Disney films have certainly made a name for themselves, recognized for both good and bad qualities. One criticism of Disney films is that the princess stories often disregard women's abilities to be strong, or to exist without a prince. Some newer films have tried to reverse these notions, but the truth is that Disney stories are all about happy endings. In the past, a happy ending has always meant a prince, and while that is changing a little, we can still always count on some version of a happy ending. The evil will be abolished, good will prevail.
But most of the most prominent Disney stories have been based on much earlier books, fairy-tales, myth and legends, and even true stories. The bigger surprise is that most of the Disney source texts do not have happy endings, but are often rich and significant. Like any remake debate, it is fair to say Disney alterations crudely disregard "truth", but that doesn't make us love them any less. Either way, this list will expose what lies behind nearly three decades of Disney speciousness.
10 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
In 1937, Disney brought the fairy-tale of Snow White to the big screen. The tale featured a young princess whose beauty was envied by her evil-stepmother. The witch sends a huntsman to kill Snow White but he lets her live and she takes up residence with the seven dwarfs. Finally, the witch successfully kills Snow White with a poisoned apple, but a prince who spots her in a glass coffin falls instantly in love with her. He kisses her (presumably, cold) lips which brings her back to life.
Admittedly, the Disney version is a little weird, but the original Grimm’s fairy-tale is even stranger. Coming upon Snow White in the glass coffin, the prince insists on taking her to have her beauty on display. The dwarfs agree and the prince has his men carry her off. When they stumble on a tree root the coffin is shaken and the bit of apple is released from Snow White’s throat. The two marry and at the wedding, her step-mother is forced to wear hot iron shoes and dance until she drops dead.
9 The Little Mermaid
In 1989, the Disney Renaissance began with The Little Mermaid. In it, an adventurous mermaid princess who is enthralled with “land” makes a deal with Ursula, trading her voice for legs. Once on land, she is rescued by a prince whom she immediately falls for, but in order to stay human, she must make him fall back. This proves difficult to do with no voice, and a rival beauty who is really Ursula in disguise. But it all works out, and even Ariel’s father (king of the mer-people) gives her his blessing in the end.
The story is based on a popular fairy-tale, and like most, it’s pretty dark. The mermaid’s deal for a prince’s love, legs, and a human soul comes at a very high price. Her tongue is only the beginning. The potion will also feel like a sword and for the rest of her days, it will feel as though she is walking on sharp knives and bleeding. Furthermore, if the prince marries another, she will die and turn to sea foam. She does not win the prince, and dies, but is given the chance to earn a soul by doing good deeds in the afterlife.
8 Beauty and the Beast
In 1991, Beauty and the Beast became a major hit. It is the tale of a young woman named Belle who bravely takes the place of her father when he is captured by a beast. She stays as a prisoner (and maid) in the prison, but eventually finds she and the beast have befriended each other. He lets her go, but when she realizes the town is after him, she returns. Her tears on his dead face turn him into a prince, who was trapped in the beast body all along, and they marry.
The French fairy-tale upon which the movie was based features a slightly less noble beast. She is allowed to return to visit her family, with the stipulation that she must return in one week. Her evil sisters plot to keep her at home because they are jealous that she gets to live in a castle. When she doesn’t return, the beast begins to die. Realizing this, she rushes to his side and he explains he was cursed for not helping an enchantress when she needed shelter from the rain. Belle cries, and voila, Prince “Charming.”
In 1995, Disney released an animated movie entitled Pocahontas. It was marketed as the true story of a Native American woman who bravely saved the life of a white settler she fell in love with, John Smith. The movie is definitely romantic, but not just in the boy meet girl way. Disney’s fabrication of this woman’s story is a romanticized version that is very distant from any actual account.
In reality, Pocahontas was a girl of only roughly ten years old, and John a man in his twenties. She did save him from being clubbed to death by her father, the Powhatan chief, but it was not because of any love affair. She was simply known to be a rambunctious child. She and John never fell in love. Rather, after being kidnapped and converted to Christianity at the age of 17, she was married to a white man named John Rolfe. The union was a condition of her release. She bore one child, before succumbing to illness at the age of 21.
6 The Hunchback of Notre-Dame
In 1996, Disney brought to life the classic Victor Hugo novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. The story was written as a tribute to the grandiose of Gothic architecture which, in 1829, had already begun to be replaced. Disney’s version tells the story of Quasimodo, a hunchbacked bell-ringer who falls for a beautiful gypsy woman named Esmerelda after she saves him. After much adventure, Esmerelda and Quasimodo become the greatest of friends, and he happily watches her marry the brave Captain Pheobus.
The novel, however, has a much darker ending which is more appropriate to the Gothic tradition. Rather than being saved at the last moment, Esmerelda is hung for her supposed crimes, by order of Frollo, whose obsession with her became murderous. Quasimodo kills Frollo in response and lies with Esmerelda’s body until he dies of starvation. Some time later, someone tries to move the bodies, but the two crumble to dust.
