Last December I saw The Good Dinosaur in theater. In one moment I will never forget, a pterodactyl rescued a “critter” trapped beneath a log by a fierce storm. Now, you cannot appreciate the full impact of this moment until you appreciate that this critter was a baby fox, as adorable as only a Disney sense of animal cuteness and a Pixar skill in animation could make it. After pulling this little fox out of the wreckage of the storm, the pterodactyl – this is the unforgettable part – ate him. The audience’s eyes bulged, cartoon-like, at the shock of instant furry death. Pixar, I didn’t know you had it in you!
But maybe I should have guessed. Pixar is, after all, part of Disney, and Disney’s reputation for sweetness and light has long been exaggerated. Despite its towering reputation for almost saccharine goodness – or, more likely, because of it – Disney routinely gets away with things that would leave lesser movie studios branded. For The Hunchback of Notre Dame, someone might have even gone to jail.
Let’s begin at the beginning. Remember the moment in Snow White when the Evil Queen cackles about Snow White being buried alive, or jeers at the skeleton of a prisoner who evidently died reaching for a jug of water? “Thirsty? Have a drink!”
Then there is Dumbo, the movie about the baby elephant whose life is a progressive mounting of humiliation. He is mocked first by other elephants, who wouldn’t let him play in any … No, wait, that’s a different story. Dumbo was mocked by his fellow elephants, then by human beings; his mother, the only person who loved him, was taken away and chained up; then he was repeatedly used by clowns, whom children ought to love but don’t, in a humiliating skit. The artistic masterpiece of the film is Pink Elephants on Parade, a song about the hallucinations Dumbo and his mouse friend experience after accidentally imbibing alcohol.
If not for Dumbo, The Fox and the Hound might well be the most bathetic of the Disney animal films. It is surely the most bittersweet. Although thin fare in some ways, and almost silly in its climactic danger, The Fox and the Hound is ruled by the thought that there are limits that cannot be broken and friendships that cannot be made. This is a juxtaposition that has long impressed me: the unusually childish climax, the unusually grown-up theme.
The original Fantasia features an evolution sequence that consists primarily of dinosaurs eating each other, or attempting to, before fading away in a torturous, water-starved trek. If your child has failed to realize the essential cruelty of the survival of the fittest, Disney can correct that. At least half of the final act of Fantasia is devoted to a devil-figure that summons dancing ghosts and skeletons. I would have thought that this, the most macabre imagery in any animated Disney film, would have achieved a little fame, but it hasn’t. Not enough people noticed. (Perhaps they were turning off the movie at the dancing hippos.)
I haven’t gotten into The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and I don’t really want to. To give you, briefly, an idea of the sweetness and light that is this movie, I offer the following observation: The song-and-dance number the Gypsies do about executing prisoners because “the dead don’t talk” is a bit grim, but it’s a barrel of laughs compared to “Hellfire”.
Disney has gone some dark places. Why, then, their reputation? It might be that people don’t watch much classic Disney, or haven’t since childhood, and go more by old memories and cultural impressions than firsthand knowledge. It might be that people’s expectations are so strong they are slow to notice when Disney diverges from them. It might be that some people believe, consciously or not, that until a story uses bad language, or is explicitly sexual or violent, it never reaches the darkness.
Another reason is, of course, that Disney films are usually lighter than their original tales, and lighter than many modern stories. But there are very few stories that do not, on examination, at least touch the darkness. In our world, that’s what stories are made of.