You would never suspect that fun and lovable cartoons like Snow White, Tom and Jerry, and Winnie the Pooh were all inspired by tragic events, would you? Sorry to tell you this but many of your favorite cartoons are about to be ruined for you forever.
Sometimes, the creators of whimsical children’s characters have had the most tragic lives. Though these cartoons and animated characters were inspired by hardship, difficulty, and even death, many of them were created as a coping mechanism for the creator as an escape from an otherwise terrifying and tragic existence. It just goes to show that good things can come out of even the worst situations.
However, some of these cartoon characters have straight up horrifying and racist origins that have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. One Disney character was actually named after an infamously racist cartoon of a black slave and another famous cartoon was based on the Ku Klux Klan. Yikes.
As heartwarming and endearing as some of these characters are, there are many dark and tragic stories behind beloved children’s characters and it’ll give you an idea of just how messed up the world actually is. You will never guess which actor’s career was ruined forever after she voiced a famous Disney princess, and the true story of Winnie the Pooh will break your heart. Prepare for your childhood to be ruined forever.
These are the origin stories of 15 cartoon characters and the tragic lives of their creators.
15. Walt Disney Ruined Careers
Before Snow White and the Seven Dwarves became a box office success and a staple of pop culture, there were no full-length animated movies. At the time, cartoons were short segments played before movies and they were not seen as artistic or cinematic. However, Walt Disney thought differently and he wanted this movie to be like no other movie ever made. Disney hired Adriana Caselotti to voice Snow White and paid her $970 which is about $16,000 today and he made her sign a contract that would ruin her career. After the movie was a huge success, she wanted to work on other projects but Disney didn’t want to “spoil the illusion of Snow White” and her contract prohibited her from using her voice in anything else. Though you’d think that the first voice actress for the first Disney princess would have had a long and storied career, most of her roles after Snow White were uncredited.
14. Winnie The Bear
Though the creator of Winnie the Pooh, A.A. Milne, hated his creation and believed that it ruined his career as a serious writer and playwright, that is the saddest part of the story behind the classic cartoon. Winnie the Pooh would not even exist today if it were not for an actual bear named Winnie which was purchased as a cub by a Canadian soldier, Harry Colbourn for $20. The bear slept under Colbourn’s bed and he later donated it to a zoo in England where children could ride and play with her. One of these children was Christopher Robin who loved the bear so much that he was given a stuffed bear who he named Winnie the Pooh. Milne wrote stories about the stuffed animal for his son and the billion dollar franchise was born. The saddest part of this story is that Winnie’s mother was killed by a hunter and she was raised in captivity, only to live under a bed and then become an attraction for children.
13. Who Is Betty Boop?
There are two women who are often credited as the inspiration for the famous cartoon Betty Boop and their names are Hollywood’s first “It” girl, Clara Bow and Helen Kane. However, there is one other, often forgotten woman who was the major inspiration for the character: Baby Esther (aka Esther Jones). Baby Esther was a black singer and entertainer who often used the phrase “boop-boop-a-doop” in her act which is where Betty “Boop” got her name. Helen Kane saw Jones’ performance and actually stole her act and when Fleischer Studios created the Betty Boop character, Kane sued Fleischer for “exploiting her image” in 1930. However, this is when the truth came out that Betty Boop was not inspired by Kane but was actually inspired by Jones and evidence was produced in the form of recordings of Baby Esther and the lawsuit was thrown out. However, at the time, everyone presumed that Baby Esther had already died but she lived until 1934 and was never given a cent for being the inspiration for the iconic character.
12. Jim Crow
Disney has a long history of being racist. In fact, every studio and entertainment company in Hollywood has a history of being racist because the 1900s was full of racism and all of those companies began in the 1900s. Hollywood was so racist that the black star of Disney’s Song of the South was nominated for an Academy Award and he wasn’t even allowed into the award ceremony with all of the white people in 1947. It’s no surprise that in 1941, Disney was still just as racist with the movie Dumbo. The crows in Dumbo all speak in a manner that was stereotypically assigned in the 40s and the main crow is actually named Jim Crow. For years, “Jim Crow” was a pejorative expression meaning “Negro” and it’s also where the name for the Jim Crow laws came from. The Jim Crow laws were state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States. Walt Disney definitely should have known better.
