The Real-Life Inspirations For Disney Characters

Disney characters are usually cut from the same visual cloth – large eyes, big grins, good posture and so on. Once in a while, however, Disney’s heroes – and villains – are inspired by real people, and it’s not always immediately obvious who. 

These are the Disney characters who needed a little help in the design stages from some well-known faces…

Snow White from ‘Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs’ was inspired by… model/dancer Marge Champion

Walt Disney’s iconic first feature film used young dancer/actress Marge Champion – at that point Marjorie Belcher – to act out the scenes with stand-in props to help the animators. 

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Snow White shows a definite resemblance to Champion, probably because several scenes were directly traced from her live-action footage. The actress would go on to have a successful career in film and TV.

Maleficent was inspired by… Lady Gaga

Angelina Jolie is indeed a striking actress in the classic mold, but even her cheekbones aren’t that pronounced. In order to give Sleeping Beauty’s villainess an added dimension for her live-action prequel ‘Maleficent’, Jolie and her personal make-up artist looked to the pop world for inspiration and decided to mimic the effect of Lady Gaga’s forehead prosthetics in her 'Born This Way’ music video. Did the director instruct the make-up team to “poke 'er face” to create the spooky effect? Yes. That is definitely how it was discussed. 

Elsa from 'Frozen’ was inspired by… Amy Winehouse

Disney’s mega-hit 'Frozen’ spent years in planning with the character of Elsa the Snow Queen the most difficult to pin down in terms of style and tone. At one point, animators were drawing Elsa as a blue-haired ice queen, with early sketches “inspired by Amy Winehouse’s pathos” (she was also written to have “a deep, soulful voice and dramatic mood swings,” which sounds about right). Elsa was eventually softened in subsequent drafts and all hints of Wino were erased, but just count yourself lucky you didn’t get the Elsa inspired by Bette Midler, because that was also on the table at one point.

Ariel from 'The Little Mermaid’ was inspired by… Alyssa Milano

Milano is perhaps best known for her stint as a witch in popular TV series 'Charmed’, but she was also the inspiration for the most famous mermaid in pop culture (sorry, Daryl Hannah in 'Splash!’). The former child star was used as the basis for Ariel in Disney’s 1993 retelling of 'The Little Mermaid’, even though technically they didn’t have permission to use Milano’s likeness at the time. “I actually was [the inspiration], yeah!” said Milano years later. “It came out that the drawing and likeness of 'The Little Mermaid’ was based on pictures of me from when I was younger.” You think that’s odd? Villain Ursula was based on infamous drag act Divine of 'Pink Flamingos’ poo-eating fame.

Ariel from ‘The Little Mermaid’ was also inspired by… writer/comedian Sherri Stoner

This little-known writer and producer was the inspiration for TWO of Disney’s iconic heroines from the 1980s and 90s – Ariel from ‘Mermaid’ and Belle in ‘Beauty And The Beast’. A writer for ‘Animaniacs’ and ‘Casper’ and former improv comedian, she was used as a ‘body model’ for the characters because of her petit 5’ 2", 92 lb. figure. However, her mannerisms, such as blowing her hair out of her eyes, were also worked into the films. Check out this video for some amazing footage of Stoner in action. 

Carl from 'Up!’ was inspired by… Spencer Tracy

Though stout little elderly adventurer Carl Fredricksen is pretty much the spitting image of voice actor Ed Asner, his look was also influenced by plenty of other famous faces. The wide face and droopy mouth were lifted directly from Walter Matthau, while Carl’s style and general demeanour were a take on actor Spencer Tracy, star of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Finally, Carl’s craftiness and resourcefulness can be attributed to a team of Pixar’s animators who were obsessed with MacGyver growing up.

The vultures from 'The Jungle Book’ were inspired by… The Beatles

It’s a reference you may not have noticed when you were younger, but watching 'The Jungle Book’ today it’s pretty obvious how much The Fab Four influenced the group of vultures that attempt to befriend Mowgli. Rumour has it The Beatles were originally interested in lending their voices to a Disney animation but John Lennon pulled out, leaving the movie with a gaggle of strangely accented birds of prey with moptop haircuts for no reason.

Little John from ‘Robin Hood’ was inspired by… Baloo from ‘The Jungle Book’

Okay, Baloo isn’t a ‘real-life’ inspiration, but you must admit the two characters are rather familiar. It’s because Disney, especially during their cash-strapped years in the 60s and 70s (‘Hood’ was released in 1973) would often recycle animation cells from previous films to save time and money, and ‘rotoscope’ new details on top. There’s more examples of this in ‘Winnie The Pooh’, ‘The Sword In The Stone’ and ‘The Jungle Book’ itself. Still great movies though.

Aladdin was inspired by… Tom Cruise

It’s another one of those forehead-slappingly obvious bits of trivia that you can’t unsee once you’ve learned it: the star of Disney’s 1993 animation 'Aladdin’ was, of course, The Cruiser. That hair! That smile! How could it be anyone but the 'Risky Business’ legend? Animators originally used Michael J Fox as the basis of the character before giving him that 'Top Gun’ grin, while the movement of Aladdin’s baggy trousers was based primarily on videos of parachute-panted 90s rapper MC Hammer. So 90s it hurts.

Tarzan was inspired by… Tony Hawk

The original Edgar Rice Burroughs 'Tarzan’ stories date back to 1912, but Disney wanted to contemporise the character for their 1999 animation so turned to a popular figure in extreme sports for inspiration. If you thought Tarzan’s totally rad tree-sliding looked a little familiar, you’d be right: animators studied videos of none other than skateboarding legend Tony Hawk to capture his balance and fluidity. If you find your fingers twitching while watching the movie, that’s the old Pro Skater muscle memory kicking in.

Pocahontas was inspired by… Naomi Campbell & Christy Turlington

You couldn’t say Pocahontas’ beauty has ever been understated in the various versions of her story (although the same can’t be said about her age), so it makes sense that Disney would look to supermodels of the era when bringing her to life in 1995. Christy Turlington was studied intently (we bet she was), while British catwalk queen Naomi Campbell was the basis for Pocahontas’ posture and grace. Of course, Disney weren’t to know that just a few short years later, Campbell would develop a reputation for battering her personal assistants with her mobile phone – the very essence of grace.

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Image credit: Rex/Getty/PA/Disney