Though Disney often deals in fairy tales, not every one of the legendary animation company’s productions has been a case of smooth sailing. From racial controversies to box office bombs, here are some fascinating facts about some of the Mouse House’s most famous animated features.
1. EVERYONE EXPECTED SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS TO BOMB.
Though we now know the film was a massive success, at the time, no one thought it would succeed. Disney took out multiple loans to finance the movie, even mortgaging his own house for it. Believing that it would ruin Walt financially, insiders referred to Snow White as “Disney’s Folly.” Even Walt’s wife, Lillian, thought the movie would completely bomb.
2. DOPEY WAS SUPPOSED TO HAVE A LOT OF DIALOGUE.
Dopey was originally slated to be a chatterbox, but producers couldn’t find a voice that was quite suitable for the bald dwarf. Rather than outfit him with vocals they thought were wrong, Dopey went silent instead.
3. SNOW WHITE WAS THE FIRST MOVIE TO RELEASE A SOUNDTRACK.
In 1944, Snow White became the first film to ever release a soundtrack.
4. MICKEY MOUSE MADE A CAMEO IN PINOCCHIO.
Mickey Mouse has been the central mascot of the Walt Disney Corporation since his creation in 1928. The iconic cartoon character has seen many updates over the years, but his mouse ears, red pants, and white gloves are staples in the mouse's design—just three well-placed circles are enough to create Mickey’s recognizable silhouette. This geometric representation of Mickey Mouse is called a “Classic Mickey,” which Disney artists have hidden in a number of movies, including Pinocchio. After the Blue Fairy turns the puppet Pinocchio into a wooden boy, Geppetto and his cat Figaro and goldfish Cleo celebrate his arrival. When Pinocchio sets his finger on fire, Geppetto rushes to put it out. They pass by a chair, which looks like Mickey Mouse’s head.
5. DUMBO ALMOST LANDED THE COVER OF TIME.
TIME magazine had plans to honor Dumbo as “Mammal of the Year.” But then Pearl Harbor happened and they opted for a more serious cover, though they still called the animated elephant “Mammal of the Year” in an inside feature.
6. DUMBO IS DISNEY’S SHORTEST FEATURE.
At just 64 minutes long, it's the shortest feature-length Disney movie. Walt was advised to extend the storyline, but he resisted, saying, "You can stretch a story just so far and after that it won't hold together.”
7. CELS FROM DUMBO ARE EXTREMELY VALUABLE.
Not knowing that original animation cels would someday be worth a lot of money, artists weren’t too careful with preserving their art. In fact, it was just the opposite: while animators were working on movies like Fantasia and Dumbo, they’d take the finished slippery cels and use them to skate down hallways. Between that and the fact that the earth-toned paints used in the Dumbo color palette were particularly prone to flaking, any remaining cels from the film are among the most valuable of any Disney movie.
8. THE VOICE OF BAMBI WENT ON TO BECOME A DECORATED WAR HERO.
Donnie Dunagan spent 25 years in the Marines. He was a decorated Vietnam War veteran who rose up the ranks quickly—13 promotions in 21 years, as he recalls—and held such honors as being the youngest ever drill instructor and receiving a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts for his service. And when he retired as a Major in 1977, he was finally able to talk about a little secret he'd kept from his colleagues all those years: Long before he was barking orders at new recruits, they'd all definitely heard his voice before, as children, when he was far less menacing. Major Dunagan was the voice of Bambi.
9. THERE’S A PSYCHOLOGICAL DISORDER KNOWN AS “BAMBI COMPLEX.”
Bambi, the cute little deer whose mother got shot and killed, is also the namesake of this other not-officially-recognized complex. People affected by the Bambi Complex are very sentimental and sympathetic towards wildlife and wild animals. They usually have very strong feelings against hunting, controlled fires, and any other inhumane treatment of animals, especially the cute ones like deer.
10. CINDERELLA’S GOT A COMPLEX, TOO.
Ah, Cinderella. She's stuck cooking and cleaning for her stepmother and stepsisters while they are off having a ball at … a ball. A person, typically a woman, with Cinderella Complex is very dependent on men for emotional and financial purposes. This complex is also characterized by the desire to be swept off her feet and saved by a Prince Charming. This isn’t officially recognized as a psychological disorder—the term was coined in 1981 by Collette Downing, who wrote The Cinderella Complex: Women's Hidden Fear of Independence—but can help some women to understand why they feel the way they do.
