“Disney” is a word almost synonymous with childhood. Many people grew up with the legendary films of the world’s most well known animation corporation, myself included. Yet I think the idea of Disney that exists today might be a projection on the past. I don’t necessarily associate Disney with sweetness and innocence. I associate Disney with a fascination for the bizarre, the surreal, and the hallucinatory. Perhaps this is merely a consequence of my personality, but the moments that most stuck with me from Disney animation are those moments most unsettling. Undeniably, these types of moments are there in the earlier films, though I believe the Disney formula has become perfected to the point where the unsettling is altogether omitted. Here are some examples of Disney-moments that provoke a feeling of estrangement.
(The Three Caballeros, 1944) One of my favorites, but one easily forgotten by history. The context in which this films was made is rather interesting. It was part of a package of films intended to bolster positive relations between the United States and the countries of Latin America. I find it interesting that the message, after starting off so positive, dissolves into, basically, “there are pretty girls in Latin America”. Still, the film produces an odd feeling. I particularly love the surreal train ride through a book to the city of Baía. But the most unsettling part of the movie is when Donald is shown Mexico City in a book, wherein the face of a woman floats above the city singing “You Belong to my Heart.” I don’t have the full clip of Donald’s Surreal Reverie here, but one can see what I mean.
(Dumbo,1941) Here one can see Disney’s fascination with pink elephants. “Seeing pink elephants” is actually a euphemism for drunken hallucination. It is fitting here, as Dumbo is drunk. Interestingly, there is a pink elephant in Three Caballeros (in the form of a fountain in Baía that spits water at Donald through his trunk), and there are also pink elephants in a latter clip from Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day. Somebody at Disney enjoyed this veiled reference to intoxication.
(Pinocchio, 1940) More drunkenness. The moral of this part of the story might be phrased as, “drinking turns you into a jackass”. Pinocchio is obviously a film about moral struggle, which is normal territory for a fairy tale. While many fairy tales have no qualms about describing the punishments for failing to live morally, their Disney versions are known to sweeten things up. This scene, however, vividly describes the punishments for Pinocchio’s actions, and it is still disturbing.
(Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, 1968) Some hallucinatory elephants return. What’s interesting is, if one listens to the lyrics of the song, it seems to convey a political message, though I’m not certain what’s the targeted group. I thought at first this might be a reference to communism, but it might also be racist. Or I might just be reading politics into something playful with my confused adult mind.
(Fantasia, 1940) My favorite film, as a child, was Fantasia. It was a complete experience of being awestruck, mystified, and terrified. The fish scene, Coffee (Arabian Dance) from the Nutcracker Suite, always stood out to me for effectively constructing an atmosphere of mystery. But the moment that I always looked forward to was Night on Bald Mountain. I’m actually pleased most parents associate Disney with innocence, or else I don’t believe my parents (very conservative and christian) would have let me watch this part of the movie. As it is, I don’t believe they ever watched the movie with me up to this point. I remember the strangely perverse feeling that I was seeing something transgressive. It remains some of the most daring animation I’ve ever seen.
Alice in Wonderland is left out of this list because I can find no single scene that conveys the feeling of strangeness that the movie as a whole produces. As I cannot post the whole movie here, it is not included. Yet while Alice is indeed unsettling, it does not seem to me to be as unsettling as any of the choices I include here.