Most of Disney’s animated classics take place in an idyllic past, and so, of course, there are a number of Disney movies based on historical events. But the history lessons don't stop there. Disney filmmakers not only put their spin on antiquity, but also fill films with Easter eggs, double entendres, and other historical references most children miss, but adults can surely appreciate.
Typically, these allusions and analogues are included to add an extra layer of authenticity and accuracy to the worlds Disney creates on screen. Learning something along the way is a nice added bonus.
The plot of The Black Cauldron centers around the attempted theft of an oracular pig named Hen Wen, which sounds like the sort of thing that belongs strictly to the world of cartoons. However, the ancient Romans actually used chickens to portend the future and make important policy decisions.
Known as sacred chickens, these fowl were raised under carefully controlled conditions and then released along with some food whenever an important matter - like an act of war - had to be decided upon. If the chickens ate, it boded well for the plan. Over time, it became a largely ceremonial occurrence in which hungry birds were fed in order to cement choices that had already been made.
On one occasion, however, a Roman military leader threw his sacred chickens overboard when they refused to eat - and then proceeded to lose the battle of Drepana. But that wasn’t a common occurrence, and plenty of Romans ignored their chickens on the way to victory, too.
The Court of Miracles depicted in The Hunchback of Notre Dame may not have been as neat and tidy in real life as it was on screen, but the slum certainly did exist - and it holds an important place in Parisian history.
In the late 17th century, the homeless population of Paris grew out of control, and countless desperate individuals roamed the streets begging. Because competition between beggars was so fierce, many gained a reputation for faking various ailments to elicit sympathy. Then, when they returned to the slum at night with their earnings, they’d appear to be miraculously cured of their limps and blindness - hence the Court of Miracles.
The Emperor’s New Groove features Incan emperor Kuzco getting his comeuppance via llama-fication and a humbling journey back to his human body. The film doesn't take place during any specific period of Incan history or feature any real historical figures, and there isn’t any Emperor Kuzco on the actual record - but most Incan emperors did make their home in the city of Cuzco.
Located in modern-day Peru, Cuzco served as the Incan Empire’s capital for more than a century, starting sometime around 1400. At its peak, Cuzco had a population of about 150,000 Incans - the largest in the empire. The entire city was said to be arranged in the shape of an animal, but it was a puma, not a llama.
The Land of the Dead featured in Coco represents a rather successful attempt to adopt Mexico’s cultural heritage to the classic Disney model. It’s also a spectacular depiction of the country’s architectural history. To say that the imagery of the Land of the Dead was built on the real foundations of Mexican civilization would be true in both the literal and figurative sense.
Production designer Harley Jessup describes the realm’s structure as the “layered history of Mexico,” further elaborating:
At the bottom of each tower are the Aztec and Mayan pyramids; above that, Spanish colonial period buildings; above that are Mexican Revolution era and Victorian era buildings; and then into the 20th century and modern day. That created a logic to the Land of the Dead - they are always building on the earlier era as more people die and enter that world.
The film’s crew deserves bonus credit for the authenticity and attention to detail of the buildings built into the Land of the Dead, which, ironically enough, really make the whole thing come to life.