Despite the studio being synonymous with wholesome family fun, Disney’s animated classics are rife with dark and unsettling moments. The kind of moments where you can’t help but think, “Crikey, this is a bit intense for a kid’s film!”
These are the moments which prompt you to look back to your own childhood, and remember nights of disturbed sleep and those confused questions to parents like, “Simba’s dad will come back in the end won’t he mum?”
Some of these scenes are deliberately meant to be scary, some are uncharacteristically dreary, but some make the list purely due to their disturbing nature. Regardless of what makes such a scene so dark, there’s one thing that connects them: they are all among the most memorable in Disney’s impressive canon.
Here’s a quick glance at some of troubling moments that showcase Disney’s dark heart…
BambiBambi’s mother dies
The classic tear-jerker. Years before Mufasa took an unfortunate tumble into a ravine (more on this later), Disney had already displayed its penchant for bumping off its heroes’ parents. In its fifth animated classic, young Bambi and his mother munch away happily in a meadow, when the mum senses that a hunter is on the prowl nearby.
A terrified mother and son flee desperately for their lives, scampering as fast as they can to the safety of the forest before – bang – a shot rings out. We then cut to a lone Bambi wandering alone through the forest, meekly calling out for a mother who will never reply. That’s right kids, she’d dead. Shot. Slaughtered. Killed in cold blood. Such is the harsh reality of forest life. This is heavy stuff, considering the rest of the film is one of Disney’s more twee offerings (the irony being, of course, that the original plan with Bambi was to show the shooting, only for it to be moved off-screen after concerns it would traumatise young children).
If you were to compile a list of movie moments that had most traumatised young viewers over the years, you’d be able to put forward a pretty compelling case for this to be number one.
Robin HoodNot in Nottingham
Not a scene as infamous as some others on this list, but it’s one that always struck me as an incredibly downbeat moment in an otherwise light-hearted caper.
In amidst the oo-de-lallys (I had to look up the spelling), the sing-songs and the robbing from the rich comes this depressing sequence, which basically sees the poor of Nottingham locked up for failing to pay their taxes. As the rain pummels down, the surprisingly American sounding cockerel, Alan-a-Dale, plays a mournful ditty on his lute:
Every town has its ups and downs.Sometime ups outnumber the downsBut not in NottinghamI’m inclined to believe, if we weren’t so downWe’d up and leave.
We’d up and fly if we had wings for flyin’Can’t you see the tears we’re cryin’?Can’t there be some happiness for me?Not in Nottingham.
Meanwhile, the townspeople either shuffle about in iron chains, dragging heavy weights behind them, or are locked up in a tiny prison cell. Just when you think things can’t get any worse, Friar Tuck is arrested for attacking the Sheriff and led away in a noose.
The rain continues to pour, and things look pretty bleak for Nottingham all of a sudden. Wrongful imprisonment, a man of the cloth marched off to the stocks, and depressed fowl singing lyrics straight from the Johnny Cash school of melancholy. Gloomy times in Nottingham.
Towards the end of Disney’s 1999 take on Tarzan, it emerges that the Porter’s one time guide, Clayton, is actually seeking to capture gorillas in the wild and take them back to England to sell. Tarzan and his gorilla friend Kerchak fight Clayton and, in the process, poor old Kerchak is shot. Tarzan then chases a maniacal Clayton through the dark jungle as a thunderous storm rages in the background. Tarzan manages to wrestle Clayton’s shotgun away from him but rather than shoot the villain, he tosses the gun away.
Not to be outdone however, Clayton pulls out a machete and chases after Tarzan once more. The two become entwined in the dense vines and a demented Clayton begins wildly hacking at the vines around him in order to get to Tarzan.
Lost in his own rage, however, he fails to notice that one vine has wrapped itself around his neck. Inevitably, after hacking all the others down bar the one around his windpipe, Clayton faces a short, sharp drop. Then, after a quick shot of the vine taking the strain, we cut to a shot of Tarzan landing on the jungle floor. The lightning flashes and a silhouette appears of a lifeless Clayton hanging limply by his neck.
The intensity of Clayton’s actions and the violent storm really add to the disturbing nature of this sequence, and the sight of his still body hung from a vine, despite only being shown in shadow, is truly haunting.Beauty And The BeastThe Mob Song – aka, Kill The Beast
It was a toss up between this and Savages from Pocahontas for the much-coveted ‘horribly hate-filled Disney song lyrics’ award, but ultimately, the increasing bloodlust of maniacal Frenchmen just edged out race-hate in America.