In 1997, Disney brought Greek mythology to the screen with the legend of Hercules. Set on Mt. Olympus, the movie depicted Hercules, the immortal son of Zeus and Hera, who is the subject of hatred and jealousy for his brother Hades. Hades in turn has Zeus turned into a mortal and turned away from Olympus never to know the truth. Of course, super strength is a little suspicious, so a teenaged Hercules puts the pieces together and heads off to confront his real family. By the end, he’s a regular Disney hero.
Greek mythology, however, tells a very different tale. To begin with, Hercules is a Roman rendition of the name Heracles, (a name given as an attempt to ease Hera’s aggression) so it is being misused by Disney. Heracles was not turned mortal but actually was always half-mortal, because his mother was not Hera, but a mortal woman named Alcmene. As such he was hated and mistreated by Zeus’ wife, Hera. It was she, not Hades, who tried to kill him. In his youth, super strength was indeed a problem for him. He killed his music tutor in a fit of rage, and even killed his own children during a madness brought on by Hera.
In 1998, Disney offered a rendition of a Chinese legend, Mulan. The movie follows the adventure of a young girl, Mulan, who decides to take her weak father’s place in the army despite having no training — and being a female. Disguised as a boy, Mulan identifies herself as her father’s “son” and hurries off to fight without her family knowing. Although she is rather useless with a weapon at first, her wits take her pretty far and she becomes an “unexpected’ hero. She is celebrated, and when she is found to be a girl, feelings are hurt but ultimately everything is fine. She and her commander can even be together.
The legend of Mulan, who is believed to have lived in the 5th century, began as a poem about a bored weaver, who decides to join the army in her father’s place, and at the end returns happily to weaving. The story has evolved over the centuries though, and in it, Mulan is a fierce martial artist trained by her father. She has a sister and an infant brother, and is well-equipped to take her father’s place when she does. And of course, there is no romance.
In 1999, Disney saw its last success of what has been dubbed the Disney Renaissance (1989-1999). Tarzan was the tale of a boy who had been raised in the wild of Africa by the gorilla, Kala, after a leopardess kills his parents who have been shipwrecked. With no conception of himself as human, he lives happily ever after until a troop of English explorers invade the forest and Tarzan is forced to face his difference. Jane teaches him to speak, and love. However, Tarzan ultimately decides not to turn his back on his gorilla family, so Jane gives up city-life for the wild.
It is based on the 1912 book, Tarzan of the Apes. In it, Tarzan is raised by Kala after another ape kills his parents. He is always aware of his difference, and teaches himself to read using the old books of his parents. When an African hunter kills Kala, he becomes vengeful and plays cruel pranks on the new settlers. In a subsequent book, white settlers including Jane and Clayton (Tarzan’s cousin) peak his interest. Jane becomes engaged to Clayton and Tarzan renounces his claim to inheritance for Jane’s sake.
2 The Princess and the Frog
In 2009 Disney offered its first black princess, set against the enthralling backdrop of 1912, New Orleans. The film makes excellent use of the Louisiana spirit, music and vibrance. Tiana is not a princess, but a poor young woman who only knows the meaning of hard work. Tiana and Prince Naveen are brought together by ironic circumstances. He has been turned into a frog, but thinking Tiana is a princess, explains that a kiss form her will save him. Thinking she will get her restaurant in return, she kisses the frog, but is stunned when she turns into a frog instead. Adventure ensues.
The movie is based on a 2002 children’s book, The Frog Princess. In it, Emma is an actual princess with powers she cannot yet control. She tries to reverse the spell cast on a prince who is turned to a frog, but instead, it turns her to a frog. After a lot of misadventures the two are finally able to find an antidote, and return to human form. At which point they can be happily wed.
In 2013 Disney released a breakout hit, Frozen, that has received much praise and admiration for its songs, comedy and strong message. In it, Princess Anna bravely sets off on an adventure to save her sister, Queen Elsa, whose magic is out of control. After inadvertently setting off an eternal winter, Elsa goes into hiding; but the true love between sisters eventually turns out to be strong enough to reverse the spell and teaches Elsa how to control her magic.
The story is based on the fairy-tale, The Snow Queen, which is the most acclaimed of all Hans Christian Anderson tales. It is about the relationship between two childhood friends, as opposed to two royal sisters. A little boy named Kai is affected by a magic mirror sent by evil trolls. Shards of the mirror are in his heart and eyes, which makes him see only the badness in the world. He is taken by the evil Snow Queen, but his friend Gerda never gives up. When she finds him, blue and near death, she cries over him and her tears melt his heart. He too cries, and the shards are released from his eyes. The two return home. It is summer and Kai can finally see the world’s beauty and be happy.