Some audiences dismiss Disney films as harmless kids’ films full of light-hearted magic and non-threatening whimsy. However, while the house of mouse prides itself on delivering great films for families, many of their animated and live-action classics go to darker places than many choose to give them credit for.
Whether dealing with terrifying villains, more complex themes and ideologies, or inescapable danger, the happiest place on earth has gone to certain extremes. Some of them leave a bittersweet taste on the mouth, while others help make the happily ever after even more worthwhile. But, love them or not, they have all earned their place in the company’s more significant legacy.
‘The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad ‘(1949)
While The Wind in the Willows sequence is reasonably light-hearted, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow sequence is a spooky delight. Ichabod Crane himself is not much of a sympathetic character, plotting to seduce a beautiful girl to get her father’s money.
Then there’s the infamously terrifying final sequence, where the Headless horseman chases Ichabod through the woods. The following day, Ichabod is missing, only a shattered pumpkin left nearby, giving Ichabod an uncertain fate. By the end, even the story’s narrator, Bing Crosbyremarks he needs to get out of here.
‘The Rescuers’ (1977)
While the film has a light-hearted story of mice coming to rescue a little girl, it is also quite bittersweet. The opening scene, where young Penny (Michelle Stacy) sets a message in a bottle off to the sea, and it sails along the ocean, sets off a foreboding and melancholy tone.
Madame Medusa (Geraldine Page) quickly proves herself a pretty despicable villain, kidnapping an orphaned child to steal a diamond and threatening her life if she refuses. While the girl, mice, and their new friends persevere, their lives are threatened numerous times from the likes of bats, floods, and Medusa’s two pet crocodiles.
‘The Fox and the Hound’ (1981)
It begins as a story of friendship between two orphaned animals; a fox named Tod (Mickey Rooney) and a dog named Copper (Kurt Russell). They play together, but societal pressures force the two apart until they grow up in separate environments. One in the free and resourceful wilderness, the other raised to hunt. Soon, the two find themselves as bitter enemies.
Then when a large and scary bear tries to kill them both, this is not enough for Copper’s owner to stop trying to shoot Tod. Finally, after a tense moment, the two leave Tod alone, with only a tiny smile between the former friends hinting at reconciliation.
‘The Black Cauldron’ (1985)
While touted by many as the point where Disney animation hit rock bottom, it nevertheless has a notable place as a mature and dark film in the studio’s history. Young pig-keeper Taran (Grant Bardsley) discovers an evil demon-like creature known as the Horned King who seeks to use a titular black cauldron to raise an army of the dead to conquer the world.
It’s up to Taran and his new friends Princess Eilonwy (Susan Sheridan), Fflewddur Fflam (Nigel Hawthorne), and Gurgi (John Byner) to find the cauldron before he does. Unfortunately, when the cauldron’s power is revealed, it creates some genuinely ghastly sights, some of which had to be edited by the studio before release.
‘James and the Giant Peach’ (1996)
This stop-motion classic is based on the children’s book by Roald Dahl and directed by Coraline and Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick. A young boy, James (Paul Terry), raised by his abusive aunts after a ghostly rhino suddenly killed his parents, finds some magic and uses it to grow a gigantic peach.
But, while his aunts exploit it for profit, James finds a group of giant talking bugs living inside and ready to escape. On a whirlwind adventure to New York, they encounter evil shark robots, ghostly skeleton pirates (one of which has the head of Jack Skellington), and eventually the leviathan rhino itself.
Touted by many as Walt Disney‘s masterpiece, each musical sequence is animated to perfection, though some are darker than others. The Sorcerer’s Apprenticewhile still having the charm and whimsy of a typical Mickey Mouse short, still has imagery and music straight out of a horror movie, with sentient brooms that multiply when chopped up. The Rite of Spring sequence follows the evolution of the earth, ending on a rather dour note with the extinction of the dinosaurs.
It all comes together in the climatic Night on Bald Mountainwhere a scary demon named Chernabog awakens from his slumber to unleash his horde of nightmares, and the only thing that can keep him at bay is the sound of a choir singing Ave Maria.
On paper, this seems like the enchanting story of a young wooden puppet (Dick Jones) who wants to become a real boy. But this kid is put through so much peril the real miracle is that he makes it out alive. First, he held hostage by a puppeteer who wants to exploit him for profit.
Then on Pleasure Island, a coachman lures him and other stupid kids into living out carefree destructiveness, only to turn them into donkeys and sell them to salt mines. After that, a giant whale swallows him alive and almost kills him. A classic moral from Disney films is that good will conquer evil, but this film shows that sometimes you can only escape from it, not necessarily defeat it.
‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ (1996)
Based on an extremely dark book, this film has a reputation for having a darker tone than the typical fairy-tale. Much of this darkness comes from the film’s cruel villain, Judge Claude Frollo (Tony Jay). He kills a woman within his first 2 minutes of screen time. He then raises her son Quasimodo (Tom Hulce) in secret, undermining his confidence every chance he gets, then begins to lust after his new friend Esmeralda (Demi Moore).
He then starts burning Paris down to pursue her, feeling if he can not have her, no one can. He commits despicable actions while proclaiming that he is a man of God, using his power to persecute those he deems unholy.
‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937)
There’s a reason the Disneyland ride labels the first fully animated film in history’s events as “Scary Adventures.” Snow White (Adriana Caselotti) herself is in nearly constant danger before she meets the dwarves. The evil queen (Lucille La Verne), already somewhat unsettling, becomes terrifying when she becomes an old hag. She plots to kill Snow White multiple times, and with the poisoned apple, she actually succeeds.
She almost manages to crush the dwarves with a boulder until the rock beneath her is struck by lightning, and she falls to her doom, with the disturbing implication the vultures watching nearby will feast on her corpse.
‘Return to Oz’ (1985)
This sequel to The Wizard of Oz brings a whole new meaning to the term “we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) tells everyone she knows about her adventure in Oz, and everyone thinks she’s crazy. She gets sent to a psychiatric ward practicing shock therapy before a storm destroys the place and brings her back to Oz.
But all her friends are missing, her pet chicken can suddenly talk, and all the emeralds from the Emerald City have been taken. She then runs afoul of creepy minions called wheelers, a witch who steals the heads of beautiful girls and must fight the monstrous Nome King (Nicol Williamson) to free Oz from his control.
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