The Unsettling Stories behind Your Favorite Animated Classics

Almost everyone is probably familiar with the fact that the old fairytales, such as the ones assimilated with the brothers Grimm are originally not quite as rosy as the later adaptations make them seem. Especially Disney has rendered some old stories into unforgettable classics with far less blood and death – we are happy to see the Little Mermaid not having to sacrifice herself and the stepsisters of Cinderella not having to chop part of their feet off! But apart from Snow White and Sleeping Beauty there are some other Disney animated classics with rather grim origins you maybe have forgotten about or just never gave a thought. Who said that animated movies primarily targeted for children cannot be unsettling? Warning! Features spoilers of the original source material!


1. Pinocchio

The Adventures of Pinocchio, or Le avventure le Pinocchio, was written by an Italian author Carlo Collodi and first published as a book in 1883. The book was a huge success in both Italian and English. The Disney cartoon made in 1940 ensures that the character remains familiar even today – and though the movie is arguably the scariest Disney classic out there, it has got nothing on the richly detailed themes of the original!

Pinocchio is a marionette doll, who wants to be a real boy. Collodi depicts him being a very selfish and naughty character, who is disobedient and mean towards his father Geppetto, runs away from home and upon being lectured by a talking cricket (the beloved Jiminy Cricket in the Disney-version), kills it(!). The Fox and the Cat actually hang Pinocchio while they are trying to steal his money, and the story was originally supposed to end there as a grim warning for the children. Collodi was demanded to continue his story though, and that is how he made the blue-haired fairy save Pinocchio, and after many adventures made Pinocchio able to mend his ways and transform into a real boy. Not before the Cat’s paw is bitten off and the Fox has had to cut his own tail off and sell it for some money, though.

Interestingly, the morale of the story is not as straightforward as simply “don’t lie”. There is an interesting essay on the New Yorker about the differences in the original story and the Disney adaptation here.


2. Peter Pan

Another old favorite of the author, Peter Pan is originally a character by the Scottish playwright and novelist J. M. Barrie. Peter’s first appearance was in an adult novel The Little White Bird (1902), and later he was made the main character of his own stage play Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (1904), which in turn was adapted into a novel Peter and Wendy in 1911. Barrie was friends with a lady called Sylvia Davies and her five boys, George, John, Peter, Michael and Nicholas Llewelyn Davies, and he has credited the children for inspiring his tales. After the death of the boys’ parents, Barrie became one of their guardians. D.H. Lawrence had made an eerie note in 1921, that those who Barrie loves end up dying. Four of the five boys that had inspired Barrie ended up dying prematurely.

The Disney movie adaptation first premiered in 1953, but it is rather safe to say that Peter Pan would be a legend even without the movie. There is a slight change in Peter’s character towards less selfish and anarchical. The original story has some darker and more mature elements, though, as Peter has been ‘betrayed’ by his own mother and as such distrusts all adults, Captain Hook is actually eaten by the Crocodile and the rest of the pirates are killed by the lost boys. Most tragic, however, must be the faith of Tinkerbell the Fairy – a year after the adventures in the Neverland, she is suggested to be dead and Peter to have already forgotten about her despite the fact that she almost gave her poor little life for him!


3. The Fox and the Hound

Well, this 1981 movie isn’t awfully jolly in the first place, but the original source material is bleak. The Fox and the Hound (1967) by American author Daniel P. Mannix is not a story of friendship between a cute little puppy (Copper) and a fox cub (Tod). It is quite as the introduction on Goodreads says: An intelligent and cunning red fox becomes the valued prey of a half-bloodhound tracker and his master who make it their lifelong goal to end the life of the elusive fox. And yeah, they stop at nothing. In the original novel, Chief is a dog younger than Copper and the master’s favorite, who is then killed by a train while tracking Tod. The master swears revenge, and the hunt that ensues leads to the whole litter of Tod’s cubs and his mate being killed, twice. The master’s hunting tactics even lead to a death of a human child, and he also develops heavy alcoholism. After Copper finally manages to hunt Tod down, the old fox dies of exhaustion. Copper is consequently shot by his own master, who sees no other way as he must move to a nursing home.

The Disney adaptation is only loosely based on the original. However, Chief was originally supposed to be killed by the train as in the original story. The movie writers’ decision to save a character from death is a frequent happening in Disney production. Baloo from the Jungle Book and Trusty from the Lady and the Tramp were also originally destined to die in their respective stories, but the writers decided otherwise in the end.


4. The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Originally named Notre-Dame de Paris, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a historical novel by the famous French novelist Victor Hugo, who also wrote Les Misérables. Originally published in 1831, it is in the style of Gothic novel. According to Wikipedia, Hugo wanted to make people appreciate the Gothic style architecture of the famous Parisian church, so that it would be restored to its original glory and not altered by the contemporaries.

The Disney adaptation is from the year 1996, and features several changes to the original story, while surprisingly keeps some of the plot elements (like Claude Frollo’s obsession with Esmeralda). The original story states that Esmeralda isn’t actually a Roma, but rather an abducted daughter of a French prostitute. The biggest change in character is that of the Captain Phoebus’, who is more like a villain in the original novel. He lusts for Esmeralda but has no intention of marrying her what-so-ever, while Esmeralda has fallen madly in love with him. Frollo tries to kill Phoebus, who survives and marries his fiancée. All the other main characters die, including Esmeralda, who is hanged by jealous Frollo and king’s men who suspect her of murder and witchcraft. Quasimodo starves himself to death after having killed his guardian, Frollo, and lost his love, Esmeralda, upon his mistake of ceding her to the king’s men.

The original story also features other heavy themes and characters.


5. Hercules

This might be the most infamous case of rendering something definitely not kid-friendly into a family movie. As one of the Muses in the beginning of the 1997 film implies, Disney’s Hercules is perhaps more like a comedy than a Greek tragedy.

Hercules is a Roman adaptation of the Greek mythological hero Heracles, who was the son of Zeus (or in Latin, Jupiter) and a mortal woman called Alcmene. As is often the case with classic mythological characters, Hercules too appears in various stories and sometimes in contradictory depiction, so there is not simply a tale of Hercules, but several.

Some myths are explicitly referenced in the Disney film, like baby Hercules strangling a snake trying to kill him and being raised by people despite being of godly origins (however, originally the one trying to kill him is jealous Hera, the wife of Zeus, not Hades). Basically, Hercules embarks on many adventures before his mortal body finally dies and his immortal side rises to Olympus with the other gods. Most famous of these adventures are the twelve heroic deeds, like capturing Cerberus, that Hercules had to perform in order to be purified of his sins. However, Hercules is constantly being tested and punished by Hera, which includes fits of madness caused by the goddess. This leads him to kill his best friend and – yes, his children and his wife, a Theban princess called Megara. A nice bed-time story for sure.


Some sources:


Pinocchio - Enrico Mazzantini: Pinocchio Hanged in the Oak Tree, 1883, public domain

The Hunchback of Notre Dame - Nicolas Eustache Maurin: La Esmeralda, Phoebus et Claude Frollo, 1834, public domain