Disney Goes Dark
We have all come to expect family-friendly, lighthearted fair from Disney movies. They are, after all, the place where dreams come true and “happily ever afters” reign supreme. Every once in a while, a Disney film enters dark territory, stepping outside of these comfortable expectations, and entering into the challenging realms of the horrific and the heartbreaking. Here are some films that came from the Disney studios that challenged their own reputation by departing the safe and well-traveled in fascinating ways.
It is not hard to find the darkness in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959). The story is easily one of the most sinister of the animated films Disney made in his lifetime. The story starts out with the evil, horned fairy Maleficent showing up to curse the baby Princess Aurora with the promise of death on her 16th birthday. Of course, the three good fairies Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather do their best to protect the child by keeping her in hiding and using what magic they can to change the death sentence into a sleep from which the girl can only be awoken by love’s first kiss. This doesn’t stop Maleficent, who relentlessly searches for the child, resorting to summoning the powers of hell to turn her into a dragon, an effort to kill Prince Phillip whom she suspects can break the spell.
The Princess and the Frog
Voodoo magic seems like a taboo subject for Disney, but with the setting of The Princess and the Frog (2009) in New Orleans, it makes sense that the story’s villain Dr. Facilier would trade in these dark arts. The doctor straddles the line between the world of the living, and the thinly-veiled afterlife, consorting with demons who help him enact his black magic. His plot to murder Big Daddy Le Bouff and take his fortune, not to mention his using magic to turn humans into frogs, make Dr. Facilier one of the most-treacherous of all Disney villains.
The Black Cauldron
The Black Cauldron (1985), and the story on which it is based, were so dark that even after a careful trimming of the story by Disney, the movie remains a harrowing tale of darkness and evil. The Horn King, who is trying to locate and secure a magical cauldron that will allow him to conquer the world, is one horrific animated creation. The film was so frightening in places that parents complained that their kids were crying and they had to walk out.
Disney broke our hearts with this story about a little boy who raises a puppy into a pioneer family’s loyal protector, only to have the canine consumed with rabies. Old Yeller has one of the darkest climaxes of a Disney film when the older brother, who was initially averse to the animal, but who eventually falls in love with him, shoots the dog to put it out of its misery and to protect the family. Most of the film is a loving story and an exciting series of adventures, but Disney took us down a path of unchartered horror in 1957 with this film that taught us all, at an early age, that death was a part of life.
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
The Headless Horseman portion of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) may be the spookiest of all moments in a Disney film. Ichabod Crane, the schoolmaster in Sleepy Hollow, is in love with the enchanting Katerina Van Tassel. At a party at the Van Tassel home, Brom Bones, the boasting braggart who is also vying for Katerina’s affections, gets inside Ichabod’s head by telling him of the Headless Horseman who prowls the woods, in search of a replacement for his missing noggin. As Ichabod and his horse wend their way home through the forest, the Horseman shows up and remains in hot pursuit of the schoolmaster. The next day, there is no trace of Ichabod.
Something Wicked This Way Comes
Ray Bradbury’s novella about a sinister carnival that comes to a small town and grants peoples their wishes, but for an enormous price, was a strange choice for a Disney production. Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) writhes with an intensity seldom found in a Disney film, especially in the penultimate scene where the carnival’s proprietor Mr. Dark spins forward on a magic carousel that turns him a year older with each spin. When the merry-go-round speeds up and his dried-up skeleton is all that is left, it is a moment of both unparalleled Disney horror and cathartic relief. The title of the story comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a play also known for its devil-inspired machinations.
Darby O’Gill and the Little People
Most of Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959) is steeped in Irish legend of leprechauns, pots of gold, and little people magic. There is, however, a climactic seen where a banshee (a female spirit that is a herald of death) shows up to claim the title character’s daughter Katie who is sick with fever. To date, Disney has not produced a more bone chilling image than that of the spectral death coach pulling up in front of their cottage. The banshee’s screams are blood curdling, piercing in their intensity. It remains the single-most horrific five-minutes in a Disney film.
The Watcher in the Woods
If Darby O’Gill and the Little People was the most terrifying moment in a Disney film, The Watcher in the Woods remains, minute-for-minute, the most frightening of all Disney films for its duration. Made in 1980, this tale of a haunted house (and starring Bette Davis in one of her most mysterious roles) gave nightmares to any child who grew up watching frequent reruns on The Disney Channel. An American family moves to a British country manse where its owner and former resident had a daughter go missing. Lights in the woods, supernatural phenomena, cryptic messages in the mirrors, and the spookiest solar eclipse ever all add up to make The Watcher in the Woods a movie that keeps your heart racing.