This tuneful little ditty is sung by Gaston as he seeks to whip the villagers into a frenzy over the threat posed by The Beast. The song’s lyrics were written for the film by the late Howard Ashman, who sadly died of an AIDs-related illness before the film’s release. We wrote about this in greater detail in a Beauty And The Beast retrospective in 2010.
With the tragedy surrounding Ashman’s death in mind, the song’s lyrics take on an even greater poignancy:
We don’t like what we don’t…understand and in fact it scares us,and this monster is mysterious at least.
This subtext of the villagers rounding on the unknown and a ‘creature’ different from them is heavy stuff. Even without the subtext, though, it’s a fairly grisly scenario as the mob begin to come round to Gaston’s thinking and utter lines such as:
Bring your guns, bring your knives,save children and and your wives,so save our village and our lives!LET’S KILL THE BEAST!
The lightning begins to crack, the rain begins to fall, and the bloodthirsty rabble march up to The Beast’s castle. Hardly preaching the virtues of understanding and tolerance which one might expect from Disney’s traditionally family friendly movies.
Toy Story 3The trash compactor
The most recent entry on this list comes courtesy of Disney-Pixar’s Toy Story 3. The scene in question is not scary or shocking as such – rather, it shows toys in serious mortal peril and absolutely oozes tension. As Buzz and his friends seek to escape from a recycling plant’s trash compactor, they overcome one obstacle after another before finding themselves forced towards a strange orange glow. As they are edged closer and closer, it soon dawns on them that it’s a flaming furnace which would incinerate them all instantly.
As the toys struggle in vain to fight against the tide, there’s a moment which is both moving and deeply distressing. As they edge closer and closer to the flames, cowgirl Jessie looks desperately over to Buzz for a plan. Buzz, who up until now has always been so brave, determined and full of a never-say-die attitude, can do nothing but give her a reassuring smile and offer his hand. In this tiny gesture he appears to be admitting defeat and simply doing what he can to comfort his friend. If they are doomed to go down, they will go down together.
The whole scene really shook me when I first saw it, the red glow from the flames giving the whole affair a hellish complexion. Seeing these characters, who you’ve grown to love over three superb movies, slowly edging towards their death with a grudging acceptance, was an incredibly powerful yet undeniably unsettling moment.
FantasiaNight On Bald MountainFantasia is an extraordinary piece of work that certainly stands out among other Disney animated classics. The movie sought to blend together animation and classical music, such as Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and Stravinsky’s The Rites Of Spring. One of the most memorable moments is a haunting sequence towards the end of the movie, set to Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s Night On Bald Mountain.
After a good hour or so of light-hearted sequences involving dancing mushrooms and twirling hippos, this section features a mighty demon called Chernabog who sits atop of a gloomy mountain and terrorises the sleeping town below. Chernabog raises evil sprits from the dead and sends ghosts, ghouls and demons through the night sky to prey upon the townspeople in a chilling gothic nightmare.
The wailing phantoms fit the powerful orchestral score perfectly, and it’s a disturbing moment that sits in stark contrast to the rest of the picture. I wager this section was fastforwarded by many a parent when it was first shown to kids.DumboPink elephants on parade
Not so much scary as just plain unsettling, this hallucinatory sequence in the much-loved Dumbo is a surreal nightmare. Pink elephants and multi-coloured blobs float and bounce their way across the screen as a wide-eyed Dumbo sits back in terror. Like in so many other entries on this list, part of what makes this section so unsettling is its great contrast to the rest of the film.
One minute Dumbo is crying his little heart out over his incarcerated mother, the next he is hitting the bottle and heading off on a trippy bender that wouldn’t be out of place in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. The ominous plodding music and clown-like smiling faces really escalate the creepy nature of Dumbo’s visions, and it’s no surprise he looks scared stiff. It’s enough to warn kids of drink for life. Almost.
The Black CauldronThe Horned King raising of the cauldron born
This lesser known, yet infamous, Disney movie from 1985 is fairly scary for youngsters the whole way through. The plot sees an evil Horned King seeking to obtain a magical Black Cauldron in order to use it to enslave the entire world. The Horned king is a frightening figure with a skeletal body and glowing red eyes lying beneath his cloak and hood, his low and menacing voice provided by the great John Hurt. Thanks to his evil ways, this became the first Disney movie to be given a PG certificate rather than a U.
Most scenes with the King are fairly harrowing, but one which stands out comes when our young heroes Taran and Princess Eilonwy are trapped in his dungeon, littered with rotting corpses, and the King raises his army of the undead. These ghastly skeletal warriors spring forth from the cauldron and trudge onwards to help the King achieve his diabolical plan.
