Disney films have become a fixture of many kids’ childhood memories. They’re movies people love to rewatch - even after outgrowing them. However, the older you get and the more you re-watch them, the more likely you are to start noticing that something is a little bit off about certain aspects of these beloved Disney classics.
Some scenes might make you want to pause and rewind to see whatever the hell that was again, just to make sure you’re not imagining things. And boom – there it is – something that reminds you of World War II or a visual that is unbearably racist. Many of your favorite kid’s classics are peppered with dark Disney imagery that passed right by you in childhood, but has since come back to haunt your dreams.
There’s a lot of loaded imagery in Disney movies that ranges from creepy to sexual to straight-up mind-boggling. Sometimes these visuals are a little kinkier than you would have expected from a family-friendly animated classic. Other times these disturbing Disney images may evoke some connotations of dictatorships or religious hellscapes. Take a look at the images below and see just how creepy they can get.
At first, we see our puppet protagonist and some other young boys being lured to Pleasure Island, a place where they’re free to drink, smoke, and play pool. But things get dark really quickly when each of these badly behaving boys suddenly sprout donkey ears and begin their horrifying, Cronenberg-esque donkey-transformations after which they are sold off as slaves to go work in the salt mines.
Pinocchio manages to fit the topics of abducting children, human bootlegging, and even creepy loss-of-childhood-innocence metaphors all into one horrifying sequence that surely left a lot of kids traumatized. (Remember the scene where the coachman who wants the boys transported to Pleasure Island says "they never come back as boys"? It is all kinds of creepy.)
Initial Release: 1940
Directed by: Wilfred Jackson, T. Hee, Bill Roberts, Hamilton Luske, Ben Sharpsteen, + more
Genres (Film): Fantasy, Animation, Music, Musical Drama, Musical, + more
#49 on The Best Animated Films Eversee more on Pinocchio
This particular image comes from a 1943 anti-Nazi propaganda film called Der Fuehrer's Face. This Disney joint was conceived as a way of selling war bonds and depicted Donald Duck in the midst of a nightmare where he slaves away in a factory in Germany. Of course, it’s all a dream and Donald wakes up back in the United States, thankful to be in good old ‘Merica.
Initial Release: 1943
Directed by: Jack Kinney
Genres (Film): War film, Family, Short Film, Comedy, Propaganda filmsee more on Der Fuehrer's Face
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is chock-full of some pretty dark subject matter for a musical animated film made for children. So it comes as no surprise that this movie is rife with terrifying imagery, the implications of which may go over the heads of its intended audience.
The movie’s villain, Frollo, is obsessed with leading lady Esmeralda in that if-I-can’t-have-you-no-one-can kind of way. He gives her an ultimatum: she can choose to be with him or be condemned to the fiery pits of hell. Then he sings a song with such sunny, cheerful lyrics as, "Don't let this siren cast her spell/Don't let her fire sear my flesh and bone/Destroy Esmeralda/And let her taste the fires of hell/Or else let her be mine and mine alone," into a fireplace while he watches a tiny, naked Esmeralda made of fire dance around. There are definitely a lot of visual stand-ins for sexual repression and religious guilt to unpack there.
Initial Release: 1996
Directed by: Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise
Genres (Film): Romance Film, Animation, Musical Drama, Musical, Family, + more
#65 on The Best Animated Films Eversee more on The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Disney has had a long history of tone-deaf, insensitive, and downright racist movies in its catalog. And it's pretty easy to forget that Fantasia was actually one of them because Disney tried to deny the existence of its racist, dehumanizing caricature, Sunflower, when they rereleased the film in 1960. Disney attempted to scrub all evidence of Sunflower, the centaur handmaid to an Aryan-looking horse-woman, and pretended that the whole scene never made it to the screen.
Initial Release: 1940
Directed by: Wilfred Jackson, James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, T. Hee, Ford Beebe, + more
Genres (Film): Fantasy, Animation, Musical Drama, Musical, Family, + more
#64 on The Best Animated Films Eversee more on Fantasia