11. A Dead Princess
While Disney had been making millions off of their princess movies, 20th Century Fox was wondering why they weren’t cashing in on classic princess so Anastasia was made in 1997 as an animated retelling of the story told by Fox in their live-action film of the same name starring Ingrid Bergman in 1956. Anastasia was based on the story of a real-life girl the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia who many believed had escaped the execution of her family. Though in the movie, Anastasia survives and she eventually lives happily ever after but that’s not what really happened. Though many women have claimed to be the duchess, they were all liars according to DNA tests. In reality, she, her parents, her brother, and her four sisters were murdered by the Bolshevik secret police. According to forensic analysis and DNA testing, their bodies were all found in a mass grave, putting a rest to the myth forever.
10. The Real Shrek
Maurice Tillet was a professional wrestler who was known as The French Angel, World’s Ugliest Man, and also ‘freak ogre of the ring’ which is why he is believed to be the inspiration for Shrek. Tillet had a completely normal appearance until the age of 20 when he noticed that his feet, hands, and head were starting to swell and he was diagnosed with acromegaly which is a condition that results in the overgrowth and thickening of bones. Though he wanted to be a lawyer, his condition prevented him from the career he wanted and became an engineer for the French Navy and then he became a wrestler. He was a successful wrestler for over a decade until his health began to deteriorate and died of cardiovascular disease at age 50. Though it was his condition that made him famous, it was also the reason why he couldn’t follow his dream of becoming a lawyer and why he died a premature death.
9. Angelica Was A Real Life Bully
There are a lot of theories behind various children’s cartoons that involve one character who makes up the other characters in their head and is actually in a padlocked room in a straight jacket. This is one such theory about Angelica in Rugrats and it’s idiotic because you could potentially make a case then every cartoon, book, or movie is really just happening in the mind of one character and none of it is actually real. We’re dealing with real origin stories and the character of Angelica is actually based on a real-life girl.
You know how there are those people from grade school whose name you can’t stand just because they were jerks? Well, Angelica the bully was one such person from the childhood of Paul Germain, the guy who came up with the idea for Rugrats. Apparently, this girl bullied him so much that he decided to get back at her by naming one of the brattiest and meanest cartoon characters after her. This is just another example of someone turning a bad situation into a good one and there is one major takeaway from this story: if you had a bully in school, you should create a cartoon show and name the bully after them.
8. Jasper And Jinx?
These two characters may be beloved cartoons from our childhood but they actually have a dark past. Before they were called Tom and Jerry, they were known as Jasper and Jinx and were created in order to boost civilian morale during World War II. Though in 1940, American was not involved in the war just yet, many supported the efforts of the British Army. The names of the characters were changed after a competition to rename the cartoon was started and the names that were chosen were, of course, Tom and Jerry. However, it may not be a coincidence that British soldiers were known as “Tommies” and that “Jerry” was a name that Americans sometimes used for German soldiers. Probably not a coincidence. The only strange part about this story is that you’d think that the names should be switched since Tom is always hopelessly trying to catch Jerry in every episode with absolutely no success and actually ends up blowing himself up or hitting himself in the face multiple times. That doesn’t seem like the best idea for a morale-boosting campaign.
7. Growing Up Is The Worst
The reason why Peter Pan has resonated with so many people is that we all think about never having to grow up–especially when we’re paying bills and scheduling doctor’s appointments. This story was first written about by J.M. Barrie and has been retold over and over again over the last century. However, the origin of Peter Pan is not as whimsical as you’d think. When Barrie was only 6 years old, his 13-year-old brother died after hitting his head in an ice-skating accident. His mother never got over the death of her favorite son and Barrie did everything he could to be like his brother in order to make her happy. Later in life, Barrie thought that life’s greatest tragedy was being forced to grow up. The inspiration for Peter Pan came from Barrie’s wish to make his mother happy by never growing up.
6. Without The Balloons
The story of Up is obviously a sad one because we all know that we were in tears only fifteen minutes into the movie but the true story that inspired the movie is even more tear-jerking. In the movie, Carl watches as new skyscrapers are built around his home and would rather fly off into the wild blue yonder than ever sell it and leave the memories behind. It turns out that a little old woman named Edith Macefield felt the same way, except without all of the balloons.
After she had supported the war effort in England, served as a spy for the Allies, and then stayed overseas to take care of orphans, Edith lived in an old farmhouse in Seattle while taking care of her ill mother. Her mother died in the old home and Edith wanted to die there as well and even though she was offered a million dollars to move out when the construction of a high-rise development was being built around her, she wouldn’t accept it. She said that the money didn’t matter and that in twenty years, they would just tear the building down and build a new one. The developer of the construction on the property surrounding Edith’s house actually took care of her for the last few years of her life until she died in her home at the age of 86.
