With such lovable light-hearted films as Turning Red and encanto under their belt, Disney has produced quite a collection of comfortable and cozy movies for fans to enjoy. Since 1928, the company has been associated with all things sweet and wholesome from pretty princesses to brave little toasters. That all being said, Disney is not without a touch of darkness.
Many of the studio’s most colorful and enchanting productions take a hard left turn into some seriously dark territory. What might start out as a delightful fantasy adventure can soon turn into something twisted at the drop of a hat – and Disney makes no attempt to hide it.
11 Pinocchio (1940)
Pinocchio is a dark story to begin with, but the way the studio lures the audience into a false sense of security with characters like Jiminy cricket singing about wishing upon a star and Pinocchio being the wide-eyed innocent is almost diabolical. Pinocchio might be singing “I’ve Got No Strings” one minute, but he’ll be running for his life the next.
Sure, viewers will always remember “When You Wish Upon a Star,” but they’ll also remember the miserable donkeys on Pleasure Island and the nightmare fuel that was Monstro the Whale. Pinocchio becoming a real boy doesn’t exactly water down the fact that hundreds of missing children are now working in a sinister carnival and being sold to salt mines as beats of burden.
10 Fantasy (1940)
Walt Disney’s concert feature earns something of an honorable mention simply because of how much it flip-flops between the enchanting and the unsettling. Viewers going in blind might not understand that the film is more of an art-house piece than it is one of the studio’s animated adventures, playing with their visual senses rather than their emotions alone.
Going back and forth from the whimsical nature of scenes like “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and “Dance of the Hours” to dark and frightening sequences like “The Rite of Spring” and “Night on Bald Mountain” keeps the viewers on their toes, not knowing which way the soundtrack will sway next. It was certainly ambitious for its day.
8 Alice In Wonderland (1951)
Disney’s adaptation of Alice in Wonderland is probably the one most audiences are familiar with when they hear the title. However, much like the book, it takes a few dark twists and turns. Blurring the line between imagination and insanity, Wonderland itself is the true star of the film, Alice is just the stand-in for the audience.
Although not nearly as dark as its unmade original drafts, Disney’s Alice takes a sharp dark turn towards the end of the third act. What began as a colorful adventure with eccentric characters soon turns into Alice running for her life lest she loses her head before she gets home.
7 Sleeping Beauty (1959)
At the time, Sleeping Beauty was a return to form for Walt Disney Pictures. The studio’s three previous films had deviated from the standard fairytale formula seen in films like cinderella, and it was time to get back to basics. That being said, it does offer up some seriously dark elements recognizable from the days of the Brothers Grimm.
Maleficent is practically the face of Disney’s animated villains, and her contributions to the film pull it from classic fairytale to dark fantasy at the drop of a hat. Once Philip is captured, things take a sinister turn as it appears she has the upper hand. A castle covered in thorns, an army of goblins and goons, and a giant dragon summoned forth “by all the powers of Hell” certainly seems a bit out of Disney’s typical range.
6 The Black Cauldron (1985)
Imagine an animated film so dark, so graphic, so decidedly un-Disney that it almost killed Walt Disney Animation for good. That’s the reputation of The Black Cauldron. It might start out like the standard traditional swords-and-sorcery story with its prophecies and farm boy hero, but the moment Hen Wen has her oracular vision of the titular Black Cauldron and the Horned King, it only gets darker from there.
The film is home to some of the most terrifying and graphic imagery seen in any Disney movie, and it’s nothing compared to the cut that almost warranted an R rating. Evil liches, sinister cauldrons, and an army of the dead are just a few freaky flavors that helped build this film’s less-than-stellar prominence.
5 The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
The Great Mouse Detective is a prime example of the art of misdirection. It might feature cute and cuddly rodent characters living under the nose of famous humans like Sherlock Holmes, but there is a dark and dastardly game afoot, and it’s made abundantly clear right from the opening sequence of the film where audiences are treated to a violent jumpscare and an incredibly unsettling kidnapping before even being introduced to the film’s titular lead.
Much like the Sherlock Holmes films and books that inspired it, the movie relies on a classic air of mystery to establish its tone and identity. That means there is always an unseen foreboding element, knowing that someone could get the drop on Basil and his friends at any moment. And that’s not even mentioning the battle in Big Ben.
4 Pooh’s Grand Adventure: The Search For Christopher Robin (1997)
Winnie the Pooh is perhaps the last character anyone would suspect of being involved in any dark materials, save for his upcoming horror movie, Blood and Honey. However, Pooh’s Grand Adventure introduced some rather unexpectedly frightening elements to the Hundred Acre Wood when their beloved Christopher Robin mysteriously disappears.
Granted, most of the movie’s fearsome elements are arguably in the characters’ imaginations, but because it deals with the fear of the unknown so much, the frights are amplified into places like the Skull or the mysterious and monstrous Skullasaurus. Pooh and his friends’ particular charm is still a permanent fixture throughout the movie, but the gang is often placed in some surprisingly scary situations more than once throughout their quest.
3 Moana (2016)
Moana might be Disney’s newest princess, but her quest to restore the heart of Te Fiti isn’t without its perils, its monsters, or its walk on the dark side. While the film might be heavily saturated with images of tropical islands, sandy beaches, and dimwitted chickens played by Alan Tudyk, it has a darker narrative in the mix as well.
There are plenty of darker motifs at play in this island-themed musical. Te-Ka is certainly a tough customer in terms of a Disney villain, but the fact that Maui has a tragic origin story tattooed on his back, the fate of her people is suddenly thrust upon her, and the theme of death acts as a catalyst for so many in this story cannot be ignored.
2 Zootopia (2016)
zootopia is a movie that advertises itself as one thing and delivers another. At first, it seems like a colorful buddy-cop-comedy movie with talking animals, but things get unsettlingly serious after Nick and Judy’s experience in Tundratown. What begins as a light-hearted Disney romp soon turns into a cultural allegory that absolutely begs to become a cultural standard.
After the Nighthowler plot is revealed, the mask is torn away and viewers are treated to one of the most mature movies in Disney’s canon. Even Nick, who begins as the film’s wittiest character and Judy’s comic foil, takes a serious turn when his backstory is revealed. At the end of the day, it never fails to subvert expectations.
1 Christopher Robin (2018)
Once more, Pooh surprisingly ventures out of the Hundred Acre Wood and into darker territory. This time, however, his search for Christopher Robin leads him to an adult version of his friend who has become somewhat of a husk of his younger self, forgetting how to have fun and how to connect with his young daughter. Coming home from World War II to work a desk job at a luggage factory will certainly do that to a man.
In an artistic way, the Hundred Acre Wood’s deterioration is a reflection of Christopher Robin’s mental state, Pooh and his friends are essentially abandoned and left to evaporated into nothing, and Christopher’s soul slowly dies in the process. Thank goodness for happy endings.
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