached to us through the medium of a children’s animated musical? Maybe not. Don’t worry though — Quasi gets himself a girlfriend in the sequel. But… she’s blind. Hmm.
10. THE LION KING
Debates about the originality of The Lion King have been going on for years. Though the 1994 movie isn’t a straight, animal-bent adaptation of the classic Shakespeare tragedy, the creators did confirm on The Lion King: Platinum DVD release that the film was “inspired” by Hamlet, with a little more borrowed from the biblical characters, Joseph and Moses.
Putting a modern spin on Shakespeare isn’t anything scandalous, but the Disney film has attracted more serious accusations of plagiarism from anime fans, who couldn’t help but notice that the story of a lion cub forced to grow up in an unfamiliar land bears striking similarities to Osamu Tezuka’s Kimba the White Lion. In fact, Matthew Broderick, the voice of Simba, assumed he’d been hired for an American remake of Kimba. The Lion King‘s creators claim any connection is purely coincidental.
Doc Hollywood is a 1991 comedy starring Michael J. Fox, the most ’90s-looking pair of sunglasses that ever existed and a snazzy, red replica 1957 Porsche 365 “Speedster.” In the movie, Fox plays a high-rolling plastic surgeon who caters to celebrity clients. He crashes his aforementioned Porsche into a judge’s house in a middle-of-nowhere town where he is forced to stay until his debt has been repaid.
Sound familiar? Well, as this tagline for this “honest” Cars poster points out, it definitely should if you’ve ever watched the 2006 Disney/Pixar movie. It certainly didn’t go unnoticed by critics at the time either. “This one pretty much is just Doc Hollywood with cars,” Total Film’s Simon Kinnear wrote. Really, the only big difference between the two is the whole talking cars thing, which honestly wouldn’t been totally out of place in Doc Hollywood.
8. SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS
On the surface, this gag is just objectively funny because of the juxtaposition of modern-day slang with classic characters from a bygone era. But, when you think about it, it’s a pretty accurate summation of the Evil Queen’s shallow motives. Why does she want Snow White dead? Witches just be hatin’. That’s pretty much it. Nowadays, there’s no way Disney could get away with a villain so lacking in nuance.
But, say what you want about the jealous Queen — she remains one of the studio’s most intimidating villains. There’s nothing more scary, after all, than a character who is just evil for the sake of it, and downright enjoys it, too. In many of the fairy tale’s original versions, the Queen is even more bloodthirsty, demanding not just Snow’s heart but most of her internal organs from the Huntsman. What for? Well, witches also be hungry.
7. THE SWORD IN THE STONE
As this re-titling for Disney’s YA version suggests, the original legend of King Arthur is as full of blood, sex and shocking plot twists as the trashiest kinds of B-movies. And, Merlin — far from a loveable grump — had a hand in most of it. Firstly, he disguised Arthur’s father, King Uther, so that he could murder a duke’s wife and trick her into bed, the result being baby Arthur.
Now, we have to admit, to appease our tight censors, we had to remove “and incest” from the above image. But it really does apply to this property. As King, Arthur hypocritically made his knights swear celibacy, only to secretly impregnate a woman sent to spy on him… who turned out to be his sister. Merlin warned Arthur his inbred son was trouble and should be killed, except, he didn’t know his identity. So, Arthur murdered every child born on his son’s birthday just to be on the safe side. Three guesses as to who was the only kid to survive…
6. ONE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS
At best, this could read as a polite PSA on pet management. At worst, it’s a forewarning to irresponsible breeders who have neither the financial nor physical capabilities of looking after a large number of needy animals. Though it is perhaps one of the studio’s more overlooked films, One Hundred and One Dalmatians marked a lot of Disney “firsts.” It was the first animated film to have a modern-day setting.
It was also the first to be written by just one person, Bill Peet, and it was the first time animators avoided the inking part of the process by transferring their drawn work straight onto the cels using a customized Xerox camera. That’s what gives the film its sketchy look as most of the pencil lines were preserved. Considering there are over 6 million spots in the movie, maybe they also just ran out of erasing time.
5. THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG
Disney princesses are an international crowd and the ethnic make-up of their ranks is fairly diverse. Between 1992 and 2009 we had Arab, Native American, Chinese and African-American Princesses, a streak that remained unbroken until 2010’s Tangled. But, this effort was a concerted course-correction from a company whose heroines were exclusively white for over 50 years.
That’s why, despite the popularity of Jasmine and Pocahontas, when we think of a typical Disney Princess, we still see blue eyes, blonde hair and fair skin by default. The positive inclusion of The Princess and the Frog‘s Tiana also doesn’t shield the film from criticism, as this poster alludes to, and it treads a thin line between celebratory and reductive in its use of African-American culture and characterization.
By the time 2009 rolled around, Disney/Pixar had gotten the art of warming an audience’s heart up to melting point distilled to about 10 minutes — which they masterfully proved to us in the opening for Up. In its opening montage, the film chronicles the highs and lows of what it means to live a mortal life loving another human being… only to watch them grow old and die next to you.
The rest of the movie then charts the twilight years of an old man grumpily waiting for the sweet release of death, the cruel inevitability of which he’d already seen unfold before his very eyes and take away the one thing that gave his life meaning. Oh, but there’s an adorable, chubby kid and a talking dog too! See? Not a total downer. Just… mostly a downer. And then, a big upper. Literally.
Fantasia is, without a doubt, Disney’s most creatively ambitious work. It’s also very, very weird and dark in a way that Disney has never and probably will never be again. Highly conceptual, the film is essentially seven animated segments set to iconic pieces of classical music from the likes of Bach, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, featuring a real life orchestra and conductor who provide the glue holding the disparate sections together.
The segments range from completely abstract shapes and colors translating the music into movements; a history of the Earth’s primordial state up to the brutal extinction of the dinosaurs; the infamous “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence where Mickey creates an army of sentient broomstick slaves; a ballet-dancing romance between a crocodile and hippo; and finally — the devil Chernabog raining fire, brimstone and demons upon the Earth until his curfew kicks in.
2. THE LITTLE MERMAID
The Little Mermaid is the story of a rebellious seventh child (seriously, Triton, how many daughters do you need?) whose only friends are a talking fish and scruffy seagull, and a Prince who falls in love with a mute teenager who washes up in front of his house. It also has some of Disney’s best tunes in it, which — along with Ariel and Eric being nearly everyone’s childhood crushes — is what makes us overlook all this.
Of course, the original fairy story has far worse things in it than just a questionable moral about drastically changing your physical appearance and cutting off your family ties to be with a guy you’ve known for roughly a week. The Prince actually ends up rejecting Ariel — even after she risks everything for him in her deal with the sea witch — leaving her so distraught she ends up killing herself.
Aladdin is a much-loved Disney classic, but prior to its release in 1992, it was courting racial controversy. Dr. Jack Shaheen, a well-known critic and campaigner against negative Arab stereotyping in pop culture, managed to get “offensive” lyrics swapped out of the film’s soundtrack. The lyric that got cut from “Arabian Nights” described the country as a place “where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face.”
He also argued that the film was guilty of perpetuating misconceptions and irrational fears about the Middle East and Asia, calling the fictional city of Agrabah “Hollywood’s fabricated Ayrabland,” and pointing out that the heroes — Aladdin and Jasmine — had noticeably lighter skin compared to the darker-skinned antagonists. Obviously, Aladdin gets props for being the first Disney movie with a non-white cast. It’s just a shame it couldn’t avoid stereotyping.
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