11. DISNEY’S DECISION TO MAKE SONG OF THE SOUTH RAISED EYEBROWS RIGHT FROM THE GET-GO.
The NAACP released a statement that said that while the artistic and technical aspects of the film were truly impressive, “the production helps to perpetuate a dangerously glorified picture of slavery … [the film] unfortunately gives the impression of an idyllic master-slave relationship which is a distortion of the facts.” However, other reviewers thought that the issue was handled well. Even the actors defended their parts. Hattie McDaniel told The Criterion, "If I had for one moment considered any part of the picture degrading or harmful to my people I would not have appeared therein." Star James Baskett agreed, saying, "I believe that certain groups are doing my race more harm in seeking to create dissension than can ever possibly come out of the Song of the South.”
12. WALT DISNEY PUSHED FOR AN OSCAR FOR JAMES BASKETT FOR SONG OF THE SOUTH.
Walt Disney himself campaigned for James Baskett to win an Academy Award for his performance in Song of the South. He told Jean Hersholt, then the president of the Motion Picture Academy, that Baskett’s performance was his own creation, “almost wholly without direction.” Disney’s efforts worked: James Baskett received an honorary Oscar in 1948. Sadly, he died just three months later at the age of 44.
13. SONG OF THE SOUTH HAS NEVER BEEN RELEASED ON HOME VIDEO IN THE U.S.
Though the film has been reissued several times, including a “re-premiere” that was held in Atlanta for its 40th anniversary in 1986, it has never been released on home video in the United States. Whether there are future plans for a release remains to be seen. While Disney CEO Robert Iger has called the movie “antiquated” and “fairly offensive,” fans have been rallying for years to get it released. Enterprising consumers can find copies that were released in Japan and Europe. You can also see part of it right here:
14. CINDERELLA FEATURES WALT DISNEY’S FAVORITE PIECE OF ANIMATION.
The moment when the Fairy Godmother transforms Cinderella’s torn dress into a beautiful gown fit for a princess is said to be Walt Disney’s favorite piece of animation ever. It was drawn by Marc Davis, one of Disney’s so-called “Nine Old Men.”
15. LADY AND THE TRAMP WAS INSPIRED BY A REAL DOG NAMED LADY.
In 1937, Disney writer Joe Grant showed Walt Disney some sketches he had done of his Springer Spaniel, Lady. Walt was impressed, and encouraged Joe to create a full storyboard. Like her fictional counterpart, the real-life Lady was learning how to deal with her owners’ new baby, which served as the main inspiration for Grant’s plot. In the end, Walt wasn’t thrilled with the storyline, and the idea was scrapped. Several years later, Disney came across a story by Ward Greene in Cosmopolitan titled “Happy Dan, the Whistling Dog." He believed that the two ideas could be combined into one to create a stronger story, and asked Greene to come up with one.
16. LADY AND THE TRAMP’S SPAGHETTI SCENE ALMOST DIDN’T HAPPEN.
It’s now one of the most famous (and parodied) scenes ever, but Walt was against that cozy pasta scene. Though he wanted the dogs to have human emotions, he just couldn’t wrap his head around two dogs romantically sharing a strand of spaghetti. If you’ve ever watched your dogs fight over a plate of leftovers, you can imagine why. Disney eventually relented after animator Frank Thomas worked up a rough draft of how it might work.
17. LADY AND THE TRAMP WAS THE FIRST ANIMATED FILM TO BE MADE IN CINEMASCOPE.
The widescreen movie format was a brand-new technology at the time. Though it was intended to help the viewer get a broad scope of landscapes and scenery, not everyone thought the format suited the movie so well. A New York Times critic reported, “The sentimentality is mighty, and the use of the CinemaScope size does not make for any less awareness of the thickness of the goo. It also magnifies the animation, so that flaws and poor foreshortening are more plain.”
18. SLEEPING BEAUTY FLOPPED AT THE BOX OFFICE.
In fact, Sleeping Beauty was such a box office bomb (at least, compared to the cost of production) that the company decided that princess movies weren’t exactly the wave of the future. They didn’t make another princess movie until 30 years later, when The Little Mermaid was released in 1989.
19. 101 DALMATIANS WAS THE FIRST MOVIE TO UTILIZE XEROX TECHNOLOGY.
101 Dalmatians was the first feature to use Xerox technology to transfer drawings to cels, saving a lot of time, money, and hands. The Xerox style is what gives the film that sketched look as opposed to the crisp lines seen in earlier Disney features. Walt Disney reportedly disliked the scratchy aesthetic.
20. THE ARISTOCATS WAS THE FIRST DISNEY FILM TO BE PRODUCED AFTER WALT DISNEY'S DEATH.
Though some critics thought the loss of Walt’s direction hurt the movie, The New York Times raved about it, saying, “Bless the Walt Disney organization for The Aristocats, as funny, warm and sweet an animated, cartoon, package as ever gave a movie marquee a Christmas glow.”
It was also the last film to be approved by Walt Disney directly. As such, it’s the last movie to end with the line, “A Walt Disney Production.”
