What kid hasn’t grown up over the past 90 years that can’t include Disney as part of their nostalgic childhood? I’m no exception to that. And just as I can be sure that Disney was a staple of my childhood, I can likewise confirm that one of the first “rites of passage”…one of the first “signs” that I as a child had to prove I was an adult…was to completely renounce the man who is named Walt Disney. I had to proverbally spit upon my Mickey Mouse storybooks, burn a set of Donald Duck bedsheets, and hang a stuffed Goofy in effigy to confirm that I, now and forever, would swear off all things Disney and Disney-related.
And what was the major reason for this? Disney was for babies, and I, a typical young boy who grew up around lots of peer pressure, would not be able to be considered a man/adult by my peers, or even my family in some cases, unless I swore off that fairy-arched Cinderella castle logo for good. And sure enough, if you went around in late grade school/junior high talking about the latest Disney movie, that was a one-way ticket to class-wide ridicule and shunning…especially if you were a boy. You were only supposed to like the PG-13 or, better yet, R-rated movies that you weren’t normally allowed to watch. Because all animated films, and particularly Disney, was made for wimps.
And it’s no big surprise that such a viewpoint isn’t limited to childhood. Heck, pretty much the first “meme” I ever thought of was “Disneyfication”, which is a simple way of saying taking something that is serious, deep, and even “adult” and dumbing it down with goofy characters, bright colors, loud noises, and general, infant-level sillyness. Essentially, the name Disney became synonymous with “baby stuff”, with things that were pathetic and lacked any seriousness, suspense, fear, or anything beyond what a four or five year old might like.
Now of course that I’m in my 30s, I have one simple question regarding that old idea…
Why did I think that? In fact, why do all of us, on some subconscious level, think that?
I’ve thought back over my childhood and the company and, honestly, I can’t really justify this. Let’s start with the very first one: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (Yup, “dwarfs” not “dwarves”). Sure, it’s pretty much only an hour long, full of woodland creatures, and atrocious singing from characters who Disney was trying to make approximate reality (it wouldn’t be until “Sleeping Beauty” that all characters, even the attractive women, would start looking stylized, although Disney started changing them around as soon as “Pinocchio”). But of course, scenes like Snow White’s little run through “Mirkwood” and the old witch and her transformation were probably the first horrific scenes that scarred kids for life at an earlier age. Nowadays, of course, we think: “Meh, compared to some of the stuff today, it’s no big deal.”
But think about that for a moment… What were the contemporary ‘horror films’ when “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” came out? Well, this movie came out in 1937. (Notice the timing? Disney wouldn’t see another profit on an animated film until “Cinderella”.) What was the “contemporary horror” of that day? Things like the original “Dracula”, “Frankenstein”, and “The Mummy”.
…Not exactly the stuff of nightmares. Have any of you ever seen the original “Dracula”? Bela Lugosi didn’t even have sharp teeth. That wouldn’t happen until the Christopher Lee era. Not a single drop of blood on camera. Almost everything, vampire attacks or killing Dracula, happened off screen. You don’t know whether to laugh at what you’re watching or fall asleep. As for Boris Karloff, his main “frightening” actions involved glowering and staggering around saying simple phrases.
Because of that, I venture to say that “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was not only a scary movie at the time…it might very well have been the scariest movie ever made at the time. Between the nightmarish visuals, the horrific transformation sequence that beat the pants off of any of Lon Chaney Jr.’s transformations (and he wouldn’t even come out with “The Wolf Man” until 1941), and the old witch who, when the shot cuts to her looking inside the window at the cottage (and she might as well be saying: “I’ll swallow your soul, my pretty.” in that shot), and the fact that mankind hadn’t yet been introduced to the wonder of movie-made worlds yet from “The Wizard of Oz”, and we had a pretty intense film. People may accuse it of being a bit childish today, but have you ever seen half of the “fantasy-based” or “supernatural-based” plots of the day? This film was pretty much on par with the adult-geared ones.
And what does Disney follow up his whimsical “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” with? The nightmare that is “Pinocchio”. Sure, it has lots of cute and friendly imagery with talking, singing crickets, lovely blue fairies (again, still modeled after real women at the time), cute little puppet boys, anthropomorphic foxes and cats…oh yeah, and evil puppet-masters screaming fiercely about child slavery and future murder, kids being turned into donkeys and sold into the more horrific form of “human trafficking” ever, and a horrifying “rape face” that I’m pretty sure I saw in my nightmares until I was 14.
Oh, and then there’s “Fantasia”. Look what we’ve got? Delightful little mushrooms and sugarplum fairies dancing around, Mickey Mouse playing a sorcerer’s apprentice for…a…rather scary-looking wizard, dinosaurs…uh…slowly dying when Earth is reduced to a wasteland, and “The Night on Bald Mountain” sequence…which might as well have been entitled: “Ten Minutes Inside the Gates of Hell”.