5. Jumbo Or Dumbo?
The actual story of Dumbo is inspired by a true and tragic story. There was an elephant named Jumbo who was kind of a celebrity in the 1860s. Jumbo was placed in the London Zoo in 1965 and became a favorite of Queen Victoria’s and her children before he was sold to P.T. Barnum to perform in his circus in America. Don’t let the movies fool you–P.T. Barnum was a really messed up guy and he didn’t care about any of his performers, human, animal, or otherwise.
Jumbo was known to be an aggressive animal and often smashed his den and even broke his tusks in the process. This was probably because he was a wild animal trapped in a cage and often pacified with large amounts of alcohol. Dumbo is (despite the racist crows) a wholesome story of an elephant who doesn’t meet the same fate as Jumbo and, instead, flies off to live happily ever after. It’s too bad Jumbo’s story didn’t end that way.
4. Blue Supremacists
When you think of The Smurfs today you may think of the recent, terrible live-action movies but these little blue creatures have been around since the 1950s. There are plenty of questions that we may have about the Smurf universe such as why Smurfette is the only female but the origin is even more upsetting.
The creator of the cartoon, a Belgian artist named Peyo, said that the inspiration for his characters came from a time when he forgot the word for salt and said “Schtroumpf” which became the original name of the comic. However, the real origin of these little blue anthropomorphous creatures is often disputed and there are many who believe that the origin is a little more racist than Peyo said.
Peyo was born in Belgium under Nazi occupation and the fact that these little blue people are actually “blue-supremacists” who are constantly under the attack of a villainous outsider who looks like a racist Jewish caricature and his cat is named Azrael which is the Angel of Death according to the Bible and Jewish tradition. Are the Smurfs just lovable cartoon characters who inexplicably replace the word “smurf” with various nouns and verbs in their everyday speech or are they actually racist cartoons created by a Nazi? We’ll never know.
3. Dennis Had A Rough Life
Considering that Dennis of Dennis the Menace is a rotten and mischievous little boy with an attitude problem, it’s hard to believe that the creator would actually have based the character on his own child–but he totally did. Hank Ketcham got the idea for Dennis the Menace after his wife called their son Dennis Ketcham a “menace” and the character was born.
Though the fictional Dennis appears to live a fairly pleasant life (at the expense of his family, friends, and neighbor) but the real Dennis had a difficult childhood. Dennis’ mother was an alcoholic and she died of a barbiturate overdose when he was only 12. He then moved with his father and new step-mother to Switzerland where he was put in a boarding school and completely neglected by his family, and things only got worse.
Once he graduated, he was immediately shipped off to Vietnam with the Marine Corps and suffered from PTSD once he returned. Before Hank Ketcham died in 2001, he was asked about his son Dennis. He said that he wasn’t sure what he was doing or where he was then, and he compared raising a child to playing the piano, saying, “If you don’t give it much attention, you won’t get much out of it.” Brutal.
2. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride
Mr. Toad is easily the best character in the classic book The Wind in the Willows because he’s a hilarious, spoiled amphibian with a drinking problem and a waistcoat so, of course, Disney would incorporate him into one of their movies. Though Mr. Toad appeared in the Disney movie, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, Mr. Toad was created by Kenneth Grahame who wrote The Wind in the Willows and it turns out that this iconic toad was inspired by Grahame’s own spoiled son, Alistair. Though his parents believed him to be a genius, Alistair was more of an evil genius and his favorite hobby was laying down in the middle of the road, forcing cars to stop or swerve out of the way. He also hated his father so much that he refused to sign his last name because “he could not find himself capable of affection to a complete stranger” and he, instead, wanted to use the name “Robinson” which was the name of a political extremist who tried to kill his father. Alistair died at age 19 after laying down on a railroad track until a train passed. His death was recorded as an accident out of respect for his family.
1. Life Wasn’t Peachy For Roald Dahl
Technically these characters from James and the Giant Peach are not cartoons and actually stop-motion animated, they’re still added to the list because they’re children’s book characters that were created by a guy with a really messed up life.
Roald Dahl’s sister died when he was 3 and then his father disappeared which caused his mother to put him in a hellish boarding school with headmasters and teachers that would regularly beat the children and take away any care packages they received from their family. Unfortunately, things didn’t get any better for him when he grew up. He fractured his skull in a plane crash while serving in the Royal Air Force during World War II, his son was hit by a taxi which severely damaged his brain, his daughter died when she was 7, and his wife had three strokes while pregnant with one of their children.
However, despite writing timeless classics such as James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, he wasn’t the greatest dad and was often verbally abusive toward his children. The fact that he had terrible parents and went to a horrific boarding school is no excuse for being a bad parent but it is probably why he wrote so many strangely dark stories for children where most of the parents are either dead or evil and boarding schools are hell holes.
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