21. MARLON BRANDO ALMOST PLAYED SYKES IN OLIVER & COMPANY.
Sykes, the villainous gangster in Oliver & Company, was almost voiced by "The Godfather” himself—Marlon Brando. Disney wanted the part to feel like an “evil presence” who was often shrouded in smoke and shadows, and then-CEO Michael Eisner reportedly approached the actor himself. After Brando turned down the role of Sykes because he didn't believe the movie would do very well, it went to Robert Loggia, who was known for playing "heavies."
22. THE LITTLE MERMAID WAS ONE OF THE FIRST FEATURES TO USE PIXAR’S COMPUTER ANIMATION PROCESS.
The usual way to make cartoons had always been by transferring animators's drawings to celluloid and then painting the reverse side. This process can yield beautiful results, but it was obviously time-consuming. Pixar’s program allowed animators to upload drawings onto a computer loaded with an infinite color palette and capable of impossibly subtle blending and transparencies. Though computers were used in very few scenes in The Little Mermaid, Pixar continued to develop the process until computer animation became the standard for quality Disney releases.
23. JACKIE CHAN WAS THE VOICE OF THE BEAST FOR SOME VIEWERS.
Jackie Chan dubbed the Beast’s voice for the Chinese translation of the Beauty and the Beast—including the singing. Here he is performing the title track in Mandarin with Sarah Chen.
24. TO LAND ROBIN WILLIAMS FOR ALADDIN, THE ANIMATORS CREATED TEST SEQUENCES OF THE GENIE PERFORMING THE COMEDIAN'S STAND-UP ROUTINES.
Eric Goldberg led the team of animators who were in charge of creating Genie. When he was first handed the script by co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker, Goldberg was also told to dig up some old Robin Williams comedy albums. “John and Ron said, 'Pick a couple of sections from his comedy albums and animate a genie to them,'" Goldberg told Entertainment Weekly. "That’s essentially what I did." Williams came in to see the test, and, Goldberg says, "I think what probably sold him was the one where he says, 'Tonight, let’s talk about the serious subject of schizophrenia—No, it doesn’t!—Shut up, let him talk!' What I did is animate the Genie growing another head to argue with himself, and Robin just laughed. He could see the potential of what the character could be. I’m sure it wasn’t the only factor, but then he signed the dotted line."
25. THE GENIE’S LINES WERE RECORDED UP TO 20 DIFFERENT WAYS FOR ALADDIN.
Williams was available for only a handful of recording sessions. So he’d rapid-fire each line as written, in as many different styles as he could create. “Robin had so much freedom, and [ad-libbing] was always encouraged," Goldberg told Entertainment Weekly. "He always gave us such a huge amount to choose from. He would do a line as written, but he would do it as 20 different characters ... [We] would take those tracks back to the studio and really put the ones in that made us laugh the most and were the ones that we thought were best suited to the lines. So even though he gave us a W.C. Fields, Groucho Marx, and a Peter Lorre on 'No substitutions, exchanges, and refunds,' we said, 'OK, the Groucho one goes here.'”
26. THE LION KING WAS THE FIRST TRULY "ORIGINAL" DISNEY CARTOON.
The Lion King was the first Disney animated film to feature a completely original storyline—that is, one that was not an adaptation of a preexisting story.
27. "HAKUNA MATATA" WASN'T IN THE ORIGINAL SCRIPT FOR THE LION KING.
Instead, there was a song about eating bugs called "He's Got it All Worked Out." According to co-director Rob Minkoff, "We couldn’t convince everybody that making the entire song about eating bugs was a good idea. Soon after, the research team came back from their trip to Africa with the phrase ‘Hakuna Matata’. We talked about it in a meeting with Tim Rice—and that’s when the idea struck. I remember Tim saying, ‘Hmmm… Hakuna Matata. It’s a bit like Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo.’ A song was born!”
28. A HYENA RESEARCHER SUED DISNEY OVER THE LION KING.
A hyena researcher sued Disney for “defamation of character” for its portrayal of the animals in the film. [PDF]
29. THE IDEA FOR POCAHONTAS WAS THOUGHT UP OVER A THANKSGIVING WEEKEND.
Co-director Mike Gabriel (who shared directing duties with Eric Goldberg) wanted to do a “western romance,” and at some point the name Pocahontas popped into his brain. Gabriel pitched it to the development team that had been toying with the idea of making an animated Romeo and Juliet for a long time. They were aware of the similar themes and gave it the go-ahead.
30. EVERY SCENE IN POCAHONTAS WAS REWRITTEN AT LEAST 35 TIMES.
Susannah Grant, Carl Binder, and Philip LaZebnik were the triumvirate of writers that worked off a specific story outline, over and over again, for Pocahontas. Grant would later write Erin Brockovich, for which she earned an Oscar nomination.