The Surprisingly Highbrow References Hidden In Disney Movies

Ben Falk
Contributor

The best kids’ movies have always had something in them for adults. Makes it easier for parents to watch them for the 754th time with their children. But there’s a difference between a sly in-joke and a properly grown up nod to the more studious members of the audience, whether it’s the derivation of a character, a theme of the movie, or the inspiration for the movie itself. Here are some you might have missed:

[Watch the most iconic Disney films on Sky Movies]

‘The Lion King’ – ‘Hamlet’

The 1994 hit, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, was Disney’s first animated movie based on an original story.

Read more: The Lion King: 20 Things You Might Not Know

But the writers did refer to the classics during the process. The story of a young indecisive male who must defeat the uncle who killed his father is clearly based on Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’. The presence of respected stage actor Jeremy Irons only adds to the atmosphere.

‘The Black Cauldron’ – Welsh mythology, ‘Macbeth’

‘The Black Cauldron’ is notorious for being one of the Mouse House’s most infamous failures. Part of that might have had to do with its high-brow origins. The 1985 film was based on a series of Lloyd Alexander novels, which were in turn inspired by obscure Welsh mythology. But there’s a nod to Bill Shakespeare too with the appearance of three witches who look after the cauldron. Just like in ‘Macbeth’.

‘Mulan’ – Chinese poetry

A fairytale is one thing, but a folkloric Chinese poem written some time between 386 and 533AD? Established Sinologists (that’s students of Chinese culture to you) will recognize ‘The Ballad Of Mulan’, which tells the story of a young woman who takes her aged father’s position in the army. It was turned into a 1998 epic, starring Ming-Na Wen. The original 31 couplets of the story have been lost in the intervening years. Luckily, you can still download Eddie Murphy’s authentic portrayal of Mushu the mini-dragon.

‘The Hunchback Of Notre Dame’ – Freud/’The Bible’

This 1996 adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel is often regarded as one of Disney’s most daring productions. Much of that is to do with the film’s baddie, Frollo (Tony Jay) and particularly his most famous song, ‘Hellfire’. As written by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, it’s widely regarded as the most sexually suggestive tune in the canon, as Frollo battles with his superego (paging Dr Freud) by pretending he doesn’t want to do rude things with Esmerelda (Demi Moore). While Disney higher-ups shirked at the idea of aligning him with the Church, he quotes the Bible, most importantly at the moment when he’s about to kill Quasimodo and instead falls to his own fiery demise. Add to that Esmerelda’s red and purple outfit, equating her with the Whore of Babylon and you have a potent mix of scripture and psychology, which no sprog will cotton on to.

‘A Bug’s Life’ – ‘The Seven Samurai’

A homestead under the threat of destruction from marauders elicits the help of a group of strangers to protect them. Sound a bit like ‘The Magnificent Seven’? Well, that Western was based on Kurosawa’s ‘Seven Samurai’. Which means in Pixar’s insectoid romp, you’ve got the ultimate homage to the Japanese master. A far more macho reason to explain why you spent the weekend watching a technicolour flea circus.

‘Fantasia’ – Lucian, Goethe

‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ originally appeared as a frame story in the work of Lucian, a Greek writer operating during the second century (interesting fact: he’s often considered by classical scholars to be one of the earliest proponents of sci-fi). The story was popularized by German poet Goethe. And Germanic lyricism was totally what the Disney animators were going for in 1940’s ‘Fantasia’, in which Mickey Mouse famously got a bunch of brooms to tidy up for him.

‘Dumbo’ – the civil rights movement

Debate has raged about the alleged levels of racism in Disney films, especially the early work. This story of a naïve elephant from 1941 was no exception, with many critics of the film furious over its depiction of African-American characters. This is particularly apparent in the crows, the voices of whom are provided by black actors. Apart that is, for their leader Jim, who is played by white performer Cliff Edwards. The  ignorance of civil rights in the US, resulting in segregation and lynching were often referred to as the Jim Crow laws. Some commentators maintain this is Uncle Walt at his most poisonous. Others suggest this was the perhaps more liberal filmmakers commenting negatively about how black people were being treated in the country at the time.

Honourable Mentions

‘Oliver & Company’ – with characters called Dodger, Fagin and Sykes, it’s not surprising this is inspired by ‘Oliver Twist’.

‘Aladdin’ – Jafar’s sidekick is a parrot called Iago. Not as manipulative as the one who destroys Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’, but just as evil.

‘The Lady And The Tramp’ – you could say it about a lot of love stories, but with their different-side-of-the-tracks love affair, it’s got a ring of ‘Romeo And Juliet’ to it.

‘Basil The Great Mouse Detective’ – er, hello Sherlock.

Watch the most iconic Disney films on Sky Movies.

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Photos: Rex/Moviestore/Disney