Feeling “whimsical” yet? THAT SEQUENCE HAS BOOBS.
“Ok, ok…” You might be telling me. “So, back in the day, Disney was pretty intense. But you have to admit it’s pretty tame by today’s standards.” Well, what exactly is “tame” and what is “risque”?
There’s little dispute that, among animated films, the trash far outweighs the treasure…and it has for almost as long as we can remember. The closest we ever got to was a fistful of Don Bluth films (which degenereated quickly once they left the 1980s) and some of the “Shrek” films…and both of those came from ex-Disney animators. Ok, we had the Pixar films (Which, I think, were struck by gamma radiation that led them to go from: “Hey, let’s be the American Miyazaki!” to “Hey, let’s sell out to past successes like the rest of Hollywood!”…but that’s a subject for another rant) but those didn’t even come into the picture until the 1990s and needed a few years to “warm up”. Disney pretty much dominated the industry and may be fully taking control of it again following “Frozen”. And while it may not have been as extreme as the aforementioned Don Bluth films, it’s definitely had its share of frightening or dark imagery.
We had the nightmarish little slice of acid known as the Pink Elephant Sequence in “Dumbo”. We had Maleficent literally invoking Hell and turning into a black dragon surrounded by nightmarish thorns in “Sleeping Beauty”. We had the foreboding swamp atmosphere in “The Rescuers” and a kid constantly in mortal peril in “The Rescuers Down Under”. While not as successful, we can all agree that the imagery in “The Black Cauldron” was pretty intense and the nightmare sequences in “The Brave Little Toaster” gave us nightmares. “Beauty and the Beast” invoked all sorts of bestial and gothic imagery. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”…if you’ve seen it, do you have to ask? The villain pretty much falls into Hell in the spiritual sense. How many heads did Hercules whack off again in the hydra battle in “Hercules”? Sure, there was pure kid stuff like in “Cinderella” and “The Jungle Book”, but there was more than a fair share of raw terror fuel.
Yet probably even more intense was some of the themes. Sure, “The Fox and the Hound” looks like it’s pretty tame animation-wise, but it basically shows how warped people can become from children to adults when they grow up in a culture that “expects” them to hate one another, which is a nightmare that’s all too real. The most horrific thing a child can probably conceptualize is the thought of their parents being killed…and Disney did it twice: “Bambi” and “The Lion King”. And I don’t know how many “deep thinkers” have ever noticed this, but I originally thought “Beauty and the Beast” was one of the more overrated films in the Disney franchise…but then I realized the parallelism between two characters. No, not the Beast and Belle…I’m talking about the Beast and Gaston. The Beast starts off as a cruel, uncaring savage both outside and the inside, but gradually becomes warmer, kinder, and gentler…in other words, the “monster” turns into a “man” long before the final sequence. But if you watch the movie, what happens almost directly parallel to him is Gaston, the character who, in spite of being an egotistical jerk, was pretty much just a normal, attractive guy at the start, and his jealousy gradually twists him more and more as the film goes on, until, in the rooftop sequence…the “man” turns into a “monster”. That’s…surprisingly deep.
But if even after this, you still claim “Disney is way too tame”, I only have one other question: What do you expect?
Here’s a little fun secret I want to share with you about family films. Ready? Come in close. Here it is… Family films, in order to be successful, have to appeal to the entire family, which means everyone. What, do you expect Disney to churn out stuff like “The Evil Dead” or “The Exorcist”? Or even things like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”? Disney isn’t about being gritty and harsh and dark because that’s all adult things. Disney has always been about using the power of art and animation to create fantastic worlds and situations, to immerse you in beauty and wonder, and then try to tell a story that everyone will enjoy. And do you have any idea how hard it is to make a story that both kids and adults can appreciate? A lot harder than you think…definitely harder than it is to write a good story purely for adult audiences.
To say that because Disney films are geared to an all-encompassing audience and necessarily have to be more on the “light” side that anyone who watches them is “childish” is…well, quite honestly…childish. That’s exactly what we heard in grade school growing up. “If you don’t pee on that school wall, you’re a baby!” “If you don’t try this cigarette, you’re a little momma’s boy!” “If you watch Disney films, you’re a wimpy toddler!” One would think that once they became adult they would be old and mature enough to realize that you don’t give up who you are and what you enjoy simply because some people will taunt you for it. After all, if you can’t stand up to peer pressure over something as simple as watching a film, how can you stand up for something more complex? Like a stance on guns or abortion or sides in a political conflict? Don’t we all like to think we’re “above” peer pressure now that we’re older? And even if we don’t, don’t we wish we were?
And as I said before in my defense of MLP, if you’re going to judge the full worth of my character based on what I consider to be “good” movies, then honestly I don’t care to know you in the first place.