It’s no surprise that the Disney’s animation chief of the time, Jeffrey Katzenberg, ordered several scenes from this sequence cut because their graphic nature (we’re talking necks being slit open here) was deemed too disturbing for young viewers.
It was only when I re-watched Pinocchio as an adult that I realised just how many bleak moments there are in Disney’s second feature-length movie. Early on in the film, we see Pinocchio being effectively abducted by the angry gypsy Stromboli, who tosses the young puppet into a tiny cage and holds him captive in his wagon. Pinocchio sits alone swinging in the cage and quietly cries for his father. Yikes. Pretty harrowing stuff for the young viewer.
It gets worse later on, though, as an alarming sequence of events sees a fat English coachman rounded up foolish young boys to take to Pleasure Island. Inappropriate innuendos aside, capturing children is always a fairly dark subject. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Child Catcher still haunts many a grown up’s dreams I’m sure.
The stand out scene in this whole storyline, though, comes once Pinocchio is on the Coachman’s island and he and his buddy Lampwick are shooting some pool and smoking cigars. When Lampwick begins to sprout long ears and a tail, our young hero catches on that something is amiss and hurriedly tries to escape.
Sure enough, very soon he himself begins to show the telltale signs of donkeyfication (probably not a word). The final shocking revelation comes when he finds a herd of the donkeys grafting away in secret salt mines on the island. It turns out that a turns misbehaving boys into actual ‘jackasses’, and then the Coachman forces them to work as slaves.
Obviously, we know that our hero escapes, but it’s worth noting that old Lampwick and the rest of the boys never get off the Island. They are left there to be mistreated and imprisoned for the rest of their days.
The Lion KingMufasa croaks it
There are few moments more harrowing in Disney’s canon than this legendary incident in The Lion King. After coaxing young Simba into an isolated valley and sending a herd of wildebeest stampeding down after him, evil Uncle Scar alerts his brother to his nephew’s perilous predicament.
But just when you think Mufasa has saved the day and rescued Simba, he’s left hanging precariously from the edge of the cliff, his claws digging into the rock for dear life. Scar, of course, saunters over and, after plunging his claws into his brother’s paws and spitting out a mocking “long live the King”, sends Mufasa plunging to his death.
Perhaps the darkest element of this sequence comes when young Simba reaches his dad’s crumpled body and begins to gingerly tug at his fur, imploring him to get up. As the truth begins to dawn, Simba, begins to cry and cuddles up to the lifeless body.
Scar, of course, arrives on the scene and proceeds to tell Simba that his father’s death is entirely his fault, and that he must leave and never return. The ultimate act of villainy – not only does he kill the dad but he convinces the son that it was his fault. Surely a traumatic scene for any child.The Hunchback Of Notre DameHellfire
For me, the darkest Disney moment of all comes courtesy of one Judge Claude Frollo in The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. Judge Claude Frollo could very easily be the most despicable and evil Disney villain of all time. He starts off by murdering a young mother, then after being guilt-tripped into looking after her deformed baby (who he wanted to kill as well lest we forget) he confines the child to live in the cathedral away from public view.
Frollo is further shown to be a nasty piece of work thanks to his pretty questionable views on race. He freely states that he sees gypsies as impure and makes clear that he wishes to slaughter the lot of them. Despite his hatred of gypsies, however, Frollo begins to lust after a young gypsy girl, Esmerelda.
After he witnesses her conduct a seductive dance, he decides that if he can’t have her, nobody will. The whole film is dripping in Catholic guilt, and Frollo’s warped character is driven by a repressed sexual urge which he cannot resolve due to his devout religious views.
The culmination of this comes in this deeply disturbing Hellfire song where, after seeing her perform the aforementioned dance, Frollo confesses to the Lord his deep temptation. Example lyrics include:
Like fire.Hellfire.This fire in my skin.This burning desire…Is turning me to sin
Don’t let this siren cast her spellDon’t let her fire sear my flesh and boneDestroy EsmeraldaAnd let her taste the fires of hellOr else let her be mine and mine alone,
Crikey. This is basically an old zealot fearing his eternal damnation in the pits of hell because he can’t stop fantasising about a young girl. As a result, he decides he is willing to burn down half of Paris in order to find her and when he does, she can either choose him… or be burned to death.
This isn’t even subtle subtext, this is front and centre of the movie (we wrote about it in more detail, here). It’s an incredibly dark plot point, which addresses a taboo rarely raised in your standard Disney movie.